One of the most impressive parts of this course is the stop in Selma, Alabama. This time we did far more than walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and visit the two Voting Rights Museums. We remained in the city more than two full days. We lodged at the historic St. James Hotel that is owned and operated by the city; attended church services at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church; enjoyed Sunday lunch at the Wallace Community College; dined at El Ranchero Restaurant, Side Porch Sandwiches, and had breakfast one morning at the St. James Hotel, and another morning at The Coffee Shop.
Selma is an important but sad place! It is a small, rural city located on the Alabama River. Once upon a time it was beautiful and prosperous. Now it struggles to survive. Its appearance suffers severely from deferred maintenance. There is, however, a hint of Selma’s former beauty, but only a passing one. The St. James Hotel is a telling place. The lobby area is still exquisite – it is neat and the furniture is attractive. The nice lady at the check in desk could not supply me with itemized receipts because their printer was broken, but she did send them by email. At one point I noticed one of my students walking through the lobby carrying a ladder. He had informed the front desk that the smoke alarm in his room was beeping. No maintenance man was on duty, so the check-in clerk supplied him with a couple of batteries and the ladder. My room was too cold and the bed quilt too heavy. So I slept in my clothes and a light weight jacket two nights.Please do not read this as a complaint. The hotel is lovely in many ways! The bedroom furniture looks like antiques and is truly beautiful. The hotel needs lots of work, and the city may not have sufficient resources to improve it.
We spent two days in Selma to learn about the city’s history since the 1965 Voting Rights March, and learn we did. The trip entailed lots of new experiences for all of us. The Sunday worship service at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church was wonderful. Pastor Leodis Strong delivered a scholarly and moving sermon. Unfortunately, most of the pews were empty, but we took note of this congregation and its talented pastor. The church is one of the most attractive buildings in Selma and probably was not pictured in the last year’s popular movie because of its outdoor shrine to Dr. Martin Luther King and its commemorative display.
Selma, the so-called Queen City, organized in 1819 and became a center for cotton production. Traders brought large numbers of enslaved people into Selma where they were sold at auction along the Alabama River. Surrounding Dallas County was the site of lucrative cotton plantations.During the national sectional crisis, one native son, William Rufus DeVane King became Vice-President of the United States but died five weeks later of pneumonia. In spite of its rich nineteenth century history, Selma’s greatest notoriety resulted from resistance to black voter registration during the twentieth century.
Bernard and Colia Lafayette, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, arrived in Selma in 1963 to begin a black voter registration project. They enlisted the assistance of local black leaders and soon butted heads with Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark and his volunteer deputies. Opposition to black voting was fierce, and two years later the situation remained unchanged. The violent clash between Alabama police officers and Voting Rights marchers on Bloody Sunday (7 March 19650) changed Selma forever. Televised violence garnered widespread sympathy and resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1964, Selma elected ardent segregationist Joseph Smitherman as mayor. His service would span more than thirty-five years, a period that included Bloody Sunday and a personal transformation that allowed him to retain office with the assistance of black voters. James Perkins, Jr. defeated him in the year 2000 and became Selma’s first black mayor. Eight years later George Evans succeeded Perkins. Since 2000, local mills have closed, and there has been massive white flight. Selma is now about 80 percent black and very poor. Perkins and Evans are once again involved in a contest for mayor, but this time the race includes a young, well-educated, black female candidate named Jerria Martin. No matter who wins, the challenge of reviving Selma is enormous. After more than five years of visiting Selma, I have witnessed steady decline. Perhaps Perkins and Evans should pass the torch to a new generation and permit Martin to determine a new path for this once lovely city.