Selma and the Unfulfilled Promise of Civil Rights

Selma and the Unfulfilled Promise of Civil Rights

Still a Long Time Coming

Selma and the unfulfilled promise of civil rights.


What history of the civil-rights movement should we tell today? How do the political gains of an era marked by hope and possibility look from our contemporary vantage point? Our conditions, after all, seem to call for pessimism. Like Ronald Reagan before him, Donald Trump has pandered to law enforcement. Like Bill Clinton, he has justified attacks on the American welfare state that disproportionately hurt people of color. Like Richard Nixon, he rode into the White House with a call for law and order, and he and his cabinet hope to dismantle the few anti-racist protections left intact. The absurdity of reliving these previous administrations today, as if we were living in 1981, or 1993, or 1969, would be satirical if it were not so plausible. Just over a year into Trump’s presidency, the fragile state of racial justice in America can only produce a deep sense of despair.

While researched and written before Trump’s election, Karlyn Forner’s Why the Vote Wasn’t Enough for Selma, a history of the Alabama city and surrounding Dallas County, seems to appropriately reflect the tenor of our time. Her book begins with the economic distress faced by many African-American residents of Selma, who today constitute almost 80 percent of the city’s population (approximately 19,000 people). According to the Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates, the median household income in Selma is $23,000; 41 percent of its population lives below the poverty line; and only 17 percent hold bachelor’s degrees. This bleak portrait is a far cry from the popular image of Selma—the site of the heroic march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a major turning point in the fight for the vote—as a symbol of the civil-rights movement’s triumphs. How could the town whose name became a rallying cry for the federal protection of black people now be home to such intense poverty?

To answer that question, Forner goes as far back as 1901 to offer a long view of the civil-rights movement and to examine both its achievements and the white backlash that counteracted its gains. She maps the transformation of black tenant farmers into low-wage industrial workers and the unemployed, and tracks how local white government officials and businessmen adapted to these changes in order to find new means of profiting from African-American labor while reasserting the South’s racial hierarchies. “Whichever way you look at it,” Forner writes, “the political and economic history of Dallas County doesn’t offer much in the way of prosperity, harmony, and success.”

As a result, Forner’s history is one in which the gains made by the civil-rights movement are almost always outflanked by white supremacists. When African Americans assaulted the racial hierarchy, white citizens time and again shifted their battle to another front where they held the advantage. In response to black residents advocating for desegregation, white citizens attacked them on economic grounds. In response to black residents striking for higher wages, the local government sent in the police. In response to federal voting protections, the local government drew new electoral districts. The rapidly changing terrain of racist and anti-racist politics makes Forner’s book a dizzying read. But by illustrating the protean changes of institutional racism, she captures why systemic change rather than sporadic intervention is the only means for uprooting those institutions that still discriminate against African Americans.

Forner’s history begins in the late 19th century, when poor whites and black Republicans allied to vote for the Populists. Afraid of losing political control, Alabama’s white Democrats called a constitutional convention in 1901. At the convention, they drafted and ratified a state constitution that granted county registrars the power to reject voters and that produced several requirements for voting (including literacy tests and poll taxes). That such requirements might disenfranchise poor whites was less of a concern than the risks of losing control of the state. “I do not propose to put my people under the hand of Negro rule,” said Dallas County attorney Henry F. Reese, even if a poll tax “might disfranchise one or two bastards in the white counties of Alabama.”

Legal and political control reinforced the already racialized distribution of labor. In Dallas County, cotton was king, providing jobs for most residents. At the turn of the century, white landlords owned the cotton farms, other affluent white people worked as merchants or ran stores in Selma, and poor white people worked in factories that produced cottonseed oil, textiles, and other goods. But it was the county’s black people who worked the cotton fields as tenant farmers.

Tenant farming, like the voting laws, was a form of white power as much as an economic system. Under it, a landlord provided land, tools, and a home on credit. To repay their debts, tenant farmers provided labor, crops, or the money earned from selling cotton to the white landholders. Because most tenant farmers couldn’t read, they couldn’t debate the terms of their contracts; nor could they dispute any claims by their landlord that the farmers never paid back what they owed.

This unfair system of exchange was reinforced by violence. If the farmers tried to better their situation or resist paying off disputed debts, the police and lynch mobs attacked them. If a farmer committed a minor crime, plantation owners could pay their fines and force them to work for free. Four decades after Emancipation, it seemed that there was little escape for the tenant farmer. “Never did a state of serfdom more truly exist in Russia,” wrote a contributor to the black Montgomery newspaper The Emancipator, “than in some parts of Alabama.”

The tenant system began to break down not for political reasons, but for ecological ones, when the boll weevil entered the United States. A quarter-inch-long beetle that feeds on cotton, the boll weevil had already decimated cotton crops west of Alabama by 1910. When the pest arrived in Dallas County in 1913, the federal government urged farm owners to produce less cotton and more food. Many landlords converted their land for food production, including cattle raising, while others provided their tenants with less credit; both caused tenants to leave.

In the midst of this blight, many farmers moved north, and the loss of so many laborers fueled a panic throughout the South. In response, Selma police arrested at least eight men accused of being labor recruiters for northern factories in 1917. A year later, the city passed laws prohibiting unemployment, for which it prosecuted only black people.

The cataclysmic year of 1929 made matters worse in Dallas County. In March, the Cahaba River flooded, washing away much of the area’s crops. The stock market crashed seven months later, leaving even more tenants unemployed or faced with fluctuating currency values and little aid. Although Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal guaranteed certain wages for those enrolled in its job-creation programs, local organizations refused to pay black workers at rates comparable to white ones. An even more egregious misuse of federal funds occurred when the newly created Agricultural Adjustment Administration provided local organizations the funds to convert cotton land into food farms, and they in turn paid white landowners for land that black tenant farmers worked, leaving many farmers homeless and without any relief. When the remaining tenants went on strike to raise their wages, the landlords and the police assaulted, arrested, and killed them. Tenant farmers’ conditions were so dire that Amelia Platts, the federal agent who worked with them during the Great Depression, once said: “I had read in school that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. I believed in this until I went to Dallas County, Alabama.”

Shortly thereafter, the United States entered World War II. As in the past, the government subsidized food production to meet the war’s demands. This, combined with mechanical cotton harvesting that had become cheaper and more efficient, greatly reduced the need for tenant farmers. Many left the South; those who remained in Dallas County found low-paying jobs or day labor on the farms on which they had once lived, or worked at the recently constructed Craig Air Force Base. The local Chamber of Commerce lured new industries to the region with promises of cheap resources, cheap labor, and an anti-union climate. But with segregated schooling and limited access to vocational training, African Americans wound up working “the lowest-paid, hardest, and dirtiest jobs” in these new industrial sectors. Once again, many left the region entirely. Given their minimal education and perpetual debt—to say nothing of the effect upon the body of years of cotton farming and malnutrition—the displaced had little means of supporting themselves in the cities to which they had migrated.

Such was the state of affairs when the civil-rights struggle reached Selma. In the 1940s, Congress and the federal courts attacked laws that prevented black soldiers from voting or that segregated interstate buses, along with other bulwarks of the Jim Crow regime. The demand to desegregate schools and public spaces led white Selmians to improve black infrastructure. Using federal funding, they expanded black schools’ curriculums in 1940 and began building a new high school in 1944. “If we are to maintain the principle of segregation, desired by both races,” read one editorial in the Selma Times-Journal, “we must maintain comparative educational facilities.”

But coupled with these improvements was the ominous threat of violence. In 1953, two women claimed a black man had broken into their homes and attempted to rape them. Describing the period in his autobiography, Black in Selma, attorney J.L. Chestnut recalled his uncle saying, “The police were getting five or six calls a night—‘There’s a nigger in my house! I saw him! I saw him!’—from white women all over Selma.” In response, the cops arrested William Fikes and interrogated him for nearly a full day before he confessed. At trial, an all-white jury convicted Fikes and sentenced him to 99 years in prison. The NAACP intervened and secured a retrial, but the jurors again found him guilty.

The white backlash persisted throughout the decade. Six months after the Supreme Court overturned segregated education with its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, white citizens formed the Citizens’ Council of Dallas County and exerted economic pressure on black people advocating for desegregation or unionization by threatening their jobs and denying them credit. Rather than employing violent policing—the target of NAACP lawyers—white Selmians now aimed to control black residents through the wage.

In the face of this economic counterrevolution, black Selma intensified its resistance to Jim Crow in the 1960s. When state troopers killed a black man in nearby Perry County in 1965, Selma’s civil-rights activists—now backed by outside organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—unified to march together in protest. After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a former Confederate brigadier general and grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, the marchers encountered a phalanx of state troopers, local police, and deputized forces who ordered them to disperse. When the protesters refused, they were teargassed and beaten; news cameras captured the brutality, which was then broadcast to the nation. Lyndon Johnson watched the bloody footage from the White House; one week later, he delivered a televised address in which he decried the violent denial of the vote and spoke of a new voting-rights bill. Five months later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. Black Selma, it turned out, had changed not only Dallas County but the country.

Although civil-rights activism flourished for a moment in Selma, the movement’s victories did not have an immediate effect on the city. In the ensuing months, black Selmians attempted to use the vote in their battle against the white-run local government. But the city’s influential white citizens allowed the election of a small number of black representatives in 1972—enough to forestall federal intervention, while preventing black people from gaining enough seats to effect any significant change.

At the same time, the local government used federal funding from Johnson’s War on Poverty programs to reassert the city’s racial hierarchy. Selma’s white-led Economic Opportunity Board distributed $6.5 million in federal funds on the basis of race. Black women were trained in domestic work; black men were paid to load the garbage trucks that white men drove; and so on. In so doing, the board ensured that black people continued to receive much lower wages than poor whites. And wherever the local leaders did not control the distribution of funds, they worked to undermine black economic self-reliance. For instance, the federal government directly supported poor Dallas County residents by funding the Southwest Alabama Farmers Cooperative Association, which used the money to help mostly black farmers buy supplies and market their crops. In response, local banks refused to provide credit. When the farmers’ association persevered, state troopers stopped its trucks from delivering goods, keeping them idling until the July heat ruined their produce. Even if one brackets the historian Elizabeth Hinton’s argument that the War on Poverty laid the foundation for mass incarceration, Johnson’s programs failed even as they were unfolding: Nothing would improve for Selma’s black residents, precisely because these programs did not overturn white control of the city’s government.

Decades of underfunded educational systems also caught up with black Selmians, who struggled as the city’s economy changed. Local low-skill industries left Selma because its low wages couldn’t compete with the even lower wages in Mexico and China, and the city’s de facto segregated schools ensured that higher-skill industries would never come there. As the ’70s progressed, Craig Air Force Base closed, and several retail businesses soon followed suit. At the same time, gerrymandered local districts and low voter turnout prevented African Americans from holding a majority on the county’s most powerful governing bodies, providing little ability to allocate the meager local funds for relief to the growing number of black unemployed.

After years of lawsuits against discriminatory election districts, black Dallas County residents finally gained a majority on the County Commission in 1988, but electing more black representatives could not undo the cumulative effect of years of racist policies. When the 1996 welfare bill required recipients to meet work requirements, black Selmians were forced to search for jobs in a county whose systematic discrimination meant that there were none to be found. “Politics alone,” Forner notes, “could not fix segregated schools, drugs, scarce and inadequate jobs, and state and federal governments uninterested in pursuing policies aimed at economic justice for all residents.”

Forner’s detailed portrait of reactionary white politics is so powerful that, by the end, it feels like a totality, ready for every challenge. When the boll weevil isn’t destroying black people’s livelihoods, federal intervention is. When the federal government begins supporting black residents, the local police swoop in. When the police are not assaulting black citizens, the Citizens’ Council is firing them. And when local governing bodies are not attacking them, the economic system is starving them. It is not that black Selmians lost every battle—they earned the right to vote, elected local black politicians, and changed the school-board structure to represent their interests—so much as that those gains seem outpaced by the war’s casualties.

This vision of Alabama history is depressing, even tragic, but it can help to reinvigorate our thinking about racial justice in the future. Forner persuasively demonstrates that the economic plight of many black Americans is the direct result of years of racist policies, global labor changes, and a federal government refusing to protect its citizens. Her book reminds us that anything less than a total and complete commitment from the federal government to end institutionalized racism simply leaves in place some problems of the past and enables new and different forms of dispossession to take root.

By painting this stark picture, Forner also challenges the conservative uses of civil-rights history. Following in the footsteps of Nikhil Singh and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, she shows how the abbreviated history of civil rights, which begins with the protests of the 1950s and ends with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, can deceptively suggest lasting progress by excluding the longer history of reaction. What Forner’s narrative reminds us is that, for many black Americans, the vote was not enough—in fact, for all its achievements, the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s was not enough. What was and still is needed is not simply the vote or local political representation, she argues, but “economic opportunity and independence, quality education, and hope for a better life…equity in jobs, loans, and land.” Only large-scale social change can provide these kinds of improvements.

And yet the advantages of this book are also its limits. History as tragedy all too frequently sees violence as the climax and ignores the experience of life after injury. In Forner’s book, we read many narratives of dispossession, yet we do not read an in-depth portrait of living without work until late in the book. Further, we rarely read about what it feels like to live with the memory of violence and where people found joy in the face of it. This is especially disappointing given that Karlyn Forner has spent so much time in Selma. But after such a strong first book, I enthusiastically await her next, when she might again pick up many of these threads.

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