Kings of the Confederate Road
Tad Bartlett is a white man who grew up in Selma, Alabama, then moved to New Orleans later in life. Maurice Carlos Ruffin and L. Kasimu Harris are black men born and raised in New Orleans. Along the way, they all became friends. On May 19, 2017, the three gathered to watch as the Robert E. Lee statue was removed from Lee Circle near downtown New Orleans, then on the July Fourth weekend, they traveled to Selma to examine what Southern heritage means in our shared world. This article is Tad's and Maurice's conversation about that road trip, with Kasimu's pictures documenting the adventure.
May 19, 2017, New Orleans
TB: I’d had a three-margarita lunch. Perhaps that was a little excessive, with the added mezcal, but it was a day for drinking. The sky was blue and the air was warm and soft; more importantly, Robert E. Lee was finally coming down. I took my third margarita in a go-cup and walked the couple blocks to the west side of Lee Circle.
A crowd of several hundred were gathered on the barricaded street and in the adjoining gas station parking lot, festive, smiling, occasionally craning their heads up at the statue.
A crane rose above Lee, its hook swaying over his head not unlike a noose, while workers rigged him for the final hoisting.
The statue sympathizers had been laying siege to other statues in New Orleans for the previous month, waving Confederate battle flags, League of the South flags, and Trump flags, engaging in screaming matches with locals as first one statue and then another were removed, but on the day Lee came down they must have been on the other side of the traffic circle. On our side was only love and a significant police presence. One fellow showed up with a large speaker on a bike trailer and acted as the DJ for the event. Midnight Star’s “Freak-a-Zoid” caught my ear; that was big at the Selma Skating Rink when I was 11. The margaritas had been a good decision. Later, during Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” a unicyclist weaved in and out of the crowd, rhythmically swirling a leopard-print scarf, while two schoolkids and two old ladies began double-dutch jump-roping.
All afternoon the crews had struggled to get a strap around the statue, loosening bolts, examining up close then backing their movable platform down, conferring endlessly. It started to seem like the statue might never come down. Decades had passed since activists, including Marie Galatas, Avery Alexander, Malcolm Suber, Leon Waters, and more recently the Take ’Em Down Nola group formed in 2014 and led by Michael “Quess?” Moore and Angela Link, had begun advocating removal of the monuments and other memorials to white supremacy in New Orleans. Almost two years had passed since Mayor Mitch Landrieu had joined in the cause in the wake of the massacre of black worshippers by a Confederate-inspired terrorist at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston. The statue-removal had been tied up for the past year and a half in federal court by pro-statue groups, and almost a month had passed since the final court judgment allowing the removal to go forward. A lot of pressure had built up.
Then, as I awaited Maurice and Kasimu, Lee popped off his pedestal.
I had expected something more — a wrenching loose, a crumbling of marble, a clanging of iron, an anguished rebel yell, a gospel choir, sirens, thunder, earthquakes, a plague of locusts, the death angels and melting Nazi faces from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” something, but the removal was ultimately notable for the silent peacefulness with which Lee lifted off. I felt a physical release, like a tooth that had been too long loose had just let go of the last dangling nerve tethering it to the socket where it was no longer useful.
MR: I knew very well that the removal of the Robert E. Lee Horcrux, as I called it, would be a historic moment. That’s why I missed it. My attitude toward the monuments flap, which began evolving with the yelling matches at City Hall in 2015, had reached its nadir. The intensifying stream of anonymous racist rhetoric online over the year of removal debates had convinced me the four monuments had to go. After each of the first three were removed, I’d visited each site and celebrated each time. But by the date of the final removal, something in me had changed. Monuments are symbols that hold power over people, I thought. And now this stupid, old statue of Robert Eddie Lee held power over me.
“Looks like it’s happening,” Tad’s text said, as I shrugged my feet into boots and ran out of the house.
I arrived in time to find an empty plinth. The statue was tucked behind a large, nearby truck while the work crew, masked to hide their faces from people who might identify and hurt them, hauled it onto a flatbed. I convened with Tad and Kasimu, but when the police escort mobilized, Kasimu took off running. He wanted a good shot. Tad and I lumbered after him.
What I remember most about the statue, which lay horizontal on the flatbed that crept by, was how at peace this object of intense controversy looked. Lee’s arms were crossed, his eyes so dark they seemed closed. His skin was the color of mushrooms, and mushrooms reminded me of death. I hadn’t missed witnessing a removal. I’d missed a funeral.
July 3, 2017, the Road to Selma
TB: We’d decided the day before Lee’s statue came down that the three of us would go to Selma after the statue removal was done, that I would bring Maurice and Kasimu to my old hometown and introduce them to the people and place from which I’d long ago escaped. We would explore this idea of Southern heritage — “heritage” meaning more than one group’s frozen snapshot, but a full vision of a collective past that shaped a divided present and that could suggest a unified future — for two towns, for a region, for a country.
We carved out 48 hours over the July Fourth holiday. As the day of our departure grew closer, I became anxious we wouldn’t be able to pull it off — that Selma might disappoint my two New Orleans friends in some way, that it might be too stuck in the past, or too small in its concerns; or that my memory was too large, too inaccurate; or that Selma wouldn’t want to give me the time of day.
I’d made a playlist to make the drive less anxious — songs I’d listened to on the tape deck of my old hatchback when I drove around Selma on weekend nights, punk music, hip-hop, jazz, poets, protest songwriters, geniuses. Maurice, Kasimu, and I listened to those songs as we headed out of New Orleans late afternoon on July 3, as we turned off the Interstate north of Mobile, onto U.S. Highway 43, through the little towns of Creola, MacIntosh, Mount Vernon, and across the Tombigbee River into Jackson.
MR: I’ve never liked the South. I don’t hate the place where I was born and have always lived. I’m not even bitter about it. I’m just not much of a fan. Why? There’s a moment that happens anytime I travel anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line with friends. It’s usually a fleeting incident — what the woke kids call a microaggression, a term that makes me think of a mosquito landing on my thigh. But these moments never fail to remind me that I have a place and that some people want to make sure I understand where that place is. The moments usually happen so quickly they almost don’t register. Whenever I realize what’s going on, my cheeks get hot and I’m always a bit embarrassed that it’s happening. Like getting caught on a jumbotron while you’re scarfing down a hot dog.
This trip’s Moment occurred after I placed an order at an old-timey burger joint Tad insisted was a slice of Americana Pie. At this place, they take your money when you order, but don’t take your name or give you a ticket or anything. Then, you sit and wait. Eventually, someone calls out the contents of your order, and you go get it. I sat at a picnic table and watched a group of teens and tweens. One girl playfully tortured her little brother. Then, the cheerful kids got their grub from the counter. This is the South, I thought. This is America.
Finally, my order came up. At the window, a pretty girl in a blue T-shirt held my order like you might hold a puppy by the scruff of its neck.
“Did you pay for this?” she asked, skeptically. I considered for a moment that maybe mistakes were made. Maybe they had given me a receipt, and I lost it. Or maybe they asked for my name, and I forgot to give it. Maybe I really hadn’t paid for the food, after all. Who knew? Perhaps someone else ordered the exact same thing. It’s such a funny thing to gaslight yourself.
My stomach turned, my cheeks warmed, and my heart raced. I was furious, but bit my tongue. Losing my temper after sunset in rural Alabama couldn’t possibly end well for me.
“Why yes.” I smiled, “I paid. Promise.” The girl extended her arm and plopped the bag into my hands. I went back to the table. Tad shot me a look.
“What?” Tad asked.
“The craziest thing,” I said.
July 3, 2017, Late-Night Alabama Backroads, Then Selma
TB: We drove out of Jackson past crowds of teenagers pulled over to the side of the road, grouped together atop the hoods and trunks of their cars, in pickup beds, all watching to the freshly darkened western sky. Fireworks a day early, as in so many little towns worried about getting up early to go to work on the fifth day of July.
Up U.S. 43 through the Alabama night, through Grove Hill and on to Thomasville, where my family had lived for a year, when I was 5, in a two-bedroom apartment in a complex with a Doberman Pinscher who left teeth marks in me more than once, an old lady who fed kids sugar cubes that she’d soaked in brandy and then lit on fire, and some asshole who threw my Big Wheel into the kudzu-lined ravine next to the parking lot. Then up state Highway 69 through Pine Hill, where my Dad worked in the paper mill, then up state Highway 22 and into Selma, where we’d moved when I was 6.
It was nearing 10:30 p.m. on July 3 when we pulled up to the St. James Hotel on Water Avenue. Built in 1837, it had been the grand hotel where the planters stayed when they came to ship cotton and buy people. It survived the burning of much of the town in 1865 after Union Gen. James Wilson’s troops defeated the Confederates guarding Selma.
We put our stuff down in our corner suite and stepped out onto the balcony overlooking the river, glasses of rye whiskey in hand. To our right, perched in humid air over gurgling water, was the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as real and mythical as ever.
MR: Whenever I arrive in a new place, I consider escape routes. This was hard to do upon arriving in Selma because we’d traveled a narrow, country road long after dark. The hotel didn’t reassure me. The lobby was full of pictures of the white people who came together to refurbish the building after it fell into decades of ruin. The house style was Baroque furniture, glazed fixtures, ornate carpets. I wondered whose bodies the money was extracted from to create this place.
Just when I began thinking the place was too much of a metaphor for the whole South, I noticed a room off the lobby called The Planters’ Parlor. “Planter” is a euphemism for the men who shipped black people to plantations and worked them to death without pay. A parlor is a place for relaxation or games. But it’s also a place, such as in a monastery, where monks converse with travelers seeking enlightenment. I didn’t want enlightenment from the ghosts who once reclined in that room, so I grabbed my luggage and took my black ass upstairs.
After drinks, Kasimu and Tad headed out for a midnight walk around.
TB: Kasimu made me nervous at first with the photographs he was trying to capture of the old Washington Street Grocery. He seemed oblivious to the groups of young black men gathered around parked cars, music blaring, bass booming, drinking from paper-sacked cans and bottles, throwing stern looks our way. But in my nervousness I felt not just a little like another typical scared white man, and I kept my mouth shut.
I shadowed Kasimu through a parking lot and down a sidewalk past more groups hanging out. Then, a car passed by, windows down, young women inside laughing and partying to music on a hot summer night, and I felt calmer. I was once again Tad who used to live here. How time can stretch forever and change you, then vanish in an instant.
Gunshots popped behind us. Once, twice, three times. Cars sped toward us from the direction of the shots, turned the corner onto Broad in each direction, all leaving the scene.
“Come on, stay down, move,” Kasimu said, and we moved, staying close to the storefronts, pausing for a moment before crossing an open lot, moving back in the direction of the hotel. More cars sped down the street.
We knocked to be let into the lobby by a security guard.
“Hear anything?” Kasimu asked him.
The security guard paused for a moment. “Always something happening in Selma,” he said, then turned and looked back out the front windows.
July 4, 2017, Morning, Selma
TB: It was a quiet holiday morning as we walked out of the hotel. We met no one on our one-block walk to the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Edmund Winston Pettus was a delegate to the Alabama secession convention in 1861. The infantry units he commanded surrendered to Union forces three times in 1862 and 1863. He later commanded brigades in the Confederates’ losing battles in Chattanooga, Atlanta, and the Carolinas. After the war, he was named the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan; and was elected twice to the U.S. Senate based on “his virulent opposition to the constitutional amendments following the Civil War that elevated former slaves to the status of free citizens.”
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is not known for this failed military man and white supremacist, but for the horrors and bravery of a series of Civil Rights marches in 1965. It’s known for John Lewis’s blood, for mounted posse-men’s chains and barbed-wire-wrapped clubs, for tear gas and screams. It’s known for a march two weeks later led arm-in-arm by Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., and local pastor and activist Frederick D. Reese (also the principal of Selma High School my senior year).
As a kid, I’d hung out underneath the bridge, its shadows a salve to summer heat, the river water’s shimmering reflections on its underside, car tires percussing across expansion joints above.
MR: The Civil Rights park across the river at the base of the Pettus Bridge saddened me. I had been to the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta, the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. There was a magnificence to each, and they were well-maintained and crowded with visitors.
The Selma site couldn’t have appeared more of an afterthought. Here I was at the site of one of the most dramatic confrontations of the Civil Rights Movement, but the park seemed as if it had been thrown up overnight like graffiti. The site sat off to the side, in the crook of the bridge’s elbow. If you tossed a burger wrapper out of your car, this is where it would land.
Sleek, funereal monoliths sat next to flimsy, vinyl banners honoring unknown slaves and soldiers. Several wooden pavilions were arrayed toward the riverbank, rotting in the morning heat and humidity.
Someone cared about the park. People had used their own money and sweat to place the monuments here. But the people who did this were fighting a losing battle. They didn’t have the money, clout, or community support to do what should be done properly.
I looked back up at the bridge and realized I didn’t know anything. I claimed support for the people who put their bodies on the line in the 1960s. But I dishonored them with my indifference. I felt ashamed. I was a bandwagon activist.
July 4, 2017, Rolling Toward Lunchtime, Selma
TB: We drove to the Old Live Oak Cemetery, where dirt paths meander through dappled shade of oak and magnolia trees draped in Spanish moss. I used to spent afternoons wandering the gravestones, piecing together stories of infants and mothers born as long ago as the late 1700s; and of young men killed in battle, names known and unknown. I’d made out with girls there, written angsty teen-ager poems.
The peace is tainted now.
In 2015, the local United Daughters of the Confederacy — the “Friends of Forrest,” named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the original Klan Grand Wizard and the Confederate general who lost the Battle of Selma — gained ownership of a one-acre circle in the middle of the cemetery. They erected tall flagpoles featuring the Confederate battle flag and the stars-and-bars, a bust of Forrest, and security cameras. They also regularly plant small Confederate battle flags throughout the cemetery, a bloody flag field like fire in the sunlight. The Friends of Forrest have long been helmed by Pat Godwin, who describes her role in promoting the Confederate cause and the memory of Forrest as “providential. … [O]ur Lord has allowed me to be just a small part in this effort to pay homage to Gen. Forrest that is properly due him, especially here in Selma….”
MR: What surprised me most was how little I felt. I was standing beneath a tall post-Reconstruction obelisk dedicated to the Confederacy. It seemed every other headstone was decorated with a little Confederate flag. A few yards away sat a cannon that fired munitions at the Union soldiers who came to liberate people who looked like me. The inscription on the bust of Forrest lauded him as a “Wizard of the Saddle.” But my heart didn’t race. I guess I was confused.
To be clear, I hate the Confederacy and all it stands for, but I was struck by the fact that I was actually in the heart of the Confederacy. Whereas New Orleans did not vigorously fight to oppose the Union’s liberation, an actual battle took place in Selma. Men, whether I agreed with them or not, fought and died here.
I had a fleeting thought that, if the Confederacy couldn’t have a monument here, then where could they? This was the effect standing in a cemetery in the Heart of Dixie had on me. Like I said, I was confused.
TB: We were in for pleasant graveyard company, my old friend Vaughan Russell. An older pillar of the Selma community, Vaughan is a lawyer and municipal judge. When I was in high school, I appeared before him on a reckless driving ticket. One summer in college, I worked for him as a law clerk. My senior year of high school, Vaughan was my lawyer, representing me when two white vice-principals at the high school tried to expel me.
In 1990, the six white school board members voted against the five black school board members to end their contract with the city school system’s first black superintendent, Dr. Norward Roussell, a bright and innovative educator from New Orleans. I was one of the students leading a series of protests supporting his contract’s renewal. I received telephoned death threats, “nigger lover” notes under my windshield, and an anonymous letter accusing me of being an “anti-white racist against your own race.” The two white vice-principals began interrogating me for a couple hours every day about an unsubstantiated rumor about drinking on a debate team trip. They yelled at me that they’d suspended “two of them black kids” for drinking after a track meet and they would by-God expel me.
So, Vaughan and I have some history. Plus he’s proudly and compassionately liberal in a small Southern town, an example I’ve taken to heart. Together, we strolled around the Confederate Circle. “Now there used to be markers here for the unknown Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Selma; where are they?” Vaughan said as we walked among the low old gravestones.
“I thought I remembered markers for Union soldiers, too,” I said, “but figured maybe I was misremembering.”
“Oh, no, you were remembering right.” There were a handful of blank spots in the otherwise even rows of stones.
Vaughan regaled us with stories from his family’s past. He pointed to a plot near the Confederate Circle, where one of his Civil War-era ancestors was buried. I asked Vaughan, with his family’s long ties to Selma, what his feelings were as to the battle flag and the “heritage” arguments.
“The Confederate battle flag has its place in museums,” he answered. “I do not connect on any level with those who would carry it in public or display it as an item with current meaning. I’m named for a captain who served in the cavalry for the CSA, but after he returned home and at his death, he loved both his region and his country, or at least that is what I have been told by my grandmother. I would like to think that some of the vestiges of his character remain with me.”
No such character appears to reside in the motives of Godwin and her ilk, the ones who had taken a peaceful spot in the cemetery and turned it into a segregationist-era wet dream of Confederate battle-flag paraphernalia. In an April 2013 post on one “Southern Heritage” Facebook page, Godwin referred to Selma as “Zimbabwe on de Alabamy,” and to the fight to dedicate public space to a statue of Forrest as a “Jungle Campaign.” In another post submitted to a pro-Confederate website in 2012, she wrote that “… there is NO justice for white folks anymore,” continuing, “I am as President Davis … one without a country … that is until we reconvene in Montgomery, Alabama once again as a GOVERNMENT OF OUR OWN!” The genteel Daughters of the Confederacy, ladies and gentlemen.
Vaughan took us to lunch at Lannie’s BBQ Spot. When I lived in Selma, you headed toward Lannie’s by turning onto Jeff Davis Avenue, but in 2009 the City Council renamed the street J.L. Chestnut Boulevard, after J.L. Chestnut Jr., the first black attorney to practice in Selma. He’d received his undergraduate degree from Dillard University in New Orleans, where, incidentally, there is still a major boulevard named after Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
July 4, 2017, Early Afternoon, Selma
MR: Vaughan was a good conversationalist, and I was happy to know Tad’s mentor was alive, kicking, and doing his level best to help people in Selma. We spoke about family, women, history. I felt like Vaughan was an uncle I didn’t see often enough. Lunch at Lannie’s was probably the first time since our adventure began that I felt at home.
An important black cultural norm is “the Nod.” The Nod is not an ordinary greeting. You see someone and acknowledge them with a tilt of the chin, plus eye contact and perhaps an “all right.” The Nod is a safety signal. It’s a way for us to communicate that all is well despite being outnumbered or subject to the vicissitudes of white supremacy. Once, I was travelling and hadn’t seen another black person for what felt like days. I spotted a black woman across the street. We nodded. But somehow this wasn’t enough. We approached each other and talked about how strange it was to be the only ones like us for possibly hundreds of miles.
But Selma was the opposite. The demographics have trended blacker over the decades and African-Americans comprise over 80 percent of the city today. So, why was it that every black person I came across reacted to me like they’d just spent a year in Antarctica? Virtually every fellow black person I saw gave more than a nod. They made eye contact. They waved. They spoke. At an intersection near the cemetery, two men in a car stopped, looked at me, and let loose a soliloquy of salutations. Was it forced graciousness? Was it disguised worry? I was reminded of the psychological horror movie “Get Out,” where the black house maid had to smile at everyone or she would feel physical pain. Beneath her grimace was a woman trying to scream.
At Lannie’s, I stood to stretch. Two black women, perhaps mother and daughter, sat at the table nearest the door. I slow-walked by. Sure enough, their faces lit up. I told them where I was from and how nice everyone in Selma was.
“New Orleans,” the mother said. “I’ve never been there. I never could.” Her response perplexed me. Was it rumors of crime? The monuments controversy?
“No,” she said. “It’s all the stuff in the air.”
I tilted my head. “Stuff?”
“Like pollution. Bad for my health.” She was convinced toxins in my city might kill her. I experienced a coda to this the next day when an elderly black fruit seller shook his head and said, “New Orleans. Ooh wee. That’s real far.”
It was as if they were cut off by choice, convinced that linking up with the wider black community might be dangerous. The only safe place for them was in their small town, the entire population of which could fit in the arena where New Orleans’ professional basketball team plays. Selma had its own history of triumphs and tragedies. I was in no position to tell those folks how to live their lives, how to survive.
TB: We left Vaughan and went to visit Hanna Berger, a family friend.
In 1938, Hermann and Frieda Berger resettled in Selma under the auspices of the National Refugee Service. Hermann opened a tailor shop not long after moving to town, and Hanna was born to them there. After college and a few years teaching in other Southern towns, Hanna returned to Selma, becoming a guidance counselor at Westside Junior High School, where she worked until her retirement in 1993.
It was sweltering when we arrived at Hanna’s tree-shaded house. Hanna had made a batch of homemade strawberry-ginger lemonade. As we talked, Kasimu noticed an antique portrait on the wall. It was a photo of Hanna’s paternal grandparents, Leopold and Johanna, when they were a young couple in Germany. Leopold and his second wife, Emma, were murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Hanna’s maternal grandparents, Josef and Minna Kahn, also died at the hands of the Nazis, in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, respectively, along with two great-uncles and four aunts and uncles.
These stories we were collecting stacked on top of each other to tell not just a particular Selma story but also an American story. Not a story of who we were, but a story of who we are, a story of Nazis in Charlottesville and a country still grappling with the compassion (or not) with which to treat refugees.
Our next stop was to see another friend and mentor, Faya Rose Touré (formerly Rose Sanders). She and her husband, Hank Sanders, moved to Selma in 1971 and began a law firm with J.L. Chestnut. “Agitator” and “troublemaker” were words I often heard on the white side of town to describe Faya Rose as I was growing up. “Local domestic terrorist” is how Godwin and local neo-Confederates refer to her.
When Faya Rose opened the door to her law offices, she greeted us with a hug and a fierce smile. She ushered us into the law firm’s conference room. I realized I’d left a tripod in my car that Kasimu wanted to use, so I excused myself. When I came back in, Faya Rose, Maurice, and Kasimu were gone.
MR: I’ve always been nervous around activists. I get this feeling that I’m just living my life and complaining about how jacked up everything is. I felt that way around Faya Rose for about 90 seconds. Ninety-one seconds in, she offered us ice cream and cookies. We followed her through a winding hallway to the law firm’s little kitchen. That’s the thing about these radicals. They often turn out to be kindly grandmothers.
Faya Rose struck me as a type. The kind of person who not only saw injustice, but stood up to it time and again through educational initiatives, lawsuits, and direct action. It was as if towns such as Selma produced people like her in reaction to the overt and covert racism visited on the community. In a different world, perhaps she would have practiced real estate law, but in this world, Faya Rose had spent her entire life engaged in legal actions, including resisting multiple efforts by her opponents to have her disbarred.
“Was there ever a moment you wanted to give up?” Kasimu asked her. “What’s kept you going?”
“Good people,” she said. If you have a good effect on someone’s life, they tell you. And over the years, many had told her just that. But I wondered aloud about fear. There were real-world consequences for doing what you believe is right.
“And there’s some realism in that,” Faya Rose said. “That’s why I try not to judge people. But there’s always something you can do. You don’t have to be out there in the street. You don’t have to be at a protest. You don’t have to be at a rally. When you’re in a position where you can influence and have an impact, there’s always something you can do.”
After a turn in the conversation to the doom and gloom of today’s society, Tad asked her if she saw any hope for a better day. Faya Rose replied, “I just think you have to see the good in the day that you have. I think if you can’t see the good in the day that you have, then there’s no hope that there will be a better day.”
July 4, 2017, Nearing Dusk, Then Night
TB: After we were done interviewing Faya Rose, we drove to Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. Kasimu was taking pictures, Maurice soaking it in, when a car pulled up and two white women got out, on a road trip from California. Like so many others, they were getting out of their car, marveling, taking pictures, then getting back into their car and driving on, not dropping a single dollar in Selma, not talking to a single person from Selma. Faya Rose had mentioned this, people stopping to walk across the bridge, then going on to buy lunch at a restaurant in Montgomery or Birmingham, not staying at the St. James, not eating at Lannie’s, not paying admission at the museum.
We drove to the house of Johnny “Skip” Moss, chair-elect of the Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce, member of the Selma City School Board, and an administrator at Wallace Community College (named for segregationist Gov. George Wallace). His house was in a tidy 1970s-era neighborhood, in a grid of streets named Lee, Dixie, and Merrimac. We’d been in the same graduating class at Selma High, but after he graduated from Tuskegee University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he’d come back.
Around Skip’s pool, we cracked open beers, then more beers. This would not be an interview with the incoming chair of the Chamber of Commerce but a drink with an old friend. His brother, covered in tattoos and sporting long dreads, relaxed in the pool, chewing on a toothpick with a paper American flag. This was America, on its birthday. Skip’s children badgered him to set up the water slide.
“I’m having a conversation here,” he told them, and I thought of my own kids back in New Orleans, their insistence, my love, and how we are all trying hard to live our lives with them and for them all the time, no matter where we are.
I wondered about this neighborhood, with its older white couples and younger black families and its Civil War-themed street grid. Skip mentioned how they had looked at a house across the side-street from the still-all-white Selma Country Club, a bastion of clueless segregation across Valley Creek from the cemetery.
“It’s disappointing,” Skip said, “but I couldn’t see stepping out my front door every day and seeing that golf course where I couldn’t play because of my race.”
Later, Skip’s dad joined us, and they discussed Valley Grande, the town north of Selma, about when it incorporated and why. Skip figured it was innocent enough, people who wanted “two acres and some cows,” while his father posited the outflux of Selmians and Valley Grande’s incorporation coincided with the election of Selma’s first black mayor. Either way, the numbers are stunning. In the 1990 census, Selma had almost 24,000 residents, 41.1 percent white and 58.5 percent black. That same year, during the school protests, a number of white parents pulled their children out of Selma city schools, many of them eventually moving out of the city to be in the county school district. In the 2000 census, Selma was down 2,000 residents, and the racial breakdown was 28.77 percent white and 70.68 percent black. In 2003, Valley Grande incorporated. The 2010 census showed Selma was 18 percent white and 80.3 percent black, while Valley Grande was 75.2 percent white and 23 percent black.
“The main problem is they’ve got to stop isolating themselves,” Skip said of the white population in Selma, echoing themes we’d heard from Vaughan and Faya Rose. But ever the optimist — he was, after all, the class president almost every year of junior high and high school — Skip mentioned the search for a new superintendent for the city schools, the potential for magnet schools within the system, and the hope these developments would bring white families back into the city.
As night settled in, we watched bats flit and dive to catch bugs over the pool, then Skip invited us into his house to eat from the family’s cookout earlier in the day, including his mom’s excellent strawberry pie. In another room, the family sang happy birthday around a candlelit cake for a niece’s birthday. In the living room, the Marine Corps band played patriotic music on the TV as fireworks went off over Washington, D.C.
July 5, 2017, Morning Again, Selma
MR: I shook off sleep and went for a jog. Selma had its hooks in me. Although I told myself that the racial division, conflicting views of history, and economic decline were not my concerns, I didn’t really believe that. I liked this little Mayberry. Its problems were American problems. If we could solve Selma, we could solve America.
As I trotted up Dallas Avenue on my way back toward downtown, those graves with the Confederate flags, adorable if I ignored their significance, were to my right. An idea kept tickling the back of my mind. Back at the hotel room, I turned to Tad.
“I know how to save your hometown,” I said.
He raised an eyebrow. I was aware of how ridiculous my statement was. This wasn’t some heartwarming movie where all we needed to do was follow a plan and fix everything.
“Hear me out …”
It occurred to me that Selma’s problem was that its people were at cross-purposes. The town had some of the greatest resources in the world to attract tourists and teach the world about reconciliation. What would happen if all of Selma came together?
By now, we were at City Hall. I knew a few things about that place. Most of the orders against the civil-rights protestors came from there. But the mayor now was black. If anything, he would want to relive the glory days, wouldn’t he? He would be stuck on that bridge, right?
“We’ve been stuck on that bridge for over the last 50 years,” Mayor Darrio Melton said, folding his hands. “Yes. This is our history, but what does Selma look like in the 21st century?”
It was almost like the Mayor was reading my mind and improving on my vague ideas. He envisioned a future where the Civil War reenactors and the folks who put on the civil-rights bridge-crossing Jubilee came together for the benefit of the community. Perhaps, a new gathering place could be established.
“It could be a learning place,” the Mayor said, one that could take visitors “from the last great battle of the Civil War to that blood-stained bridge.” The mayor suggested change would come from the town’s citizens themselves. “People will remain the same until the pain of remaining the same is worse than the pain of changing.”
I left the Mayor’s office with a sense of hope. He was a politician and a politician’s job was to make people feel better, safer. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if conversations with his predecessors would have gone down in a similar way. Mayor Melton was only the second mayor since the long reign of Joe T. Smitherman, who was mayor almost continuously from 1964 through 2000. Maybe I would have felt just as hopeful after leaving a meeting with that mayor.
TB: For the eighth-grade social studies fair, I interviewed Mayor Smitherman. The experiences of interviewing the two mayors couldn’t have been more distinct.
Smitherman’s office wreaked of the cigarettes he chain-smoked, and was stuffed in every corner with the tchotchkes of more than two decades of political power. Mayor Melton’s office was spotless, devoid of any extraneous material. On the wall behind him was a city seal approved after Smitherman’s reign was over, the motto “Civil War to Civil Rights and Beyond” encircling an antebellum mansion and the Pettus Bridge.
Where Smitherman spoke in bromides about the era of segregation, such as “You have to understand it was a different time then,” Mayor Melton spoke in specifics about fiber-optic networks and Selma becoming the newest “five-gig city.”
Smitherman was already grizzled when I sat down with him. Mayor Melton is 37, energetic, discussing a municipal kickball league as a way to get people together: “If people sweat together, they’ll work together. It may seem like a small thing, but if you get families to come together, that’s a start.” Mayor Melton talked about the school system and about technology centers to bring broadband access to poor neighborhoods, but he also talked in broad strokes about how “the story of Selma is the story of America,” about how the story of the marchers on the bridge in Selma in 1965 — people fighting to become fully a part of America — is an ongoing American story.
Mayor Melton discussed how that story — the civil-rights story of 1965 through the present — should not be divorced from the story of 1865, that there is a continuum of history in which Selma is an exemplar, and that it is neither a completed story nor one that is unique just to Selma. He spoke of Selma reconciling these parts of the story — the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement — into a single story the city could present to the world, a singular history that can drive economic development and be a reconciling force at the same time.
MR: The downtown café where we headed for a quick late breakfast between interviews was like a set from a movie about the South. The hand-painted sign. The large plate-glass windows. The patrons scattered around the dining area, people who seemed like they must have been going there their whole lives. A warning light was blinking on the dashboard of my mind.
The restaurant didn’t just look like The South. It seemed from a different era, too. I felt like I’d stepped back into the 1960s, as if Rev. James Reeb had only just been savagely beaten and killed a few blocks over. Time travel is a fun concept in theory. But it’s no fun for a black person in the South.
A white lady stood at the hostess stand. She gaped at the three of us like we had just walked in and asked where the MRI machines were. I got a vibe that she was about to ask us to leave, that a micro-aggression was about to blossom into a major-aggression, when another white lady popped up from a booth near the wall.
I took a half-step back. The second lady greeted Tad. They hugged. They were high school classmates. She was there with her daughter. I grimaced. I exhaled.
Another restaurant worker, not the gaping lady at the counter, showed us to a table. I kept looking around the dining room. I wondered which of the patrons were like the hostess, nonplussed at the presence of two black guys and a race traitor. I wondered which were like Tad’s friend, happy to see us. Racial tension is like a box of chocolates. You never know.
July 5, 2017, Afternoon, Then Home
TB: The morning was whiplash. The conversation with Mayor Melton had been genuinely enjoyable at points, and confirmed some hope. But the greeting by the hostess at the café jerked me in the other direction. But then deAnn Strother McGilberry came over with a big hug and the most Southern, honey-dripping voice you’ll ever hear to say hello. DeAnn had graduated from Selma High with me. She lives in Selma, runs a jewelry business and, like a lot of folks working quietly on a person-to-person level, is involved in a thousand ways trying to boost Selma as a unified and sustainable community.
Jerked between these extremes as I sat at our table eating a slice of coconut cream pie, I thought it appropriate that our final interview would be with Ainka Jackson, executive director of the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth, and Reconciliation.
MR: The Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth, and Reconciliation was trying to charm me. It had been a long journey. I was weary and questioning everything I had experienced. But here was a scene I found hard to question: A van pulled up. Out hopped a group of young people of various races and ethnicities. They chatted and cajoled each other as they walked up the low-slung ramp to the entrance. I felt like I was suddenly in a different town.
“You can’t have reconciliation without truth, but you can’t have truth without relationship,” Ainka said, after we were seated in the main room. Ainka’s ideas were about bringing people together, pragmatically. In something called Beloved Community meetings, people pair off in the context of fixing nominally non-racial, local problems like homelessness and health care disparities. “I ask them to tell a story about themselves. I think there’s power in stories.”
I liked Ainka’s approach. She wasn’t satisfied with the status quo, which sat people in their separate corners of the ring, embracing their separate, but equal, truths. She said it’s hard to bring someone to your side if your goal is to make them feel guilt and shame. No one likes to feel like a perpetrator. This struck me as a universal truth.
As we drove out of Selma, I was no longer under the impression that I had a solution to the city’s problems. Racism wasn’t a curable disease like smallpox or shingles, as I used to think. It was a chronic, persistent malady, more along the lines of schizophrenia. We could dose ourselves with medicines and deploy strategies to increase the chances we would have more good days than bad. But brawls over so-called black-on-black crime, police brutality, and monuments would be with us till the End Times. We were those struggles. We’re all Selma.
TB: One topic we discussed with Ainka was a $3 million grant awarded by the Kellogg Foundation a week before our visit, to fund racial-reconciliation efforts in Selma. Whether it’s the community gatherings discussed by Ainka, the city kickball games advocated by Mayor Melton, or the efforts to make the city schools attractive to white families again as hoped by Skip and the Mayor, two things were clear: (1) People would have to want to stop isolating themselves, and (2) There are many people in Selma, white and black, particularly among a younger generation who have come back to raise their families, who are willing to do the hard work of making it happen. Imagine Selma, long an example of oppression, protest, and division, marching toward being an example of reconciliation. What better place than Selma?
Selma is a rich and vibrant place in history. Not just a history of distinct episodes — the Selma of the Battle of Selma; the Selma that launched Samuel Zemurray from a young Jewish immigrant selling bananas on a street-corner to the founder of the New Orleans-based, hemisphere-dominating United Fruit Company; the Selma of Hermann and Frieda Berger, escaping Nazi fascism for a life of opportunity; the Selma of the Bloody Sunday march toward a voting-rights solution for the nation; the Selma of a major Air Force training center that closed in the wave of base closings in the late 1970s; the Selma of the school protests and resegregation of the 1990s; the Selma of small towns with big dreams of being a gig-city and more — but a a continuum of the American experience. The good, the ugly. The frustrations, the hopes. A place to reconcile not just black with white, but to reconcile crime and poverty with educational opportunity and a new cyber economy. A place to reconcile crumbling historic architecture with solid stone monuments. A place to reconcile good intentions with old grudges.
As we left the center, we drove by the overgrown ruins of the old Selma Foundry, one of the primary foundries for Confederate armaments. I wondered where the monuments-and-heritage crowd’s preservation efforts were for those old buildings. After all, there was real history, behind a falling-down, chain-link fence, choked by scrub trees and vines.
We drove out in search of Valley Grande, which I recalled as a crossroads and a gas station 10 minutes north of town. Instead we found a “Valley Grande City Limits” sign abutted right up on Selma’s city limits, just past the old skating rink. We drove as far as the old service station I remembered, a Confederate battle flag fluttering from a flagpole out front, before turning around and driving back through and out of Selma, headed home to New Orleans, afternoon sun slanting through pine trees as we wound past cotton fields and through red-clay cuts through low hills.