On Saturday morning, Henry Allen sat at a cafeteria table at Selma High School with a breakfast of eggs, sausage and biscuit. The room was filled with friends telling stories and people singing protest songs. When he attended the school, he wouldn’t have been allowed in.
In the 1960s, when Selma was becoming a symbol of the fight over voting rights, its school system was segregated.
“We were under Jim Crow law but we didn’t know it at the time,” said Allen, who marched in protest half a century ago. The school system is integrated now but the high school is completely black. Around 20% of the city is not. White parents, Allen said, send their kids to private schools.
This kind of tension – between the legacy of a civil rights revolution and the glaring inequalities of the present – coursed through many conversations this weekend in Selma, where thousands of activists, educators and visitors gathered to celebrate the 55th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when protesters were brutally beaten as they marched for equal voting rights.
In such conversations, voting issues were more pressing than usual. In a heated presidential primary, millions of Americans are getting ready for Super Tuesday. Several presidential candidates were in the city on Sunday, due to speak at events and march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a site of historical violence.
Rutha Harris, a member of the Freedom Singers, activists who led the civil rights movement through song, said she never expected to still be talking about voting rights 55 years after Bloody Sunday and the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act.
“I think it’s gotten better but we still have a lot to do,” said Harris, who has lost track of how many times she has returned to Selma from her home in Georgia. “They’re still messing with the vote.”
This year’s celebration came amid increased scrutiny over voter suppression tactics, such as states removing people from the voter rolls or closing polling places. Alabama has restrictive policies: people have to show a photo ID to vote and there is no early voting. People with felonies also face severe hurdles to regaining their voting rights.
Selma, the birthplace of voting rights as we know them, is grappling with such policies and with economic distress.
“Selma is stagnant, we can’t move forward,” said Jesse Marvin, of the unemployment and challenges in his hometown.
For him, fighting for civil rights was a family affair: he and his older siblings protested regularly, often landing in jail. And while his parents “didn’t get involved with anything to do with white folks”, his mom helped in church kitchens where activists gathered.
Reflecting on Selma and the election, Marvin said the state of politics and civil rights today was hard to stomach, especially given the history he witnessed and the rights for which he marched. He was carefully researching the candidates before going to vote.
At the high school cafeteria on Saturday, and throughout the weekend, conversation oscillated between the past and present – a narrative the people of Selma know well. But unlike the political debates, or the televised press conferences, the living memory of marching for, and receiving, civil rights seemed to underlie the fear and frustration.
Charles Mauldin, who marched as a 17 year old on Bloody Sunday, said the fact young people had come to listen to the stories gave him a sense of hope.
“As desperate as the political climate seems,” he said, “I feel very optimistic that young people will rise up like we did.”
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