Selma broke legal barriers, but economic ones remain

Selma, Ala.

Total population (2013 estimate): 19,912

Population by race

African-American: 80.32 percent

White: 18.02 percent

Hispanic: 0.60 percent

Other: 1.06 percent

Economic data

Median household income (2009-2013): $22,478

Persons below poverty level (2009-2013): 41.9 percent

Unemployment rate (December): 10.2 percent

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Selma, 50 years later

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is in Selma this week to mark five decades since Bloody Sunday.

Today: The city of Selma has its moment in the sun, but leaders worry the fanfare will do little for the economically struggling area.

Sunday: President Barack Obama speaks Saturday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as nearly 100 members of Congress gather to remember.

Monday: The “foot soldiers,” local people fighting on their home turf, re-enact the Bloody Sunday march and share their tales from the civil rights movement.

Swelling with pride at its place in history, this city is in a frenzy as it prepares to host a pair of presidents and tens of thousands more to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement’s bloody climax.

But under the spotlight, Selma’s blight is impossible to miss.

More than 40 percent of the city's residents live below the poverty line, compared with the national average of 14.5 percent. Selma helped break down legal barriers, paving the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but economic ones have been more stubborn.

Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, along with nearly 100 members of Congress, are scheduled to appear Saturday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge for a ceremony.

They will look out over a sleepy downtown. Vacant, boarded-up buildings dot the side streets.

A few blocks away is Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, where the Bloody Sunday march began. Many of the 600 souls who were met that day with clubs and tear gas from white police and townspeople lived in a federal housing project adjacent to the church.

The tidy red brick church now features a monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The George Washington Carver Homes are mostly unchanged.

As Selma native and U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell devoured a quick lunch last month in the Brown Chapel basement, she said the 1950s-era Carver Homes represent what needs to be done.

“Look across the street,” Sewell said. “We need to have a Hope VI project that tears down old Section Eight housing and modernizes it. … The people deserve a better opportunity.”

It’s part of the message Sewell will deliver to her congressional colleagues as they tour civil rights monuments in her district, a pilgrimage led each year by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and civil rights leader who suffered a fractured skull leading the Bloody Sunday march.

“Fifty years ago this place was the center of commerce, it was booming,” Lewis said last month as he stood on the Pettus Bridge. “You came here on a Friday afternoon or early evening, on a Saturday to shop from the rural areas or the small towns.”

Then, the “Queen City” of Selma was the commercial center of a thriving agricultural region. The Black Belt has a double meaning, describing the people who live here and its rich soil.

Labor-intensive cotton farming has dwindled, as timber and catfish now are the primary agricultural products. Textile mills are long gone. Craig Air Force Base closed in 1977.

“The jobs are McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Sonic’s, but those jobs are already taken,” said Carolyn Calhoun-Bates, 58, who grew up here and now runs an advocacy program for people with disabilities. “My children took off to Huntsville and Georgia. … There’s nothing in Selma for my children with their education.”

As opportunity dried up, many of those who could leave did and the population dwindled.

James Perkins, who served two terms as the city’s first African-American mayor, says it’s time for the federal government to step in.

Selma could be included in an extension of I-85 that’s now planned to bypass the city. The Department of the Interior could follow through on the promise of a large voting rights museum, rather than the cubbyhole-sized one on Broad Street. The Pentagon could encourage defense contractors to set up shop by the old air base, which still has its substantial runways.

To Perkins, it’s a moral issue.

“I’m convinced that the nation owes Selma,” Perkins said.

“If we consider Iraq as a ground zero in war theater, if this country can spend billions of dollars to rebuild a foreign nation after war,” he said, “why shouldn’t we spend a few million to rebuild a community after its ground zero experiences in this country?”

That's experiences, plural. Selma was also the scene of one of the Civil War's final major battles in 1865, after which much of the town was ransacked.

Organizers of this weekend’s jubilee mixed a celebration of Selma’s and the civil rights movement’s strides with reminders of how far they still must travel. Intermingled with a hip-hop concert and a spiffy gala are workshops on mass incarceration and fair housing.

Improved education is an oft-suggested solution. In Selma the school system has resegregated to a striking degree.

While whites make up 18 percent of the population, they make up just 2 percent of the city's 4,000 public school children, as most white families opted for private schools.

Calhoun-Bates, who serves on the Dallas County School Board, said dropouts are an epidemic, and she fears a lost generation that does not understand the struggles of those who came before. She hopes to use this weekend’s events to help local kids better understand their own city’s story.

“They don’t know John Lewis,” she said. “But they know Common and John Legend.”

Civic leaders hope the attention can lead to more investment. The Black Belt Community Foundation recently handed out $415,000 in grants for programs to guide young minority boys.

“It’s not the most popular job, but because of this movie and all the hoopla, it’s gotten a lot sexier now,” said the foundation’s Daron Harris.

“We’ve really got to figure out how to take this ball and run with it and put some bread on the table for people that need it.”