Selma, the Day before Memphis

On Wednesday April 4, many eyes will be on Memphis, Tennessee, remembering what happened there 50 years ago,

Room 306, Lorraine Motel, Memphis.

I’ll be among  those, But I’ll be doing it from Alabama, just down the street from the still blindingly all-white state capital in Montgomery. That’s where the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church still stands. There in 1955 Dr. King  began the career which ended, at least in embodied form, with a bullet fired  in Memphis.

At Dexter Street, Alabama State University will conduct a day-long program on the anniversary, and they invited me to join a panel.

The “Queen City” of the Black Belt? If so. It reigns over a crumbling domain.

My route to Montgomery is not straightforward. It takes a detour 50 miles west, to Selma. If I get this close, Selma is a place of pilgrimage for me. Regular readers should recall that I spent 1965 here, working with the civil rights campaign that resulted in the  passage of the Voting Rights Act

Andy Grace, left, & Chip Brantley (headphones).

This time, I joined up with two exceptionally knowledgeable guides, Andy Grace & Chip Brantley, scholarly journalists & filmmakers, at work on a major radio documentary, in association with NPR. They shared many new facts about the city, NC exchange for my recollections & reflections of my time there.

Wake up delicacies at Mr. Waffle.
Mr. Waffle runs a respectable establishment . . .

After a very southern breakfast at “Mr. Waffle,” we headed for the first of two visits with the dead. Selma’s main cemetery is home to a new, very large, and controversial Confederate memorial complex. Besides a host of actual Confederate graves, it features a new statue honoring the memory of rebel general Nathan Bedford Forrest (also from Memphis), who tried & failed to defend Selma from a Union  force in the last days of the Civil War.

This statue was the target of vigorous protests by local black activists. They pointed out that Forrest’s war record included involvement in a wanton massacre of black Union troops at Fort  Pillow, Tennessee, and before that, he had built a fortune running the biggest slavetrading operation in his region. Then when the official war ended he was a key figure in founding the first Ku Klux Kla’s terrorist campaigns.

But the protests failed to stop the monument’s installation, and all I could do was shake my fist at his brooding brass visage. (He was unmoved.)

But I did find some consolation in one the place’s major ironies, that among its most “illustrious” rebel residents is Confederate General, reputed Alabama Klan leader, and U. S. Senator Edmund Pettus. Despite this record, Pettus has become a posthumous Civil Rights “hero,” by having his name attached to the famous nearby bridge which figured so centrally in the voting rights struggle of fifty-three years past.

Buried in irony: part of Edmund Pettus’s grave marker.

Yet in an effort to keep up with the current renaming frenzy, some local students have circulated a petition to drop Pettus from the bridge, and replace him with John Lewis, who suffered a skull fracture when voting rights marchers were attacked while attempting to cross it in March 1965. But Lewis, a large-souled fellow and now a senior congressman, has declined the nomination. I suspect Lewis enjoys a fine irony when he sees one, as he has helped organize many of the annual bridge-crossing commemorations which have cemented the Late senator’s unearned but enduring civil rights renown.

General, I think we’re stuck with you; and vice versa.

From there we drove thirty miles northwest, to a smaller burial ground near the town of Marion. In it we paid homage to the shade of Jimmie Lee Jackson. He was unarmed & trying to protect his grandfather when a state trooper shot him during an attack on a night march in February 1965; he died a few days later.

A sturdy memorial bouquet for Jimmie Lee.

Jackson’s  large and handsome headstone has been pocked and chipped by numerous bullet gouges & divots, But I took some comfort from the fact that there didn’t seem to be any new  strafing damage since my 2015 visit. (These days, one takes such bits of comfort where one finds them.)

Then it was back to Selma, to go to jail. The small city jail Is still there, on the second floor of what was City Hall then, but is police headquarters now.

In the first floor hallway there hangs a long row of framed photos of Selma’s police chiefs. One of them is in civilian clothes; that’s Wilson Baker, who insisted on being called Public Safety DIrector. It was Baker who arrested Dr. King and about 250 other voting rights marchers on February First, 1965; I was among them.

“Go on in,” said the jailer with a smirk, “you been here before, right?” Right.

We were taken to a large cell block on the third floor, but soon Dr. KIng and three others were moved to a small cell block one floor down. The sheriff picked me as one of the four.

I’ve written elsewhere of my adventures in that crowded cell, which centered on eating Dr. King’s dinner. I told Andy about this, but what  impressed us more was just the fact that 53 years later, that cell and the tiny block were visibly the same. 

Back in the hoosegow again. Briefly.
Jail rules; we obeyed.

That aging did not seem to have eroded the rumbling, heavily painted, bars. But it was of a piece with large chunks of Selma’s surrounding downtown, except that many of the other buildings were much the worse for wear, and whole blocks were locked and boarded up. 

In fact downtown Selma looked like it was rapidly morphing into a ghost town.  The streets seemed bare, except for a trickle of tourists walking onto the bridge and taking pictures. It was the same elsewhere.

On Highland Avenue, about a mile north of downtown, there are some middling malls and a large WalMart. They were largely filled and busy in 2015, though the presence of more than a dozen predatory payday loan shops was worrisome.

But today these malls were mostly empty, surrounded by deserts of unfilled parking lots. The Walmart was teeming, but the decay that followed the crash of a decade ago has only spread and deepened.

Mrs. Boynton’s house, what’s left of it.

A personal symbol of this collapse still stands on Lapsley Street. It’s the long time home of Amelia Boynton,  a grande dame of the local movement, who lived to be 104.

She was my landlady.  I rented a room there. It seemed a solid middle class abode. By the time she died In 2015, there were  plans to turn it into a museum.

The sign announcing the museum plan stands forgotten on what’s left of the back porch.

But instead the house is now boarded up, abandoned and collapsing Scores of once-solid houses across the black neighborhoods are in similarly bad shape.

Taped to a desk in the police station, behind a thick plastic screen.

Overall, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that whatever gains were brought to Selma by 50-plus years of black voting rights have been all but taken away by a disintegrating economy. And this downward spiral seems likely to continue.

All of which leaves me in a somber mood as the panel in Montgomery approaches. What now remains of  the  seemingly great victory that was won in Selma? What remains of what Dr. King and others risked their lives for? What is left of what many, including Dr. King, gave their lives for?  Of what realm is Selma now the Queen CIty?

I wonder.

7 thoughts on “Selma, the Day before Memphis”

  1. Thanks for this reflective memorial. Strange, how the present has brought about few of the dreams of MLK, and instead, there seems to be a downward backward rip tide.

    I drove through Selma last summer, looking for significant memorials to the famous March and other Civil Rights places. I was very disappointed, that except for one sign for a museum, it was as if nothing had ever happened. And I was shocked to see the general state of dis-repair, abandonment, and general impoverishedness of the place. What had gone wrong?

    50 years ago when I heard of King’s murder, I was serving my conscientious objector time at a mental hospital near Philly, and within weeks would be kicked out of my apartment for having an anti-draft sign on the back of my van…nothing like your and King’s very serious imprisonment.

    The worst of times, but the best of times, because even despite King’s death, and the inner city riots, back then there was youthful hope and movement toward the Dream.

    The present seems much worse.

    1. Daniel— I had the same shock reaction when I visited Selma in late 2014, during research for an update of my Selma book. Found many stats to back up what I was seeing.

  2. Hi Chuck,

    Lakey (who will be at SAYMA as the plenary speaker, both nights) has it right: we need to work from the top (economic issues — the 5 pillars of the Viking economies) down, even though the egregious harms of racial oppression call out to our hearts so much more directly.

    At a time when worker unions were strong and jobs were available, this wasn’t easily visible. When King started the economic movement, I supported it but was left wondering about how it would gather momentum. Fifty years later we know that importance.

    Thanks for sharing. I look forward to the NPR piece, even though I anticipate having my heart weep yet again.

    Hank

  3. I am hopeful, that God is at work in all of this, working hard along side all of us to make changes for the better in this world. I hope your article leads someone/some persons to start museums, restart the museum, to write for funding…. history is to be preserved. We have much to learn from it. Do not let it be lost if you can. Thank you for your article.

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