A Tale of Two Selmas…

By Guest Columnist Mar 09, 2007

(www.sojournproject.com/) RaceWire brings you another moving I-Narrative about race–this time a stark reflection on a Selma march Theresa Calpotura re-enacted some years back that brought her face to face with what Senators Obama and Clinton, even after their visit to that Southern town this past Sunday, have yet to set a plan for. That is the persistent segregation and poverty that exists in America. The image of Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton walking in lock step with civil rights leaders in Selma, Alabama this past Sunday is still stuck in my mind. A little under 10 years ago, I took that same eerie walk along the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where a horde of Black civil rights marchers 40 years ago were met with a swarm of billy clubs, bullwhips, and tear gas. Remembering what I felt and witnessed during my high school’s 1999 trip to Selma—a town still deeply divided along economic and color lines—made me slow to appreciate the political grand-standing that took place there Sunday. We students slowly stalked that bridge, two abreast, and stopped at its apex. My history teacher then read an excerpt from John Lewis’ Walking With the Wind while we squeezed our eyes shut and imagined a sea of blue Alabama State troopers armed with weapons to mercilessly hurt, flood our march. We imagined being given a two-minute warning to turn back or be beaten. We tried to feel a fear so great that it would make anyone consider jumping the bridge and into water far below. We imagined what kind of courage it took to remain still while a wave of pure physical hatred came toward you. And we tried to comprehend the strength needed to resist inner and outer violence, even if our skulls were hit hard enough to fracture. But another important lesson came from seeing the Selma of 1999. Along our journey, we didn’t have to look far to see the evidence of the town’s painful racial legacy. In 1999, the majority of Blacks in Selma lived on one side of town, and the whites lived on the other. The races even appeared to have separate grocery stores. But what hurt me the most was the clear economic disparity of their living situations. Was this 1999 or 1965? In 1999, the mayor of Selma was still the same “former” segregationist who was mayor in 1965–70-year-old Joe Smitherman. He was the same mayor who worked to prevent the Blacks of Selma from voting in large numbers, and who referred to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “Martin Luther Coon.” Today, Selma’s heroes are those who devote their lives to improving a still segregated and economically distraught town. Joanne Bland, the director of the National Voting Rights Museum, is one of them. She was only 11 years old on the bridge that Sunday and watched as her hopes of a peaceful march were dashed by horrible images—like her sister’s bloodied face. I will never forget Ms. Bland, who marched us all around Selma and refused to sugar coat its problems. She wasn’t afraid to show us the ugly part of Selma, not only its now fashionable past. The one that politicians love to use to improve their own images and candidacy lately. The people who deserve attention in Selma are not the Clintons or Obamas. They are those historically nameless and faceless people I met over fried catfish at places like Lannie’s, a local diner, that used to function as a grassroots meeting place during the Voting Rights Movement. The ones who crossed that bridge and endangered themselves for our right to vote. More importantly, they are the ones who work to improve Selma today by showing us the Selma of today. They are the Joanne Blands. Their feet do the talking. Theresa Calpotura is an intern for the Applied Research Center’s Facing Race Conference 2007. A Bay Area native and Oberlin College graduate, she currently lives in Washington Heights, NY and performs, teaches and composes as a classical guitarist.