Sunday, February 26, 2017

Selma: A Bicentennial History

Selma: A Bicentennial History
© 2017 Alston Fitts III
384 pages

On December 4th, 1820, the Alabama legislature granted a town charter to a burgeoning community established on a high bluff overlooking the Alabama river. The place, named after a cities of heroes from a Scottish poem in the romantic period, would quickly create its own heroes and stories. In Selma: A Bicentennial History, longtime Selma resident Alston Fitts delivers a celebratory history of the town and its proud yet troubled heritage, in advance of its 200th birthday.  He builds on his initial history (Selma: Queen City of the Blackbelt),  which was published in the 1980s; here, his initial history is greatly expanded, using references to other works to take readers through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the 20th century through one city's experiences. The work never shies away from the city's most controversial moments, but strives to be fair to all parties. For a Selmian, this is a history that does the city justice, with a multitude of fascinating little stories based not just on old records, but interviews with the city's residents. Their many contributions to the book, in interviews and photographs, make it a true reflection of the city rather than just the view of one author.

To those only familiar with Selma's modern history, as a small city only remembered for being the site of the Civil Rights movement's crowning moment, Selma  reveals another place -- a center of industry and trade that rivaled Montgomery for prosperity and political influence; a city sure enough of its future to argue for its selection as the Confederate capital during the war between the States.  Selma and its mother county, Dallas,  contained some of the richest soil in Alabama, and both civic and business leaders made the most of that wealth by aggressively pursuing railroads; long after the great river had ceased to be the chief commercial artery of the state, Selma's network of banks and railroads were poised to prosper further in the 20th century. Its rails and river made a commercial center, but it was no slouch in regards to industry:  Selma housed an arsenal rivaling Richmond's as well as a principal naval foundry during the war, making it a target for Union troops; still later, during World War 2, Selma hosted an air force base that survived into the 1970s.    Selma's wealth was not merely monetary, however; her citizens were truly dedicated to the city, pouring themselves into creating civil institutions like schools, hospitals, and the library. They created block after block of magnificent buildings, many of which still stand today: the historic district of Selma is one of the nation's largest. 

Selma's past as an agricultural titan would bear unexpected fruit throughout the 20th century, however. The economic culture of the antebellum South meant that Selma and Dallas County' wealth came from fields worked by slaves,  to the degree that Dallas County  has maintained one of the largest black populations in Alabama for generations. When Reconstruction began in the postwar South, it contributed many black businessmen and politicians.  These gains would fade and be reversed by the end of the 19th century, however, culminating in the establishment of Jim Crow segregation laws and the 1901 Alabama Constitution. The latter document established barriers to voting which included poll taxes, property holdings, and the explication of Constitutional articles; these requirements together reduced the black voting population in Dallas County from several thousand to under a hundred.  These barriers, disenfranchising poor blacks and whites alike -- and flying in the face of Alabama's original constitution, which incorporated universal white male suffrage -- would not fall for over sixty years.   Selma entered the national spotlight again in 1965, when a local voting league invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to help draw attention to the cause of suffrage in the city. Fitts notes that the league was able to accomplish what it did largely because the black community in Selma was so healthy, with a strong middle class supporting several hospitals and two colleges. One of the most dramatic moments of the Selma campaign, for instance, was the mass support black teachers lent to it when they absented themselves from teaching to march instead.  Visiting in 1968, King himself was astonished by the progress of the black community, and the strengthening relationship between it and the city's white population.  Legendary mayor, Joe Smitherman, had just been elected to the office in '65, and continued to sit the big seat throughout the rest of the century in part  because he made himself a ready ally of of the black community. Unfortunately, racial harmony would be disrupted as Selma entered the 1990s,  as a certain group of lawyers created such a hostile atmosphere in the city that one of the state's most integrated systems fell to pieces.  Still, the city is doing what it can to move past that episode, as the actors involved are now dying off. Perhaps their bitterness will buried with them.  The city now has a young mayor in Darrio Melton who has already demonstrated  a strong intent to scrape away the old barnacles and begin making progress once more. 

As a modern history of Selma, Dr. Fitts has done a superb job of presenting the most essential elements of previous histories, connecting them to broader histories of the South and southern institutions (black churches, for instance, via use of Wilson Fallin's Uplifting the People),  His heavy use of interviews and the photographs of Selma citizens make it a community story, almost, and one that the generations are able to contribute to given that he references one older history written by a Selma mayor.   As a native son of the Queen City, I found quite a few questions answered here, learned some interesting tidbits along the way, and finished the book feeling ever more affectionate toward this, my storied hometown.

Selma 1965, Chuck Fager
Reporter: Covering Civil Rights...and Wrongs in Dixie, Al Benn

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