Fifty Years After Selma, Civil Rights in Alabama Are Still in Rough Shape

You'd think that by now Alabama would be tired of being the state where marginalized Americans have to demand their dignity the loudest.

by Mike Pearl
Mar 9 2015, 6:30pm

Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Carol M. Highsmith

There's a fictionalized scene toward the beginning of the movie Selma, depicting a meeting between Martin Luther King, and two other SNCC organizers. King wants to know if Selma Sheriff Jim Clark is a clever pacifist like Albany, Georgia Police Chief Laurie Pritchett. John Lewis tells King no, Clark is a brutal dinosaur like fellow Alabaman Bull Connor, and he loves to crack heads whenever possible. That sort of backwardness seemed to defined Alabama law enforcement at the time, and King decided that that made Selma the right place for the Selma marches.

The rest is non-fictionalized history. The head-crackings of Bloody Sunday were 50 years ago this weekend—enough time for a styrofoam cup to completely decompose—and Alabama is still a backwards place that too often doesn't learn from the present, let alone the past. The fight for civil liberties of all kinds in Alabama is still as vibrant as ever.

Perhaps in a nod to the draconian days of Bull Connor, Alabama legislators are well on their way toward returning the electric chair to Alabama. The last time an American was forced to die in that Bond villain-esque contraption was in 2002, when Lynda Lyon Block was put to death in—where else?—Wetumpka, Alabama. Alabama State Representative Lynn Greer has apparently noticed that now that they're giving prisoners the choice between the chair and lethal injection, prisoners all want the injection. That's a problem because not only are they using up all the good death drugs, and occasionally having injections ruled unconstitutional, but since nobody wants to ride the lightning, they have to delay executions. The bill could pass as early as Tuesday, and if it goes into effect, the state will be able to force prisoners into the chair once again.

But more conventional civil rights struggles are still going on as well. Nate Silver predicted years ago that Alabama and Mississippi would be the last states to legalize gay marriage. Alabama came close to proving him wrong four weeks ago when it became the 37th state to give gay couples marriage licenses. Then this week, Alabama's Supreme Court became the first of its kind to directly challenge a federal judge's order allowing same-sex marriage. Starting last Tuesday, marriage licenses were withheld from same-sex couples, prompting George Takei to sick the evil power of obnoxious internet positivity on the entire state in the form of the hashtag #LuvUAlabama. Such were the priorities of Alabama's Supreme Court docket during the week leading up to the anniversary of a civil rights triumph in its state.

As for issues of race, In 2002, one little popcorn kernel of old-fashioned segregation that had managed to stick to the back of Alabama's throat—the issue of segregated sororities a the University of Alabama—was shoved into the spotlight with a story from The New Republic. Surely the only way an institute of higher learning could respond to something like that would be to shout "Roll Tide!" and wash that racism away into the past, right? Hardly. But a Buzzfeed report published late last year showed that despite a few attempts, nothing substantive has been done to fix the problem.

As Gay Talese's elegiac Selma anniversary essay for the New York Times pointed out, even the Selma Country Club has somehow managed to remain all-white to this day. In 1965, Talese writes, he watched club members "hiss at the television" in that club. Today it's still not integrated.

Alabama just can't seem to wrap its head around the symbolism it has been burdened with, even while some of that symbolism—like the fact that the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge is named after a Klansman—is so frustratingly obvious a producer would tell a screenwriter to rewrite it. But, as we learned from the historical accuracy dustup around the movie Selma, history is no screenplay. Whatever power hatred has, it's not a force that simply changes upon seeing the light, like a character at the one hour and 20 minute mark. It persists, relentlessly.

Dallas County Sheriff Harris Huffman told Talese that in Alabama, "You've got some people in Selma who live in the 1960s, and you've got some that live in the 1860s." That's what made it the perfect catalyst for a dramatic change in 1965. It stands to reason that a place known for resisting change would be the last to change its "I don't want to change" policy. Still, you would think that by now Alabama would be tired of being the place where marginalized Americans have to demand their dignity the loudest.

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