SOUTHERN CIVIL RIGHTS HISTORY TOUR MAY 2021
Day 5 Selma
In the 1930’s Lori’s dad, who died two years ago at 102, loved his teenage summer visits to his wild cousins in Selma, Alabama. According to a family story, one of the cousins later got married but forgot to mention to his wife that he was Jewish. Turns out she was antisemitic. A few years later when she found out, they got divorced. There just might be a little more to it but that’s the story.
We spent the afternoon with members of that family. In the final stretch of the long drive from Memphis I called one of the cousins, a man in his 80s, who was meeting us for lunch, to get final directions. When it became clear we had made a wrong turn I said, “It looks like the Yankees got lost”. He laughed and said, “don’t worry we’ll send out a Confederate Cavalry.” Lovely people, who adored Lori’s dad, but even while gently trying and sometimes failing to dance around all the third rails of race and politics over lunch, it was upsetting to see how hopelessly lost to the Fox mythology bubble these folks are.
Today the Pettus Bridge, where John Lewis and the Freedom Marchers were savagely beaten on Bloody Sunday in 1965, looms over sad, lifeless, downtown Selma with a population that is 86% black.
The cousin’s family owned Tepper’s Department Store until the 1950s but the name of the store on the side of the building appears in the background of the famous photos. The faded sign is still visible on the vacant hulk of the building in downtown.
We drove from Selma to Montgomery along the route that John Lewis and the Freedom Marchers walked. Leaving Selma we crossed the Pettus bridge where politicians come for annual ceremonies and picture taking. Somehow, that bridge, built in 1940, is still named for a Confederate brigadier general and the leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
Selma history footnote
From around the 1920s to 1940s, 60% of Selma’s retail stores were owned by Jews. A few blocks from downtown there is a temple built in 1899. It now has 3 members. Not three families — 3 members, ages 70, 80 and 90. According to one of those 3, who gave us a tour, the place is kept alive with the support of the diaspora of Jews with southern roots.