Selma, Alabama, is known as the “Queen City of the Black Belt.” Its legacy in Black history may be unparalleled.
It was here, in March of 1865, that Wilson’s raid happened during the Civil War, destroying the Confederacy’s hold in the state. The Battle of Selma played a key role in the Confederacy’s ultimate surrender.
By the mid-1920s, Selma had become pivotal to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1918, the NAACP had established a chapter in Selma; in the mid-’20s its president, C.J. Adams, founded the Dallas County Voters League to help African Americans in the county register to vote.
When Adams left Selma in 1948, Sam Boynton took over, and by the mid-’50s he and wife Amelia Boynton were hosting regular meetings of the DCVL in the office of the insurance agency they had founded to protect themselves against job retaliation—a common abuse leveled against those advocating for civil rights.
Yet even after the federal Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, which aimed to reduce the barriers to—and the interference with—Black Americans’ rights to vote, abuse of power continued in Selma. The use of violence and menace to prevent Black citizens from voting persisted in Dallas County, even after the Boyntons and DCVL members testified about the registrars’ misconduct before the newly-formed Civil Rights Commission in Montgomery in 1957.
In 1963, with Amelia Boynton now at the head of the DCVL, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Conference (SNCC) brought its support and voter registration campaign to Selma. Soon, the two organizations were planning for demonstrations and sit-ins, and were demanding full integration of all public facilities and the hiring of black police and firefighters. As they did, hundreds of activists were assaulted and arrested.
Then, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference arrived to work on voting rights with the DCVL and SNCC, and on January 2, 1965, the Selma Voting Rights Campaign began with a speech by SCLC’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
That winter, the nonviolent civil rights activists began planning marches to demonstrate for Black Americans’ right to vote. They would become watershed moments in the voting rights movement, leading directly to the passage, later that year, of the Voting Rights Act.
Though the activists were nonviolent, the marches were not.
The first march from Selma the courthouse in Marion, AL, on February 18, 1965, was led by Reverend C.T. Vivian to protest the arrest of DCVL member James Orange. Alabama state troopers attacked the marchers along the way, shooting Jimmie Lee Jackson in the process. Jackson died eight days later, and James Bevel of SCLC called for a march from Selma to Montgomery to speak with then-Governor George Wallace about Jackson’s death.
The second march, for 54 miles along Highway 80, began on March 7. As SCLC’s Hosea Williams and SNCC chairman John Lewis led the marchers out of Selma and onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by some 150 enforcers—Alabama state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, and posseman—who gave them a two-minute warning to disperse.
Sixty-five seconds later those troops, armed with clubs, tear gas, and whips, advanced and began to attack. The DCVL’s Amelia Boynton was beaten unconscious. Lewis’s skull was fractured. More than 60 marchers were injured. The day became known as Bloody Sunday.
In the days after, members of SCLC began organizing another march in response to the attacks. On what became known as Turnaround Tuesday, Reverend Martin Luther King led more than 2,500 protestors to the Bridge, knelt, and prayed, and then marched them back to Selma. Then, on March 21, marchers gathered at Brown Chapel A.M.E. to begin their march, arriving in Montgomery on March 25.
Even as Selma played a pivotal part in the history of Black America, and especially in the Civil Rights Movement, it soon began to fade from the spotlight. Population and incomes declined. In 1977, the Department of Defense closed Craig Field, which had provided $35 million in payroll and $3 million in local contracts to Selma. The base’s 2,800 personnel dropped to just over 100.
In 2000, voters managed to push out a former segregationist who had served as Selma’s mayor for the past 35 years, Joseph T. Smitherman, electing in his place the city’s first-ever African American mayor, James Perkins Jr. Perkins would serve two back-to-back terms. And then, 12 years on, Perkins was elected to the role of mayor again, and serves there today.
By 2020, though, Selma had become the fastest-shrinking city in the state, and population had dropped to just under 18,000. The median annual income is just over $27,000, with a more than 37% poverty rate.
Meanwhile, disasters have not spared the city.
On October 28, 2020, Category 2 Hurricane Zeta barreled through Southwest Alabama, causing widespread tree damage and more than 494,000 power outages in the state, including significant damage to homes in Selma.
Six months later, supercell thunderstorms formed in the Gulf Coast, spinning up 25 tornadoes in Alabama on St. Patrick’s Day. One of those—an EF2 tornado that was 1,000 yards at its widest point—touched down in historic Selma, producing damage for more than 5 miles.
Today, the historic city is pushing to retain its title of Queen City of the Black Belt. Given the significant roles it has played in the Civil Rights movement and its place in African American history, there’s much still to honor and preserve.