I wandered down Water Street in Selma imagining how it must have looked on a similar Saturday afternoon 50 years ago. I imagined smartly dressed men and women strolling along the sidewalks, arm in arm, teenagers herded at store fronts and peering through shop windows, families gathered at inns, restaurants, and lunch counters. I hadn’t imagined them all white. But I quickly realized I should’ve.
The sidewalks I actually walked were abandoned, except for a handicapped black man who followed a few paces behind me, muttering about being hungry. The shops I passed were decrepit. Inside, fallen fragments of their ceilings littered the floor, molding, rotting. “Open” signs flickered in dirty windows of the last-surviving diners and corner pubs.
I’d been feeling strangely since I arrived in Alabama on Friday, October 9th for Peace Tour 2015, a Civil Rights Movement site-seeing excursion through Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuskegee, and Selma– designed both to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights March and the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and to foster understanding, discussion, and ultimately reconciliation of generations-deep tensions between members of one historically black and one historically-white Church of Christ in Lebanon, Tennessee. One student from Belmont School of Law, three pre-law students from Lipscomb University, including myself, and a film crew from Lipscomb were invited to tag along and help document the experience.
Like Selma, Birmingham also had an air of lifelessness, the skyscrapers blending in ominously with the gray clouds, and hardly a soul in sight. In 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young black girls were murdered in a 1963 bombing by the KKK, the ghosts of the darkest realities of American culture lingered everywhere.
The country roads between Montgomery and Tuskegee dotted sporadically with poorly maintained homes and rusted car parts could’ve convinced me I was in a third-world country. But Selma was a class of its own. The Edmund Pettus Bridge–what should have been a symbol of triumph and progress–casting its shadow on this economic and social regression was a just another disheartening reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The fight for racial equality in the United States has repeatedly proven this notion. For example, the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine that, since Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, had legally facilitated Jim Crow segregation and the degradation of black Americans to an inferior social class.
As great a victory as was Brown v. Board, the unfortunate reality was that it was largely unenforceable until states enacted policies imposing integration. This became the core concern of the players in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Civil rights attorney Fred D. Gray litigated numerous cases on behalf of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the leading organization of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement in the South. In Browder v. Gayle, the Supreme Court ordered Montgomery buses to desegregate. In Gomillion v. Lightfoot, the Supreme Court held that the disenfranchisement of black voters by gerrymandering violated the 15th Amendment. In Lee v. Macon County Board of Education, Gray succeeded in arguing for the integration of all Alabama public schools.
In Tuskegee, I had the opportunity to be involved in an interview with Gray, whose self-proclaimed mission in life has been to “destroy everything segregated [he] could find.” Today, at age 84, he continues his work. When asked to what he attributes the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and its ultimate success, he cites the courage of one educated and empowered 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus months before Rosa Parks. While disadvantaged by the system, Colvin received support and education from her church and NAACP youth programs, which taught her to stand up for her rights. Besides King’s SCLC and the NAACP, multiple student organizations were orchestrating peaceful protests and sit-ins across the segregated South. These collective, trans-generational efforts gave the Movement its breadth of impact. Unfortunately, so many more black youths were not empowered. So many more still today are denied equality of opportunity and equality of education in a more subtle segregation that has endured.
Sitting in a pew at 16th Street Baptist Church, I had listened to our tour guide comment that Birmingham in 1960 was less than 40% black. When southern schools and public services were forced to integrate, a phenomenon known as “White Flight” began. Wealthy southern whites moved away from the cities and into suburbs and gated communities where blacks could not afford to live. They began sending their children to private schools, leaving public and inner-city schools minority-dominated, underfunded, and their students disadvantaged. Today, Montgomery, Alabama is 56% black. Birmingham and Selma are over 80% black. Tuskegee is over 95% black.
Furthermore, emerging rhetoric argues that the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed and actually contributes to voter fraud. Last year, Alabama enacted a law requiring voters to present photo ID’s at the ballots. However, this month Alabama closed 31 satellite DMV offices in rural communities due to “budget cuts.” 8 out of 10 of the state’s counties where 75% or more of the registered voters are black are affected by these closures. The minority-dominated, majority-impoverished residents of these communities now face the challenge of having to travel hours to the nearest DMV to conduct routine licensing registrations and renewals, and to register to vote. Most of these residents cannot afford to take an entire day off work to go to the DMV, nor have the means of transportation to make the trip. Proponents argue the motivation is purely financial. Others say this kind of legislation is a veiled attempt to prevent growing minority populations from challenging the established power structure. Either way, the result is the same, and it is unjust: the country’s most vulnerable populations are being pushed back into the shadows and risk underrepresentation.
At a program I recently attended at the Harry Phillips American Inns of Court, the keynote speaker was Dr. Gilman Whiting, Vanderbilt University professor and scholar of educational disparities in minority students, who spoke of this vicious cycle. Minority populations are twice as likely to be unemployed, poor, imprisoned, and without proper healthcare and housing. Children coming from situations like these naturally cannot learn effectively because their basic needs as human beings are not being met. Teachers in minority schools are paid less, and often cannot relate to their students. The way we train our teachers is often insensitive, indifferent, and ignorant to the needs of disadvantaged minority students. Moreover, if these populations cannot even vote, the situation will only get worse until we arrive back to 1896.
Back in Selma, a cherry-red, 2-million-dollar coach bus pulled up in front of Brown Chapel AME Church, the starting location of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, and the last stop on the Peace Tour. Brown Chapel stands in the middle of a housing project. As a swarm of black and white middle-aged and middle-class individuals piled outside, cameras in hand, little black boys and girls playing catch and tag between identical red brick buildings stopped to stare at the strange spectacle. Someone whispered the words “poverty porn,” and I immediately hated myself for being privileged, for being white, and for acting like I had the right to treat these people’s home like a zoo. We were the only white people in sight and by far the wealthiest for miles.
Not enough is being done to prevent regression in racial justice because too many people have been led to believe that the fight was won with Brown v. Board of Education, and because too many people do not see what this country’s minority populations still endure. We have closed ourselves off in our suburban utopias and BMW’s and convinced ourselves that racism and racial injustice no longer exist.