SELMA, Ala. (AP) — Fewer and fewer people are voting in Selma, Alabama. And for many, it is particularly heartbreaking.
They lament that nearly six decades after black protesters on the city’s Edmond Pettus Bridge risked their lives for the right to vote, the predominantly black vote in Selma and surrounding Dallas County has steadily declined. Turnout in 2020 was below 57%, among the worst in the state.
“It shouldn’t be like this. We should have strong voter turnout in every election,” said Michael Jackson, a black district attorney elected with support from voters of all races.
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Thousands of people will gather on March 6 for the re-enactment of this year’s bridge crossing to honor the infantrymen of that ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1965. The city center will look like one huge street festival during the event , known as the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, with thousands of visitors, loud music and vendors selling food and T-shirts.
Another Selma event, less festive and more militant, was organized last year by Black Voters Matter. The goal was to strengthen black power at the ballot box.
But the problems at Selma — a former Confederate armory, located about 80 miles west of Montgomery in Alabama’s former plantation region — defy simple solutions.
Some cite a hangover after decades of suppressing white supremacist voters, others a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted key provisions of federal voting law to allow current GOP efforts to tighten voting rules. Some black voters, who tend to vote Democratic, simply don’t see the point of voting in a state where every statewide position is held by white Republicans who also control the Legislature.
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Then there’s what some describe as infighting between local leaders and low morale in a crime-ridden city with too many pothole-covered streets, too many abandoned homes and too many businesses. vacant. All are seen as factors that have contributed to a 13% decline in population over the past decade in a city where more than a third live in poverty.
Despite visits from presidents, congressional leaders and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey — and even the success of Ava DuVernay’s 2014 historical drama “Selma” — Selma never seems to get better.
Resident Tyrone Clarke said he votes when work and travel permit, but not always. Many others do not because of disqualifying felony convictions or disillusionment with the declining city of around 18,000 people, he said.
“You have a lot of people looking at the conditions and not seeing what good it’s going to do them,” Clarke said. “You know, ‘How is this guy or guy in office going to affect me in this rotten little town here?'”
But something else seems to be happening in Selma and Dallas County. Other poor, mostly black areas have not seen the same drastic drop in turnout. Only one of Alabama’s majority black counties, Macon, the historic home of Black Tuskegee University, had a lower turnout than Dallas in 2020.
Selma isn’t the only place where large black majorities don’t always translate into high voter turnout. The US Census Bureau found that a racial gap persisted nationwide in voting in 2020, with about 71% of white voters voting compared to 63% of eligible blacks.
The majority of voters in Dallas County are black, and blacks made up the largest share of the county’s vote in 2020, about 68%, according to state statistics. But white voters had a disproportionate share of the county’s electorate compared to black voters, records show.
Jimmy L. Nunn, a former Selma city attorney who became Dallas County’s first black probate judge in 2019, said the community is weighed down by its own history.
“We’ve been programmed so that our votes don’t count, that we don’t have a vote,” said Nunn, who works at the same county courthouse where white Jim Crow lawmakers refused to register the black voters, helping to inspire the 1965 protests. is this mindset that we need to change.
Selma entered voting rights legend because of what happened at the foot of the Edmond Pettus Bridge, named after a former Confederate general and noted Ku Klux Klan leader, on March 7, 1965.
After months of protests and failed attempts to register black people to vote in the white-controlled city, a long line of marchers led by John Lewis, then a youth activist, crossed the Alabama River toward the capital of Montgomery State for current demands on Governor George C. Wallace, a segregationist. State troopers and members of the mounted sheriff’s party arrested them.
A soldier hit Lewis’ head in the ensuing melee and dozens more were injured. Images of the violence reinforced the evil and depth of southern white supremacy, helping to build support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Over the following decades, Selma became a global benchmark for suffrage, with then-President Barack Obama speaking at the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 2015.
“If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done,” he said. “The American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to every generation.”
But in Selma, the vote was already down. After more than 66% of Dallas County voters turned out at the polls in 2008, when Obama became the nation’s first black president, turnout has plummeted in every presidential election since.
Shamika Mendenhall, a mother of two young children with a third on the way, was among the registered voters who did not vote in 2020. She often attends the annual Jubilee which marks the anniversary of Bloody Sunday and has relatives who have participated in the vote. protests for the rights of the 1960s, and she is still a little sheepish about having missed the election.
“To choose our president, we have to vote,” said Mendenhall, 25.
A black county Democratic Party executive committee member, Collins Pettaway III spends a lot of time thinking about how to engage younger voters like Mendenhall more. Older residents who remember Bloody Sunday and voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, he said, but turnout is declining among millennials and other younger generations.
“We just have to try to make it really relevant to them and really get them to see the importance through their lens,” said Pettaway, 32, the son of a county judge.
This year’s Bloody Sunday commemoration will include a ‘hip-hop political summit’ aimed at making voting more relevant and bringing home the reality that many people have dropped out of the system because they rarely see their votes make a difference in their daily lives, he says.
“There are so many people who feel disenfranchised and they believe the system is working against them. We can’t argue with that and we can’t make them feel wrong, because it’s true,” Pettaway said. “We need to let them know and find a way for them to understand that the only way to change is to be part of the process.”