Susan Dalgety: White supremacist army lost at Selma but war continues

Equality in justice seems as far away as when Billie Holiday sang about lynching, writes Susan Dalgety.

Equality in justice seems as far away as when Billie Holiday sang about lynching, writes Susan Dalgety.

The woman in Selma’s welcome centre didn’t hang around.

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“You want to know what is planned for Fourth of July?” she asked. “Ah’m going to call the city council right now.”

“We was wondering what is on the agenda for tomorrow, it being Fourth of July and all,” she asked her colleague on the other end of the line.

“Nothing you say? Ah don’t know, surely there should be something. Fireworks. A party on the river bank, something.”

She turned to us and shrugged. “Nothing this year, we have a new mayor,” she added as if that explained everything.

The official explanation was one familiar to citizens the world over. “There is no money in the budget to do anything,” explained Selma City councilwoman Susan Youngblood to the local newspaper.

It is doubtful if Dr Portia Fulford’s budget is bulging with dollars either, but the owner of the city’s newest hot spot, Organpi Farm bar-and-kitchen, was determined to celebrate her country’s 242nd birthday.

And we were grateful to join her for margheritas and veggie burgers, and yes, a firework or two. Perhaps not as spectacular as Macy’s Fourth of July firework show in New York, or even the party on the White House lawn, but the setting could not have been more impressive, or poignant.

Dr Fulford’s bar sits in the shadow of the Edmund Pettus bridge. “Probably one of the most famous bridges in the world,” she mused.

Just over 50 years ago, on a dull Sunday morning in March, 600 African Americans, led by a young civil rights’ campaigner, 25-year-old John Lewis, and a local preacher, the Rev Hosea Williams, marched slowly over the short bridge that spans the Alabama River, and straight into the history books.

They were marching for the right to vote, but Alabama State Troopers, led by one Major John Cloud, were determined to stop them from reaching their destination.

He and his shock troops turned their batons and tear gas on the march, beating men and women unconscious in a show of state violence that still has the power to sicken when watched on the grainy black and white film that plays on a loop in Selma’s Interpretative Center.

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John Lewis and the 600 were beaten back on that bloody Sunday, but their courage inspired thousands more to join them in Selma, including Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

Within days, President Lyndon B Johnson went on national television to declare: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem ... Their cause must be our cause too.

“Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

In August 1965, Congress passed Johnson’s Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote to all African Americans.

And when John Lewis, now a congressman of 30 years standing and a national icon, called Barack Obama to join him in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Selma march, Obama replied, “John, without Selma, I wouldn’t be in this White House.”

The Edmund Pettus bridge is, as Dr Fulford said on the Fourth of July, one of the most famous in the world.

But to see Selma now, 53 years on, it is hard to believe its significant place in world history.

The city’s broad streets are almost empty of traffic. The once beautiful Victorian and Edwardian shops are mostly vacant, with nothing but hopeful “for sale, or rent” signs in their windows.

Dr Fulford’s bar-and-kitchen is one of the few places to eat. Even the ubiquitous McDonalds and Subway franchises are missing from the landscape of downtown Selma.

And the Civil Rights Memorial Park, next to the bridge, which opened only 16 years ago, feels forgotten, as if it belongs to another era.

A simple white wooden cross, half hidden in the undergrowth, tells a terrible story: “Micah D Johnson, sun rose Oct 5, 1990, sun set May 21, 2013.”

Micah was murdered, shot by a teenager. And already this year there have been seven killings in the area, prompting an editorial in the Selma Times-Journal on Thursday to say, almost plaintively, that “something has to be done”, to keep the community safe.

The official statistics underline what Selma’s empty streets only hint at: nearly half of the city’s residents live in poverty.

Its unemployment rate is double that of the national average. It is the poorest city in Alabama and the sixth poorest in America. Its city council cannot even afford a few fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Selma’s poverty is mirrored across America. The African American community is the poorest in the country, poorer even than “foreign-born non-citizens”.

Almost half of all black children under six live in poverty – more than three times the number of white children.

And while the Selma marchers won their battle for voting rights, equality in justice seems as far away as it was when Billie Holiday sang about lynching.

According to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, one in three black males born since 2001 will go to prison at some point in their lifetime.

The non-profit, whose powerful Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration, dramatises the story of African Americans as no other museum dares, insists that slavery endures. It argues that white supremacy, the ideology that justified selling human beings alongside bales of cotton and pigs, was evident in the lynchings that saw 4,000 African Americans brutally murdered by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.

It was the basis of the segregation laws that, in their most ridiculous manifestation, stopped black people playing chess with white folks, and today informs a criminal justice system that presumes African Americans are always guilty.

The people who walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge more than 50 years ago won an important battle against the armed forces of that white supremacy.

And John Lewis was right when he said Selma is “more than a place ... it’s almost an idea that invites people to stand up for what’s right and what’s fair and what’s just”.

But walking through the almost empty streets of Selma on the day that America celebrated winning its war of independence, it is hard not think that this is a country still at war with itself.