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SELMA, Ala. — With the blistering Alabama sun beaming down on them, the crowd at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge was growing restless. The mass of marchers, which stretched a full city block, audibly groaned when it was announced that not only would Vice President Harris speak, but so would the five cabinet members and many of the national civil rights leaders present. As the speeches continued, a cry would occasionally ring out from the crowd, echoing the calls made by marchers 57 years before as they tried to cross the same bridge: “Let us march.”
On March 7, 1965, more than 500 demonstrators gathered at Browns Chapel in Selma to protest poll taxes, literacy tests and other policies designed to keep Black people from voting. They marched six blocks to Broad Street, Selma’s main thoroughfare, and then tried to cross the Pettus Bridge, where they were met by state troopers who attacked them with bully clubs and tear gas when they refused to turn back. Dozens were injured and at least 17 were hospitalized. The brutal scene was broadcast around the world, and overnight the protesters and the city of Selma became worldwide symbols of the fight for equality.
Two weeks later, Martin Luther King Jr., joined by more than 3,000 protesters, marched across the same bridge and kept marching 49 miles to the state capital in Montgomery — a demonstration that successfully pressured Congress and President Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act.
In the nearly 60 years since those events, Selma has become an annual stopover for politicians looking to bolster their civil rights bona fides. Each March, to mark the anniversary of what became known as Bloody Sunday, the city hosts the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee. VIPs descend on the city to walk across the bridge arm-in-arm and commemorate the sacrifices of people like Amelia Boynton, who was being beaten unconscious by police on the bridge and became a symbol of the voting rights movement, and former congressman John Lewis, whose skull was fractured by police as he led that march and bore scars from that day for the rest of his life.
During the Jubilee, the city’s usually sleepy downtown takes on a carnival atmosphere as tens of thousands of people crowd streets filled with hawkers selling T-shirts and other merchandise with pro-Black slogans and the air is filled with the smoke from barbecue pits cooking up ribs and turkey wings for sale. It’s a huge moneymaker for the city — this year’s event brought 25,000 visitors, according to the city’s chamber of commerce. The number climbs even higher during election years. But aside from the once-a-year infusion of tourist dollars and fleeting national media and political attention, Selma feels very much like a city left behind, with little to show for its vaulted place in America’s civil rights history.
This Black Belt city of 18,000 residents, more than 80 percent of whom are African American, is one of the poorest in the country. Many of its homes and storefronts are visibly in disrepair. The median household income is $26,581, according to census data, about 40 percent of the national average. Over a third of its residents live in poverty — including nearly 60 percent of its children. Unemployment is double the national rate.
Politicians at the Jubilee need “to be making commitments and vows to fight for voting rights, to fight for health care insurance, to fight to end poverty in Selma by bringing in jobs and donations for the Selmians that you leave here every year worse than you found them,” longtime community organizer Callie Greer said.
“I’ve seen the governmental face of Selma change, and I’ve seen those people working in the local government doing their best to make a change,” said O’Neal, 73. “But you’ve got to have help from the outside. Our governors have to be invested in our communities as well. Sometimes it looks like the little cities in the Black Belt don’t get as much attention as the rich, mostly White and Republican counties that are already doing well.”
O’Neal believes tourism could be the key to boosting Selma’s fortunes, but not without big investment in the city. She recalled a conversation with two tourists visiting the city who were looking for bananas. There was nowhere in downtown Selma where they could buy fresh fruit. They would have to go to the edge of the city to find a grocery story, a reality that many of the city’s residents face everyday. The city stopped operating its municipal bus service in 1966.
“Someone asked me well why are you so mad, is it because you wanted to take a picture with the vice president?” James said. “No that’s not why I’m mad. I’m mad because we need help in Selma. When these VIPs come they need to meet with the leaders in Selma and ask what can they do to help Selma be what it can be instead of just coming for one day and taking photos and putting it on Instagram. That’s not what we need, anybody can come to a bridge and take a photo, but what are you depositing in Selma?”
“In Selma, she focused her remarks on the importance of protecting our democracy,” the official said. “She brought with her a delegation of cabinet members, including Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia L. Fudge, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and Deputy Secretary of Veteran Affairs Donald Remy. Cabinet leaders participated in a meeting before the march with local leaders hosted by Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.). Regional agency representatives also participated. The meeting was focused on regional needs and the Administration’s work to address those needs.”
“The struggle has not ended, it continues, and if you think I’m lying just look around Selma,” said Manns, vice president of the New York Christian Times, a Black-owned weekly newspaper. “But I also came back with a message to the young people. I pass the mantle to you, young people, because it’s your responsibility now. You have a responsibility to carry out what we started.”
Preaching a sermon the Sunday before Vice President Harris spoke on the bridge, Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the national Poor People’s Campaign, chided himself and other leaders for their complacency in the years since a conservative majority on the Supreme Court ruled key provisions of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional in the case Shelby County v. Holder. The 2013 decision ended the process of preclearance, which required states and counties with a history of voter suppression to have any changes to their voting procedures approved by the Justice Department or a federal court.
“There were a lot of times where we made this mistake, and we need to repent for it,” Barber said in a rousing sermon that brought people to their feet at Tabernacle Baptist Church, where the first mass meetings of the 1960s voting rights movement took place. “We would come here to Selma after 2013, after the Roberts Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, and we would remember what they did in the past, but we didn’t launch a consistent, all-out, nonviolent protest in the face of what the Supreme Court had done nine years ago. What we see today has been years in the making.”
Barber said a new movement is needed to counter the assault on voting rights and the decades of economic inequality that have scarred Black communities like Selma. He said Biden should have tied the passage of a new Voting Rights Act and his Build Back Better plan to his successful push to secure new infrastructure funding. The problems facing Selma, Barber said, are a prime example of how those issues were interconnected.
“You can’t separate the battle of voting rights from economic justice,” Barber said. “And last year, when there were some that said, ‘Well, we’ll support the Build Back Better plan but we’ll talk about voting rights later’ or Black groups that said, ‘we will support the Voting Rights Act, but not say anything about being Build Back Better or the fight a $15 minimum wage.’ These should have been linked battles.”
Tony Eskridge, a 23-year-old policy program associate at Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice, had come to Selma to participate in the march to Montgomery with the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. Eskridge said he was grateful that high-level officials took the time to come, but that he wished they had stuck around for more than just speeches and the now-famous symbolic walk across the bridge.
“I’m so thankful that Vice President Harris and cabinet members and these national organizations were there, and their voices are important, but even more important than us hearing from elected leaders is the elected leaders hearing from us,” Eskridge said. “Sometimes it feels like people in power want to speak to what solutions they have to offer, but they cannot even hear the problems that people are facing.”
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, had returned to her native Selma for the Jubilee feeling conflicted. On one hand, she was returning to city that was economically depressed and seemed stuck in time, where people were fighting many of the same battles their parents and grandparents had fought before.
At the same time, Brown was nostalgic, thinking back to the joys of the jubilee weekends of her youth, where the community came together to celebrate the freedom fighters Selma had given to the world.
“I want to come here and show up to have a festival to celebrate what our ancestors accomplished,” Brown said. “But I’m like wow, we are just in the same fight. And in the back of my mind, I’m questioning, what is it going to take? How many times do we have to walk across that bridge? How many times do we have to retrace the steps of our ancestors. So it feels like we don’t have the privilege to just celebrate, we’re still in the question of whether Black people will have equal access and equal rights.”
This content was originally published here.