Writer and former New York Times reporter Gay Talese took a semicentennial sentimental journey to revisit Selma, AL and reported what he found fifty years after "Bloody Sunday." The reality of race relations in the USA is dismal and discouraging; the color line is still as rigid today as it was earlier in our history. If this is (fair & balanced) melancholia, so be it.
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Assignment America: Selma
By Gay Talese
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
In downtown Selma last week, as I retraced the route I had taken 50 years ago while following hundreds of civil rights marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and onto a highway blocked by hostile white lawmen who would soon create “Bloody Sunday,” my attention was drawn to the vigorous activities of a middle-aged black man who was holding a shovel and digging holes in the dirt between the curb and sidewalk of Broad Street, which leads to the bridge. Then he began planting pansies, azalea bushes and small juniper trees that he hauled from the back of a 1997 Ford truck parked nearby that belongs to Steavie’s Landscape Design and Construction company.
“I’m not Steavie,” he said after I had watched him for a while, and finally approached with what he might have assumed were troublesome questions. Security agents and other out-of-town suits had been wandering around the area in preparation for President Obama’s arrival this weekend for the Bridge Crossing Jubilee. But the landscaper probably decided that I was too old to cause much trouble (I think of myself as a youthful 83); and so he relaxed, and, while leaning on his shovel and extending an ungloved hand, he said, “I’m Steavie’s brother.”
He explained that he and a few of his friends were assisting Steavie in a city-sponsored endeavor to beautify Selma’s downtown area. “We only had eight days to do the job,” he said, conceding that lining the sidewalks with flowers and bushes in a city of limited resources and many vacant storefronts was a lot to ask of Steavie’s landscaping enterprise.
During my four-block stroll along Broad Street from City Hall down to the bridge ramp, I counted 15 unoccupied locations.
Steavie’s brother was 59, stood 5-foot-7 and was born in Selma. He was wearing a blue baseball cap with “Obama” printed above the visor, and under his plaid flannel jacket he had on a gray hoodie, bluejeans and brown leather boots. As he spoke, he exhibited a broad smile that added length to the thin mustache on his upper lip.
“I’m Ricky Brown,” he finally said, as if ready to be candid. “When Bloody Sunday happened, I was 9. My mother was too frightened to let me join the march, although my older sister, who was 15, was allowed to go. When the state troopers and Sheriff Jim Clark’s posse began beating everybody up near the bridge, I didn’t hear the noise because we lived back in the Carver projects across from Brown Chapel, where Dr. King had preached and the march had started out.
“But later, I heard my sister come running home, screaming because she’d been attacked by tear gas, and then all of Clark’s posse came barging through our area hitting people with clubs, knocking down everybody they could reach.
"I was watching from the second floor of where we lived, and I had this BB gun and I’m shooting at the posse’s horses. I think I got off nine shots, and hit lots of horses in the ass. I’m standing between two of my friends at the window while I’m shooting down, and then one of the posse men sees me and yells to another posse man, ‘Hey, those nigger kids are shooting my horse with a BB gun.’ ‘Which one?’ the other guy asks. ‘Hell, I don’t know. Them niggers all look alike.’ ”
From there, it’s been a long journey that took Mr. Brown to Detroit, where he got a job working at a Chevrolet gear and axle plant until management decided that robots could do the job better, and then a longtime position as a unionized roofer. Now he’s back in Selma. “I hope that the planting we did around here this week makes things seem a little more attractive to most Jubilee visitors like you,” he said.
I agreed that the landscaping helped but told him that I was not really a Jubilee visitor. I had been in Selma dozens of times, dating back to 1950, during my sophomore year as a journalism student at the University of Alabama. I was there as one of the reporters for The New York Times in 1965, covering Bloody Sunday and its aftermath, listening to angry whites spit racial epithets at the television at the Selma Country Club and hanging out with Sheriff Clark at his apartment over the jail, where I counted out his 88 size 17/34 shirts.
I returned to Selma again in 1990 to report on the 25th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the passage of the Voting Rights Act — complete with machine-blown smoke along the bridge to simulate the tear gas inhaled in 1965 by the demonstrators, and tape-recorded sounds of human suffering evoking the beatings by Sheriff Clark and his fellow lawmen. And I’ve come back again to a place it seems, like Ricky Brown, none of us can quite escape.
Selma, perched on a high bluff on the north bank of the Alabama River, takes its name from Ossian’s “The Song of Selma,” which was said to be an 18th-century translation of an epic cycle of Scottish poems from the early Dark Ages but was in fact a lumpy stew of legend and folklore that came to be viewed instead as a literary fraud. And Selma today is a place expected to carry perhaps more symbolic weight than any small city can bear.
Without doubt, civil rights history — American history — was made here. But I grew up in Ocean City, NJ, a politically and socially conservative island resort founded during the 1800s by Methodist ministers. Although black students attended school with whites in my hometown, it was otherwise a largely segregated community. At the boardwalk’s Village Theater, black students and blacks of all ages sat by themselves in the balcony while whites gathered below in the orchestra. I recall seeing groups of white-sheeted Klansmen holding meetings occasionally on our campgrounds, within a few blocks of the business district, where my Italian-born Catholic father owned and operated a tailor shop. When I first became part of the University of Alabama’s all-white campus in 1949, I saw nothing so different from what I had observed during my New Jersey boyhood.
In June of 1963, as a reporter at The Times, I had an interview in New York with Alabama’s Governor George C. Wallace, who had flown in to appear on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He stayed in a large suite at the Pierre hotel on Fifth Avenue, where our talk took place.
The interview had been going well for the first 10 minutes, but then Governor Wallace suddenly rose from his chair, took me by the arm, and led me to one of the windows overlooking Central Park and the row of expensive buildings that line Fifth Avenue.
“Here we have the citadel of hypocrisy in America,” he said, pointing down to the street and declaring that hardly any black people, even those who could afford it, could hope to share living space with whites in this area, or in surrounding areas, because of the longstanding, if unacknowledged, practices of real estate segregation in New York and other Northern cities.
And still, he went on, they come down to the South and rant about equal rights!
I quoted him at length in the next day’s paper, but I left the interview without mentioning to Governor Wallace that I myself had an apartment a few blocks away from the Pierre — and I did not have then, nor do I have to this day, an African-American neighbor on my block.
Similarly, Selma’s history defies neat story lines. In 1990, I attended the interracial wedding of a 38-year-old blue-eyed, blond woman named Betty Ramsey to a 51-year-old black Selma man named Randall Miller, who owns a thriving funeral service catering overwhelmingly to blacks. He also served at the time as Selma’s director of personnel under the town’s enduring white mayor, Joseph T. Smitherman, who held that title in 1965 and whose simple and sympathetic manner persuaded a number of black voters to help maintain him in office for 35 years.
Randall and Betty Miller live in a brick house with eight rooms and a spacious patio that is surrounded by four neatly trimmed acres of grassy land resembling the fairway of a golf course. He used to play golf regularly, but he no longer does because of the demands of his mortuary business, one of the few enterprises in a depressed economy that remain vibrant. In character with rich individuals no matter if they are black or white, he admits with reluctance to being a millionaire.
He is also one of the most socially mobile black men in Selma. He is on good terms with such local politicians as George P. Evans, the black mayor who replaced the black mayor who replaced Joe Smitherman, who died in 2005. He is friendly as well with such white establishment figures as the 82-year-old Joseph Knight, whose grandfather was Selma’s mayor during the Civil War; the mansion-owning banker Catesby Jones, whose great-grandfather was a celebrated Confederate naval officer; the lawyer Leopold Blum Babin, who as a Jew laments the departure of so many leading Jewish merchants from Selma (the local synagogue has long lacked a full-time rabbi); and the president of the Selma and Dallas County Center for Commerce, Wayne Vardaman, who wishes the town knew how to improve its image, which seems now eternally tethered to the events of 1965.
“Memphis doesn’t celebrate the shooting” of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Vardaman said, “but Selma celebrates Bloody Sunday.”
It’s a common refrain in a place where people want to move forward but often don’t know how. The current Dallas County sheriff, Harris Huffman, is a personable 61-year-old white officer with gray hair and a goatee. He worries that too many residents, white and black, remain stuck in the past. “I treat people the way I want to be treated,” he said. But he added, “You’ve got some people in Selma who live in the 1960s, and you’ve got some that live in the 1860s.”
Even in 2015, it can be hard to tell what year we’re in. The Selma Country Club, where I watched the members hiss at the television in 1965, still has no black members. Selma High School, about a third white during the 25th anniversary, is now all black and other students of color. There’s a poster for the film “Selma” on display in the reception room outside the principal’s office, but Selma’s Walton Theater is closed.
Since the film presented many scenic views of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, some in bloody splendor and some in a serene repose worthy of a tourist brochure, the town has lately been invaded by masses of camera-carrying narcissists who spend much time on the bridge taking selfies. Their numbers will surely soar this weekend as the president and perhaps thousands of out-of-town visitors, black and white, jam every square yard of highway space for a chance to re-experience history.
But what you see in Selma, like most places in America, is a process still painfully working itself out. Selma’s most conspicuous lightning rod is Rose Sanders, a Harvard-educated lawyer, who has long been the face of the town’s civil rights movement as it still exists.
Most whites in Selma accused her of destroying the public school system and instigating white flight into private schools because of a 1990s campaign she led that included sit-ins at Selma High School and boycotts of white businesses after the white-dominated school board refused to rehire the district’s first black superintendent. A result was debate and acrimony among parents of both races, and the ill feeling has continued for decades without a truce.
“You can’t blame me for white flight,” Ms. Sanders said. “Blame it on the racists.” She has tried to rid herself of her “slave name” in favor of Faya Rose Touré, and recently she has devoted much time at the piano helping a young African-American musical group rehearse for a concert to be performed in the presence of President Obama.
It’s hard to look at Selma and not wish for more. The population, 28,400 and roughly half black in 1960, is now just under 20,000 and 80 percent black. The unemployment rate is over 10 percent, almost double the state average. The backdrop for the Jubilee this year, with the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act after a 2013 United States Supreme Court ruling, in some ways could not be more bleak.
And still, life on the ground moves forward and backward in its own ways. The Millers look back in wonder on the world even 25 years ago, when Betty felt that neither white nor black women would accept her and Randall found himself thinking of Emmett Till, “whom they beat and took out an eye and threw in the Tallahatchie River because he had a reckless eyeball.” Somehow, they’ve prospered nonetheless.
After our talk, we toured the patio and the grounds around their property. There was a photographer on hand, and he took a number of photographs that I hope to have printed and presented to them as a silver anniversary gift.
In a few of the photos, Randall had his arms around Betty and was gently kissing her. For a moment, he stopped to reflect.
“You know,” he said, “if I was doing this to a white woman around here about 50 years ago, I might have been lynched.” Ω
[Gay Talese, a New York Times reporter from 1956 to 1965, is the author of 12 books and has written for The New Yorker, Esquire and other magazines. He was one of the reporters for The Times who covered the events in Selma in 1965. Talese received a BA (journalism) from the University of Alabama.]
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