In Selma, income inequality, education and race still deeply intertwined

By Elizabeth Tuttle

Comparing the Divide: Education lies at the heart of inequality — economic and racial — in America and around the world. As the US approaches Martin Luther King Day, two cities still struggling to learn that lesson are Rio de Janeiro and Selma, Alabama. These two cities, which share a history of both economic and racial inequality, also share a close ranking for economic inequality on the Gini Index: 0.523 (Selma) and 0.519 (Brazil).

SELMA, Alabama — The steel bridge over the Alabama River spans American history, the place where in 1965 peaceful protestors were brutally beaten with billy clubs and choked with tear gas, bringing widespread attention to the Civil Rights Movement.

On March 8, 2010, forty-five years after that ‘Bloody Sunday’ which touched off Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, President Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the landmark is known. He spoke about the battle the bridge represents, the progress made and the enduring promise it holds.

“Yet for all that unquestionable progress, no one can testify to what happened here without being reminded that the dream of equal opportunity in America has yet to be realized. As a nation, we are still a long way from reaching Martin Luther King’s dream,” Duncan said, his words carrying out across the bridge to a large crowd that had assembled, many of whom had also been present as protesters on Bloody Sunday.

Secretary Duncan’s speech, entitled “Crossing the Next Bridge,” unveiled a new national agenda to close the achievement gap within public education. He said education was the next great civil rights issue facing the nation. Referencing American education reformer Horace Mann, he highlighted education’s potential to service as the nation’s “great equalizer.”

But three years on, as the nation’s first African-American president begins his second White House term, many in Selma say the expectations that Obama created and the promises that Secretary Duncan made are far from being fulfilled. They worry that progress in race relations is challenged by rising income inequality, a reality that cuts across racial lines but that economists say affects the black population in America far more acutely than whites.

State Senator Hank Sanders and his wife Faya Rose Touré huddled close to the podium. For the past thirty years, the two have fought for education reform and civil rights in Selma despite bomb threats and assassination attempts. They felt validated and hopeful.

Looking back on that day now, Senator Sanders feels great disappointment. “I think it was a very powerful experience to have the Secretary of Education come to Selma. I really thought he was onto something, but I’ve never seen any material follow-up to his declarations. We have not seen evidence of him treating education as a civil rights issue, and when you rise that high in your hopes, then the fall is much greater.”

‘Like a bomb went off’

If Selma stands as an emblem of the Civil Rights Movement’s achievements, it also symbolizes its failures and the many challenges that lie ahead.

Crossing the bridge into Selma’s small downtown reveals rows of boarded-up buildings. Side streets lead to housing projects, where kids sit and watch inside a maze of trap houses for a gang-led drug market.

“It’s like a bomb went off, isn’t it?” said Afriye We-Kandodis, a Chicago native who leads slavery reenactment tours and started a community art space in town. “When you look at other places that went through the marches – Birmingham, Montgomery – they’re growing. But Selma, she’s the child that should have kept her mouth shut.”

On the other side of a set of railroad tracks is a more prosperous and largely white neighborhood where alarm systems and watchdogs protect homes that are circled together in cul-de-sacs. Selma’s country club has yet to effectively desegregate, and on this side of town, people of color exist mostly as employees within the service sector.

The racial divide has always been an economic divide. But, as the data illustrates, with income inequality on the rise in America, the two sides of this town seem more pulled apart than ever.

The city mirrors national trends. According to the National Poverty Center, 27 percent of black Americans, and 38 percent of black kids, are poor. Compare this to the 9.9 percent of whites, and 12 percent of white children, who live below the poverty line.

In other words, poverty hits the black population nearly three times as hard as the white population, including among children. As of the new year, 14 percent of blacks are unemployed in America, compared to seven percent of whites. And the median wealth of white households is twenty times that of black households.

A similar helix of race and class that has formed Selma is alive in Brazil. Though Selma’s population of 20,000 would make up only a quarter of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest slum, these two places — Selma and Brazil — have something in common. They share a Gini coefficient of 0.557, meaning that they experience a comparable wealth disparity.

It is especially shocking for Selma to match up with Brazil’s Rio, home to some of the planet’s wealthiest individuals. There, an influx of oil wealth translates into extravagant penthouses along Ipanema Beach, shadowed by mountainside favelas where basic human rights still elude many.

Divides are carved in black-and-white across Rio’s geography. Afro-Brazilians have faced notorious and systematic barriers to economic parity, despite being a demographic majority in Brazil. In one recent instance, an upscale shopping mall in Rio made a habit of escorting out black Brazilians who weren’t wearing nanny uniforms.

This is perhaps the type of discrepancy one might expect from Brazil, the tenth most unequal nation on the planet and the last in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery, but not from a city like Selma, whose very mention recalls the hallowed ghosts of a racial struggle America largely credits itself as overcoming.

President Obama recently posited that class has eclipsed race as the nation’s greatest social divide. Many in Selma, however, feel that little has changed since the “separate but equal” status quo of the 1960s.

“Segregation isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact and a reality through all areas and aspects of Selma,” says Aqullia James, who grew up in the area.

Senator Sanders agrees, “You have two completely separate systems: one black and one white, one public and one private … one poor and one rich.”

Nowhere is this division more starkly represented than in Selma’s education system. At Selma High School, there is not a single white student, despite the fact that Caucasians make up a full 20 percent of the population. And it wasn’t until 2008 that Selma’s largest private school accepted its first African-American student.

Private support

A senior high school math class at the Private Morgan Academy in Selma, Alabama (Christopher Morris/VII/GlobalPost)
A senior high school math class at the Private Morgan Academy in Selma, Alabama
(Christopher Morris/VII/GlobalPost)

The largest and most prestigious private school in Selma, Morgan Academy sits at the edge of city limits. A full trophy case greets visitors in the main office. Accolades run the gamut, from cheerleading and football championships to robotics team awards. On a colorful bulletin board hangs a constellation of stars, each star representing a different college that a member of the senior class will be attending. Names crowd the board.

Morgan Academy provides its 478 students K-12 with a fantastic education. After school, students receive check-up calls from a dedicated guidance counselor. Virtually all students graduate, and almost all head on to college.

“Morgan feels like a school used to feel in the old days, where the whole community supports the child,” says Director of Instruction Karim Oaks, a 1979 Morgan graduate whose parents served on the school’s founding board.

Most importantly, a Morgan education offers socio-economic mobility and hometown opportunity. School administrators say that an increasing number of Morgan graduates are returning to Selma to start successful careers. One recent graduate, for example, returned to take over the orthodontic practice of a retiring Morgan alum.

Administrators are quick to acknowledge that Morgan, like most other private schools in the area, began as a response to desegregation. However, they insist that the racial motivations underlying the school’s nascent years no longer come to bear on the Academy. Headmistress McKnight reports that, though the vast majority of students at Morgan are white, the school now has several students of color, including African-Americans. Race, she says, no longer plays a role in admissions.

“I’ll bet that Morgan is the most diverse school in Selma,” she says.

McKnight feels that racial tensions no longer define Selma schools today.

“I grew up with a black lady that was our housekeeper and our maid, and I’ll bet you that a majority of students in this area did, too,” she said. “I don’t see color … If you live with a different race, you learn to love them. These divides that people put in just don’t exist.”

Morgan Academy costs about $4,000 per student per year. The school offers no financial aid. Private school tuitions elsewhere in the country dwarf this figure, but in Selma, where the average annual income hits at around $21,000, affording a Morgan education remains a distant possibility for most.

‘They don’t hear us’

A senior high school math class at the public Selma High in Selma, Alabama (Christopher Morris/VII/GlobalPost)
A senior high school math class at the public Selma High in Selma, Alabama
(Christopher Morris/VII/GlobalPost)

Principal Wanda Jean Lomax-McCall stoops to pick up a stray gum wrapper on the otherwise spotless atrium floor of the newly rebuilt Selma High School.

This past August, SHS opened its doors after receiving $27 million in national stimulus funding toward a new school. Now in her fourth year as principal, McCall is attempting to free Selma High of its past reputation. Over the last decade, Alabama’s public school systems have been consistently ranked as among the worst in the nation, and Selma High has long placed squarely at the bottom of statewide achievement barometers.

According to Principal McCall, “all or almost all” students qualify for free federal lunches, eligible for households reporting at or below 130 percent of the poverty line. The dropout rate hovers at 25 percent. Gang skirmishes within the community often overflow into school hours.

This year, Principal McCall has brought in more extracurricular opportunities for the student body, including the first-ever school newspaper and a pre-professional mentoring program. Still, despite the new building and Principal McCall’s best efforts, many feel that Selma High lacks the state- and local-level funding necessary to provide students with a competitive or even passable education.

And as SHS struggles to reach its annual yearly progress benchmarks, high-need and high-achieving students alike lack necessary support.

Between class, bubbly 18-year-old Whitney Strong uses the new media center to look at prom dresses with her friends. Unlike most of her classmates, she will leave Selma to pursue a degree in nursing.

Though she calls her teachers and administration “amazing…doing their very best,” she describes Selma High as just “average,” a place that only “kinda-sorta” provided her with professional preparedness. For Whitney, graduating means that she can finally put Selma in her rearview. The only kids who stay here, she says, are those that already have children – a significant portion of her class – as there “really aren’t jobs” here.

Gwen Brown of the Freedom Foundation, which provides supplemental educational opportunities to at-risk students, recalled a recent SHS graduate who approached the Foundation after failing the Air Force admittance exam. He was reading at below a first-grade reading level.

“I have no idea how that happened,” she said. “He literally could not read, and he walked across the stage and received a diploma.”

“Our public schools are chronically underfunded,” said Senator Sanders, who has served the longest tenure in history on Alabama’s Finance and Taxation Committee. In Dallas County, the district to which Selma city schools belong, citizens pay the state minimum in taxes toward public education, and as much as four times less than in other districts in Alabama.

Principal McCall affirms that securing state-level funding has also proven particularly difficult. It was easier a decade ago, when SHS boasted almost double their current enrollment and when white students still attended. Now, she says, the challenges have grown: “Being in a rural area, small school, majority blacks…that makes a big difference. They don’t hear us.”

Alabama made national education news last year when legislators tried to remove language in the state’s constitution requiring the government to guarantee its citizens “a liberal system of public schools.” The amendment didn’t pass, but if it had, it would have denied Alabamians the right to a public education.

Senator Sanders believes that racial dynamics contribute to state- and local-level antipathy. As he sees it, white residents simply don’t send their kids to public schools. And though private schools in the city offer no financial aid, “even the poor white people who can’t afford a private education somehow get one rather than going to a public school,” he said.

“Nearly all the businesses are owned by whites,” Sanders said. “That means that the economic system does not support public schools in the way it should. So when you’re trying to get additional funding or to create a community atmosphere that supports education, you don’t have the buy-in.”

“The economic and political power lies with white people, the people who run the segregated country club,” said Touré, who served as Alabama’s first African-American female judge. “That’s why it’s so hard to make any systemic change because for years they have kept progressive reform out of Selma. People say that overcoming slavery was our greatest challenge, but education has proven to be the greatest struggle. What’s remarkable is how little has changed.”

Even for those who receive a SHS diploma, Selma’s job climate offers little encouragement. Nearby factories like International Paper, Hyundai and Bush Hog have historically provided many middle-class opportunities in the area, but national cutbacks have resulted in shrinking departments. Brenda, who has worked at one such factory for fifteen years, was the first African-American hired to her department.

“They put a hangman noose on the rafter to threaten me,” she recalls. Though the climate has since shifted, she feels that higher-level opportunities still elude African-Americans. “You never see black managers. You don’t see black people moving anything above low-level supervisor positions.”

In search of a future

As president of the Freedom Foundation, Gwen Brown works to provide at-risk children with educational opportunities through tutoring and the arts. When she came to Selma six years ago, she was shocked at the extent to which a lack of education perpetuated poverty.

“Time and time again, we’re seeing twelve-year-old girls getting pregnant just so they can get welfare checks,” Brown said. She estimates that 98 percent of the students with whom she’s worked don’t have a reliable father figure, and that the majority of them have suffered from sexual or physical abuse.

“Everywhere these kids look, they’re being taught they don’t have a future,” says Brown. When driving around the city with her theater group, she often passes by Selma Country Club. “I still don’t know what to tell kids when they ask me why they aren’t welcome there.”

Seventeen-year-old Austin was one of the first students to join the Foundation’s Selma program. At a lanky six-foot-seven, most people expected him to play basketball – it’s one of the only tickets out of town for a black kid in Selma, he said.

Joining the Foundation’s Random Acts of Theater Company, he discovered a love of public speaking. Now, he’s looking at civil rights law and hopes to return to Selma.

These success stories could be far more common, Brown feels, if more students felt they deserved a fighting chance.

Unmet expectations

On that day in 2010 when Secretary of Education Duncan came to town, an expectation was created. Many here in Selma feel it is an expectation that has been largely unmet.

In the back of the crowd, Brown remembers being suddenly struck by a simple fact: aside from the other members of the Foundation and the media covering the event, she saw no other white faces in the crowd. “I remember thinking, why wouldn’t the whole city come to this, especially something so big, in the tiny town of Selma? But I’ve learned that’s just how it goes here.”