Editor’s note: NCRP Senior Research and Policy Associate Ryan Schlegel and Field Associate Ben Barge recently visited the Alabama Black Belt as part of a listening tour hosted by Grantmakers for Southern Progress and the Black Belt Community Foundation. This is the first in a series of blog posts from activists, organizers and community leaders they met during their trip. NCRP strives to elevate the voices of grantees and potential grantees in conversations about philanthropy. This blog series will address topics relevant to the work underway for social, economic, racial and environmental justice in the Black Belt from the perspective of the people doing that work.
Many in Alabama recently participated in the Reenactment of the Battle of Selma, where Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was defeated by Union troops on April 2, 1865. During the re-enactment, the Confederates are portrayed winning on the first day, and the next day is portrayed more historically accurate.
Before the battle, Dallas County, where Selma is located, was the fourth wealthiest county in the nation, largely because it had the highest number of enslaved people in Alabama and the fourth highest in the U.S. Dallas County was one of the South’s main manufacturing centers during the American Civil War.
Following the Battle of Selma, much of Selma was destroyed including many private businesses and residences, as well as the army arsenal and factories. Many lives were lost, more people were taken prisoner and even more saw their jobs disappear. Selma’s economy has never recovered and neither have the broken relationships that were intentionally created so the rich could stay rich and those in poverty, black and white, would believe that we are each other’s enemies; that all of this loss was for and because of black people.
In the 1960s, many battles were won and laws changed. However, we never got around to building the relationships needed to change hearts and minds. Because more white people were killed in the Selma area for supporting the movement than blacks, a clear messaged was sent about the consequences of supporting and associating with black people.
Thus, in 2016, when an African American woman attempted to pass out leaflets explaining a different perspective, a different “truth” than those who were re-enacting the Battle of Selma, wishes of death and injury were expressed about her on social media. “Maybe a stray confederate bullet will find its way.” “Someone needs to put crosshairs on it!!”
After the same mayor who was in power during Bloody Sunday, the day of unmitigated violence against marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, was unseated in 2000 by black man, many leaders felt and expressed that the new mayor could not run the city. Some systematically attempted to make him fail by making Selma fail and even incorporated an adjacent town, Valley Grande, which takes needed tax dollars and resources from Selma.
When a group of black people protested for months in 1990 to ensure that their children weren’t tracked in inadequate and unequal classrooms and subjected to in-school segregation, almost all of the white children were pulled out of public schools for private or county schools. As one young white man said to me, “Now, no one is learning.”
It is seen in the united effort by some to keep industry from coming to Selma without losing the few businesses that are already here. Or their expressed effort to keep wages to no more than $8 per hour. Yet, because many black and white people view each other as enemies, we have not joined together for the benefit of all.
Therefore, in 2014, Dallas County was the poorest in the state and one of the poorest in the country. Selma remains engulfed with racial and class divisions that hinder the city’s progress. Selma, like most of the South, has never confronted years of racial violence and prejudice that keep the city from a healing path forward.
In 2015, Dallas County was named the most dangerous place to live in Alabama. This year on the day we commemorated Bloody Sunday there were two murders in Selma and have been five more since then.
It is not surprising that Dallas County was named the poorest and most dangerous county in Alabama in consecutive years. As violence increases, the economy suffers, and as the economy suffers, violence increases. We are in desperate need of help to stop this vicious, bloody cycle.
Although the poverty rate in Dallas County is nearly double the state rate, Dallas County receives less than 1 percent of grants in Alabama. However, I know from experience that we receive many more political leaders and foundations who come to Selma and learn our rich history and then leave us just as they found us: with great need and great opportunity. It is time for political leaders and foundations to do more than learn and leave. They must invest in Selma as Selma has invested in the world, enabling Selma to once again change the world.
The Battle of Selma may have ended but Selma is still battling. Selma is in need of truth and reconciliation. Selma is in need of you.
Ainka Jackson, Esq., is executive director of The Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth & Reconciliation at the Healing Waters Retreat Center. Follow @SelmaCNTR and @NCRP on Twitter.
In an upcoming blog post, she’ll discuss the Center’s current work in Selma and how foundations can support it.