Two of SOS’s founding members, Alabama State Sen. Hank Sanders and Attorney/Poet Faya Rose Toure, have written their perspectives in the New York Times on Selma — its storied past, its stagnated present and their future in the city they’ve fought to love:
SELMA, Ala. — The memory is as powerful as if it were yesterday. On March 25, 1965, tens of thousands of us gathered before the Alabama State Capitol, the endpoint of a five-day, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called out, “How long?” and the crowd responded, “Not long!” The moment was electric. We believed it would not be long before the right to vote was deeply rooted and bearing fruit in America.
In one sense, we were right. The Voting Rights Act, passed just months after the Selma marches, banned the discriminatory voting practices that many southern states had enacted following the Civil War. Over time, the Act enabled millions of African-Americans to register to vote, and for decades following its passage, voting rights continued to slowly expand. But in another sense we are still waiting. Either Dr. King was wrong or “not long” is biblical, measured in generations.
We came to Selma in 1971, newly married and fresh out of Harvard Law School. Our intentions were to stay for five years. We were sure that by then Dr. King’s vision of voting rights would have been realized. Over 40 years later, not only are the fruits scarce, but the roots are shallow and feeble.
Celebrations, commemorations and movies make people feel good, but the reality is that voting rights have been rolled back dramatically in recent years. The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, striking down a central provision requiring certain states, including Alabama, to obtain federal clearance before changing voting procedures. Since then, several states have limited access to voting by blacks and others. Today, all Alabama voters must show photo identification. In Alabama and other states, this I.D. must be government-issued. These policies, which disproportionately affect minority, poor and elderly voters who are less likely to possess government-issued I.D.s, are the 21st-century equivalent of the Jim Crow-era poll tax and literacy test.
Dr. King understood that voting would be the last right granted to African-Americans because it was the most powerful. Indeed, if we had better understood our history, we would not have been surprised that “not long” has stretched into a half-century. We did not remember that, though the 15th Amendment gave black men the right to vote in 1870, Congress in 1894 repealed legislation enacted in 1870 and 1871 that provided robust and necessary enforcements of that right. In a sense, in 1965 we were trying to get back to where we briefly were in America in the 1870s.
But what of Selma, the worldwide symbol of voting rights and freedom?
As Dr. King urged, we marched on the ballot boxes. In 1965 there were 300 registered African-American voters and zero African-American elected officials in Dallas County, where Selma is located; in 2015 there were 19,862 registered African-American voters and 19 African-American elected officials. But we greatly underestimated the power of those who control the voting process.
It took over 35 years to dislodge Joseph T. Smitherman, who was mayor of Selma on March 7, 1965, the day known as Bloody Sunday, when lawmen disrupted the first attempted Selma-to-Montgomery march, brutally attacking peaceful demonstrators. Today most elected officials in Selma are African-American. But in Dallas County — which is about 70 percent black — whites hold six of the seven countywide elected positions. Until 2010, eight African-Americans chaired meaningful committees in the Alabama State Senate. Now we are isolated minorities without a single position of statewide influence.
Some progress has been made in the justice system, though real justice remains far removed. The Selma mayor and police chief are African-American, and Dallas County has an African-American district attorney. But black men are often held in jail for extended periods on multimillion dollar bonds, and police brutality and profiling of the poor remain far too prevalent.
In Dallas County, the number of African-Americans living at poverty level is nearly eight times that of whites. Too many African-Americans in Selma still live in substandard housing. And while the law no longer requires it, nearly all African-American children here still attend schools that are effectively segregated. Our granddaughter graduates from high school in Selma this year, and there was not one white child in any of her classes from first through 12th grade.
Despite our city’s fame as a cornerstone of the Civil Rights movement, African-Americans in Selma who dare to discuss these issues openly and honestly are called racists, haters and worse.
Yes, we marched on the ballot boxes. But for the tens of thousands of African-Americans in Selma, life, as Langston Hughes said, “ain’t been no crystal stair.” Better off is not equal.
We came to Selma over four decades ago; today we are both in our seventies. When we arrived, we agreed that every five years we would decide anew whether to stay or leave. Each time we chose to stay. The choice is coming up again next year. What shall we do? The struggle continues because the challenges remain great.
Hank Sanders has served as a member of the Alabama State Senate since 1983. Faya Rose Toure is an attorney and civil rights activist.