The town of Selma, once a great hub for one of the most important marches of the Civil Rights Movement now stands disheveled and empty. Once boasting an Air Force base, many mills and several small businesses, the town now stands nearly vacant with few shops open and even fewer restaurants. To stay in Selma for any more than a day or two is rare as visitors frequent the city only for its few historical sites all within walking distance of each other.
On our first day there we visited the Selma Interpretive Center, a small museum located on the corner of what seems to be the two main streets in Selma. For a town with such rich history, it seemed rather odd to me to only see small historical sites and markers commemorating such an important part of history. The lack of historical markers was not the only thing that worried me about Selma however. While walking around the town I encountered maybe 200 people including a very large church going presence at the community lunch. We attended the morning service at Brown Chapel AME, and it maybe 50 people were there, many of whom wore their finest clothes for the first Sunday Communion service. The surrounding neighborhood was consisted of project housing and homes that seemed to be falling apart from lack of maintenance. With a population of about 20,000 and a median income of $16,000, most local residents live in poverty. It is very clear that a majority of the citizens of Selma were not doing well. Industry has disappeared, and major sources of economic comfort continue to leave the small Alabama city.
In a candid conversation with a Mayoral candidate, she exhibited enthusiasm and asserted that Selma could be revived, and that what was once a great small city, could be great again. The challenge for any city official of Selma is to get tourists to stay long enough to spend money there. Most come to see the Edmund Pettus Bridge which is one way in and out of town. The historic St. James Hotel is in a state of disrepair, and the historical markers are not significant enough for many people to consider stopping in Selma. As sad as it is, Selma seems doomed because of continuing white flight, lost of industries, and the massive cost of restoring buildings and infrastructure.
The experience was one I surely will never forget, walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge as many thousands did on Bloody Sunday, Turn-Around Tuesday, and eventually as thousands did on March 21 as they marched to Montgomery to secure the right to vote. It looks as though Selma was a truly beautiful city in its prime and I wish I could have been there to see it during the Civil Rights Movement. Seeing the memorials for individuals not much older than me also made me question my own courage. As a 21-year-old African-American male I struggle to think that I would have been courageous enough to join the movement knowing that death and severe harm was likely, and often just another day to day occurrence for black and white activists in the movement.