“Selma: A Bicentennial History”
Author: Alston Fitts III
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Alston Fitts, originally from Tuscaloosa, has lived and worked in Selma since the early 1970s. A trained scholar with a PhD from the University of Chicago, Fitts is an excellent choice for this one-volume, richly illustrated history of Selma.
In the Preface, Fitts tells the reader of his plan. There is more to the history of Selma than the Battle of Selma, in which the town was poorly defended, overrun by the Union forces, and mostly burned, and the Selma to Montgomery March which began, falteringly, famously, on Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Fitts is an honest narrator. Some in Selma would not want the story told at all but he will tell it, as he says, “warts and all.”
And there are warts aplenty. There are times when the reader can feel Fitts’s discomfort, but while the citizens of Selma have “sinned wonderfully” they have also “suffered terribly.”
He covers the early years pretty quickly, slavery and the treatment of Freedmen. Alabama strongly encouraged Freedmen to leave and Selma passed laws in 1860 prohibiting “any negro on the street from…smoking a cigar or pipe or carrying a walking cane.”
The penalty for playing games of chance was 39 lashes.
Selma during the Civil War had a thriving newspaper scene and it was here that George Washington Gayle ran his ad in the “Selma Dispatch,” seeking a million dollars in crowd-funding to assassinate President Lincoln, Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward.
Selma seems to have a penchant for branding. During the antebellum years it favored the label “Queen City of the Black Belt.” Later this became “Central City.”
During the War, Selma was “The Arsenal of the Confederacy,” building ships and cannon and nearly everything else, which is why it made such an inviting target for Yankee raiders. It took the Union Army a week to destroy Selma’s industries.
Selma entrepreneurs were, it seems, always, before and after the War, enchanted by railroads. Several were started up; most failed. It was customary after the War to choose a Confederate general as president and Fitts quotes a Cincinnati paper:
“It was easier to find a general in Selma than it was a private.”
Fitts goes light on the better known events—the burning and the bridge—but is thorough to a fault on the history of Selma’s churches, businesses and schools, black and white, public and private, K-12 and higher ed.
Selma was, perhaps surprisingly, a nexus of higher education, with several institutes and colleges for African Americans, and labelled itself “The Athens of Black Alabama.”
Black educators had a struggle.
In 1918, for example, “Dallas County spent $17.35 per capita educating its white children and only $.90 for its black ones.” In 1930, the ratio was $51.00 per year vs. $7.00.
Fitts discusses the struggles to establish and maintain hospitals and the quarrels over public schools and their Boards, the eternal wrangling over integration, fraternal and social organizations, and, especially, political districting, gerrymandering, voting corruption, including “losing” boxes of votes.
In 1894, “Selma lawyer Gaston Robbins was elected to Congress on the basis of the 5,462 votes he received in his home county. Later, however, a congressional investigating committee decide that only 568 of Robbins’s votes had been legitimate!”
Of black voter registration, enough has been said
In the 1890s Dallas County’s “lustre” was dimmed by frequent lynchings, Fitts remarks, tersely.
As we know, few African-Americans were allowed to vote. More surprisingly, in 1889 only 91 white Selmians bothered to vote for mayor in the general election; the Democratic nominee was the certain winner.
It is clearly all here and to warp a phrase, race runs through it. One Selmian, John Fielding Burns, found the 1901 constitution too flexible. He wished to disenfranchise illegitimate people, bastards, of any race, but especially Booker T. Washington.
Suffragettes were not suffered. One Martin Calhoun wrote a stream of letters to the papers to rally the Black Belt against this “nefarious Yankee plot to degrade southern womanhood.”
To its credit, the town did resist the Klan in the nineteen-twenties and tried to help feed the poor in the Depression. Much charity, however, was aimed far from home. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Selmians were very active in missionary work in Africa, especially the Congo, where they supported a missionary and bought a steamboat, and Brazil and China. Much money was raised and sent.
In 1937, the Fathers of St. Edmund in Vermont sent a mission, not to Africa, but to Selma to help feed poor black people. Fitts reports: “Some local whites suspected them of being communist.”
After the Second World War these same fathers sent two female doctors, from Germany and The Netherlands. A sign appeared on their office door: “The KKK is watching you.” They wrote on the sign: “keep watching.”
There is a brighter side. Race relations are clearly better and the city has refurbished a number of downtown hotels and shops in an attempt to become a tourist destination, including Civil Rights Tourism.
Selma has been named, officially, “The Butterfly Capital of Alabama” and now wants, without irony I believe, to be called “The Birthplace of the Voting Rights Act.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.