The historic 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala., was commemorated by a presidential visit and the release of a major motion picture.
Both events focused on Selma’s past.
Neither paid any attention to Selma’s present or future—except to take great pains to intentionally ignore it.
The site of “Bloody Sunday” 50 years ago when police battered and tear-gassed civil rights protesters, Selma today is a town of 20,000 people whose atrocious crime rate is the scourge of Dallas County and central Alabama.
When the Alabama Policy Institute formulated a study in 2013 to rank the 50 largest municipalities as “business-friendly,” Selma scored dead last, by a sizable margin.
Scoring for categories such as “Community Allure” and “Economic Vitality” was based on a highest possible 100 points.
Overall, Fairhope topped the business-friendly list with a total 73.85 score averaged from the four categories. Only Selma was held to a score in the 20s, and the next-to-last finishing city bested Selma’s score by nearly 20 percent.
Selma got mercy-ruled on several subcategories.
For “Recent Job Growth,” it scored 1.62 (out of 100 possible). For “High School Graduation Rate” and “SAT Averaged Math and Reading Scores,” Selma posted scores of 5.63 and 6.13, respectively.
And across all 14 subcategories and 50 municipalities, Selma posted the study’s only 0.00 score—in the category of violent crime, where the report cited its rate to be the worst in all of Alabama and five-and-one-half times the state average.
How, it’s easy to wonder, does the president of the United States and nearly one-fifth of Congress make a trip to Selma and not address its crime, schools or economy?
Yet in President Obama’s 3,500-word speech, the word “crime” did not appear. The word “education” was uttered only once in the most general of grandiose contexts.
“Entrepreneurs” earned a solitary mention in the same breath as farmers, miners and hucksters in a passing tribute to pioneers.
To read the president’s speech, you’d never get the idea Selma was any different, and certainly no worse, than any other place.
You wouldn’t have a clue how dangerous it is. Advanced security for President Obama made doubly sure that March 7 would be a safer-than-normal day in Selma.
You wouldn’t know that one out of four Selma city school students doesn’t even graduate from high school.
You wouldn’t realize that Selma’s poverty rate is twice the Alabama average. Event planners lined downtown with flowers and shrubs in an effort to divert eyes from the numerous unoccupied buildings.
A half-century after becoming a focal point for the ugliness of racial voting rights abuses, it’s a fair question to venture: What happened to Selma?
Freezing all Selma references in 1965 does a disservice not only to the city itself, but its true symbolism.
The image of Selma as a specter of white prejudice still serves race-baiters. It’s an easy win to flash 50-year-old scenes of police with batons beating up marchers.
Tackling modern-day Selma’s woes is a little harder.
The city population is 80 percent black, and the schools are 98 percent black. It’s difficult to blame whites for the robbing and assaulting of black residents, or for stifling black entrepreneurialism, or for keeping local kids from learning.
Incredibly, in a town where law-breaking is arguably among its largest industries, the only legal topic for which the president could muster words of concern was the “weakened” Voting Rights Act.
That’s the whole problem with letting racemongers frame social discussions. What Selma symbolizes most isn’t even racial.
Selma is symbolic of the problems that arise from focusing on rights rather than their accompanying, and essential, responsibilities.
Obviously, and ashamedly, denying voting rights to blacks in 1965 was wrong. But it was corrected, and the reason the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the “pre-clearance” provision of the Voting Rights Act is because black voter turnout is so high in Southern states today.
Securing the right to vote is only the first step to self-government, however. Freedom in the abstract is an opportunity, not an end.
Freedom includes the right to be irresponsible, criminal, lazy and illiterate. It also includes the right to be virtuous, law-abiding, industrious and educated.
Civilized, prosperous self-government can only occur when the people aspiring to the latter traits far outnumber those pursuing the former.
Citizenship is work and virtue, and when too many citizens are derelict in their duty, civic deterioration is inevitable.
That’s what Selma symbolizes. Not a racial divide—its crime rate is 20 times that of neighboring small-town Camden, which is also majority black—but a responsibility divide.
Even at this historic moment, nobody really wanted to be responsible for confronting Selma’s decline.
Consider the irony surrounding the movie Selma, which no Hollywood screenwriter could have dreamed up better.
The natural assumption was that the film would open there. But the town’s only movie theater was boarded up.
Filmmaking is a smoke-and-mirrors sport, so sure enough, the old Walton Theater was re-opened long enough to host a screening.
Why wrestle with real questions about why a 20,000-population base can’t support a movie house when it’s easier to just pretend the town has one?