Changing places

10th April 2015 at 01:00

Selma, a small town in the middle of the US state of Alabama, has been big news lately. First there was the eponymous film dramatising the struggles of Martin Luther King and his civil rights movement to get black voters registered in the town. This culminated in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery "Bloody Sunday" march, which became a landmark in the establishment of civil rights for black Americans.

On the 50th anniversary of the march, Barack Obama showed up in town, along with tens of thousands of others, to commemorate the occasion by walking the first stage of the 50-mile journey across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The violence meted out to the original marchers on the bridge and the subsequent media storm led to the Voting Rights Act later that year, which finally delivered the franchise to black Southerners.

When I spent a year teaching in the town, however, things were much more low-key. This was in the early 1980s, more than 20 years on from those historic happenings. But having been a teenager when the civil rights campaign was at its height, it's fair to say that when my teaching exchange letter arrived with the words "Selma, Alabama" plastered across it, I began packing with a degree of trepidation.

The signs weren't good. The first thing that struck me was the name of the college I would be teaching in: the George C Wallace Community State College. In case you haven't seen the film or are too young to remember, George Wallace was the Alabama governor who declared in his inaugural address: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

But appearances can be deceptive. Many things had clearly changed for the better in those 20 years. For instance, the local police force - and the workforce of all the public services - by then reflected the 50:50 racial split of the town.

My composition and literature classes were integrated, or at least black and white students sat in equal numbers alongside one another, which was a real advance in a state where the Ku Klux Klan still had a significant presence, albeit in much reduced numbers. The faculty was still overwhelmingly white, although there were some black teachers and in the next decade many more followed and the college appointed its first black president. There was a real sense of optimism among the black students I taught, not only that things had improved but that they would continue to do so.

On the political front, at least, they did. The town now regularly elects black mayors and black police chiefs, something unthinkable back in the 1960s. But these gains have come at a price. Selma today, as I saw for myself on a recent visit, has suffered from a population slump, largely caused by white flight. The economy has dipped, crime has soared and unemployment is twice the national average. And, as one black resident, an 11-year-old boy in 1965, told The Guardian on the day Obama visited: "We still got a white country club here. The only way I can go there is if I cut the grass."

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London

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