Roy S. Johnson: Now, Selma may finally be seen and restored

Roy S. Johnson

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (second from left) tours devastation in her hometown with City Council President Billy Young, Gov. Kay Ivey, and Sen. Katie Britt

This is an opinion column.

Maybe now they’ll see. See Selma. Finally.

Maybe now they’ll do.

Do what should have been done a long time ago to restore one of our state’s historic treasures.

To restore Selma.

No one’s screamed, pleaded, demanded that state and national officials see Selma more than the city’s homegirl, Rep. Terri Sewell. No one more than the daughter of the city where, as a child, she was inspired to become a lawyer after peeking into a courtroom while Momma Sewell waited to renew her car tag and saw J.L. Chestnut, the city’s first Black attorney, “mesmerizing those white people and weaving this amazing story,” she tells me.

The city where so much happened. Where so much that mattered happened.

Where people moved this nation to see them, moved this nation to do right by Black Americans. Where they gathered, strategized, worshipped, organized, and, of course, marched.

Marched across that dang bridge. Marched and risked their lives marching across that bridge. Marched 54 miles to Montgomery to demand to be seen. To demand to be.

I shouldn’t have to recount the importance of Selma to anyone. Not even to our school children, who should be well versed in Selma—save for those who strive with their first and last breaths to shield them from history’s full truths. Yet with the meteoric rise of The Legacy Museum in Montgomery (now the second most popular paid tourism site, State Tourism Director Lee Sentell revealed last week), Selma is rarely even an afterthought for visitors seeking to tread Alabama’s historic soils.

All while few state and national leaders heeded Sewell’s cries. Oh, they offered polite nods and occasional votes offering meager crumbs—appropriations, sorry. But not enough to stem the starving city’s sad decline.

Maybe now they’ll see. Now that Selma is decimated. Now that a freak EF3 tornado—two categories below the worst kind of cyclone—ripped through Selma, en route to tragically killing nine people in two states and several Alabama counties.

Sewell was in the air last Thursday, on a previously scheduled flight from Washington, D.C. to Birmingham following the final vote of the four-day work week. Her 7th district encompasses Selma, so she and her team huddled at the airport around early news that bad weather looming in Alabama might hit her hometown. They sent staffers in the city home and tweeted a heads-up to constituents before taking off.

Alabama Rep. Gary Palmer was on the same flight.

“Nothing prepared me for, two hours and 15 minutes later, to land in Birmingham and get all those text messages,” she recalled. Various traffic delays transformed a normally 90-minute drive to three-and-a-half hours, ending with Sewell and her party crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge into downtown Selma at dusk.

“It was almost dark, and it was like a ghost town,” she said. “I crossed the bridge and saw just darkness, darkness, darkness because no one had power. The first three streets were okay but, as we drove down Broad Street, it just became worse and worse.”

“Every disaster is bad,” she said. “We have to rally the resources and assistance to help our constituents no matter what, but [Selma] was personal. It was my neighbors. It’s my schoolteachers, my Sunday school teachers. Around every corner was a piece of my heart.”

She noted the typical, random nature of the storm—how it destroyed Chestnut’s stately brick home, yet left surrounding shotgun homes untouched; how it passed over historic Brown Chapel A.M.E. (“My beloved Brown,” Sewell calls it) yet leveled the Reformed Presbyterian Church two blocks away.

“It was indiscriminate of socio-economics or race,” she said. “It hit the white west side, which tends to be more affluent, and the east side, which is where during segregation African Americans had businesses and lived. It just brought me to tears.”