His photographs, documenting the absolute brutality of the moment, shocked a nation, and were instrumental in leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
James “Spider” Martin was a photographer for The Birmingham News, a newspaper that I worked for 15 years. Mr. Martin, now deceased, left the paper before I joined it back in 1984.
Mr. Martin was at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, to do his job, whereas the courageous marchers, whether they knew it at the time or not, were there to make history. And they did.
While trying to wipe the tear gas from his eyes, Mr. Martin used one of his cameras to block a blow from a trooper’s club. He recalled the Alabama state trooper saying, “Excuse me, I thought you’s a nigger.”
Mr. Martin, who was white, remembered thinking, “Alabama, God damn, why did you let it happen here?”
I have been to Selma many times in different past roles as journalist, economic developer, and consultant. And each time, I have had this strange feeling that I was entering a time warp, taking a step back in time to a place resistant of change.
Paraphrasing Mr. Martin’s thoughts, I have wondered, “Alabama, why did you let it happen at all? Why did you fight freedom and progress?”
A Narrative of Place
Today, as a consultant for both industry and economic development organizations, I think of myself as a place investigator. Given enough time on the ground, all places speak to me.
Whether I consciously know it or not, I am factoring in things like geography, terrain, people, history, industry and commerce. All come together to present a narrative of place and a picture forms.
And while I may employ GIS and sophisticated data bases in a site search for a company, in the end, I am looking for that narrative, that story of place that speaks to me and the client company that I am working for.
Every time that I have been to Selma, I have left confused and pondering, “What is it about this place? Why is this place so … different?”
It’s Not Even the Past
Mississippian William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I think this fits Selma to the T, a complex place not easily understood by even other native Alabamians who are not from there. Not far from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a former confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader, is a billboard set up by a group dedicated to honoring Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The sign, set up in recent days, invites visitors to see “Selma’s War Between The States Historic Sites.” But it also features a picture of the Confederate flag and an image of Forrest, who was also a Confederate general and a slave trader before the Civil War.
Beside Forrest’s picture is a quote adopted by his men: “Keep the skeer on ’em.”
Not surprisingly, many find the billboard offensive.
“It should be taken down,” Flossie Menifee, 67, who grew up in Selma, told a reporter with the New York Daily News. “The Ku Klux Klan, the hatred, the prejudice, I think it’s always going to be in Selma.”
Not surprisingly, Patricia Goodwin, head of the group Friends of Forrest Inc., doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about, which is revealing.
Defined Black and White
I have concluded this city is a very defined black and white place. Back in 1965, it was evenly divided, whereas today it is now 80 percent black. Correspondingly, Selma now has black leaders in positions of power, including the mayor, police chief, district attorney, six out of eight city council members.
But there remains a perceptible Old South mentality of white racial superiority among a minority here.
The Los Angeles Times reported that a former white city councilman, surveying the scene of downtown preparation for the 50th anniversary commemoration of Bloody Sunday, said, “It’s going to be nothing but a nigger street party.”
That same city councilman voted along with two other council members to use city funds to pay for a statute of Nathan Bedford Forrest in 2000.
Still, people are people, even if they see the world through different lens. Certainly friendships have formed and some black and white citizens have bonded together to bring economic prosperity to Selma.
An Island to Itself
But it largely hasn’t happened. Selma hasn’t blossomed into something much better in the aftermath of what happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. History may have happened here, the fruits of which society as a whole has benefited from, but history has seemed to bypass Selma.
I have always viewed Selma as sort of an island, rather isolated off by itself and not particularly easy to get to. I introduced the city to some Canadian investors who wanted to build a gum/candy manufacturing operation there.
That business didn’t happen, more because of the ineptness of the Canadians than anything Selma did. But it should be noted that a lot of things haven’t happened in Selma.
Alabama’s Third World
Dallas County, of which Selma is the county seat, was Alabama’s poorest county last year. The county’s population peaked in 1960 at 56,667 people, dropping to 43,820 in 2010, with a population that is 69.4 percent black and 29.1 percent white.
Selma has an unemployment rate of 10.2 percent nearly twice that of the national rate of 5.5 percent. The median household income in Selma from 2009 to 2013 was $22,478 – nearly half that of the state – with 41.9 percent of people in the city living below the poverty level.
The violent crime rate is five times the state average. Selma City Schools system, were taken over last year by the Alabama State Department of Education after a months-long investigation into allegations of academic issues, poor student performance, shoddy record keeping, and sexual misconduct.
My former employer, The Birmingham News, called the region, known as the Black Belt because of its rich soil, “Alabama’s Third World.”
“Selma sowed, but it did not reap,” James Perkins Jr., who became the city’s first African-American mayor in 2000 told USA Today. “So many of the benefits that went to other places in the South and around the world since the Voting Act of 1965 did not come to Selma. I hope this 50th anniversary will help Selma begin reaping some of those benefits.”
I think the mayor’s comments are accurate. Selma has not reaped from that which was sown. Sad but true.
A Night at the St. James
Some years back, I spent a night in the historic St. James Hotel in downtown Selma overlooking the Alabama River. The hotel had a charm about it, even if the towels were threadbare.
Walking around the downtown, I couldn’t help but notice wonderful architecture but so many of the buildings were in a state of decay and boarded up. Not much has changed.
The city now owns the St. James, and has contracted with a management company to run day-to-day operations, but it remains a money losing operation with a high vacancy rate. I’m sure there are better towels there now.
I’ll see you down the road.
Postscript, Monday, March 9. I have just watched a video on CNN in which members of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma were engaged in a racist chant that included references to lynching. The video was reportedly shot on Saturday, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. This proves that ignorance and willful idiocy is by no means solely relegated to a small town in Alabama. Sadly, this malignancy extends even to our nation’s institutions of higher learning. Lord, help us.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com
If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing to attract business investment, we can help. And if you liked what you read here, invite me to speak at your next meeting.
© Unauthorized use is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used with permission.