Selma 53 Years Later

The term “The Black Belt” has two different meanings in Alabama. One is historical; the other socio/political. But both are important in understanding the possible outcomes of elections in the Deep South. And, as the Deep South goes, so goes control of Congress, as many have said.

Historically and originally, The Black Belt refers to the color and fertility of the soil in a crescent shape area that extends over parts of several southern states. It covers a huge section of the middle of Alabama, that is,18 of the state’s 67 counties. Familiar places like Tuskegee, Selma, Marion, Demopolis, Montgomery (the state capital) and Greenville are there. Except for one county, all these counties are over 40% African-American and most well above 50%. The dirt really is black here.

In the Antebellum era, the Black Belt’s soil produced the best cotton and so plantation owners brought in a huge concentration of slaves to exploit this agricultural advantage. The area boomed economically.

For perhaps obvious reasons The Black Belt obtained its second definition, referring to this concentration of African Americans in this part of Alabama. The 12 most African-American counties lie in this part of the state. The City of Selma’s population is 81% black and it is also cited as the poorest city in Alabama.

CNN and other other media argued that The Black Belt vote made the difference last year in Democrat Doug Jones defeating Republican Roy Moore for the US Senate.

When you see the abject poverty in places like Tuskegee and Selma, and across the countryside, it is impossible to imagine any African American in Alabama ever voting to support a national candidate like Trump and far right candidates, like Roy Moore and and other extremist Republicans for Congress.

I talked to an older gentleman, Mr. Hewitt, who was manning the Selma Visitors Center the day we visited. He moved from Michigan to Selma in the 1960’s and managed a business there. He said back then almost none of the Black people in Selma knew how to read or write. Now most do. This has obvious implications for political involvement and voting. The scale of inequality in living standards between races is stark here. Yet the folks in The Black Belt probably aren’t going anywhere, however. This has been their home for generations.

Donald Trump, by publicly demeaning and insulting African American people and their ancestral countries, has done this part of the Deep South a big favor. These voters helped Doug Jones win. They were able to do so despite Alabama laws requiring photo IDs to register and vote.

The dominance of White supremacy in Alabama is losing its strangling grip. Alabama is 28% Black. With strong liberal enclaves in Montgomery, Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville, things are changing in Alabama.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge spans the Alabama River at the entrance to Selma. Heading west on Route 80 toward Selma the bridge rises steeply, blocking the view of the town on the other side of the river. At the crest you suddenly find yourself looking down into the length of the town’s long, main commercial street lined with antique buildings. It sort of feels like a view from a movie crane.

Edmund Pettus was a Confederate brigadier general and a Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK. Considering its place in history, the bridge seems a place out of time. It’s notoriety is a powerful reminder of a violent conflict 53 years ago. Yet, at the same time, the current resurrection of White supremacy in our country suggests the name on that bridge and the poverty and inequality in this part of Alabama aren’t going to change anytime soon.

But the times they are a-changing, as the saying goes, and the people who live in The Black Belt are having something to say — perhaps for the first time — about how fast it’s going to change. Their votes truly mattered in the recent Senate race. Having now tasted from the cup of victory, I’m betting they will be ready to vote in big numbers in the upcoming mid-term elections this fall. There may be no going back.

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