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    by William Least Heat-Moon

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« Blue Highways: Uniontown & Demopolis, Alabama | Main | Blue Highways: Maplesville, Stanton and Plantersville, Alabama »

Blue Highways: Selma, Alabama

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWe drive with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) into Selma, Alabama where so much changed for America on March 7, 1965.  We will also leave with him in a little fear of arrest.  To see where this sea change in American civil rights occurred which led, forty-three years later, to the election of the first African-American President of the United States, click on the thumbnail of the map at right.  Leave a comment, if you'd like!

Book Quote(s)

LHM:  "Doesn't sound like much has changed.

White man named Ray:  "Okay, sonny-jim.   I'll tell you about change....Change ruined this town.  Bar I just come from, three of them sittin' in there big as sin.  Fifteen years ago you couldna hired a nigger to go in there.  You talk about change, and I say to you, 'Go to hell.'

"....That whole march was a TV stunt.  Niggers knew what would happen here.  That's why they came.  Hardly none of them lived here.  They knew the sheriff had himself a reputation.  They picked him, not the town.  Well, they got what they were lookin' for.  I'm sick of goin' over and over it.

"I'm tellin' you sickin' dogs and poundin' the niggers was a lack of ignorance.  We shoulda paid them no mind.  Then the cameras woulda stayed in the bags.  That's what ruined us - photographers and reporters.  Like with the Klan.  Some Grand Genie comes crawlin' outa his rotten stump, and there go the cameras and the tongue-cluckin' over the poor South....I'm sick of talkin' about it."

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 3

LHM: "I'm trying to find out if things have changed since the march.

James Walker: "Tell you in three words.  Aint nothin' changed.

Charles Davis:  "Made both marches.  People be sayin' we wasted our time, but things are better.  Least a little bit.

"....But lotta times it's like always.  Take yesterday.  I put a quarter in a sodapop machine at the gas station.  Money keeps comin' down.  Two honkies sit watchin'.  I ask if the machine was broke, and one honker says it takes thirty cents now.  Machine says twenty-five on it.  Then he says, 'Wondered how long fore you figured it out.'  He couldn't tell me they changed it.  I said, 'Don't take long to figure you.' and walked off.  Other honker says, 'Want me to whup the nigger?'  Five years ago I'da fought him.  Now I try to ignore it.  But hey, I used to follow Malcom X."

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 4

Downtown Selma, Alabama. Photo by Carol McKinney Highsmith and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.Selma, Alabama

In March, 1965, I was not even a year and a half old.  So I was quite unconscious of the earthquake in the social and political landscape shaking around me.

In March, 1965, a bunch of marchers from Selma and around the country tried to cross a bridge as they commenced a 50 mile or so march to the state capital of Montgomery.  At the far end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by police on foot with clubs and tear gas, and mounted police with clubs.  The repulsing of the march became the United States' Bloody Sunday, and not only did it galvanize the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, but it also outraged millions of ordinary Americans who up to that point had ignored the fact that a significant minority of Americans were being denied their basic rights.  After Selma, when peaceful marchers were gassed, clubbed into submission and mowed down by horses, nobody could ignore the hypocrisy of the United States of America's ideals, and its actions and inactions toward its black citizens.

What happened that day sounds terrifying.  This is an excerpt of an interview with a woman who participated in that march.

"'The horses…were more humane than the troopers; they stepped over fallen victims,’ Amelia Boynton later recalled. ‘As I stepped aside from a troopers club, I felt a blow on my arm…Another blow by a trooper, as I was gasping for breath, knocked me to the ground and there I lay, unconscious…’."

From Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama posted on Jeremy

When LHM travels through Selma, looking to learn if anything had changed, he finds little to encourage him.  Some white residents are clearly sick of discussing what had happened just little over a decade before.  Some black residents are convinced that nothing had changed, and that the Civil Rights Movement had petered out and died.  LHM is told that even if they could frequent establishments where whites go, most black residents wouldn't want to frequent them.  He is bluntly warned by James Walker and Charles Davis, two black men that he interviews in a black section of town, that the cops will target him as a drug dealer just for talking with them, and he leaves Selma with some fear that the police will arrest him as he heads out of town.  Clearly, despite political changes, social change comes slowly and the divides remain strong.

I believe that, despite the divides that still exist in America today, the Civil Rights Movement caused a huge upheaval in American politics in society that is still growing.  It unleashed political forces that led to more educational opportunities not only for blacks but for other minorities as well.  Armed with education, more minorities began to make inroads into politics and business.  We still see ghettos, incredible poverty among blacks and latinos, and the current political backlash.  But whatever you think about the state of our country today, the fact is that without the Civil Rights Movement, a young Barack Obama would have never become president of the United States.  We are still on the path, I believe, toward making America's true ideals of liberty and equality for all a reality - but we're getting there despite the political pendulum swings.

Back to me.  Some 33 years after The U.S. Bloody Sunday, I stood at a military and police barricade in Portadown, Northern Ireland.  Thousands of Unionist Orangemen had marched up and were demanding that their right to march through the Catholic area of the city on their traditional route be honored.  Inside, residents of the neighborhood were preparing to sit on the ground and engage in tactics of non-violence to oppose the police and the marchers in case the British government changed its mind at the last minute and agreed to let the marchers through.  Black police helicopters circled overhead, and both police and British soldiers had their weapons at ready - who they would use them against was anyone's guess.  The tension was extremely high, but amazingly, both sides remained non-violent, and after presenting their written protest, the Unionist marchers took an alternative route to the church where they held speeches and rallies.

I may not have been aware of what happened in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 due to my age.  But what happened there affected me decades later, as I watched what appeared to be two intractable foes in Northern Ireland both use language and tactics that were first used by Gandhi in India, and refined by Martin Luther King, Jr. and SNCC in the Civil Rights Movement.  What happened in Selma not only had repercussions across time, but across the globe.  It brought out the worst but also the best in America, and I have to believe that the world is better for it.  Elections come and go, the pendulum swings from the political right to the political left, but the events in Selma took America one step closer to meeting the democratic ideals it set for itself in its Constitution.

If you want to know more about Selma

City of Selma and Dallas County
Concordia College of Selma
Jeremy Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama
Selma city website
Selma Daily Photo (blog)
Selma Times-Journal (newspaper)
Selma to Montgomery marches - National Historic Road
StoryCorps: Selma
Wikipedia: Selma
Wikipedia: Selma to Montgomery marches

Next up: Uniontown and Demopolis, Alabama

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Reader Comments (1)

So glad to see you still fighting the good fight! Excellent~~

November 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErik France

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