On April 4, many eyes will be on Memphis, Tennessee, remembering what happened there 50 years ago,
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.
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
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.
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 Klan’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-plus years past.
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 until his death a senior congressman, declined the nomination. I suspect Lewis enjoyed a fine irony when he saw one, as he helped organize many of the annual bridge-crossing commemorations which have cemented the Late senator’s unearned but enduring civil rights renown.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 left me in a somber mood as the panel in Montgomery approached. 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?