Making sense of Selma’s signs
by Allen Best
In January, on a day that was as warm in Denver as it was in Alabama, I visited two churches, two museums, city hall, the local chamber of commerce office, and one cemetery in Selma. I also walked across the Alabama River on its way to Mobile Bay. A sign on the span identified it as the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
I had a magazine story to research but also this fundamental question to address: How does a place honor and understand its history without being trapped by it? In Colorado lately, we’ve had the same task with the 1000th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre and then the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre.
Like these other places, the story in Selma that I found was balled up in threads of race, economics, and violence. Selma was first a river town. Boats delivered slaves from Africa to the antebellum plantations and then took cotton bales to distant markets. One of the final major battles of the Civil War occurred there in April 1865. The victorious Union Army burned much of the town. That battle is reenacted every April, but not the burning.
Marches across the Pettus Bridge are also recreated annually. This year, there were at least four, among them President Barack Obama’s walk on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday (which this year was Saturday). Another began Monday, March 9, to retrace the successful 54-mile march to the state capitol in Montgomery. There have also been many gaggles of people like me in January. My companion had tripped several days before and broken her arm. Walking across the bridge in great pain, she said she could not imagine the pain had the injury been inflicted by another human being.
Selma is conflicted about its history and its present. Some people resent the focus on Bloody Sunday, the “thrashing and wailing on the bridge,” as one person put it. That focus is on the agony of violent suppression, not the later triumph it enabled. The Civil War also continues to be quietly waged 150 years after its conclusion. Some people in Selma, which is now 80 percent black, want nothing to do with a history that included lynchings. But in a moment of exasperation, one life-long Selma resident, who is white, blurted to me: “Shouldn’t I have a right to my history, too?”
Today, descendants of plantation owners in Selma go to private schools and descendants of slaves go to public schools. Unemployment is double that of Alabama’s state-wide average. Selma’s population has fallen by a third, to 20,000, since the civil rights era. Many houses have boarded windows. Some have burned down. Even some of the once-elegant houses look weedy. The day I visited, the local newspaper had a front-page story about a shooting. At a cemetery, the caretaker told me that such shootings were common.
Many accounts about Selma during the past week focused on the lingering racial divide. Gay Talese who has been to Selma dozens of times since 1960 and covered the Marches in 1965 for the New York Times, described a complexity, “Selma today is a place expected to carry perhaps more symbolic weight than any small city can bear,” he wrote last week in the same newspaper, and then added: “What you see in Selma, like most places in America, is a process still painfully working itself out.”
Selma should also be seen as an isolated rural city. It was founded as a river town, but the river no longer matters. Interstate highways do, and it’s 50 miles from the closest one. Selma is also the commercial center for an agriculture region called the Black Belt. Agriculture centers of the nation, including those in Colorado, have fallen backwards in the last 50 years.
Something else caught my eye in Selma. The marches of 50 years ago started from the Brown Chapel AME, one of 63 churches in Selma. Today, there’s a bust of Martin Luther King atop a granite monument that lists those killed before and after the Selma-to-Montgomery march. It’s also an oblique testament to the power of the strategy of non-violence of the civil rights movement and the courage that was required to execute that strategy.
But, as the sun set in January, I found this sign on the glass doors of the Brown Chapel: a black handgun with our now familiar red slash meant to indicate “no” within a red circle and this notice: “This Business Does Not Allow OPEN CARRY OF FIREARMS.”
Jarred, I returned to my rental car and drove off. This was a twist to the story I had never expected. I didn’t know what to make of that sign then, nor do I now.