Selma, Alabama is a beautiful little town. It has big old oaks with moss hanging down from them and lots of antebellum architecture, including some huge mansions that have been refurbished and are open for tours. Selma covers about fourteen and a half square miles, sitting on the banks of the Alabama River. It’s the county seat of Dallas County, Alabama.
Selma, a major producer of ammunition for the Confederacy, was the scene of one of the last battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Selma, fought on April 2, 1865, in which General James Wilson of the Union Army defeated Southern troops and burned the ammunition factories and much of the city as well.
Roughly a century later, Selma was the scene of another battle, a battle for freedom and equality for an entire nation. After the savaging of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, Selma became shorthand for the voting rights struggle and the deeper struggle for democracy in this country. The ensuing march from Selma to Montgomery called worldwide attention to the continuing struggle for civil rights in the United States, and helped force passage of the Voting Rights Act that guaranteed the right to vote to all American citizens.
Selma stands for our best, and for our worst. Selma isn’t in the news much any more, yet the struggles that continue there are just as emblematic of the state of our consciousness as were the struggles in 1965. These struggles are deeper, and have to do with our understanding of our history – and our selves. I went to Selma a couple of weeks ago to take part in a walk through the city and to deliver a petition to the city council. The petition, which originated in Selma, carried over 300,000 signatures from across the globe. It asked the Council to rescind an earlier decision to build a statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest with public money.
Nathan Bedford Forrest is known for several things. Forrest was a self-made man, becoming wealthy through trade (in slaves, among other commodities). Although he had no military training, he became a lieutenant-general in the Confederate Army, known as the “Wizard of the Saddle” because of his innovative mobile cavalry tactics. Forrest won battles for the Confederacy, including the Battle of Fort Pillow, after which he is accused of allowing his troops to slaughter captive African-American and Union soldiers. After the civil war, Forrest moved to Tennessee, where he was an early member of the Ku Klux Klan and eventually served as Grand Dragon.
After the march, a divided Selma City Council finally voted not to fund the statue, but the controversy continues. The “Friends of Forrest” group continues to promote a statue; a diverse group of residents oppose it. Todd Kiscaden, of “Friends of Forrest”, is quoted (Blackstar News, 10/25/12, Carolyn Jenkins) as saying: “There’s a monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. in town. We don’t deface that monument. We don’t harass people. So let us have the same treatment.”
The controversy in Selma echoes a struggle that goes on in many places around the United States: Do “we” have a history? Can we agree that some things in our national history are wrong/shameful/evil – or will we be fragmented into interest groups, each claiming an individual interpretation of history? Separate-but-equal history?
That question is most urgent for people like me, white/European folks, who profit in many unseen ways from the injustice that has gone on in this country. Perhaps it’s most visible in the South because so many vocal people still identify with the romantic notion of the Old South and the chivalrous rebel army, and so on – the kind of identification that builds monuments to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the kind of identification that doesn’t admit the ugliness and evil of slavery and segregation and systemic racism.
For many of us our participation in the system of evil is less visible. My forbears were poor and picked tobacco in Maryland. Far from owning a plantation they were themselves probably share croppers of a kind. Life was very hard for them. And yet … the fact that we had white skins gave us a place ahead of most people who did not. Life was easier for us than for African-Americans who were similar in every other way. We had a sense of entitlement, of having a chance, a presence, of being visible, of having a voice. We had a chance to move up and blend in. Although as Irish and German immigrants we certainly faced discrimination, we were not at risk at first sight, merely because of our skin color.
White-skin folks still profit from that systemic evil. An example: a friend of mine, visiting from the Northwest, went with me to the store. He finished his business first and went to the car, where he leaned on the fender and waited for me. He was accosted by a young black man who asked him what he was doing, and when George explained the young man said, “If that was me in a white neighborhood, I’d be up against the car and being searched by the police!” The young man was angry, not at George, but at the assumptions that are still attached to race. We whites benefit all the time, in ways that are usually invisible to us. It’s impossible to withdraw from that privilege, but it is possible to recognize it and work to oppose it.
In the tradition of the Catholic Church (and of Alcoholics Anonymous), we need to name our sin, feel contrition for it, and make a firm purpose of amendment. If white folks in general were able to do that, we might move beyond our current politics of division. South Africa had Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Perhaps it’s too much to hope that such a thing could happen here and now, (although one did happen in Greensboro, NC) but we could each face the truth about racism, and take our own steps toward reconciliation. Part of the process might be a search for more appropriate heroes for white folks to emulate.
It’s possible that even Nathan Bedford Forrest could become a positive example: according to the information on Wikipedia, Forrest may have changed toward the end of his life. It is reported that he spoke at a meeting of African-American citizens, where he accepted a welcoming bouquet from a Black woman, and seems to have advocated “reconciliation” between the races. It’s unclear to me whether Forrest actually repented, or whether he was accommodating to practical changes – but it would certainly bear further investigation. A racist who repented would be an ideal role model for the changes we need to make.
Shelley Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. She is the hospitaller at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, a member of Holy Family Parish, and active especially against war and the death penalty.