Selma wants to be noticed more than one day a year

SELMA, Ala. – When President Joe Biden landed here on Sunday, he met a city that was frozen in time.

Brick buildings, aging and largely untouched since the days its residents helped ignite the country’s civil rights movement nearly six decades ago, line the streets. Empty storefronts line both sides of the main street – Broad Street – where the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge is located. Typically, the city is quiet. But on the first weekend of every March, the streets come alive.

On Sunday, hours before Biden set foot on the bridge, white vendor tents covered nearly every corner, many selling T-shirts emblazoned with the face of late Rep. John Lewis or a $13 plate of fried fish. Grassroots organizers held programs on reparations and voting rights.

Biden arrived to recognize “Bloody Sunday.” The demonstration of 600 people in Selma on March 7, 1965 ended with state troopers beating protesters, and it ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year. Biden’s visit was part of both a somber memorial service and a joyous celebration. A reminder of black excellence and strength—and of the horrors of the Jim Crow era. For decades, almost every president has visited Selma this weekend.

When Biden’s motorcade arrived at the scene, thousands of spectators lined Broad Street applauded. They cheered as the president made his way to the ladder to join the other dignitaries, including several members of Congress and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Will Barber.

Speaking right at the base of the bridge, Biden pushed for voting rights legislation to pass. He also repeated his call for the Senate to remove the filibuster to help clear the way for Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

“Selma is an accounting. The right to vote and have your vote counted is the threshold of democracy and freedom,” Biden told the crowd, generating applause. “With it, anything is possible. Without it, without that right, nothing is possible. And this fundamental right continues to be under attack. I will not let the filibuster obstruct the sacred right to vote.”

Biden also hit out at Republican efforts to limit the teaching of certain aspects of black history.

“No matter how hard some people try, we can’t just choose to learn what we want to know but not what we should know,” he said. “We should learn everything — the good, the bad, the truth about who we are as a nation. And everyone should know the truth about Selma.”

Local residents – and those who make the stop every year – welcomed the attention. Everyone here noted that the Jubilee is the city’s only notable event.

“The country sees Selma as a purely historical place, as a monument,” Oni Scott, a college student from New York, told POLITICO. “I feel like a lot of people come down here for the anniversary and for this weekend. But every other time I come here, it’s completely empty.”

But every year, residents hope the national attention will last beyond the weekend. They said this year in particular, Biden has an opportunity to help a city that has long struggled to revive.

On stage and prior to Biden’s remarks, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), whose district includes Selma, thanked the president for his work that led to last year’s passage of the infrastructure bill and, before that, the US bailout. But she added that it was important to “take advantage of these opportunities to make a difference for all of Selma. We can’t have an uneven recovery. It’s not fair. And it’s not right.”

Fewer than 18,000 people are estimated to live in Selma, which is 84 percent black, according to the 2020 census. Nearly a third of the population lives below the poverty line, though local leaders now expect it could be far more after a tornado with 130 mph winds tore through the city in January.

“We need your help. We need everything in Selma,” Sewell said.

Joann Bland, a “Bloody Sunday” survivor who helped lead a movement to build Foot Soldiers Park, a standing monument to the site where protesters gathered before the march, said she had wanted Biden to invest further in city ​​and help rebuild a community devastated by a tornado that exacerbated decades-old infrastructure problems.

“I want him to say he put some resources into Selma. I want him to say they don’t put a Band-Aid on Selma, give me $2 and think you gave me something,” said Bland before Biden’s speech at an unveiling event for a park mural. “I want him to say he’s going to do something concrete here in Selma to help with our rebuilding. He said ‘build back better.’ Then he’s going to put the resources here to do it.”

The frustration of local residents and national advocates who visited also centered on the lack of national movement on voting rights, even though Democrats successfully passed the Inflation Reduction Act and a gun safety bill.

Cliff Albright, co-founder of the voting rights group Black Voters Matter, who visited Selma over the weekend, said that while black voters understand Biden’s predicament in battling a divided Congress, that won’t stop them from pushing him harder.

“When we have friends — people that we expect more from, people that we’ve given power to — part of our strategy has to be to hold them accountable. It’s not hate,” he told POLITICO. “So when he fall short, we have to collectively call it out.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who joined Biden in Selma for the memorial service, said the president has an opportunity to prove his commitment to the black community that helped put him in the White House.

“Some have called Selma a holy land. I think it is,” she said in an interview before Biden’s arrival. “The president supports infrastructure transformation. It could be an example of that, an example of honoring the history of the civil rights movement right here in Selma, because it’s a city that hasn’t changed.”

Albright sees it the same way. He fears that if Biden fails to rise to the “next level,” it could hurt black voter turnout in 2024.

It has been a tension since day one in the Biden White House, with aides privately expressing frustration at the suggestion that the president is not doing enough for the black community. They have pointed to his executive actions on policing and expanding access to voter education.

The president highlighted these actions during his speech, noting the millions of dollars Selma has received through American Rescue Plan funds.

“Silence is complicity and I promise you, my administration will not remain silent,” he told the crowd, adding: “See you. We are fighting to make sure no one is left behind. It is time to choose and we have need everyone to get involved.”

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