Change in Selma, Alabama

By Ocean Robbins, Founder, Youth for Environmental Sanity, Oct. 12, 2000.

YES! was privileged this summer to co-organize and co-facilitate a camp in partnership with 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, a non-profit organization based in Selma, AL. 21st Century was founded by Rose Sanders, one of the luminaries of the civil rights movement, and a prominent civil rights lawyer and leader today. Directed by Rose’s daughter, Malika Sanders (1999 World Youth Leadership JAM! alumni), 21st Century works to empower African-American youth in the South with self esteem and skills to make a difference, building on the legacy of the civil rights movement.

In June, Michele and I flew to Selma to join with 15 mostly white youth chosen by YES!, and 15 mostly black youth selected by 21st Century, for a week-long camp to work towards building a multicultural movement for social justice and environmental sanity. To be honest, I had no idea before that week how deeply divided the southern United States still is along racial lines. Many of the African-American participants at this camp had literally never had a white friend, and felt at first profoundly mistrustful of white people. As they shared their stories, I understood why. Selma, a city of 50,000 people that is 60% black, has an average per capita income of just over $6,000. Yet the white population owns the majority of the businesses, lives in all the “nice” neighborhoods, and totally controls the political landscape. Selma doesn’t have any recycling whatsoever, but it does have an overwhelming smell, 24 hours a day, emanating from the local paper plant (which, by the way, spews dioxin into the air at illegal levels). It’s a city simmering with racial tensions.

The camp was an inspiring and profound experience. Participants reached across the racial, cultural and economic divides and built powerful bridges of respect, solidarity and love. The pain of racism was faced with great courage, and at times it was almost piercingly painful for the white folks in the room, myself included, to hear the depth of oppression faced by so many people of color in the United States today. I realized that racism is something that white people generally can choose to notice, or not. Most people of color, however, are confronted with injustice and racism on a daily basis, and have no such choice. I was filled with awe, as I have been at each of the more than 30 YES! Camps I’ve facilitated, by the enormous courage and love that lives in every human heart. If only given a chance, and some respect and love, every human being can be great, and can help to transform our world. The camp ended with hugs and new best friends promising to keep in touch and to support one another in the struggle. Participants from Selma said they would need all the help they could get unseating their mayor.

The mayor of Selma, Joe Smitherman, had at that time been in power for 36 years. Elected as an outright segregationist, in his second year in office he watched police beat demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus bridge as they sought to embark on the 1965 voting rights march. That march became a profound symbol of the struggles and victories of the movement, as 20,000 civil rights activists led by Dr. King eventually completed the march with national guard support, leading to the signing of the National Voting Rights Act. But right in Selma, birthplace of the voting rights movement, democracy was a long time in coming. Mayor Smitherman stayed in power through massive voter intimidation and voter fraud. In election after election, violence and the threat of violence would keep many black voters away from the polls, while others were bribed. In two cases, Smitherman actually lost on election day, only to amass a stunning (and seemingly fraudulent) victory when the absentee vote came in.

Throughout his stay in office, Smitherman ruled a Selma that was governed of, by, and for the white population. He fought bitterly against virtually every piece of civil rights legislation he could. In 1990, he told Time Magazine that Selma’s first black Superintendent was “just an overpaid nigger from New Orleans.” Only a month ago, he said Selma should not have a black mayor because “blacks cannot run cities. They don’t know how to stay inside a budget.

” September 12, 2000, was to be election day in Selma. As the day approached, Mayor Smitherman’s campaign began to follow its usual course of action. Bomb threats, voter intimidation, casting absentee ballots “for” people on the inactive voters list, bribes, and more. Staff members for the amply funded Smitherman campaign went door-to-door in the black neighborhoods, telling families that they might not want to vote on election day, because it “could get violent out there, and we’d hate to see anything happen to you.” But though scared, the people of Selma were sick and tired of it. They’d had enough. They knew what they had to do to get Smitherman out of office: Generate a massive voter turnout in the black community. So the “Joe Gotta Go” campaign was born, with 21st Century playing a major role in mobilizing the youth vote.

On August 28, with the election just a couple weeks away, two 21st Century organizers had their cars set on fire right in front of their office. Frightened, and feeling the racial tensions rising towards a boiling point, they contacted YES!. They made it clear that Selma was profoundly divided along racial lines, and stating clearly: “we could sure use some white people here.” Since 1965, the black people of Selma had not had white people standing and working with them, and to feel that this was not just an issue of race, but also an issue of human rights and justice, would change the whole attitude in the community. Hearing the call, and seeing the need, three white YES! staff members flew to Selma to organize volunteer efforts and help get out the vote.

Brahm Ahmadi, Jessica Simkovic, and Levana Saxon worked night and day on the effort. They went door-to-door in black neighborhoods, promising that they and other monitors would be at the polling places to insure public safety. They helped to organize street demonstrations, and to coordinate the more than 100 volunteers that poured in from colleges and civil rights organizations throughout the south. On election day, they and other volunteers went door-to-door throughout the city, offering rides to anyone who had not yet visited their polling place that day. And legal “coaches” watched for anyone who came out of a polling place without an “I voted” sticker. Sure enough, in most cases they had been denied the right to vote because of technicalities, or because their polling place had unfairly been changed without them being notified. In each case, the matter was painstakingly sorted out.

Unlike previous elections, the Justice Department monitored the activities in Selma, and representatives described the city’s handling of the election as the worst case of election fraud they had ever seen. An enormous effort was mounted on both sides. In the end, Selma saw an African-American voter turnout rate of nearly 90%. Malika Sanders (President of 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement) writes: “YES! was part of an effort that produced what was probably the highest voter turnout among the young (anywhere) in the last decade, triple the national average at the time. For the first time in my life, I saw people coming from pool halls, juke joints, crack houses, mansions, offices and everywhere to the polls.” Joe Smitherman suffered a resounding defeat to 47-year-old James Perkins. The key battleground of the voting rights movement had finally gotten its democracy, 35 years later.

In his concession speech on the night of September 12, Smitherman said, among other things, that this victory really belonged to Rose Sanders (the founder of 21st Century). He also said that his opponent won “by bringing people from California, the NAACP, Al Sharpton, all this crowd into Selma to try to affect the outcome of a city race.” When I heard him say that, I shouted “YES!,” because the “people from California” to whom he referred were Brahm, Jessica and Levana!

That night, at 11 PM, Selma had its first traffic jam ever, with thousands of people pouring into the streets to sing, dance, hug, laugh and cry together. Brahm said it was “like the Berlin wall had come down. I have never seen such glorious joy radiating from a crowd in my life.” Aside from Brahm, Jessica and Levana, the people celebrating in the streets were pretty well 100% black. But their presence seemed, at some symbolic level, to be of profound significance to many people, some of whom commented that it was “unbelievable” to see white people standing with them in the struggle. It’s awfully painful to me that that’s the experience these folks have had of the white community, but an awesome privilege to be a true ally in the struggle. Recently, Malika Sanders (21st Century’s President) wrote: “The bottom line is that when the call was made to people around the country to come and witness the voter fraud happening in Selma and to stand as a reminder that what happens in Selma is important to the rest of the nation, YES! did not hesitate to come. YES! participated in the making of history that rang out across the globe. Thank you YES! for being brave enough to talk the talk and walk the walk. Perhaps our world will know sanity in our lifetimes.”

The work in Selma is not over. It’s always easier to get rid of something bad than it is to succeed with something good. But at least the people of Selma have the opportunity now. And at least we got to play some part in the shaping of a future with more justice, peace and sanity than the past.

Ocean Robbins, Founder Youth for Environmental Sanity