Sunday, April 18, 2010
Selma, AL – Learning from Slavery and the Civil Rights Movement… The Struggle ContinuesShareThis
Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma. Site of the infamous Bloody Sunday.
Selma, Alabama was the fourth stop on our 29-city tour from New Orleans to the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, and it was an unforgettable experience. Ancestors were whispering to me all along the three-hour drive from Mobile to Selma. History has much to say. From slavery to the Civil Rights Movement, Selma has an extraordinary history of African American resistance to white supremacy and economic injustice. Slavery in the United States was the most despicable and barbaric manifestation of capitalist greed and economic exploitation probably in all of human history. Selma was one of its major hubs. That cruel and unjust system was overthrown after hundreds of years of unrelenting struggle. A century later African Americans in Selma played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement which dismantled Jim Crow racial segregation and won the 1965 Voting Rights Act. With such a rich legacy of social struggle to advance the cause of freedom it was shocking to arrive in town and learn almost immediately that Dr. Cecil Williamson, member of a white supremacist hate group, the League of the South, had just become president of City Council in Selma. It was also surprising to see all of the boarded up and abandoned buildings, which bear such a physical resemblance to the Lower 9thWard in New Orleans. It’s an economic storm, not a natural one that boarded up these buildings.
Former headquarters of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma. Now another boarded up building.
James Bevel being interviewed on camera.
“The real issue here is what you all are fighting. It’s the poverty,” James Bevel told us, son of the famous Reverand James Bevel, who was perhaps the greatest strategic mastermind of the Civil Rights Movement, a close partner of Martin Luther King Jr. “The only way things will get better is if we address the root causes of poverty instead of applying superficial band aid solutions.”
Bevel is a veteran of the U.S. Navy and currently works as a police officer in Selma. He took us on a tour of the ghettos to show us the economic reality that so many are living. “Poor people stealing from other poor people is a huge problem here. We get calls about people breaking into homes to steal the copper wire out of the walls so they can sell it to feed their addictions or feed their families. Imagine that! That just goes to show you how bad the situation of poverty is here.” Bevel, a strong and independent thinker who was immeasurably influenced by his father, kept returning to the need to address the root causes of the problems facing our communities, our nation, and our planet. He is convinced that capitalism is the root cause of poverty.
The visible signs of economic hardship were clear as soon as we entered town, as they have been in every city of our caravan so far. Here the abandoned buildings and failed businesses bore the scars of deep economic wounds. We wondered how locals would relate this recession to the history of the Civil Rights Movement. From the moment we arrived in town our wonderful hosts expressed how grateful they were for the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign to be there. They were hungering for change.
“It’s still 1965 here,” said Mother Imani, a wise and powerful spirit who called James Bevel Sr. a close teacher and comrade for over 30 years. She has a long history of raising consciousness and community building, especially in Chicago, where she lived before moving to Selma a few years ago. “This is a very important time for Selma. It’s divine intervention that you showed up right now.” The pivotal time comes because poverty and racism can no longer be ignored.
PPEHRC hosted a roundtable discussion on poverty with a number of local community members, radio personalities, and a former city councilman, Johnny Leashore. Leashore’s fearless mother was once beaten with a baton after punching the infamous segregationist sheriff Jim Clark in the face.
From left: Shamako Noble, Sister Mahidera Selassie, Beta Mariam, Jeff Rousset, James Bevel, Cheri Honkala, Lady Freedom, Mother Imani, Johnny Leashore
Race has been used as a weapon to divide people in Selma for hundreds of years while the economic and political elite prospered. Imani and others pointed out to us how Dr. Williamson’s appointment to President of City Council a couple days before our arrival is a testament to how deep the roots of fear and division run within the political establishment and collective consciousness of the people. Everyone kept telling us that inadequate education was central to maintaining the popular stereotypes that keep folks divided along racial and class lines. Poverty, racism, and ignorance need each other to survive. Education, therefore, is crucial to liberation.
Four of our wonderful hosts (and dear new friends), Faya Toure, Sister Mahidera, Beta, and Lady Freedom host radio shows at the Selma based WBFZ 105.3, which reaches up to half of Alabama with hip hop and conscious dialogue about the issues affecting the city and beyond. WBFZ uses media as an educational tool to challenge dominant narratives, raise consciousness, and support social struggles. We had the pleasure to be on the station 6 times to discuss our caravan to the USSF and how it relates to the issues of poverty and racism in Selma.
Faya Toure founded the station years ago and hosts the morning show Faya’s Fire. She is a prominent civil rights attorney and was the first African American woman judge in the state of Alabama. She graciously hosted us in a beautiful loft just blocks from the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Besides getting on the radio we continued creating our own media by filming, photographing, interviewing people and collecting stories to share. One of the fascinating stories was about the slave trade. It’s a story that remains largely hidden. Long underground slave tunnels run beneath Selma. This is not the underground railroad, which was actually above ground. These tunnels were used to transport slaves and goods throughout the city for distribution to the wealthy white people who could afford them. Locals believe city officials may be planning to destroy these historic landmarks when developing new real estate in order to erase the history of slavery in Selma.
“We have to tell people about what happened here,” said Mahidera. “They don’t want people to think of slavery when they think of Selma. We can’t let them cover it up.”
In order to get a closer look, Abel, Lady Freedom, and I actually crawled into one of these dark tunnels, not a historically preserved landmark, but a small opening overgrown with weeds and hidden from sight off the banks of the Alabama River. Locals believe it’s here that slaves were taken off the boats from Africa and moved underground through the tunnel system. They were held in underground dungeons before being sold on Water Avenue. We saw one of the original iron doors from a holding cellar at Major Grumbles, a former slave auction house which is now a restaurant.
The city’s plan to hide the truth about slavery is a way to manipulate history. It’s a common practice used by economic and political elites to disempower people by making invisible the structural and institutional realities that have for centuries caused the miserable conditions they endure. Without this historical context of economic terrorism, exploitation, and government support for the wealthy at the expense of the many, it is easy for people to blame themselves for being poor. Today there are concerted efforts to hide history and hide reality: the poor, the homeless, the masses who are marginalized by our economic system. A major function of the March to Fulfill the Dream is to shine a light on those who have been disappeared.
Lady Freedom and Jeff inside an underground slave tunnel.
Major Grumbles Restaurant, formerly the site of slave sales.
PPEHRC has several powerful ways to get the truth out on this caravan. One we debuted in Selma is the stage and sound system on the 24 ft long Bands for Lands truck traveling with us to Detroit! The stage pulls out the side and two huge sliding doors open for impromptu performances. We put on two open mic shows in Selma, featuring local artists and our own Shamako Noble. One show was at a local park and another at the only public high school in the city. The high school students, as well as our gracious hosts, Lady Freedom and Sister Mahidera from WBFZ, busted out awesome talent with spoken word, singing, rapping, and freestyling. Conscious hip hop and old freedom songs gave us inspiration and unity. Arts and culture have always strengthened social justice movements.
3127 Boys singing "City of Selma" at Selma High.
Nonviolence may be the greatest lesson that Selma has to offer us. Nonviolence was a core principle of the leading civil rights organizations in Selma, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC is celebrating its 50 year anniversary this weekend) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Our hosts welcomed us with a spirit that reminds us that nonviolence is more than just a strategic way to campaign - it’s a living code of conduct for all relationships and situations. Imani referred often to the science of nonviolence that James Bevel spent his life developing. She spoke about the importance of nonviolence to animals and the Earth and to ourselves, especially with regards to the food we eat. She says, “Nonviolence to the Earth will gain us a beautiful future.” Nonviolence provides important core principles for building a mass movement to end poverty in Selma and beyond.
Bloody Sunday Memorial across from National Voting Rights Museum at the entrance of Edmund Pettus Bridge.
On March 7th, 1965 over 500 demonstrators with the Civil Rights Movement embarked on a nonviolent march from Selma to Montgomery in their struggle for voting rights. While crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge out of Selma they were brutally attacked with batons, tear gas, and police on horseback. Dozens were hospitalized and some nearly killed. That day has come to be known as Bloody Sunday. The images of peaceful people being viciously attacked by police helped gain national support for the Voting Rights Act and it was passed shortly thereafter. The courageous action of the nonviolent warriors of the Civil Rights Movement, especially those who were beaten, arrested, and murdered for taking a stand, gives us inspiration and strength as we move forward with our nonviolent movement to end poverty.
The best part of our visit to Selma was the incredible people we met. We were embraced with open arms before even arriving. The authentic human connection we found there is rare, but reminds us of our connection to each other and the Earth. We know that we’ve built long-term relationships that will carry into the future to help Selma and the rest of the world create the beloved community which Dr. King dreamed of.
On our way out we were told that two 15-passenger vans will probably be required to bring folks, especially youth, from Selma to Detroit for the U.S. Social Forum! We are looking forward to reconnecting with our new family in Detroit or sooner along the caravan route.
Much love and thanks to Mother Imani, Faya Toure, Johnny Leashore, James Bevel, Lady Freedom, Beta, Justice, Hari, all the children, WBFZ 105.3, and especially Sister Mahidera, who spent tremendous time and energy organizing logistics during our visit. We love you all!
Sister Mahidera singing in the park.
Labels: USSF 2010
Mahidera alerted us that this post was up and I just sat the family down and we read it. Thank you for so much love! Last night was a very dramatic night as a group of us went to the city hall meeting to confront Cecil Williamson, who had been sworn in at noon by the mayor--Faye Rose ended up on the news as she disrupted the meeting and called our new council president out.... a luta continua.... I thank you and Cheri and the rest of the freedom marchers for giving my children a chance to be free. We will see you all soon,Love, Empress(Mother) Imani
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