The day fades as we drive our VW camper over the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma. We’ve just left Montgomery, home of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr’s home church. My partner Tom and I are on a 5000-mile journey from Taos, NM, through the South to the Florida Keys and back, partly because this is the only region of the country I know little about. It is high time I learned. As we drive past green fields dotted with cows, past huge live oaks hung with moss, I think of a line of poet Gary Snyder’s: “Oh, America, I could almost love you again.” The bridge slides onto Broad Street, Selma, Alabama.
A full moon rises on this perfect April Friday night. The surface of the Alabama River glimmers below, dark and heavy, as it flows under the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Named for a Civil War Soldier, Senator, and KKK Grand Wizard, this bridge is an important site of memory now known for Civil Rights, not Civil War.
The date 1865 marked the end of the Civil War when Wilson’s Raiders came through and burned down most of the town. A century later, in 1965, John Lewis and 600 others approached the bridge. Twenty-five-year-old Lewis was the first to get his skull broken. The day became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and the Edmund Pettus Bridge is synonymous with the Civil Rights movement.
“I don’t understand it,” Lewis said. “I don’t understand how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and cannot send troops to Selma to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote.” And I didn’t understand it either, but like many people my age, my understanding of the Civil Rights movement was both integrated and obscured by the war in Vietnam and the simple fact that I’m a white westerner. The marchers were battered but unbowed. Two weeks later, with Martin Luther King beside him, the next long march to Montgomery succeeded after President Johnson sent in federal troops to protect the demonstrators. We had just spent an hour driving from Montgomery to Selma, but back then, marchers slept in fields during the five-day march.
Our 1830’s St. James Hotel, another of Selma’s stately brick buildings, right at the foot of the bridge, is almost totally vacant. We go out to take in the warm spring night and see what’s happening. As it turns out, nothing is. The hotel is the only thing open. It’s not about Covid so much, it’s about poverty, violence, and decay. The beautiful buildings are still mostly standing, but iron pillars are left chained together on the sidewalk, like a ghostly chain gang, so you can’t cart them off. Yet colorful murals are freshly painted along the sides of buildings, too, as if art equals optimism. Is this the germ of an idea containing hope? Is Civil Rights tourism a part of that hope?
Selma is the eighth most violent city in the country and the poorest town in Alabama. It is 80 percent, Black. The violence goes a long way back, including the fact that the town was a major confederate arsenal in 1865. Folks still dive into the Arkansas river to pull out the cannonballs the confederate army rolled into it so the Yankees wouldn’t get them.
The next morning Tom suggests that we have breakfast in the hotel. I tell him I refuse to stay in that expensive cellblock for breakfast, and he’s happy to get out on a bike ride anyway. The desk clerk thinks hard to come up with the name of even one local place nearby where I might go for breakfast. Maybe the Downtowner?
I am the lone diner at this down-in-the-mouth café, the walls covered with historic photographs of grand old architecture. Pouring more coffee, the waitress tells me that her children and grandchildren don’t have anything for entertainment anymore. “The bowling alley and the skating rink are gone,” she says, “There’s only softball.”
Afterwards, there’s Tom, right where I know he’ll be, riding his bike about Selma. After we stop at a coffee shop, I ask two white ladies with gray hair and tennis shoes how I can find the famous Brown church where the march was started.
The two look at me. “It’s two miles,” they say.
“That’s not so far,” I reply.
They continue: “We live here, and trust us, you don’t want to go there alone. We’ll drive you.”
They turn out to be sisters, Mae-Mae and Ellen. Like many others, their white-columned house is like a perfectly preserved museum from a time that doesn’t exist anymore. The sisters joke, and we are all laughing at the notion of the northerner tourist who they are showing about town. The first stop is Live Oak Cemetery.
Many Confederate flags flutter on the graves. Yesterday was Confederate Memorial Day. They tell me the canons all point north, so they’ll be ready for us next time.
Here is the tomb of U.S. Vice-President William Rufus King, son of Selma–no relation to Martin Luther. Then they set me up for the joke that follows. They tell me to circle the tomb three times and then knock on the door and say, “Mr. King, what are you doing in there? Then he will say, “Nothing.”
I do as I am told. They insist on taking a picture of me knocking on the metal door. As I do this, I am met with silence from within. “Told you he’d say nothing,” they say, laughing.
Jefferson Davis Memorial chair is back again where it belongs, too. It was taken and was finally recovered from New Orleans. (The kidnappers left a note threatening to use it as a toilet “since no one was using it anyway.” A group called White Lies Matter (not lives) took responsibility.
When we leave, Mae Mae mentions offhandedly that her husband is buried there, too. She says, “All those folks at the coffee shop came to his funeral–every last one of them. We’re friends,” she says of the Black family who owns it.
Later, I ask how long her husband’s been gone. “Three and a half years ago,” she says. “He was a pilot in Vietnam, carrying Agent Orange. He had COPD. The government never wants to admit those things.”
I think dark thoughts about the endless stupid wastefulness of war. And about human rights. And I wonder, as Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others did, too, how those issues are integrated and how we fight them, especially these days as social movements evolve.
Ellen tells me a story about her little grandson. They played army guys together with little green plastic soldiers. “Only we had Union and Confederate soldiers,” she says. “He goes to school one day and they are supposed to say the Pledge of Allegiance. He tells his teacher, ‘I can’t do that! That’s the enemy!’”
The teacher reports this to the mom, who reports back to the grandma, saying, “Mama, this is all your fault! You better fix this before 9:00 tomorrow!”
Ellen says, “history is…history.”
They drive me to the Brown Chapel, where the Civil Rights movement was born and where the injured were taken after that first march. A police car is supervising the repossession of someone’s car. I ask Ellen and Mae Mae if I can jump out and take a picture of the chapel. Sixty seconds later, I’m back. Ellen says, “If I told my husband where we were he’d kill me! We only stopped because there was a police car here.” But now it is gone.
I see a Black woman with little babies standing outside her door. My mind’s eye sees this as a Dorothea Lange’s famous depression-era photo. Apparently, this is not a safe neighborhood. “We hear gunshots all the time these days,” say the sisters. “My grandkids try to drown it out.”
Later, as we drive out of town, I stop back at the coffee shop. I tell the Black woman at the counter that Mae Mae and Ellen just took me on a tour of Selma, and I want to leave them a thank-you note.
She’s wearing a Covid mask, but even so, her face lights up. “I just love those two,” she says. Yet I wonder what tour she would have given me as she hands me an order pad to write a note on.
When I get back to Taos, there’s a letter from Mae Mae and Ellen. Ellen reports that she told her college granddaughter about meeting this tourist and giving her a tour. She reported her granddaughter’s response: “Nana, please tell me that y’all didn’t take her to William Rufus King’s grave.”
“I confessed that we did,” she said.
I think how we all learn slowly, perspective by perspective, one person at a time.