SELMA, Ala. — When President Joe Biden landed here Sunday, he met a city frozen in time.
Brick buildings, aging and largely untouched since the days its inhabitants helped ignite the country’s civil rights movement nearly six decades ago, line the streets. Empty storefronts dot both sides of the main drag — Broad Street — where the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge is located. Typically, the city is quiet. But on the first weekend of every March, the streets come alive.
On Sunday, hours before Biden stepped foot on the bridge, white vendor tents covered almost every corner, many selling T-shirts emblazoned with the face of the late Rep. John Lewis or a $13 plate of fried fish. Grassroots organizers held programs on reparations and voting rights.
Biden arrived to recognize “Bloody Sunday.” The 600-person demonstration in Selma on March 7, 1965, ended with state troopers beating protesters, and it ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year. Biden’s visit was part of both a somber commemoration and a joyful celebration. A reminder of Black excellence and strength — and of the terrors of the Jim Crow era. For decades, nearly every president has visited Selma during this weekend.
As Biden’s motorcade arrived on the scene, the thousands of spectators hemmed in on Broad Street applauded. They cheered as the president made his way to the riser to join the other dignitaries, including numerous members of Congress and the Revs. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Will Barber.
Speaking just at the base of the bridge, Biden pressed for the passage of voting rights legislation. He also reiterated his call for the Senate to eliminate the filibuster to help clear the way for Congress to enact the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
“Selma is a reckoning. The right to vote and to have your vote counted is the threshold of democracy and liberty,” Biden told the crowd, generating applause. “With it, anything’s possible. Without it, without that right, nothing is possible. And this fundamental right remains under assault. I will not let the filibuster obstruct the sacred right to vote.”
Biden also hit Republican efforts to curtail the teaching of certain aspects of Black history.
“No matter how hard some people try, we can’t just choose to learn what we want to know but not what we should know,” he said. “We should learn everything — the good, the bad, the truth of who we are as a nation. And everyone should know the truth of Selma.”
Local residents — and those that make the sojourn every year — welcomed the attention. Everyone here noted the anniversary is the city’s only notable event.
“The country sees Selma as purely a historic place, as a monument,” Oni Scott, a college student visiting from New York, told POLITICO. “I feel like a lot of people do come down here for Jubilee and for this weekend. But then every other time I come here, it’s completely empty.”
But every year, residents hope the national attention will last beyond the weekend. They said this year in particular, Biden has the opportunity to help a city that has long struggled to revitalize.
On the stage and ahead of Biden’s remarks, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), whose district includes Selma, thanked the president for his work leading to last year’s passage of the infrastructure bill and, before that, the American Rescue Plan. But she added it was important to “leverage these opportunities to make a difference for all of Selma. We cannot have an uneven recovery. It’s not fair. And it’s not right. “
Fewer than 18,000 people are estimated to live in Selma, which is 84 percent Black, according to the 2020 census. Nearly one-third of the population live below the poverty line, although local leaders expect it may now be far more after a tornado with 130 mph winds ripped through the city in January.
“We need your help. We need everything in Selma,” Sewell said.
Joann Bland, a “Bloody Sunday” survivor who helped lead a movement to build Foot Soldiers Park, a standing monument to the site where protestors gathered before the march, said she had wanted Biden to further invest in the city and help rebuild a community devastated by a tornado that deepened decadesold infrastructure problems.
“I want him to say he put in some resources in Selma. I want him to say they’re not putting a Band-Aid on Selma, give me $2 and think you gave me something,” Bland said before Biden’s speech, at an unveiling event for a park mural. “I want him to say he’s going to do something concrete here in Selma to help with our rebuild. He said ‘build back better.’ Then he needs to put the resources here to do that.”
The frustration of locals, and national advocates who visited, also centered on the lack of national movement on voting rights even though Democrats successfully pushed through the Inflation Reduction Act and a gun safety bill.
Cliff Albright, the co-founder of the voting rights group Black Voters Matter and who visited Selma for the weekend, said while Black voters understand Biden’s predicament of fighting a split Congress, it won’t stop them from pushing him more.
“When we have friends — people that we expect more of, people that we have given power to — part of our strategy has got to be to hold them accountable. That’s not hate,” he told POLITICO. “So when he’s falling short, we’ve got to collectively call it out.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who joined Biden in Selma for the commemoration, said the president has an opportunity to prove his commitment to the Black community that helped put him in the White House.
“Some have called Selma a sacred land. I think it is,” she said in an interview before Biden’s arrival. “The president is in support of infrastructure transformation. This could be an example of that, an example of honoring the history of the civil rights movement right here in Selma, because it is a city that has not changed.”
Albright sees it similarly. He fears that if Biden fails to rise to the “next level,” it could hurt Black voter turnout in 2024.
It’s been a tension felt since Day One inside the Biden White House, where aides have privately expressed frustration over the suggestion the president isn’t doing enough for the Black community. They have pointed to his executive actions on policing and expanded access to voter education.
The president highlighted those actions during his speech and noted the millions of dollars Selma has received through American Rescue Plan funds.
“Silence is complicity and I promise you, my administration will not remain silent,” he told the crowd, adding, “We see you. We’re fighting to make sure no one’s left behind. This is a time of choosing, and we need everybody engaged.”
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