Selma, Alabama: The Charms of Goodness

Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King; drawing by David Levine

Selma, Ala., March 22

What a sad countryside it is, the home of the pain of the Confederacy, the birthplace of the White Citizens Council. The khaki-colored earth, the tense, threatening air, the vanquished feeding on their permanent Civil War—all of it brings to mind flamboyant images from Faulkner. Immemorial, doomed streets, policed by the Snopeses and Peter Grimms, alleys worn thin in the sleepless pursuit of a thousand Joe Christmases, and Miss Coldfield and Quentin behind the dusty lattices, in the “empty hall echoing with sonorous, defeated names.” As you pass Big Swamp Creek, you imagine you hear the yelp of movie bloodhounds. The cabins, pitifully beautiful, set back from the road, with a trail of wood smoke fringing the sky, the melancholy frogs unmindful of the highway and the cars slipping by, the tufts of moss, like piles of housedust, that hang trembling from the bare winter trees, the road that leads at last to just the dead Sunday afternoon Main Streets you knew were there. We’ve read it all, over and over. We’ve seen it in the movies, in the Farm Administration photographs of almost thirty years ago: the voteless blacks, waiting tentatively on the court-house steps, the angry jowls of the racists, the washed-out children, the enduring Negroes, the police, the same old sheriff: the whole region is fiction, art, dated, something out of a secondhand bookstore. And this, to be sure, is the “Southern way of life,” these dated old photographs of a shack lying under a brilliant sky, the blackest of faces, the impacted dirt of the bus station, the little run-down churches, set in the mud, leaning a bit; and the big ones with yellow brick turrets and fat belfries. If this is not it, what else can they mean? The rest might be anywhere, everywhere—mobile homes, dead cars in the yards, little cottages and ranch houses shading their eyes with plastic awnings.

Life arranges itself for you here in the most “conventional” tableaux. Juxtapositions and paradoxes fit only for the most superficial art present themselves over and over. At their best the people who rule Selma, Alabama suffer from a preternatural foolishness and at their worst from a schizophrenic meanness. Just as they use the Confederate flag, so they use themselves in the old pageantry. The tableau (it might have been thought up decades ago by one of the Hollywood Ten): the early morning fog is lifting and a little band of demonstrators stand at their post at the end of the dusty street. A State Highway truck comes up and lets out three desolate Negro convicts wearing black and white striped convict uniforms. The convicts take up their brooms and, with their heads down, jailhouse and penitentiary hopelessness clinging to them, they begin their morose sweeping, up and up to the very shoelaces of demonstrators, the hem of a nun’s black…

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