November 3, 2008 / 6:24 AM / 10 years ago

Election divides civil rights battle town

SELMA, Alabama (Reuters) - If Democratic candidate Barack Obama wins Tuesday’s presidential election, he will owe a debt to this Alabama town where one of the most significant confrontations of the civil rights era played out.

The Edmund Pettus bridge over the Alabama River at Selma, Alabama is pictured on October 30, 2008. REUTERS/Matthew Bigg

Forty-three years ago, state troopers and local police wielding clubs and firing tear gas charged peaceful civil rights protesters marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma and beat them senseless.

Their purpose was to stop the march and to enforce laws that prevented blacks in the South from voting.

National TV networks interrupted their evening programs to show footage of the “Bloody Sunday” attack and revulsion at the images so shocked the country it helped forge a consensus for passage of a law that enabled blacks to vote in the South.

“This presidential cycle would not be possible without the sacrifices and the courage of those people on the bridge,” said Selma resident Malika Sanders-Fortier in reference to Obama, who would be the country’s first black president.

“This is a monumental election for the people of Selma because it represents the direct effect from the civil rights movement,” said her husband Franklin Fortier in a view shared by other African Americans in the city of 20,000.

Each year on March 7, prominent politicians march across the bridge over the Alabama River to commemorate the day in 1965 that made Selma a byword for racial intolerance. Obama joined the march in 2007.

But to many people in Selma the election has little to with race and everything to do with a clash between liberal and conservative ideologies. That sentiment matches views in much of the South where most voters say the legacy of a racial history that includes slavery will have no impact on their choices.

Alabama regularly votes Republican in presidential elections and many Selma residents said they distrusted Obama as an inexperienced liberal who would be weak on national security and had dubious friends.

“A person is known by the company he keeps and he has got a lot of clouds over the company he kept,” said Allen Williams.

Williams and other white residents said that while they would not vote for Obama, they would happily have voted for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a black American.


In the most notorious example of violence on the bridge, then student leader John Lewis received a fractured skull in a beating by security forces. Lewis is now a prominent U.S. congressman from Georgia.

The night the marchers finally reached the state capital Montgomery, members of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan trailed a car carrying a black man and a white woman activist down a lonely road and shot the woman dead.

Today, the river bridge still stands as a gateway to Selma but residents old enough to remember the events of that day are divided about exactly what happened.

Some white residents said the city had been invaded by outsiders bent on causing trouble. Others said segregation was softening by the mid-1960s and the marchers stirred trouble for nothing.

Still others said people failed to understand how difficult the choices were for many young whites in the South — torn between allegiance to the only system they knew and a pressure for change.

“It was hard to know what was right and to do what was right without hurting anybody,” said Jean Martin, 85, curator of the city’s Old Depot museum and a newspaper columnist.

Martin said she would vote for Obama because she disliked the way McCain had treated his first wife, whom he divorced.

Williams was in the National Guard during the protests. He said black youths provoked the attack by frightening police horses into stampeding toward them.

“People in the South were separated, black and white. It caused a lot of hard feelings (among whites) when they started forcing ... (desegregation) when they were slowly taking care of themselves,” Williams said.

The city and the South have fundamentally changed since then, said Williams and several other white residents.

As one piece of evidence, he cited George Evans, who was to be sworn on Monday in as mayor of Selma and is the second African American to hold the post.

Evans was elected by a coalition of black and white voters, defeating the black incumbent.

Evans, 64, left the city in 1962 for college in Kansas and watched the violence on television. In its wake he spent hours responding to questions from white fellow students on campus about whether Selma was as bad as the pictures made out.

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama waves to supporters at a campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio, November 2, 2008. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Selma has evolved since the 1960s but race still plays a role in its politics, he said.

“There will always be some blacks and whites who will keep race as an issue but sometimes it’s not an issue, it’s an agenda,” said Evans.

“Selma has made progress in its relationships but .... there are still some things that some people have not let go. Some people don’t want to put the past behind them and move on,” he said.

Editing by Mohammad Zargham

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