The annual pilgrimage to Selma grows bigger each year.
For top Democrats, it’s an opportunity to take a victory lap in a symbolic capital of the Civil Rights Movement and pander to key African-American voters during campaign season.
Two days before Super Tuesday, nearly every presidential candidate on the ticket — from Joe Biden to Mike Bloomberg — converged on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the fifty-fifth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. The event attracted such a crush of onlookers that the national politicians couldn’t walk arm-in-arm per usual; settling instead for a single file stroll through the gathered masses.
Many dignitaries returned again last month as part of the funeral ceremonies for the late US Rep. John Lewis. The civil rights leader’s body was placed in a horse-drawn carriage and led over the infamous bridge where he was beaten by Alabama state troopers in 1965.
To watch black marchers like Lewis abused live on television “scorched our soul,” Joe Biden told the congregation at Selma’s Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in March. In the same speech, the presidential nominee framed the upcoming November election in biblical terms: as a fight against the great evil of white supremacy embodied by Donald Trump and “a battle for the soul of this country.”
What Biden and others miss in their typically soaring spiritual-inflected rhetoric is the material world, specifically the health of the body politic as it exists now in this struggling Alabama town. For Democrats, the narrative of these visits is about a historic triumph over racism, a triumph now threatened by a white supremacist holding the presidency.
But in Selma, the devil is in the details.
The Plight of Selma
What lies just out of frame in most contemporary news reports depicting Democrats solemnly marching in the ceremonial Bridge Crossing Jubilee is the city itself — or what’s left of it. Downtown is largely a postapocalyptic wasteland of crumbling buildings, empty storefronts, and vacant homes. Even the Historic Riverfront Park that abuts the Edmund Pettus Bridge is largely inaccessible because it’s overgrown with weeds and blight.
Selma, some say, is dying — a feeling that’s become more acute in recent months because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is a do-or-die time here — we really need help,” said Selma native Owen Peak.
The numbers back that up. The population is cratering: an estimated 17 percent loss of people since 2010 according to the census. A massive number of the 17,800 people who remain in Selma — 41 percent — live in poverty. The median household income is $24,000, almost half that of nearby Tuscaloosa, and fewer than half of working-age residents are part of the civilian workforce.
Like other small cities in rural America, Selma once boasted a bustling agricultural and manufacturing economy but fell on hard times during the late twentieth century due to deindustrialization and the globalization of capital. Residents say Selma’s economic decline steepened after the closure of Craig Air Force Base in 1977 — once one of the busiest airports in the United States.
When President Barack Obama’s Air Force One landed onto the Craig Air Field runway in 2015 to speak at the fiftieth anniversary celebration of Bloody Sunday, he was greeted by the site of dilapidated brick structures that once served as temporary residences for training pilots but later became poorly maintained Section 8 housing.
Selma’s schools remain a big obstacle in attracting new industry and jobs, say local business leaders. The Alabama State Board of Education took over the district for three years starting in 2014 because of financial issues and reports of a “lack of institutional control.”
The district is in better shape than a few years ago (their report card grade from the state jumped from a D to a C in 2019) but they’ve also been extremely segregated since the early nineties. Today, the public schools in Selma are 99 percent black with whites mostly attending private academies.
But overall, the racial divide that once defined Selma isn’t nearly as much of an issue in 2020, if for no other reason due to the fact that there isn’t much of a white population left. White flight has continued and nearly 82 percent of the town’s residents are black.
Today, almost all the top elected officials in Selma and the surrounding Dallas County are black. An October 6 runoff election will determine if two-time mayor James Perkins Jr or Miah Jackson will succeed Darrio Melton. Either way, the city will have been electing a black mayor every election year since 2000.
Vote Blue No Matter Who?
Fifty-five years ago, Selma’s black residents were savagely denied the right to vote. It took the horrors of Bloody Sunday to help set the stage for the massive Selma-to-Montgomery march led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, which inspired the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Now, Selma’s black voters overwhelmingly choose Democrat: they, along with much of Alabama’s rural Black Belt counties, cast ballots for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by about a two-to-one margin in 2016. But the Alabama Democratic Party itself is in shambles.
Last year, the Democratic National Committee withheld national funds from them because the state party missed deadlines to hold new leadership elections and bring party bylaws into compliance. Chairman Tom Perez described the Alabama Democratic Party as “chronically underperforming in virtually every aspect of operation.” Sen. Doug Jones, up for reelection this fall, launched a “Fix the Party” campaign to bring about change in the state party.
“The reality is we haven’t had a functioning state party for years,” said former Rep. Patricia Todd, a Democrat from Birmingham.
If anything, Selma’s local leadership — all Democrats — have performed even worse. The city has barely functioned over the last two years amid a back-and-forth war for power between Mayor Darrio Melton and the city council.
When elected in 2016, Melton announced ambitious goals. “We will expand tourism to reach heights we have never seen before” he said. “We will create a climate where we are not just a one-day tourist city, but will be a city where people visit 365 days a year.”
Instead, Melton has called for a neoliberal budget of austerity and privatization that has included cutting $300,000 and a number of employees from the Public Works Department, despite the fact that some neighborhoods are choked with household trash and overgrown flora. City employees responded to the budget crisis by going on strike in October — leaving essential city services like trash collection unaccounted for.
The city government’s impasse has gotten so bad that it’s threatening the opening of a new hotel which is desperately needed to boost downtown’s sagging fortunes. All the contract needs is a signature from the mayor or city council president — but it hasn’t happened due to dysfunction.
Hungry for Change
Selma is desperate for a turnaround.
There is some hope that this week’s municipal elections of a new mayor (Melton opted not to run for a second term) and city council will help turn the page of a bleak chapter of Selma history.
Meanwhile, the business class is trying to install LED lights on the Edmund Pettis Bridge to encourage more tourists to stay overnight. A civic group also recently pooled approximately $500,000 for start-up funds for a brewery but the deal fell through because they couldn’t lure anyone to run it.
When major events like Lewis’s funeral or the premiere of the much-celebrated Selma movie happen, the town gets high hopes for a longer-term economic boost. Maybe the spotlight will attract more tourism or new residents to a city that locals insist has a lot of positive things to offer: good people, cheap housing, and a history so important that most Americans know the tiny rural Alabama town by name.
But Oprah visits, Obama speaks, and Biden preaches about the importance of Selma in 1965 and then they pack up, cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to get out of town and nothing seems to change.
Melton once said, “Selma is not only an icon to this nation, it is a symbol to the world. So goes Selma, so goes the United States of America.”
Considering the state of Selma in 2020, that’s bad news for all of us.