“Whitey just gave you another vehicle to oppress yourself.”
Joanne Bland, a local Selma woman.
Selma was not in my original plans, but I decided to make a detour there on the way to Montgomery and it was one of the most interesting parts of the trip. Selma was a site of 1965 civil rights marches from there to Montgomery. On the day that became known as “Bloody Sunday” a bunch of marchers were attacked by police as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge.
As I rolled into town, and it’s a very small town, you can’t really get lost in there, I ended up right at the foot of that infamous bridge, which is where I parked my car. The electric tableau on some local bank branch showed 103F degrees. The place was, already predictably, quite dead. I thought just a few quick pictures and I’m outta here. But just as I thought that, I saw a small group of protesters near the bridge and decided to check it out. I thought wait a minute, protesters in Selma in 2010? Could it be that the time stopped there? I proceeded towards them.
(Long post below the cut)
Since the streets were deserted just as in Birmingham, we both (me and the group of protesters) attracted each other’s attention. There were a few whites among them who turned out to be organizers of the protest. The protesters had a trivial cause – they demonstrated against some editorial in a local conservative newspaper praising the guy who at some point praised Confederate general Nathan B. Forrest. There is no liberal leaning newspaper in town due to lack of funds. One of the organizers, the girl named Gwen, was from Colorado and she moved to Selma, at least temporarily she said, to run a radio show. After finding out that I’m from New York and just travelling through the South, she gave me a number of a local woman who lived through the events of the 1960s, who could show me around town and tell me some first account stories. I phoned her right away and she agreed to meet me in 15 min in St. James Hotel, which was just 30 yards away from the bridge. Like I said earlier, it’s a very small town, everything’s within yards, not miles.
She came in with her granddaughter, a skinny 12-year old girl with a thoughtful and quiet demeanor. The girl had a rare, in both adults and children nowadays, contemplative look on her face. She was a straight A student, I later found out. The woman’s name was Joanne Bland. She wasn’t satisfied with my answer that I’m from NY and she asked me ok, where are you REALLY from? I thought, this woman knows her shit, this could be interesting. I expected to hear hardship stories, but was prepared to ask questions as to why and how? As I talked to her she displayed such deep understanding of things and events and such lucid mind that I breathed an air of relief – this is the kind of encounter I was looking for. We went to a local joint with an entirely black clientele. She waved and said hello to everybody both on the street and inside. We sat down, ordered some soft drinks and I offered to split a peach cobbler with the girl.
Joanne marched only 10 miles back then, as she was only 11 at the time. But through the whole conversation, and she spoke a lot about her family and growing up, she did try to explore why the blacks are still in such a sorry state almost 50 years after the Civil Rights Act. She did not fall for the first knee-jerk available explanation blaming Whitey. Her story focused on failures of organizing, of general apathy (including at the polls) and the corruption of those blacks that do get elected in heavily black districts like Selma and Birmingham. That was an answer to my obvious question – why is it that major cities in Alabama are at least 50-60% black (Birmingham is 75% black) and yet Alabama is the reddest state on the planet. Blacks just don’t vote! They only came in droves to vote for Obama because it was historic, but on any off-year election they just don’t. They don’t think anything will change with their votes! But those kind of elections decide the very thing that can alleviate their state at least somehow, for instance better public schools funding – in my view one of the most important things at this juncture. Most public schools in Alabama cities are predominantly black; all of the whites send their children to private schools, even the poor ones (Joanne suspected that they somehow get funding from some outside organizations). And in the meantime, black population falls prey to false issues that some strategically inclined whites are throwing in front of them like Confederate monuments in the public square or racial profiling. Using Joanne’s words – “Whitey just gave you another vehicle to oppress yourself”. Blacks get riled up on symbolic issues, but something that can really change the way of life, like voting, gets ignored. Joanne told me the story of the monument to the Confederate general Nathan B. Forrest that was installed on public square not too long ago. Crowds of whites came, so did crowds of blacks. Ones sang Dixieland, the others – We Shall Overcome.
Eventually, after the outcry, the monument was moved to a Confederate cemetery and everything went back to “normal”. Mission accomplished, Blacks won, the Whitey lost. Now one party went back to lament about poor state of blacks, and the other party went on planning on another act of distraction. Protesting is much more glamorous and visually telling than voting, but the loud act, although good for headlines, decides very little, the quiet and invisible act of voting decides everything. 50 years ago they protested the lack of voting rights, now they protest newspaper editorials and inappropriate monuments. MLK is spinning in his grave.
Here’s an example of the state of the voting in Selma.
Later, Joanne took me to the Old Live Oak Cemetery. This is where that ill-fated monument was eventually moved. This cemetery is a very beautiful place with magnolias covered with Spanish moss that makes them willowy, thus giving it this authentic Southern feel. Here’s some pictures.
Selma is a small sticky town with rich history. Sticky, because those born there are most likely to die there. Selma has its own projects, as if living downtown would somehow award you a better fate. Joanne took me around town in her car and we drove past projects. Not different from Atlantic City or any place else – depressing square brick boxes with nothing around them. Rich history is evident by confederate and civil rights mementos intertwine on every corner. Every self-respecting southern town has a Jefferson Davis Avenue or street or high school, which creates some ironic twists – like Jefferson Davis public school that is completely black. Selma had a Jefferson Davis avenue up until about a year ago when it was renamed into J. L. Chestnut Boulevard. Another symbolic victory.
The overall feeling that I got, and not only in Selma, but in general, is that the grievances, on both sides, seem to be swept under the rug, buried in a shallow grave. Stick a shovel into the ground and it’ll all come out. It felt like both sides are being played by some interests. The animosity of each group towards the other is a rich soil for all sorts of political charlatans to exploit. Which is being done with impunity. It is not in the politicians’ interest if everybody is getting along. Divide and conquer is being employed here in its most basic form.
As we were saying goodbye and I stretched out a hand to the girl, I found myself imploring her to stay in school. This is, literally, her only ticket out of town, even if she doesn’t realize it yet. Her grandmother does.
I was in a very contemplative state all the way from Selma to Montgomery, along that road where Civil Rights marchers walked. First, I had no idea how depressing things are for blacks, in Selma, of all places – a cradle of civil rights movement. And then I thought that our liberal tendency to put the blame on conniving whites is somewhat misguided. Sure they employ abominable tactics, but at this day and age, and after many decades of struggle, the blacks should be able to separate a provocation from a real rights infringement.
In Montgomery I stayed at the black family owned B&B. This time I was really the only visitor and it seemed like in a long time. In Montgomery, just like in Birmingham there’s not much to do. It’s just as empty and deserted. But I had a nice talk with the owner of the hotel during breakfast of grits, eggs and sausages. I decided to ask him the same questions I asked Joanne the previous day and see what he says. He told me the exact same thing – general apathy of black voters and the corruption of black politicians. And that is the sad part, because those blacks that do get elected come from poor backgrounds, no political or business connections, no access to money, so it’s very easy for them to slide down from idealistic inspirations, which no doubt brought them to politics in the first place, into eventual self-enrichment schemes. Think Charlie Rangel. And then think Michael Bloomberg. Who among them is more likely to be corrupt? What to do about it? Don’t ask me.