At the Intersection of Davis and King: Heritage and Memory in Selma, Alabama
Type of DegreePhD Dissertation
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Selma, Alabama is a small community in the Black Belt with a rich heritage and history that remains deeply divided along racial lines. Selma played an important role in both the American Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. How locals remembered the former evolved as the latter progressed. Ultimately, the contested memory of these two events intersected and clashed as the community wielded its heritage like a sword drawn in an everlasting rhetorical battle as whites and African Americans fought to define the past. Spanning from the antebellum period and continuing after emancipation, Selma’s white residents have a long tradition of espousing white supremacist beliefs and actions. White supremacists used a combination of economic intimidation, law enforcement, local government, and school control to control and oppress African Americans. In the immediate aftermath of the Voting Rights Movement in Selma, segregationists also attempted to rewrite the legacy of Selma as a means to control and oppress as well. However, the local, state, and national government eventually elevated the Selma Civil Rights Movement narrative to a national story of equality and justice, thereby ignoring the falsities of these segregationists. Although the names and faces have changed, these segregationist groups remained active. The rhetoric has since shifted to a familiar declension narrative which argues Selma’s abject poverty and diminishing population is due to African American leadership. In modern day Selma, economic and demographic trends remain connected to the same factors that contributed to its rise – white supremacist rule, cheap and controllable labor, proximity to cotton, etc. Looking back, historians might be tempted to engage in the declension narrative rhetoric that reflects fondly on a better time for the community, as many of the community’s white inhabitants do. Once in decline, many people left the community, moving to bigger cities for better opportunities. What most people fail to realize is that Selma is a complicated story – a bellwether for changing moods across rural America. It is the story of a small rural town pushed to the brink of economic collapse as industries closed resulting in population decline. This population decline eroded the area’s tax base. Those who remain in Selma continue to fight to control the local heritage narrative. Whereas Selma had once been on the front line for both the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement, today the city is a major theater in America’s continuing culture wars. Selma’s story demonstrates how race shapes contestations of historical memory in ways that impact the daily lives of contemporary Americans. This dissertation examines contested memory in Selma between 1953 and 2015 and how residents have battled one another to define a past filled with injustice, racial discrimination, and inequity.