From Alabama pews, a wary look at war

It's a damp Saturday afternoon in Selma, Ala., and the women at Brown Chapel AME Church are getting ready for tomorrow's first-communion service. Padding softly around the dark wooden pews, they rummage for the wine, and carefully lay a series of pristine white cloths over the altar.

This is a place with first-hand knowledge of conflict and suffering. It was fewer than 40 years ago that Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders met in Brown Chapel to plan the voting-rights marches. Just a few blocks away stands the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where some 600 marchers were violently beaten by state troopers on "Bloody Sunday" in 1965.

Yet despite this community's battles in the name of freedom - or, perhaps, because of them - many here are deeply opposed to a US invasion of Iraq.

"I don't want them to go," says Annie Cook, flatly, unfolding the altar cloths. It's not that she doesn't appreciate the sacrifices made by the men and women in the military: "If they need to go, I'll be behind them 100 percent," she stresses. But she and others here don't see a pressing need for war, given all the challenges at home.

Like other towns throughout the dark-soiled Black Belt, where cotton was once king, Selma has been struggling in recent years, and Ms. Cook is dismayed by the estimated $90 billion cost of a conflagration: "Just think what you could do with that money here." Nor does she embrace the argument that war might help boost the economy: "Who wants the economy boosted that way?"

Most of all, she believes that the burden of war will fall disproportionately on poor, minority communities like hers, which tend to have high rates of military service, yet whose problems are often overlooked. Her husband served in the first Gulf War and in Vietnam - when, she says pointedly, African-Americans were still denied many civil rights at home. "He was off fighting for somebody else's rights - and we didn't have ours," she says. "It was hard."

The lingering racial divide

Of all the demographic divides emerging in America over the question of war, the most striking may be the racial split. According to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Zogby poll, just 23 percent of African-Americans support a war with Iraq, compared with 62 percent of whites.

Part of this gap may be political: African-Americans tend to be strongly Democratic, and most are squarely in the party's left wing, where opposition to war has been greatest. Not surprisingly, many here don't hold high opinions of President Bush - though their disappointment often comes with head-shaking resignation. "He has his faults, and he has his good points, bless his heart," says Hallie Perry, a member of Brown Chapel, whose gray hair has a soft lavender tint. "But he just doesn't understand the poor man's plight."

Yet in many ways, this community's reluctance to go to war is rooted in something much deeper than partisan politics.

Like the rest of the country, people in Selma were shaken by the attacks of 9/11 - and Brown Chapel saw an increase in attendance for weeks, says the Rev. James Jackson, the pastor here.

But in a place where memories of tear gas and cattle prods linger, the sudden display of hatred also had less power to shock. And the tradition of non-violent resistance remains a powerful force in the minds of many.

"We know something about terrorism," says the Reverend Jackson, simply. A student in Selma during the voting rights marches, he vividly remembers the fear of being attacked while walking from school to church. "We must not forget the lessons of 9/11," and indeed, he says, there are times when military action may be necessary. But ultimately, "real peace does not come from war."

Money and morale

Not far from Brown Chapel, the mood at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church is much the same. The church is currently undergoing repairs, so services are held in a nearby shopping mall, next door to a Dollar Store and a laundromat. But that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of this congregation, where women wear brightly colored hats and startled newcomers are asked to stand up and introduce themselves.

The church is notable for a number of reasons: Its pastor is the Rev. F.D. Reese, a legendary figure in these parts, who first invited Dr. King to Selma. And James Perkins, Selma's first African-American mayor, elected in 2000, is a member.

In his official capacity, Mayor Perkins has avoided taking a position on the war. But he's up front about the impact it could have on his town. Not only are there families here who would have members serving on the frontlines - and "it only takes one in a community this size" to have an effect, he says - but he's concerned war would also "slow down the economy," and "put a drain on morale."

The town faces serious economic challenges as it is: The entire Black Belt region has endured double-digit unemployment for the past 30 years, says Perkins, and since Selma relies on sales taxes for 70 percent of its revenue, it's especially vulnerable to economic downturns. Many of the town's historic buildings have fallen into disrepair.

There are signs that crime is on the rise as well. Several members of Brown Chapel have had their homes broken into, says Reverend Jackson. And at the service, after he asks the congregation to remember "those whose families have been affected by going off to war," a woman stands up and asks that they pray for a church member whose grandson was shot and killed here.

Of course, not everyone in Selma is opposed to war. Certain members of the younger generation seem more open to the idea. Thomas Wilson, a firefighter attending services at Brown Chapel, says that if Saddam Hussein "has what they say he has, then we might as well go ahead."

"Sometimes it has to be done," agrees Andrew Sewell, a special-ed teacher and basketball coach.

For D.C., a distant sacrifice?

But the opponents of military action far outnumber the supporters. Many here question the president's motives for war. There's some suspicion that perhaps it's all about oil, or that Mr. Bush is simply trying to finish the job his father started.

Above all, many wonder whether those in the administration calling for war understand the sacrifice. "If their sons and daughters were serving in the military, I think we'd spend a lot more time negotiating for a peaceful solution," says Charles Johnson, superintendent of the Sunday School at Ebenezer Baptist.

Indeed, there's a widespread perception here that minorities are more likely to be the ones fighting and dying in the event of a conflict - although the Defense Department recently put out a report that to some extent contradicts that assumption. According to the report, African-Americans make up 21 percent of military personnel, compared with 12 percent of the general population. But they also tend to be heavily concentrated in administrative and support jobs, rather than combat roles, making them less likely to be directly in harm's way. During the Persian Gulf War, for example, 23 percent of troops deployed were African-American, but they accounted for just 17 percent of combat deaths.

Still, many here express a certain cynicism when it comes to the notion of "shared sacrifice." "If Bush goes over there with his daughters, I'll go with him," offers Collins Pettaway, an attorney.

Yet this attitude rarely devolves into outright bitterness. In this heavily religious town, many look directly to church and the Bible for guidance, and several people say they are simply praying that the nation's leaders will be led down the right path.

Jackson has not yet addressed the subject of war directly from the pulpit, although during the Gulf War he did preach "a few messages." But he and other religious leaders are careful to stress that their Christian beliefs do not automatically condemn war.

"In the Bible, there were many wars that were condoned by God," points out Reverend Reese.

Still, many here cite their religious beliefs when explaining their opposition. "Maybe I missed it, but Christians all over this world need to be praying for a peaceful solution," says Aubrey Larkin, a retired school administrator and football coach.

And in a larger sense, it's clear that the combination of strong faith and past struggles here have engendered a kind of patience, tinged with world-weariness, which keeps many hoping for another way.

"We're hoping that another means can be worked out with diplomacy," says Jackson. "One of the things I've learned is that wrong cannot endure."

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