Bridging Selma

Confederate Remembrance Day

Confederate Remembrance Day

“We had more love and respect for people 60 years ago than we do today,” said Gary Johnson, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member who was at a Marion, Ala., cemetery on Confederate Remembrance Day Sunday. “Now, granted things weren’t equal back then. There were a lot of things that were wrong, no doubt. There’s things that were wrong yesterday that we hope to right today. We’re not perfect people.” Johnson spoke after the memorial ceremony, which involved a pledge of allegiance to the Confederacy, a rousing rendition of “Dixie” and a speech by H.K. Edgerton, an African American man dressed in Confederate soldier garb who spun a pre-war history of the south where slaves and their masters lived in happy harmony. (See related article “Civil War Reenactment: African Americans Join the Confederate Forces.) Johnson takes issue with the characterization of racism as a negative word. “I am a racist. I want my children to all be white. H.K.’s a racist. And we should be. But what we are not is bigots,” Johnson said. “We’re not that way. We’re loving people…this is the way we used to be.” Johnson, a Marion resident, lives in the house that once belonged to Confederate General and Ku Klux Klan Wizard Nathan Forrest. Forrest led the Rebel troops in the 1865 Battle of Selma and Johnson honors his legacy by serving as the commander of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans group called Gen. Isham W. Garrott Camp #764. Each year on April 26, the camp hosts a ceremony for the area’s Confederate Memorial Day, a holiday in honor of Confederate soldiers who...
Friends Reflect on Civil Rights and Selma

Friends Reflect on Civil Rights and Selma

  Dianne is a two time jail bird, but for the right reasons,” Joyce O’Neal says about her best friend Dianne Harris. Harris was jailed twice for activism during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s in Selma. O’Neal, who was never arrested, was also an activist. The two women, who have been friends for almost 60 years, were teenagers at the time. O’Neal and Harris both lived on the same street as the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, which they attended, and which was at the center of the movement in Selma. It’s been almost 60 years since the two met. Joyce O’Neal, a former Director of the Food Assistance Program for the state of Alabama who is now a tour guide for Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church and Dianne Harris, an educator for almost 30 years, have been friends ever since. As teenagers, O’Neal and Harris attended separate high schools but still remained very close. At the time, schools were segregated. Students from R. B. Hudson High School, where O’Neal was a student, were coming to First Baptist church and to Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to join and organize the marches. O’Neal, wanting to be involved, consulted her mother who advised her not to attend school rather than leaving in the middle of the day to join the march. Harris, who attended Alabama Lutheran Academy, remembers being involved in a different way. “We wanted to be part of history… All we needed was a little encouragement. We already had the thrill.” Harris recalls a young man from R. B. High School visiting her school and asking Harris and her classmates, including her younger brother, to participate in...
The (Still) All-White Country Club

The (Still) All-White Country Club

  This slideshow requires JavaScript. Attorney Bill Gamble’s family has lived in Selma a long time. His father Henry Gamble was a Selma lawyer and he and his brother followed in his footsteps, even working at the same firm. While in some ways, Bill and his family fit the rich, white lawyer stereotype, in other ways they do not. Bill, now 72, has been a member of Selma’s all-white Country Club since he first reached adulthood. While he enjoys spending some of his free time there, he doesn’t agree with some of the club’s policies. “Selma Country Club unfortunately is still segregated,” Gamble said. “It has no black members. I’m not proud of that at all.” Gamble said that not only was it “wrong” to not accept black members, but also “stupid.” Welcoming Community While some institutions in Selma have their problems, Gamble said that in many other ways, Selma is a very open and welcoming town. “It’s a wonderful community to live in,” Gamble said. “I find Selma to be an extremely accepting place.” By and large, Selma is a “friendly,” he said. “There are others who are not, but that’s going to be true anywhere,” Gamble. “But overall, I just love it here.” Gamble said this also applies to the elite in the area. “Selma’s a small town, so you know you don’t necessarily have as much elitism as you might in a larger town, because you intermingle with all the segments constantly,” Gamble said. “I would say the elite [in Selma are] probably more civic minded, not nearly as exclusive as other elitists who are in...
In a Two-Block Radius of the Bridge: 48 of 90 Shops Shuttered

In a Two-Block Radius of the Bridge: 48 of 90 Shops Shuttered

This slideshow requires JavaScript. Standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, looking down Selma’s main street, it is hard to envision 100,000 people walking down these desolate sidewalks, as they did just a month ago when they gathered to commemorate Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act. Within a two-block radius of the bridge’s base, 48 businesses are closed and 42 only remain open. William Scott runs a Community and Economic Development Company called Tristatz. He provides technology and resources for local startups. Scott holds workshops, hosts meet and greets and offers free classes on customer service and management. It costs $700 for a business plan, lawyers at discount, and access to the conference room and facilities. Scott says for small businesses in Selma to be successful they need to find their creative niche. Mom and pop shops do well in the Black Belt because people like to shop in businesses that where they know the owners. Though there are so many shuttered businesses in Selma’s downtown now, he is optimistic about the town’s future. Even though many of the business have closed down in this section of town, he says companies where people work out of their homes are doing well. But statistics show that Selma, like many small towns that relied on manufacturing, is struggling. The downtown is a strong reminder that the 2008 recession hit hardest in places that were already struggling. The median household income in the state is $41,574. But in Selma it’s $21,265. For black residents of the town, it’s $19,591. The job growth rate has actually declined 3.14 percent. Selma...
Bloody Sunday’s Youngest Marcher Urges Youth Vote

Bloody Sunday’s Youngest Marcher Urges Youth Vote

A black wreath hangs on the front door. Sheyann Webb Christburg is the youngest Freedom Fighter to participate in the Bloody Sunday march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago. She buried her father last week and is in town cleaning out his home. A self-proclaimed “daddy’s girl,” she remembers vividly, just how much her father opposed her participation in the march. However, her mind was made up. She was determined to join the fight for freedom at only eight-years old. While playing with her friend, Rachael, at the historic Brown’s Chapel Church close to the projects where her family lived, she had her first encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “A man said to us, ‘Do you little girls know who that man is?’” Christburg says. “‘That’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’” As soon as King saw the girls, he came over and talked to them, asking them about themselves. Christburg remembers that when he turned to go into the meeting, the other man told them they had to leave but Dr. King told them to come with him. Christburg sits in her dining room, the bright white table cloth matches her smile as she begins to talk about the man who reached her like no other that day. “He grabbed us by our hands and took us into the church with him,” Christburg says. “Then, as they were preparing to have this meeting, Dr. King went and got two chairs and sat them in the back of that room and he asked us to have a seat and he continued to talk to us. It...
A Neighbor’s View of the Battle

A Neighbor’s View of the Battle

As cannon thundered and rifle shot crackled less than 100 yards away, Roy McMillan replaced a fuse in his 12-passenger van so he could distance himself from Union and Confederate forces April 26. He was getting ready for a trip that afternoon to Prattville where he and his Gospel music group, the Angelic Harmonizers were set to perform. “The noise doesn’t bother me but they ought to tell the truth,” the husky baritone said over the distant military commands and musket volleys that rattled his Sunday afternoon. He said he applauds the money that flows into the otherwise moribund economy and is ambivalent about the crowd’s embrace of the Confederate force. But, he said, he is fed up with the South painting itself as valiant underdogs in what he viewed as a battle to end slavery. “Instead of telling the truth, they still telling a bunch of lies,” he said of how the re-enactors stage the battle as a noble sacrifice by beloved Rebel commander Nathan Bedford Forrest and his men. McMillan is also more than a little annoyed by the behavior of the offspring of civil rights demonstrators who faced beatings and death to win voting rights. “There are so many 18-year-old black kids around here who can play video games with their thumbs but aren’t registered to vote,” he said. “Those same kids’ mommas got hit upside the head at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and got locked up protesting for the right to vote.” The national focus on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of Selma’s role as a...