The Story We Don't Tell About Selma

03/09/2015 12:26 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015
Nicole Craine via Getty Images

On March 7 2015, the 50th anniversary of Selma, the president recounted the awe-inspiring story of what happened in Alabama in 1965: Despite their seeming powerlessness, African-Americans and their allies engaged in nonviolent protest that compelled a nation to live up to its principles; they looked white supremacist terror in the face and marched on to freedom.

To his credit, the president gracefully walked the line between honoring this American triumph and also acknowledging the painful continuities between then and now, from Selma to Ferguson. But traditionally, this core narrative of American triumph is the story that we want to tell about Selma and about our nation. It's the grade school version, with a clear beginning, middle and end, the one that many Americans still carry with them. Things were terrible; people protested; now things are better.

The problem with this narrative is not that it is not true, but rather in the way we tell it, the loud crescendo that stresses the ending and thus offers comforting reassurance that America's ugly dance with racism is over. The conclusiveness of the narrative suggests that African-American history is a linear progression from bondage to freedom and more importantly that race relations and the circumstances of black people's lives are always steadily improving. But racial history in the United States has been far from linear. Instead, it has been a dizzying kaleidoscope of ever-shifting ideas and practices that grow more complex with each decade.

In his speech, the president mentioned that a reporter asked him if the Ferguson report meant that little had changed between 1965 and now, and in response he indicated that while he understood the question, he objected to the idea that little had changed. There is, however, a fundamental problem with the question, the way that it condenses racial history, American history, to an either/or outcome. Change, even change for the better, can be accompanied by constancy, difference with similarity, and transformation with repetition. One need only look at the town of Selma, Alabama today to see this strange amalgamation of past and present. Selma is more than a symbol of American triumph and an inspiration for social protest. It is a living town, and this new Selma is still wrestling, albeit in different ways, with the same white supremacist ideologies that divided it in 1965. If we are going to tell the story of Selma's past as proof of the enduring American spirit, then we also have to tell and own the story of its present struggle with white supremacy.

Last year, the City Council of Selma voted in support of a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, best known as a Confederate General and an early organizer of the Ku Klux Klan. The story of the memorial began in 2000 when a group calling itself the Friends of Forrest erected a monument in his honor in downtown Selma. When the monument attracted protesters, the Selma City Council had the statue moved to a cemetery. But in 2012, the general's head mysteriously went missing. Construction began on a new monument, and protesters gathered again. This time the City Council voted to halt the project, but they found themselves facing a costly lawsuit. Last year, the Selma City Council voted not only to allow the construction to continue but to pay $100,000 to the construction company and donate one acre of land for the memorial site. The racial breakdown of the vote is telling and puzzling at once. All of the four opposing votes were cast by black city council members. All three of the white members of the council supported the monument. But it took the votes of two additional members, both of whom were black, to make the monument happen. And so Selma, the heart of the Civil Rights movement, a city that is 80 percent black, with a majority black City Council, and where 1/3 of the population is below the poverty line will pay for a one acre site honoring a KKK grand wizard.

Many will look at this strange juxtaposition and blame it on the backwardness of the South, the narrow minds of the white poor, dusty rural ignorance. But that explanation is far too easy. Yes, the South is a veritable mausoleum of the confederacy, with well-tended statues, plaques, and busts, littering the landscape. Even a few schools and state parks have born the names of KKK leaders. But these sites are hardly confined to the South.

James W. Loewen argues that since the people who put up monuments and markers are usually "pillars of the white community... Americans still live and work in a landscape of white supremacy... all across America." One need only take a brief walk through the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall, which is not only overwhelmingly white and male, but is also a who's who of white supremacy in the U.S., to understand how Loewen's words apply to the nation, not just the South. Thus, while the irony of the situation in Selma might seem shocking, this duality -- like slavery in a nation built on the principles of freedom -- is also so very American. Ours is a nation of great contradictions. Consider that President Obama, the nation's first black president, joined anniversary marchers at Pettus Bridge, which is named for a KKK grand dragon. As he made his way across, he was less than two miles from the site of the Nathan Bedford Forrest Memorial.

Today's Selma is both old and new at once. The white people who supported the monument probably do not wear their sheets at night and ride around setting things on fire, and the two African-American council members who voted for it did not do so under the threat of a bullwhip. It is a new day. But we should not fool ourselves into relegating the past to the past, just yet. When we see crowded archival photos of angry white faces, surrounding black bodies soaked in spittle and blood from Boston to Birmingham, we prefer to see these moments as frozen in another time and resurrect them only occasionally for educational purposes. But if great Civil Rights leaders, such as John Lewis are still alive and well, so are many of the people who viciously attacked protesters in 1965. The 15-year controversy over the Nathan Bedford Forrest memorial reminds us that those people are not all dead and more importantly neither are their ideas. Instead, those ideologies play out on new terms, on old ground, with old and new actors. It is difficult to even speculate on any of the five supporting council members' reasons -- beliefs, heritage, politics, a costly lawsuit and backlash from a white supremacist group. Who knows? Nonetheless, the end result is clear: If protesters won a battle against white supremacy in Selma in 1965, then they lost one in Selma in 2014. The speed train from slavery to freedom hit a mighty bump.

The history of race in United States continues to be a twisted and thorny path, where we are all always in danger of getting lost. Consider, for example, that while there has been no shortage of critics of the film, Selma, who have leapt to defend the legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson, hardly anyone seems to be equally rattled by the fact that Pettus Bridge is still named for a KKK grand wizard, just as it was in 1965. We should not let this disgrace be our inheritance. If we want to protect our national legacy, let's change the name of Pettus Bridge. Name it for those who risked their lives to cross it. Let's take back the meaning of Selma again.