SELMA, ALABAMA — When nearly 100,000 people descended on Selma last week to mark the 50th anniversary of the attack on voting rights protesters known as Bloody Sunday, they encountered a city that looked nothing like the quaint but divided community depicted in the recent Hollywood film.
On the outskirts of town, clusters of mobile homes and crumbling shotgun houses sit along unpaved roads. The majority of downtown businesses near the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge — save for several fast food chains and payday lenders — stand vacant, their windows boarded up or broken. Most of the city’s public housing projects, built in the early 1950s, are in serious need of repair.
With more than 36 percent of residents and 60 percent of children living in poverty, Dallas County is the poorest in the state of Alabama, making it one of the poorest in the country. The unemployment rate is nearly twice the national average.
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
With the eyes of the nation on the small community, residents and civil rights leaders expressed hope that the historic commemoration would galvanize action against the economic injustice that remains today. Gathering in the historic Brown Chapel AME church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached to protesters, they called for a revival of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign — a pro-labor, anti-poverty movement that he led until his assassination in 1968.
Even though it lost him the support of many politicians and fellow activists, King called for an economic revolution that would give all the nation’s poor a guaranteed income, nationalize private industries, and a “Marshall Plan” for America’s urban ghettos. After he was killed while helping striking workers in Memphis, his widow led “Resurrection City” — the occupation of DC’s national mall that King had planned. But the campaign fizzled after winning a few modest gains in food stamp and childcare funding. In Selma last week, activists said it’s time to take up the torch.
“We have to put the poor back on the agenda and organize not for poor people but with them,” Reverend Dr. William Barber, President of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the Moral Mondays movement, told ThinkProgress. “There is no way to talk about civil rights without talking about economic rights. They are all tied together. So here in the South, the new civil rights movement has to take on poverty, which is intertwined with education and health care.”
One of those leading that new movement on the local level is Selma native Latasha Irby — a single mother of two who works at a local factory that makes foam seats for Hyundai cars.
“There are such low wages, and we can’t make ends meet one week to the next,” she told ThinkProgress, noting that she makes just $12 an hour after 10 years with the company. “And jobs aren’t plentiful in Selma, so you can’t just walk off this job and go to another. We have to stick around and try to deal with what the company is doing.”
For years, Irby and her coworkers have tried to organize and pressure their employer, Renosol, for higher wages and a safer workplace. In 2014, the factory was cited by federal inspectors for multiple serious violations, including failing to provide workers with appropriate protective equipment and safety training, and not documenting work-related illnesses. Workers at the plant have suffered sinus infections, chronic coughs, bronchitis and asthma.
“We tried to start a union but they came in and scared everyone, telling them a bunch of lies, like if we formed a union, our customers wouldn’t accept our cars,” she said. “But it has to be done. Change has to be made. The only way we’re going to make things better is if we have a voice in our workplace on issues that concern us directly.”
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
Irby also argued that raising worker wages would help the whole town’s economy — as workers with more money in their pockets would then spend that money in town, boosting local businesses and creating jobs.
“Businesses don’t want to come here. Even in the Selma Mall, stores are leaving,” she said. “I want to keep my money in the community, but there’s nothing here.”
Irby and others at the Selma commemoration said they hopes the multitudes that came to town to honor activists of a previous generation — including the President, and dozens of lawmakers — also stand by her and others who are in the trenches today.
Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), who represents Selma, took advantage of the attention on her hometown to take the President’s Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro on a tour of the city’s public housing projects. “The housing in Selma is old and in need of repair,” she told reporters after the tour. “We want the Secretary to know that we need economic help. We need better quality affordable housing.”
CREDIT: Deshundra Jefferson
Secretary Castro was visibly moved on the tour as he touched the cold cinder block walls and low ceilings of the George Washington Carver homes, constructed in 1952, and pledged that he and his staff would put their “thinking caps” on and work with the community on a revitalization plan. Though he acknowledged resources are scarce, with public housing nationwide needing about $26 billion of repairs, he vowed to do what he could with the funding Congress gives him.
“When we’re able to renovate housing, we can lift up the quality of life for the residents,” he told reporters. “For the young kids who might be 6 or 7 years old, they’ll be more likely to concentrate in school. For folks who are in their golden years, they can truly live in comfort.”
CREDIT: Alice Ollstein
But few of the national figures who visited Selma saw what Secretary Castro saw, and this bothered advocates like Reverend Barber, who are calling for a new campaign for economic justice.
“About 100 members of Congress came here, but did they go into the real city? Are they just coming here to say, ‘We loved what happened years ago but we’re not willing to deal with issues today’?” he told ThinkProgress. “I pray for a day when politicians come to a town and their caravans automatically go through the poorest areas. But that only happens when there’s a movement from the ground up. You change DC from Selma-up, not from DC-down.”
Rev. Barber and others pushing for a new Poor People’s Campaign say Dr. Martin Luther King’s radical pro-labor legacy has been largely ignored by those in power today, and the Selma anniversary was no different.
“People say Dr. King started focusing on economics in 1967, but that’s not true,” he told ThinkProgress. “In one of his first sermons in Montgomery [in 1956], “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” he talked about the 1 percent ruling over the 99 percent, and what happens when capitalism goes crazy.”
Irby said this side of King’s history was never taught to her or her children in school.
“I just recently found out about it myself,” said Irby. “Knowledge is power, but the only time they really talk about it is during Black History Month and on Bloody Sunday. The rest of the time, children never hear about it.”
Now, she draws inspiration from what she has learned. “The past paved the way for our fight now and gives me hope for now,” she said. “If they did it back then, we can be strong enough to do it again today. But today, we are really struggling and we workers deserve better.”