The Beauty of Living in Selma

March 12, 2008

Monday was our second whole day in the wonderful town of Selma, Alabama. The Voting Rights Museum and Institute was the sponsor of the Jubilee festivities, and we drove straight over there first thing in the morning. It is a storefront place, modestly marked with maroon letters and a small awning. Inside there is a low ceiling and worn carpet. In the front room, one whole wall is covered in mirrored panes, etched with a picture of the Edmund Pettus bridge. Another whole wall is the “I Was There” wall. Those people who took part in Bloody Sunday in any capacity fill out cards describing their experiences, and those cards are tacked to the wall. Rosa Parks is up there, so are the mayor from that time, and even a couple of men who, as Alabama state troopers, attacked marchers on that day.

Our guide at the museum was Laurence Huggins. It really amazes me every time we meet someone who was a freedom fighter during this time. I spend so much time studying history from literally ages ago – ancient or medieval Europe, the foundations of Christianity. I feel like someone had splashed my face with cold water- it is that rejuvenating and surprising to actually touch and talk to people who lived history and made history and are history. Of course, they didn’t think anything like that at the time. They just did what they had to do, what they knew was right.

Two pictures of Laurence: one from Monday, and one from the front page of the Selma paper, more than 40 years ago. That is Sheriff Clarke shoving him in the stomach with a baton as he stands outside the Dallas County Courthouse demanding the right to vote.

The museum was shabby and small and very earnest. Everyone who worked there was a freedom fighter. Every photo- and, oh, what photos!- was carefully researched and collected. Every name carefully highlighted, famous or not. One room celebrated African-American women throughout American history- that is, pre-Movement history. So many strong women! Another room displayed the pictures of freedmen Congressmen and Senators from all over the United States, all elected in the year immediately following the Civil War. It was a moment in the sun for educated blacks, before segregation and Jim Crow kicked in. I had zero knowledge of this. Amazing.

From there, we met Joanne Bland, this hilarious, strong woman with a huge attitude, who was 8 years old at the time of Bloody Sunday. She grew up in Selma and has lived here her whole life. She was our tour guide throughout the city. “This is MLK Street”, she said as we turned down the street by that name. “Every good city has one, and this is ours.” As we stood, once again, on the steps of Brown Chapel AME Church, staring at the Section 8 projects across the street, Joanne told us about coming mass meetings and hearing Dr. King. As cars drove by they would slow down and wave at her, and she would yell “Hey baby!” and wave back. She knew everyone. Then, a man walked up and gave her a big hug- this was yet another marcher who grew up in Selma. He had just stopped to say hi, and then told us his story, too.

As we walked down the street, Joanne waved hi to some men unloading their car, and other men walking down the street. “That’s the beauty of living in Selma”, she said over her shoulder. “You just see civil rights workers walking down the street, all cool.”

Then Joanne taught us how to say “po”. “Not POOR, po! This is the hood. We can’t afford the ‘r’.” She really has the gift of oral transmission. That is, she has absorbed the oral history of Selma, its homes, its people, its neighborhoods, and transmits them all by storytelling. And what a storyteller! As we drove around she would ramble off who used to in what house, who lives there now, her own stories from playing there as a kid. These stunning, just stunning homes in Selma’s historical district (the largest in the country) are slowing being renovated and restored one by one. She pointed out one house, freshly painted decorative wooden trim around the wrap-around porch and at the top corners of the bannisters. Decorative shutters. Picket fence. “It’s expensive to buy a house in these parts”, she said. “That one there was just bought for $175,000.”

$175,000. For a huge historic home in Selma, Alabama, built in the 1930’s. My.

In the 8th ward, Selma’s poorest neighborhood, the homes were smaller but in the same style. Horrible to say, in some ways it looked like New Orleans’ 9th Ward. Except for the fully grown trees and lack of water damage, there were many similarities. Broken glass, boarded windows, trash and broken furniture stacked in front yards, stray dogs. Old men sitting on empty porches, chain link surrounding 5-yard wide front yards, once bright colors faded and peeling. Historic decorative details missing or in disrepair. Broken cars parked in the street, in the yards, in the driveway. Closed business, one after the other after the other after the other.

No, truly, there were more closed and boarded up businesses in the entire city than there were open. This is not in the “modern” strip shopping centers on the freeway side of town. You know, the place with the fast food and Walgreen’s for all the drivers passing by or the tourist coming through. This is Selma. Selma by the river and by the tracks. Selma, where 70% of the population is black and the economic power of the town lies largely within the 30% of population that is well, not black.

Selma is home to three universities: Selma University- an historically black college with an enrollment of 287, Concordia College- another, larger, historically black college, and George Wallace Community College of Selma- named after the governor of Alabama during the years surrounding Bloody Sunday. His motto? “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. Selma is “ideally is located right in the middle of nowhere”, says Joanne. Selma is the only place where Jefferson Davis and Martin Luther King, Jr. will ever meet, in this life or the next- their respective streets intersect right at First Baptist Church, the church to which state troopers chased marchers, beating them and trampling them with horses. Selma is the city that re-elected its white mayor, who resisted desegregation, to twenty more years in office after the 1965 march, and in 2000, when the first black mayor was elected, Selma’s whites starting leaving in droves.

Selma is full of ironies. Selma is beautiful.

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One Response to “The Beauty of Living in Selma”

  1. Mom said

    Very moving. You are so blessed to relive the history of The Civil Rights Movement! Am I a bit envious ?? (Yes!)I enjoy your writing. Would love to know that Joanne Bland of Selma, Alabama.

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