Karlyn Forner is Project Manager of the SNCC Digital Gateway at Duke University Libraries. In her new book Why the Vote Wasn’t Enough for Selma, she rewrites the heralded story of Selma to show why gaining the right to vote did not lead to economic justice for African Americans in the Alabama Black Belt.
Towards the beginning of the book, you mention a civil rights bus trip that sparked your love for Selma. What in particular about Selma, versus another important civil rights locations like Birmingham, spoke to you?
Ms. Joanne Bland is the reason that Selma spoke to me. At the time, she was the director of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute and the embodiment of its mission to put forward the stories of the local men and women who made the Movement. She had been on the bridge on Bloody Sunday as a child and shared her own personal story and that of her neighbors with such power that I was blown away. We spent the next week organizing the archives of this grassroots-oriented museum. It was the first time that I began to understand that change comes from courageous people working together to better their own lives. That first bus trip to Selma fundamentally changed my perspective, not only of history but of the world we live in today.
In the book’s introduction, you explain: “In the collective memory of the nation, Selma represents the triumphal moment of black nonviolent protest and the fulfillment of the promises of American democracy.” However, your book depicts a different version of Selma, one where voting rights could not make up for the city’s disenfranchisement of its black citizens. Could you describe how these “two Selmas” differ?
The triumphal story of Selma assumes that the vote, in and of itself, is all that’s needed to redress the injustices of the past and ensure full citizenship for all Americans. It’s a story that ignores the deep economic legacy of slavery, where white people unfairly reaped the benefits of black people’s labor for decade upon decade. This legacy of inequality and poverty was apparent in Selma in 1965 and continues to be glaringly visible in the Black Belt today, fifty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. While securing the vote was essential for black people to gain better schools, housing, jobs, and livelihoods, it alone could not undo the entrenched economic inequality and poverty of the city’s black residents. The actual Selma is a stark reminder of how the vote, alone, was not sufficient.
In the book’s second chapter, you describe the effects of flooding on Selma’s workers and its crop yields. What other sorts of geographical or natural obstacles would field laborers have had to contend with?
White plantation owners and black tenants alike had to deal with the poor, spent soil that was a legacy of the Black Belt’s one-crop system of agriculture. Years of cotton production had depleted the soil, especially in the first quarter of the twentieth century. This was something that the Extension Service attempted to address, promoting fertilization, crop rotation, cover crops, and other methods of what they called “scientific agriculture.” However, like everything in the Black Belt, extension agents’ work was governed by the order of white supremacy. While white owners of large plantations could invest in methods to improve the soil, black tenants were forced to grow cotton year after year on the same depleted land without even being able to afford fertilizer. Tenant contracts required payment in the Black Belt’s one cash crop, leaving nothing left over for cover crops, gardens, or more sustainable agricultural methods. One observer noted that cotton grew all the way up to the door of tenant houses.
You mention that in 1955, 29 black residents petitioned for the integration of Selma’s schools, and that within a week, these petitioners lost their jobs and subsequently retracted their signatures. What other types of intimidation tactics were used against black residents who were fighting segregation?
Black residents who challenged the Black Belt’s racial order faced a combination of economic intimidation and physical violence. Sultan Moore, a black store owner, was first threatened and then put out of business after local white people discovered that his son had participated in demonstrations in Montgomery. Moore drove off a group of white vigilantes who attempted to burn down his house and store by arming his children and wife and standing guard. After that the white suppliers stopped delivering products to his store, putting him out of business. Around the same time, white men shot into the house of John Smitherman, another black store owner, after he was accused of making inappropriate comments to a white woman. They also mistakenly kidnapped another black man they thought was Smitherman before releasing him. Smitherman was eventually forced to close his store and move his family to Detroit. The local black extension agent and race man, S.W. Boynton, was nearly caned by a white man who entered his office. Bernard Lafayette, the first field secretary with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was beaten bloody outside of his house within his first six months in town. Challenges to Selma’s racial order were not taken lightly. While the white Citizens’ Council preferred economic threats, their intimidation worked hand in hand with the vigilante violence of the Klan or Sheriff Clark’s posse to keep black residents in their place.
Given the city’s history of racism, inequality, and poverty, what do you think the future holds for Selma?
Historians aren’t in the business of predicting the future, so any answer of mine is no more than a guess. A few things hold true from Selma’s past. As for the city’s history of racism, it’s a legacy shared by the entire country, north and south. In many ways, Selma’s place in the triumphal narrative of American democracy forces the city to acknowledge this history more openly than other places, as well as represent it for the nation. The Selmians I know don’t need more outsiders telling them how they should best redress the wrongs of the past. If anything, the people who are already working to remedy the city’s history of racism inequality need resources to be able to enact their visions. Dismantling racism and addressing poverty and inequality are one in the same.
For the past fifty years, Selma—along with the entire Black Belt South and much of rural America—has been on the losing end of both economic development and federal investment. As high-tech companies flock to metropolitan areas with educated, middle class workforces, the Black Belt’s history of segregation, its low wages, and its poor education are now an enormous liability. Globalization effectively upended old industrial recruitment strategies that promised cheap labor and an anti-union climate.
Meanwhile, the presence of the federal government in Selma now comes mainly in the form of welfare and transfer payments. After Craig Air Force Base’s closing in 1977, Selma was never able to make up for the well-paying federal jobs and defense dollars that it lost. During this same period, federal funding for programs and local development all but dried up. Grants like those that supported SWAFCA (Southwest Alabama Farmers Cooperative Association), a black run cooperative of small farmers trying to make a living on the land, no longer exist.
So Selma’s future (like that of much of rural American) hangs on a combination of local and national factors. Economic opportunity is essential to addressing poverty and inequality in places like Selma. But as companies increasingly choose to locate in large cities over rural, poorer areas, a major question is how much is the federal government willing to invest in the places that have been left behind. There’s no interstate that runs through the Black Belt. Rural hospitals in the Black Belt are fighting to stay open, and public school systems struggle with shrinking tax bases.
Creating quality jobs, dismantling segregated school systems, repairing the damage done by the War on Drugs, and bringing long divided communities together require resources beyond those that can be found in the Black Belt alone. Meaningful economic opportunities for all of Selma’s residents will depend on government and corporate investment. However, the people who call Selma home, black and white, should be the shapers of the solutions for their city. They know the challenges they are facing and how to best address them.