“Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards – the things we live by and teach our children – are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings.” –Walt Disney
To give you a little background, on Saturday afternoon our Alternative Spring Break group of 17 individuals composed of two faculty & staff members, two student leaders, and thirteen amazing students arrived into Selma. You would have thought we had fallen back in time. Bare streets, brick buildings, closed down stores and the bridge that started it all. The town has a population of 19,000 composed of 70% African Americans and 30% Whites. While it takes only five minutes to get from any given point to another that also means it takes the same amount of time to move into unwanted territory. The town is divided much like it was in the 50s and 60s. East side, west side, and old town make up this city rich in history. East side is comprised majorly by African Americans and maybe a few other minorities. With dirt roads, shotgun houses, and even a formerly “colored only swimming pool” it is easy to understand how the children I have met have referred to it as “the projects”. Drive five minutes to the other side of town and you’ll be in West Side. Beautiful houses, clean streets and an all-white country club is icing on the cake of this “whites only” neighborhood. How can this be? Well if the $1500 one-time membership entrance fee and $190 monthly family fee wasn’t enough to bar minority individuals in Selma where the income per capita is $16,605, then the board members who have to vote and have 100% agreement on all new members will be. Smack dab in the middle of it all is Old Town. An integrated neighborhood, these houses are marked with placards that identify their construction date some dating back to the Pre-Civil War era. Even though this neighborhood is integrated, there are many who are in disagreement. With family roots that date back to confederate generals, slave owners, and Ku Klux Klan members some just can’t move past the old ways. While learning about the history of Selma was a great experience, nothing could prepare me for the mindset and attitudes of the individuals who are beaten down by their society every day.
On Monday, we had the amazing opportunity to visit Payne Elementary School. I was excited to work with children and I eagerly choose first grade. Payne Elementary School is comprised of 279 students from Kindergarten to Fifth grade. Since the schools are still segregated all of the children are African American. I know what you’re thinking. I must be crazy that’s against the law and there is no way the schools can still be segregated. And although yes I am a tad crazy and yes segregated schools are against the law, the schools are definitely still segregated. And although it may not be by law that they keep the black and white students apart, they do have a method to their madness. Introducing Morgan Academy, “a pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade, coeducational independent school.” In short, the white community usually sends their family to the private Morgan Academy while the low income minorities (who can’t get in or afford the private school) go to the public school system. Don’t get me wrong there is nothing wrong with going to a Public school but when 30% of your population is white and less than 1% of them attend a public school you have a serious diversity issue.
The children are hyper aware of their surroundings. The first graders I was able to talk to Despite the challenges they face, the children I met at Payne Elementary were outspoken, spectacular and brave. They understood the challenges that were occurring in their neighborhoods but yet wanted better for themselves. They dream of growing up to be football players, teachers, and sign language interpreters. They are the inspiration and the reason so many continue to work to build a better Selma.
Remember, as our friends at Something New say “It’s not a moment; It’s a MOVEMENT!”