Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How a Symbol of Black Equality Became a Center of Black Poverty

Selma was a crucible of the civil rights movement. That brings visitors, but residents and businesses have fled the Alabama town.

A mural in Selma.
Photographs by Alan Greenblatt
The St. James Hotel, which was built in 1837, reopened in January after a $7 million renovation. Guests can look out the back at the Alabama River as it passes by Selma, or stand on wrought-iron terraces out front and listen to the trickle of a memorial fountain first installed in 1911. “It’s one of the last of the pre-Civil War riverfront hotels in the country,” says Jim Lewis, who spearheaded the renovation.

Business is ramping up nicely, Lewis says, thanks largely to white-collar business travelers and wedding parties drawn to Selma’s antebellum mansions. But the hotel is also an attractive option for tourists who are drawn to Selma as a pivot point in the civil rights movement. The Edmund Pettus Bridge, which marchers crossed on their way to a confrontation that led directly to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, is a short block away.

The problem, as Lewis readily acknowledges, is that there’s almost nothing else of interest to tourists nearby. Selma was once a wealthy city, thanks to agriculture, manufacturing, retail and slavery, but those days are long over. Its downtown buildings are handsome, but many are boarded up or overgrown with ivy. Some of the sidewalks have given way to gravel. What was once a used-car lot across from the St. James is now just weeds.

“It was shocking to see that Selma has not been cared for,” says Kimberly Smith, a Washington, D.C., resident who visited this spring. “Trying to find a restroom, trying to find a place to eat — we thought, ‘My god, there isn’t anything in this town that is in service.’”

The St. James Hotel in Selma, Ala.
Business is good at the recently renovated St. James Hotel, but most tourists pass through without staying the night.
Selma may be a sleeping beauty, but there’s a question whether it can ever fully awaken. It’s one of the poorest cities in the nation. It’s also one of the most dangerous. They no longer light up the lamps outside City Hall that signify whether there’s been a “murder” or “no murder” in town, but the homicide rate remains high and Selma has been plagued by gang activity. Selma’s population slipped below 18,000 in last year’s census — down a third from its high in the 1960s and 13 percent lower than in 2010.

“People go to college and never come back because they don’t have any opportunities,” says Ahmad Ijaz, who directs the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research. “That just starts another round of vicious cycles.”

Selma’s problems are extreme, but not unique. Across the country, rural areas and small towns have seen declines in manufacturing jobs due to automation and global competition. In Alabama alone, there were almost 120,000 people still working in textiles in the early 1990s. Now, Ijaz says, that number is down around 8,000. Alabama’s major cities are doing well, thanks in large part to auto manufacturing, but that’s not helping the state’s smaller communities much. Small cities that lack reliable broadband or access to an interstate are falling further behind all across the rural Black Belt.

A neglected building in downtown Selma, Ala.
Once a prosperous city, Selma is suffering from years of neglect.
Wayne Vardaman, the economic development director for Selma and Dallas County, says that people who only look downtown are missing the big picture. The area is home to four industrial parks, with companies making glass, pallets and other products. Right now, it’s easy to get a job at any of them. In 2018, International Paper announced a $552.7 million upgrade to its Dallas County mill, building on a $300 million investment announced the previous year. “Companies don’t invest that kind of money unless they’re sure about the area,” Vardaman says. “In the last five years, we have been consistently in the top 50 percent (of Alabama counties) in capital investment.”

Lately, there’s been a surge of investor interest along Water Avenue, the riverfront drag that features the St. James, as well as other parts of downtown. Prices are certainly affordable and — as was the case with the hotel — developers can count on federal and state historic investment credits. Traditional financing can still be hard to come by, but Vardaman says more announcements will be forthcoming.

The city can’t rely on one hotel and one type of tourist. It has to achieve some sort of critical mass. Tens of thousands of people visit every year, but Selma lacks stickiness — the attractions and amenities that could keep visitors around long enough to spend any real money. The bridge may well be “the epicenter of civil rights history in this country,” as Lewis says, but it costs nothing to cross.

“Selma’s issue is that it really is not providing for the vast number of people who go there and want to go there,” he says. “A lot of people go, walk the bridge, poke around and they’re on their way.”

Selma’s Storied History

Local legend has it that the St. James Hotel was spared during the Civil War because its white owner left a Black man in charge during the Battle of Selma in 1865. During the war, Selma employed roughly 10,000 men forging cannons and building warships, making it a natural target for Union troops.

Throughout much of the 20th century, Selma was the retail heart of the western Black Belt. (The term refers to an agricultural region known for its rich, dark soil but, given the history of slavery and its long aftermath, it’s not a coincidence that this former cotton-growing region is majority African American.) Wholesalers and clothing stores once occupied many of the handsome buildings in downtown Selma. There was a time when the city was full of Black professionals — teachers, doctors, pharmacists, grocers and funeral directors.

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is an internationally known symbol of the struggle for civil rights.
But it became more difficult for most Black residents to make a living by the end of World War II, as cotton gave way to cattle, erasing the livelihoods of many tenant farmers. (Cattle have since been replaced by forests that edge up against the city, which is why International Paper runs a local mill.) In 1960, 84 percent of Black families lived on less than $3,000 a year, according to the 2017 book Why the Vote Wasn’t Enough for Selma.

Economic hardships among Black residents helped fuel a spirit of activism. During the civil rights era, the Dallas County Voters League saw the benefit of partnering with national organizations, inviting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to come work on literacy drives and voter education. Following the police killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson in nearby Marion, SNCC launched a plan to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery, 50 miles away.

What happened next is a central part of civil rights history. There were three attempted marches, but it was the first one, on March 7, 1965, that the world remembers. Led by John Lewis of SNCC, a future congressman, marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, then were brutally beaten by state troopers and vigilantes.

Televised images of “Bloody Sunday” led President Lyndon B. Johnson to call for a voting rights bill in a joint address to Congress eight days later. Listening to the speech in Selma, Martin Luther King Jr. wept. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that August — swift action by congressional standards, following a century of filibusters and other delays.

Underscoring Selma’s historic importance, the National Park Service maintains a small visitor center on Water Avenue, across from the bridge. Above placards and video monitors, the center reproduces President Barack Obama’s comment during his second inaugural address linking Selma with Seneca Falls and Stonewall as key touchstones of American equality.

After the Base Closed

One thing that Selma has going for it is name recognition. Unlike most small towns, Selma — the nation’s 2215th largest — is known internationally and to nearly all Americans. Prattville, Ala., about 45 minutes away, has twice as many residents, but who’s ever heard of Prattville?

There’s living history in Selma. There are still residents who can recall, as children, having overheard Martin Luther King Jr.’s end of phone conversations with Lyndon Johnson. “There’s a home that Dr. King would stay in every time he came to Selma,” says Steve Cox, who is working with Selma and other Alabama cities to promote civil rights tourism. “The family that he stayed with, the daughter’s still there.”

Hearing eyewitness testimony is enthralling for tour groups and schoolkids, but most people have no idea how to arrange such talks. Even during the pandemic year, cellphone data registered 50,000 out-of-state visitors along Water Avenue by the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but most arrived casually, as part of a side trip from Montgomery or Birmingham. Prior to his death last year, Congressman Lewis led annual re-creations of the 1965 march, but those were one-day events.

Many tour groups never step out of their coaches, Cox says, or they only stop at the bridge and use the “good bathrooms” at the Park Service visitors center. “They’ll leave without spending a dime,” Cox says. “Part of our task is changing that.”

A building in Selma, Ala., with a sign on its side advertising the revival of the city.
The number of historic buildings available at relatively low prices may encourage redevelopment of the downtown area.
Where would they spend money? The decline of downtowns has been a national phenomenon, but Selma hasn’t seen the type of retail resurgence led elsewhere by restaurants, yoga shops and CBD stores. Only a couple of blocks on either side of the St. James Hotel are fully occupied. One of the few businesses actively operating within sight of the bridge is a bankruptcy attorney, who’s taped a sign to the door saying, “no cash kept in office.”

Selma’s contemporary downturn started in 1977, when the Defense Department announced it would close Craig Air Force Base, which had provided $35 million in payroll and $3 million in local contracts to Selma. Within a year, the base’s 2,800 personnel had withered to 106. “When it lost that, it also lost a lot of resident population that was spending money in the local economy,” says Nisa Miranda, director of the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development.

Whites continued to hold majorities on the city council and school board into the 1990s. But the loss of economic opportunity, along with the steady erosion of political power, led to white flight. Selma’s rate of population loss for most of the last decade was the highest in Alabama. The city’s population now is 82 percent Black. The poverty rate is 37 percent.

“For two generations, it’s deteriorated and stratified and everything else,” says Jim Lewis, the hotel developer.

The Long March to Freedom

Within a mile of downtown, you can see the kind of unpainted, crumbling shacks that have long been emblematic of rural poverty in the South. Right in the downtown, so many storefronts are vacant that Paul Barrett helped start a “fill-in-the-blank” project, attracting grant money for local and regional artists to display their works.

“The neighborhood benefits by getting a facelift and hopefully property owners benefit a little bit,” he says. “People walk by and say, ‘This would be a great spot for my law office or to put a café.”

Charlie Lucas, one of the artists who participated in the downtown installation project, commutes from Prattville to a warehouse in Selma where he works and displays his sculptures. He runs an art camp in the summer that attracts kids from as far away as Canada. “The parents want to send them off for a few days with the grandparents and experience Selma,” Lucas says. “That’s what really helped me stay a long time in Selma — the history of the town, the bridge, all these elements.”

Experiencing history in person can bring it to life in a way that books can’t. Bearing personal witness becomes especially important at a time when the teaching of racial history is receiving heavy blowback, says Barbara Harris Combs, author of From Selma to Montgomery: The Long March to Freedom.

“In the case of Black progress, we want to look at Selma as this watershed moment where the nation had its reckoning,” she says. “We’re saddened when other places fall into disrepair and decay. When I think about Selma, the difference is that there’s a threat that it can be erased.”

A house in Selma, Ala.
Substandard housing is another consequence of a local economy in decline.
Kimberly Smith, who visited from Washington in March, says she was appalled to find that a place with such a rich history as Selma has been dishonored through neglect. She wanted to experience that history firsthand, “that powerful experience of walking in the footsteps of our ancestors to freedom.” Last fall, she and a group of seven other Black women retraced Harriet Tubman’s path along the Underground Railroad, walking 116 miles from Cambridge, Md., to Kennett Square, Pa.

This year, they decided to walk from Selma to Montgomery. Most of the historic trail follows Highway 80, a four-lane road. They kept to the shoulder, but at times the shoulder nearly disappeared. “Usually people would see us, put their blinkers on and change to the outside lane to avoid us,” Smith says. “This car was clearly coming toward us. We jumped off the rumble strips, into the grass.”

They encountered an African American woman at a gas station who immediately recognized that they were retracing the march. They needed police protection for that, she said. She called an officer who escorted them to the Montgomery County line.

“It was unnerving, just indicative of the experience that my parents and the people who came before us had,” Smith says. “The cop that was with us — I’ll never forget his quote. ‘In many ways, it’s still 1965 in Alabama.’”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
From Our Partners