Forgotten Cities: Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, and the Lessons of History

Sean Posey I Urban Issues I Commentary I March 12th, 2015

This past weekend, a host of activists, historians, public figures, and even President Obama himself, descended on the small city of Selma, Alabama, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of "Bloody Sunday." On that day in 1965, six hundred people attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson-an activist murdered by state police-and to call attention to the widespread human rights violations in Alabama. The ensuing police riot and the televised beating of public protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge spurred the introduction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; it also made Selma the symbol of the American civil rights movement.

In ensuing decades, the small Edmund Pettus Bridge became a historic landmark. Snippets of the city of Selma appeared in a slew of documentaries and televised remembrances. Selma eventually became a museum in the eyes of many-a place where public history is forever visible, but often at the expense of the present. Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery are now too often emblematic of a forgotten urban struggle.

Not long after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the growing saga of urban unrest in the North eclipsed the civil rights movement in the South. The images of Newark, Detroit, and other industrial cities burning-and the increased focus on the Johnson Administration's urban programs-came to occupy the media and policymakers.

These famed Alabama cities are now only trotted out as symbols of a past seemingly frozen in time. Yet increasing calls for economic and urban programs to help bridge growing racial gaps in inequality can help focus attention on these hallowed cities. For they have much to impart to us today.

Amazingly enough, Selma in 2015 is actually in worse economic condition than it was fifty years ago: the city has lost 30 percent of its population since 1960, and median household income is half of Alabama's. About 45 percent of residents live below the poverty line. The swaths of vacant commercial buildings and houses in Selma are reminiscent of many distressed factory towns in the North, and the built environment visible in historical photographs from the 1960s is today remarkably tattered and blighted. The same holds true for much of Selma's sister city in the civil rights movement.

Two years before the Selma march, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference set their sights on Birmingham, Alabama-often known as the most segregated city in America. But Birmingham had been previously dubbed the "Magic City" and the "Pittsburgh of the South." An industrial giant blessed with an abundance of local resources for steelmaking, the city stood as one of the most prosperous in the Black Belt. The sustained assault on Birmingham's white supremacist system eventually broke segregation and revealed the local leadership as barbarous brutes. But like in Selma, victory proved short-lived.

In 1970, in the midst of a sustained white flight from the city, the massive Sloss Furnaces shut down-devastating much of the working class. After several ensuing decades of steep decline, Birmingham became one of the country's fastest shrinking cities. Today, a mixture of gentrification (mostly downtown) and decaying working class neighborhoods mark a changed, but still divided, city. Birmingham's public transportation system is one of the worst in the country, and public schools are once again undeniably segregated. In 2003, an epic bribery and fraud scheme involving Jefferson County's sewage system came to light; it ultimately resulted in the convictions of a plethora of county officials and contractors. However, because the poorly planned and often massively unjustified work on the county's sewer system was funded by bond money, many of Jefferson's poorest citizens are now forced to pay the price in the form of skyrocketing sewage rates.

The former Confederate capital of Montgomery, Alabama, is perhaps the best example of what can be learned from civil rights history and the new emerging urban inequality. In 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott commenced after Rosa Parks refused to giver up her seat on a segregated city bus. The ensuing campaign against the city honed the cooperative tactics that would prove so important in the later struggles in Birmingham and Selma; it also brought Martin Luther King to the forefront of the movement. In 2015, access to quality public transportation is still a racial/economic justice issue. The story of Detroit's James Robertson and his twenty-one mile walk to work with no reliable bus access is a modern civil rights issue akin to Montgomery in 1955. African Americans and the urban poor are often shut out of job opportunities in far-flung districts because of inadequate funding for transit, but also because of the history of urban renewal and the uneven nature of the country's recent urban renaissance.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Alabama state officials announced plans for the construction of Interstate 85, slated to run through a major black community in Montgomery. Many of the prominent black citizens who organized the bus boycott lost their homes as a result; the black community of Montgomery was bisected, resulting in the loss of schools, businesses, churches, and community centers. The Montgomery of today is undergoing something of a renaissance: City fathers are embracing New Urbanism as the downtown comes alive again. Millennials and young professionals are moving back into the core. However, 21 percent of the population lives in poverty, and many black neighborhoods have yet to recover from the disaster of urban renewal.

History does not stand still, and the cities of the civil rights movement are not museums. Jim Crow might now be a ghost, but the demons of economic injustice and urban inequality still haunt the present. These lessons of urban history should be taking center stage at the festivities in Selma; mostly they are still off camera and out of view. The words of the late Manning Marable perfectly sum up this quandary: "The basic question for the early twenty-first century must be: What constitutes an economically productive, socially pluralistic, and democratic urban community?" It's a question that would certainly linger on the lips of the late Dr. King, had he lived to see this moment.

In the waning years of the Obama Administration, we should once again be calling for the outlines of a new urban policy at the federal level, despite the legislative impasse in Washington. For the message of Selma is still with us: the impossible is sometimes possible. If we are to truly honor the memory of the marchers, then it is a moral imperative that we understand and confront urban inequality as it continues to mushroom around us.