Selma, Alabama at 4 A.M. Ten Years Ago: Background to the Place Where Civil Rights Attorney J.L. Chestnut Lived and Died.
Note: With the death today of Famed Selma Civil Rights Attorney J.L. Chestnut, I though I would provide readers with an old article I had written for a newspaper (before I was blacklisted from it), describing what Selma, Alabama was like as recently as ten years ago.
Not being able to sleep I left for the Inauguration of Alabama’s new Governor Don Sieigelman too early. At Clanton, South of Birmingham I decided to cut across to Selma and see the famed Edmund Pettus bridge.
As I left the interstate I was the only one on the lonely two lane road as flashes of sheet lightning filled the sky and leaves whirled across the asphalt in front of me. The farther West I went the less was there. Poverty was there. And the occasional big, big house.
It was easy to see why the sheriffs of these counties and their political bosses thought they were kings who could control blacks forever. Why would outsiders come? Those counties were in fact little kingdoms. First came Maplesville then Stanton. Then Plantersville. The name says it all. A town from the beginning, of big planters. Big rulers. Big Kings.
Then there is a ghostly stretch of nothing and then there is Selma, at 4AM on the morning of the Martin Luther King, JR holiday 1999.
And you go across that bridge.
When you see a photo of the Pettus bridge, you do not realize how arched it is. What this means is that the first marchers, as they climbed the bridge, could not see, did not realize the strength of the billy clubbed force waiting for them. Only when they crested the bridge must they have seen, and surely their must have been fear. But they kept going. As I did now, to the prayer breakfast where Martin Luther King Junior’s son spoke, as Governor-elect Siegelman sat on the front row.
As I listened to them both and a messenger from the President, I realized we are approaching another bridge and we have no idea of how strong the resistance will be to it and the goal of true equality and acceptance for all.
When Martin Luther King the Third finished his speech Don Siegleman went forward and embraced him. That is a good sign. That is a start, a sign finally, of a desire for harmony among the races at the top of our state government.
I did not stay for the entire parade. I went back to the bridge. It was a beautiful day now. It could have been May it was so warm.
In the light of day I saw Selma in more detail now. I went to the National Voting Rights museum and the thing I saw most was that it was not being supported by Selma. The museum seems to be struggling. There on one wall are messages from people who made the march. They say things like "I was 17 when I made the march. I had to slip away because the white farmer on whose land we lived because he did not want us taking part. I was beaten."
You can not read them all. It hurts too much. Instead I walked out to the bright sunshine and went right, down to the ancient St. James Hotel, because I love old things.
I walked inside and saw immediately on the events board that the Sons of the Confederacy was meeting there at 7:00 PM. I went back out. Sometimes the old hurts.
As I drove North escaping Selma I looked up on the water tower and there was a yellow smiley face. The old man who knows everything about Selma at the Visitors Center had said, "Things don’t change over night."
Selma is trying to sell it’s history, make it’s horrific past pay tourist dollars. But driving out of the kingdom, and remembering the poverty I saw that is still there thirty some odd years after the march from Selma to Montgomery, I am left with little doubt as to who still owns the kingdom.
I only hope that Governor Don doesn’t stay in his own palace, but ventures to the places where the sons of Selma’s troubled past still meet and think a smiley face on a water tower can hide the inequalities that still exist.
Sam at the National Voters Museum said to pass the word about the museum. And I am. I tell you this: In Selma you have a choice. You can pay $130.00 for a Suite at the renovated St. James Hotel and attend the Sons of Confederate Veterans meeting.
Or you can pay $4.00 and enter a museum that honors the soldiers who walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and secured voting rights, not only for those living in the isolated kingdom of Selma in the 1960's, but for people all across this nation.
The choice is yours. Things don’t change overnight. But just as the Alabama river flows down from Montgomery past Selma to the Sea, so will change come to the kingdom.
There is a new Governor. And he has promised to educate ALL of the children up and down the Alabama River and North and South to all borders. God do not save the king. Save the Governor. And let the King and sons of kings remember that all men are created equal in this nation.
Even in Alabama.
You can not hold a people down forever.
William D. (Will) Bevis