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Selma's message on civil rights 50 years later (+video)

As President Obama prepares to visit Selma five decades after 'Bloody Sunday,' how the civil rights struggle has – and hasn't – changed an epicenter of the movement.

It begins with one wavering voice, then two, then many, until a groundswell of song rises to the honey-colored rafters of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, filling the sanctuary with the faith and conviction that is the rhythm of survival here in Selma, Ala. 

The Rev. Frederick Reese, age 85, walks slowly across the stage and takes his seat without fanfare. Only his royal blue vestments, trimmed in gold, hint at his importance within this church and community. He pats a weathered hand against his knee, keeping time with the music as he smiles benevolently at his flock.

Such is the timbre of life in this city of strife and triumph, where freedom fighters such as Dr. Reese are living martyrs in a civil rights struggle that began long before the first drop of blood spilled onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge and remains unfinished today. 

Fifty years ago, the nation watched in horror as grainy images flickered across their television screens – state troopers and local law enforcement wielding billy clubs as they first tried to stop, then attacked, the hundreds of black marchers.

Reese was on the bridge that day, as were many in his congregation. And now, as then, they know that all eyes are on Selma. Visitors and dignitaries, including President Obama, will be in town March 7-8 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” The recent release of the movie “Selma” will bring even more tourists. 

The attention is good, locals say. It’s important for people to know the past, to see the progress, to commit to a brighter future. But when pressed, they admit that life beneath a razor-sharp microscope is sometimes overwhelming. 

Though half a century has passed since that seminal moment in civil rights history, Selma in many ways remains a city of dreams unfulfilled. True, a key battle was won with the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the abolishment of Jim Crow. True, Selma now has black leaders in positions of power, including the mayor, police chief, district attorney, six out of eight city council members, and four out of five school board members. True, Selma’s black population is quick to speak out against injustices – and has overcome innumerable ones.

But the journey toward equality is still a long march. Black children here are more likely to grow up in poverty, less likely to graduate, less likely to attend college, and less likely to become homeowners. Sections of Selma remain sharply segregated, partly because of white flight and partly by choice. Jobs are scarce, and even harder to obtain for those who lack adequate education and skills. 

Selma is a reflection, both good and bad, of life in Alabama’s rural Black Belt, where poverty remains entrenched. Selma has both been lifted by and bears the burden of its history. As one of the main cities in this agricultural area, many expect it to forge a renaissance and lead some of the South’s poorest counties back to prosperity while providing a glimmer of hope to an increasingly racially polarized nation.

Alvin Shaw, a deacon of the Ebenezer Church, knows this, and on a recent Sunday, as he steps to the podium to pray, he makes sure that everyone in this room leaves with a ray of light. 

He reminds them of the days when they worshiped in a little wooden church on the corner, grateful to have fans to stave off the brutal summer heat. He reminds them of their old, simple homes and how the gaps in the wood plank floors were so wide that one could see dirt – and the occasional dog or chicken – beneath the house.

Mr. Shaw leads the congregation in a prayer for healing. They give thanks for blessings received and pray for blessings to come.

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A block away, Chicago native Charles Mitchell is hoping for some benevolence of his own. His family moved to Selma when he was 10, and he graduated from Selma High School in 1996. 

It seems as if things used to be better in Selma, Mr. Mitchell says. There were plenty of jobs, and a person willing to work hard could make a good living. A lot of plants have shut down, and technology has forced layoffs at others.

Mitchell feels fortunate to have a job he likes, working in the maintenance department at Selma University. But his monthly paycheck never seems to stretch to the end of the month, so he supplements his income by working on cars for his neighbors, whether that means changing spark plugs or washing, waxing, and detailing. He is looking for a second job that pays more than he makes as a shade-tree mechanic, but jobs aren’t easy to find.

The search for viable employment has led Selma into a perilous spiral. After hitting a peak population of 28,400 people in 1960, the city’s population declined significantly. The US Census Bureau reported 20,756 residents in 2010, with a population that is 80.3 percent black and 18 percent white.

Countywide, the population peaked in 1960 at 56,667 people, dropping to 43,820 in 2010, with a population that is 69.4 percent black and 29.1 percent white. 

For many, Selma is the face of the Alabama Black Belt, named for the fertile, black soil and traditionally defined as a 17-county region stretching across the south-central portion of the state. It is part of the larger Southern Black Belt, which extends from Maryland to Texas, but most commonly refers to the Deep South – Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana.

Highway 80, the route the marchers took from Selma to Montgomery two weeks after Bloody Sunday, is largely agricultural, with the occasional abandoned store or cattle pasture dotting the landscape. The outskirts of town are dominated by smokestacks and the gray, featureless faces of industrial stalwarts such as International Paper, with older, working-class neighborhoods interspersed. 

In the area where Mitchell lives, known colloquially as Smoky City, wooden houses tilt precariously on their foundations and rusty tin roofs provide only modest protection from the elements. Clothes dry on lines. People peer from behind blanketed windows, unaccustomed to strangers in this close-knit place. As day fades to dusk, they gather on their porches. 

The retail section of Selma is a jumble of strip malls, fast-food restaurants, and convenience stores, with one Wal-Mart, and a small mall anchored by Belk and Goody’s. If you want to see the movie “Selma,” you will have to drive 50 miles to Montgomery; the city itself doesn’t have a theater. 

The median household income in Selma from 2009 to 2013 was $22,478 – nearly half that of the state – with 41.9 percent of people in the city living below the poverty level. Dallas County, of which Selma is the seat, ranks as the poorest county in the Black Belt, with 36.8 percent of residents living below poverty level. Nearby Perry, Wilcox, and Sumter counties follow closely behind. 

But there is a bright spot: Unemployment rates throughout Alabama have continued to decline after peaking in 2009. Statewide unemployment in December hovered at 5.3 percent, and unemployment in Dallas and Lowndes counties has dropped to 10.1 percent. 

Yet beneath the aesthetic bleakness and grim statistics, there is a growing push for economic innovation and revitalization. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of job creation and poverty eradication is alive in Selma and the Black Belt, even if it is a “dream deferred.”

Education is critical to economic development, says Wayne Vardaman, executive director of the Selma & Dallas County Economic Development Authority. While Selma has several large industries, employers say there is a dearth of candidates with the skills needed to perform the work.  

To help counter this, a team goes into the local schools once a month to teach job-searching skills. They hold job fairs where they talk to students about the requirements for different positions and what they pay. They push career tech classes for high-schoolers. 

And they keep a close eye on the Selma City Schools system, which was taken over last year by the Alabama State Department of Education after a months-long investigation into allegations of academic issues, poor student performance, shoddy record keeping, and sexual misconduct. 

The challenges are formidable, but here, too, the dream remains alive. 

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It is an ordinary Thursday night, and traffic clogs the quaint neighborhood surrounding Byrd First Class Early Learning Center. Parents double-park along the narrow, tree-lined streets. The occasion? The preschoolers are making valentines, and their parents have been invited to participate. 

Last year, the elementary school was in danger of closing after nearly a century of service. As Selma’s population dipped, so did enrollment, leaving Byrd with empty classrooms and less than 100 students.

State-appointed Superintendent Larry DiChiara quickly implemented new rules. One move was to restructure the district’s prekindergarten program. He moved Byrd’s students to Knox Elementary and sent the district’s pre-K children to Byrd, hiring additional teachers with the $750,000 in Title I funding that he managed to recover. Then he partnered with Head Start to begin offering classes for 3-year-olds.

Because of strict pupil-teacher ratios and limited space, most school systems have long waiting lists for pre-K classes, and Selma was no exception. Now, it has plenty of room. The district’s program has grown from 120 children to 255, and Dr. DiChiara hopes to eventually enroll 400. 

Such early intervention is considered critical in poor areas. Children who grow up in high-poverty homes are less likely to have books or be exposed to a variety of language and reading materials during their most critical development stage, from birth to age 4. 

“We know that children from families of poverty struggle more than others in single-parent families,” says Carolyn Keasal, Byrd’s principal. “The mother doesn’t always have time to spend with them, and along with poverty comes great deficits. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Studies also show that children perform better in school when their parents are actively involved, and that’s why Dr. Keasal and her staff are wearing straw hats tonight, sitting cross-legged on the floor, helping the children with their Valentine’s Day projects. 

Keasal has found that monthly events like this draw 60 to 80 parents to the school, while parent-teacher meetings are often ignored. It’s all part of a larger goal: improving test scores and graduation rates and, ultimately, the quality of life in the Black Belt. 

Based upon statistics gathered in a 2011 study by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism group, there is much room for improvement. The organization used federal education data culled from the 2009-10 school year, and the results were stark. 

The Selma City Schools district served 4,140 students, 97 percent of whom were black and 81 percent of whom qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. Only 4 percent of students were enrolled in gifted programs and only 3 percent took at least one of three available Advanced Placement classes. At Selma High School, which was 100 percent black, only 6 percent of students were enrolled in advanced math or physics, and only 9 percent took chemistry. Twenty percent of the high school’s teachers were in their first or second year of teaching. 

Southside High School, in Dallas County, reported 98 percent African-American enrollment, with 94 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch. Only 13 percent of students were enrolled in advanced math, 9 percent took chemistry, and 5 percent took physics. No Advanced Placement classes were reported. And 48 percent of the teachers were in their first or second year of teaching. 

Selma High reported a graduation rate of 67 percent in 2013, according to the Alabama State Department of Education. Southside High School graduated 86 percent of its students.

One of the first things DiChiara noticed when he was appointed acting superintendent of city schools was the low morale among students and faculty. So he borrowed a play from football legend Paul “Bear” Bryant, the late coach of the University of Alabama: He created a standard of excellence – a rigid set of expectations designed to foster pride and improve performance. 

On game days, athletes are expected to wear coats and ties to school. They go to the elementary schools and open car doors for parents dropping off children, and they make sure to say a few encouraging words to the kids, who look up to them. 

Parents say the small things are producing big results, but they worry the school system will lapse into the old ways as soon as the state leaves, which could be within the next six months. DiChiara is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“If they can feel it, taste it, and do it long enough, I’m hoping they will insist on continuing to do this from now on,” he says. “There’s nothing in this town that would prevent it from being successful. There’s nothing standing in the way.”  

Between the efforts to improve the school system, the relentless recruiting in the economic development office, and the zeal of a handful of optimists, success may not be as far away as it seems.

A new business incubator in Selma, Arsenal Place Accelerator, launched downtown a year ago, and since its inception, it has drawn several entrepreneurs, from a cookie-maker to a company that sells scentless beauty products for female hunters. 

So far, five start-ups are participating, but acting president Dane Shaw says he intends to add several more by the end of this year. Eventually, when the model is perfected, he hopes to launch satellite offices throughout the Black Belt. 

“We just build,” Mr. Shaw says. “We don’t have a poverty mind-set. There’s an incredible amount of talent in Selma, and people are wanting to move Selma forward. There’s no quit in Selma.”

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Still, it’s a complex juxtaposition in this riverside town where the victories of the civil rights movement are sometimes overshadowed by the realities of the present. 

Selma has a morale problem, admits the Rev. James Perkins Jr., who unseated the city’s 36-year mayor in 2000, becoming Selma’s first African-American to hold the position. The current mayor, George Patrick Evans, is also black. Both elections were victories for the ongoing civil rights movement, but it takes more than titles to move a city forward. 

Mr. Perkins believed he had the answers, and he quickly established job programs and community outreach initiatives that he says were showing signs of success. But many of those programs have been dismantled under the current administration, Perkins says. Mayor Evans did not respond to requests for an interview. 

The path to improvement is change, Perkins contends, and he believes Selma is poised to reconsider its destiny.

Yet the city does face an unusual challenge: overcoming the psychology of being the epicenter of one of the most painful periods in American history, particularly when many of the people who clashed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge are still alive. After the cameras stopped filming and the dignitaries and activists went home, Selma was faced with an uncomfortable truth – the laws changed, but hearts did not. 

“As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March to Montgomery, Selma is still recovering from being ground zero,” Perkins says. “Because of this paradigm, Selma has done more for the world than for Selma.”

But the Black Belt’s well-publicized problems – high poverty, struggling schools, eroding populations, and scarce jobs – are the same problems other cities face as post-civil rights America redefines itself, says Cynthia Fleming, professor emerita at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and author of “In the Shadow of Selma,” which chronicles Wilcox County’s civil rights movement. 

During her research, she spent hours poring over tax records, and she was struck by the realization that many of the Black Belt’s most impoverished families can trace their lineage directly back to slavery, and some of the wealthiest families can trace their lineage back to slave ownership. 

“How do you change that?” Ms. Fleming asks. “Simply changing the laws won’t change their fate. There’s got to be something bigger.”

Many experts believe that the Black Belt will never move forward unless it confronts – and accepts – its past. That’s why the ninth annual Jubilee Film Festival, held in conjunction with the Bloody Sunday commemoration, is trying something different this year. Instead of just showing civil rights movement films in Selma, the festival will also travel to other Black Belt communities.

“We try to share the kind of films we think everyone needs to see,” says festival codirector Scott Muhammad of Tuskegee, Ala. “Part of the power of the 1965 movement was the realization that people can really change their conditions. We want to help spur people into action.”

After watching the recent events in Ferguson, Mo., Mr. Muhammad sees signs of hope – not just for Ferguson, Selma, or the Black Belt, but for the nation. “People are waking up,” he says. “People are standing up. I think everybody senses that the writing is on the wall. We have an untenable situation, and people are moving on it.”

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A growing mantra has become “Black lives matter,” and back at Ebenezer Church, Reese is doing his best to make sure his congregation’s young people not only hear the words but believe them. The phrase is displayed on the church sign, which is usually reserved for event announcements.

As a teacher during the civil rights movement, he risked his profession to lead his colleagues – revered members of the black community – to march to the courthouse and demand the right to vote. It did not matter that Sheriff Jim Clark met them on the front steps, telling them to leave and using his billy club to make his point. Their point had been made as well, and it galvanized the young people who looked up to them. 

Recently, Reese sat in his church office, reflecting on the battles waged and won over the past 50 years. Almost every wall is lined with photos taken during the March to Montgomery and other highlights of the struggle he is still passionate about today. 

“Blacks had to really look forward to equalize opportunities,” he says. “Some denials had to come so that all people might participate in the political process that ruled their lives.”

He never feared what would happen to him, but he understood others who were too afraid to speak out, so he spoke out for them. 

“When I look back over where we were and where we are now, I am thankful we have come so very far,” Reese says. “People who do not live here do not grasp all the success Selma has seen. But we have not reached the pinnacle. I’ll always remain a fighter.”

He grins broadly. “We have to move forward,” he says. “If no one moves but you, then you keep moving until you’ve reached your goal of success for all people.”

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