By Aaron Morrison | Associated Press
Zakiya Sankara-Jabar’s cellphone buzzed relentlessly as a deadly storm system that spawned tornadoes across the southern United States devastated the homes and churches of relatives in a part of Alabama known as the Black Belt.
Text messages and calls from loved ones, many of whom were hysterical, provided her with devastating news about Thursday’s storms that battered her hometown of Dallas County, including the history-making streets of Selma.
Families in the city, which represents the civil rights movement, saw their homes damaged but remained structurally sound. For those in Beloit, a nearby unincorporated town where Sankara-Jabar spent the first 20 years of her life, the damage was almost unimaginable.
“I have a family that lost everything,” she said on Friday. “My great-aunt’s house was leveled. I’ve seen pictures and it’s like the house was never there.”
Sankara-Jabar’s family has called this part of Alabama home for generations. Taking its name from the rich, dark earth, the Black Belt is a region all too familiar with hardship, both economically and socially. Many of the civil rights movement’s most important struggles took place in the area, including “Bloody Sunday,” when nearly 58 years ago, state troops and clan proxy members brutally attacked black people who were nonviolently marching across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge for voting rights.
Almost every year since the march, Selma and Dallas County have welcomed hundreds to thousands of foot soldiers, tourists, politicians and movement activists who solemnly cross Pettus Bridge to commemorate the sacrifices of those who bled for democracy. But when the annual celebration is over, the Black Belt remains a working-class region struggling with gun violence and drug addiction, much like many U.S. communities, but with far fewer resources.
About 37,600 people live in Dallas County, which also includes Selma, of whom about 71% are black and 27% are white. The county’s median household income is $35,000, and nearly one in three residents lives in poverty.
“To lose everything for someone who was already working class and already financially poor is devastating,” said Sankara-Jabar, a racial justice activist who now lives outside of Washington, DC
Thursday’s storm caused severe damage to Selma and cut a wide path through downtown, collapsing brick buildings, uprooting oak trees, throwing cars on their sides and sending power lines dangling. While Selma officials said no deaths had been reported there, several people were seriously injured.
US Rep. Terri Sewell, a native of Selma, said it was painful to see what the tornado did to her beloved hometown.
“To come across that Edmund Pettus Bridge and just see nothing – lights out – and as we drove down Broad Street to see street after street being vandalized it was frankly heartbreaking and heartbreaking for me.” , Sewell said on Friday .
At the same time, she said, Selma is resilient.
“After all, we survived and thrived on civil rights and voting rights,” she said.
The city is famous for its historic sites: Pettus Bridge, which commemorates the Selma to Montgomery march; Brown Chapel AME Church, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked with local activists during the Selma movement; and the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, founded in 1991 and opened near the bridge.
“We ask people to keep Selma in their hearts now, as it is the communities of color that have suffered the most from this particular storm,” said Felecia Pettway, board member for the Voting Rights Museum. “We’re really concerned about what happens next.”
Pettway is also the director of development for Legal Services Alabama, an organization that provides free civil legal advice to low-income residents. The organization’s Selma office was damaged by the tornado.
A few blocks from Brown Chapel AME Church, the starting point of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, homeowners boarded up blown windows and carried salvage belongings from houses whose roofs had been blown off.
Rachel Bonner, 77, was at home when the tornado struck, tearing the roof and side walls off her home.
Like many people over 60 in this city, their lives are intertwined with the region’s history. She graduated from a historic school for black students, which remained open as a public school until the 1970s.
“I marched in Selma and Wilcox County during the movement,” Bonner said.
Pearlie Miller, who was at work during the storm, made her way home to check on her sisters. Her home was destroyed, but she is grateful that her family is safe.
“God has been good to us. We are blessed. That’s how we see it,” she said. “Our whole family is safe. Our neighbors are safe and that is all that matters.”
It’s no exaggeration to consider downtown Selma sacred ground. It’s where the late Amelia Boynton Robinson, a Selma suffrage strategist and matriarch of the civil rights movement, convinced King to get involved with the movement in hopes that he would help nationalize the struggle for the right to vote. Here, on March 7, 1965, the late Georgia Congressman and suffrage icon John Lewis was nearly beaten to death by state cops while crossing Pettus Bridge.
It’s also where the first black president and first black vice president paid tribute to a civil rights movement that helped turn their rise to high office from a pipe dream into a reality.
When the expected tens of thousands gather there next March for the annual anniversary of the Selma Bridge crossing, the city center will resemble a huge street festival. Music will be blaring and vendors will be selling groceries, t-shirts and other memorabilia.
But when national politicians leave and news media cameras disappear, Selma’s high crime rate, potholed streets, abandoned houses and empty businesses will remain. The city famous for the election campaign will continue to have to deal with its declining voter turnout.
Adia Winfrey, executive director of Transform Alabama, a nonprofit that promotes civic engagement and voter turnout, said the needs of all of Alabama’s black belt, not just Selma, are diverse and include water, sanitation and educational infrastructure, as well as child care. Parent support and activities for young people.
“There are great people doing great work, but their capacity is limited,” said Winfrey, who is also board secretary of the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee.
“How do we use the excitement about the anniversary and the interest in Selma’s history to bring the resources to Selma?”
Associated Press writers Kim Chandler and Sharon Johnson contributed from Selma, Alabama. Aaron Morrison is a New York City-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.