Thanks for the Celebration, but the KKK Still Haunts Selma
Fifty years after African American demonstrators were brutally attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by law enforcement officers in Selma, Alabama, America is still grappling with race-based police violence. This week, the Department of Justice released a “searing” report detailing unconstitutional tactics and rampant racism by the Ferguson Police Department.
In a press conference announcing the findings, Attorney General Eric Holder said the department’s actions “disproportionately harm African American residents” because there were no explainable reasons for the level of harassment and detention other “than implicit and explicit racial bias.” Holder also asserted the problems plaguing Ferguson’s police department aren’t unique to the St. Louis suburb. “They are not confined to any one city, state, or geographic region,” but rather “implicate questions about fairness and trust that are national in scope,” he said.
The attorney general’s eye-opening report was released just days before tens of thousands of people, including President Obama and former presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush are expected to descend on Selma to commemorate Bloody Sunday and the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But with communities around the country protesting abusive police tactics, and a 2012 Supreme Court decision that severely damaged the power of the Voting Rights Act and ushered in a new wave of voter suppression schemes, will the upcoming celebration be little more than a photo op for the politicians who attend?
“The city of Selma is in Dallas County, and Dallas County is one of the poorest counties in Alabama. There’s so many economic issues there, but there’s also such pervasive racism still happening,” says Tarana Burke, a longtime activist and a member of the planning committee for the city’s annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee. The event is part celebration, part-conference and serves as an annual meeting for activists from around the nation. Burke’s relationship to Selma dates back to the 1990s, when she was a teenage member of the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, a national organization founded in Selma.
“They’re still putting up monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest,” Burke says. Forrest, a Confederate general, was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. “There are those symbols of racism, and then there is economic racism that happens in the city. Selma is a microcosm of what’s happening in most major cities to black people, and it’s not doing well.”
In many instances Selma is far worse off. More than 40 percent of Selma’s population of around 19,000 lives in poverty, which is nearly twice the rate for entire state of Alabama. And while 27 percent of African Americans live below the poverty line nationally, in Selma that number jumps to nearly 40 percent.
Burke’s frustration over the disconnect between the high-profile individuals participating in events commemorating the historic march from Selma to Montgomery and the challenges still facing the city, which have largely been ignored by those who come to celebrate the town’s history, is palpable.
“Politicians come once a year and they parade around Selma, but they don’t do anything to give back to the community,” she says. “The reality is, the world owes Selma.”
While the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday has refocused the country’s attention on the events in 1965, a new generation of activists are carrying the torch. Partly inspired by the Oscar-nominated film and fueled by the high-profile killings of unarmed African Americans over the last few years, youth-led organizations such as the 21 Century Youth Leaders Movement, the Dream Defenders, the NYC Justice League, Black Lives Matter, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Ferguson Action, and many more are channeling the spirit and energy of Selma’s original young activists, such as the Rev. James Orange and Lynda Lowery.
“The youngest person on the bridge on Bloody Sunday was 14,” Burke says, explaining that Lowery turned 15 during the march to Montgomery. “She was recruited by SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and got out there on that bridge not knowing what was going to happen. I tell young people that all the time, because change can happen when you have evidence of it.”
Despite the spike in hate groups during the Obama presidency, research that shows an increasing divide when it comes to race, and racially charged incidents such as the killings of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Renisha McBride, Burke says that Selma’s true legacy lies in the idea that progress, no matter how difficult it seems, can happen.
“We have to keep fighting, but this is what it takes to move the needle in this country, and you don’t have to be some kind of superhero or some extraordinary Martin Luther King type person,” she says. “The 50th anniversary is a moment for us to look at the example. The progress that was made was done by everyday, ordinary citizens,” she says. “And it’s still possible.”