Web Video: What challenges remain for Selma 50 years since march?

Mar. 10, 2015 AT 11:40 a.m. EDT

Over the weekend, visitors like President Obama and nearly 100 members of Congress flocked to Selma, Alabama, to celebrate the anniversary of a civil rights milestone. But 50 years since protesters defiantly crossed the city's iconic Edmund Pettus bridge, Selma remains a deeply divided city with many challenges. Gwen Ifill reports.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the voting rights march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge that was an epic turning point in the civil rights and voting rights movements.

The entire 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery is being reenacted beginning today. But this weekend was all about Selma, then and now.

Terri Sewell spent the weekend pinching herself. She shared a stage with the president.

REP. TERRI SEWELL, (D) Alabama: Good afternoon, America. Welcome to my hometown of Selma.

GWEN IFILL: And she visited her old haunts.

REP. TERRI SEWELL: That’s my home church, Brown Chapel. And while I think the world comes in just for a weekend, just for one day to walk across the bridge, but the people of this city are amazing people.

GWEN IFILL: Once Selma High School’s first black valedictorian and now a member of Congress now, by way of Princeton and Oxford, Sewell represents the modern-day divide in her iconic hometown.

REP. TERRI SEWELL: I’m-second generation Selmian. My dad grew up in the ’40s, and he grew up in a segregated Selma public school system. I grew up in the ’80s. I grew up in an integrated public school system. And now, 35 years later, it’s re-segregated again.

GWEN IFILL: The visitors flocked to Selma from around the nation and the world for a weekend of celebration. Two presidents, nearly 100 members of Congress and more than 100,000 people crowded into the small Alabama city over two days.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Yet what could be more American than what happened in this place? The single most powerful word in our democracy is the word we, we the people. We shall overcome. Yes, we can. That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.


GWEN IFILL: But only a few steps away, it was easy to find the downside. The city is worn, with crumbling houses, empty lots, shuttered storefronts.

After an Air Force base closed in 1977, 10,000 residents fled. Most of those left are black and poor, the very people who were supposed to reap the benefits of the civil rights movement that came to define Selma.

Fifty years after protesters crossing the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge here changed the civil rights tide for a nation, Selma finds itself at a crossroads again, this time between success and stagnation.

Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who, as a young organizer, had his skull fractured during the 1965 Bloody Sunday march, returned again this year for what has become an annual pilgrimage.

REP. JOHN LEWIS, (D) Georgia: There’s still work left to be done. Get out there and push and pull, until we redeem the soul of America.

GWEN IFILL: The city and violent events that propelled it into the nation’s consciousness received fresh attention this year in the Oscar-nominated film “Selma.”

But when the movie Selma came to the real Selma, producers had to reopen a shuttered theater just to find a place to show it. The challenges are on full display. The unemployment rate is nearly twice the national average and the high school dropout rate is the highest in the state.

REV. FREDERICK REESE, Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church: I’m delighted to be able to stand here at this hour to look into your faces.

GWEN IFILL: Frederick D. Reese has pastored Ebenezer Baptist Church since 1965, one year after he wrote the letter inviting Martin Luther King Jr. to lead a voting rights campaign in Selma.

Reese, now 85, was Terri Sewell’s high school principle.~ He’s more gentle in his assessment of Selma’s condition.

REV. FREDERICK REESE: You go around the South, you will find that the vestige of segregation, discrimination still exists, because it’s not all been eradicated. I’m looking at now where we were and where we are, and so I can see great progress.

GWEN IFILL: Selma remains a deeply divided city. Membership in its country club is still 100 percent white.

But Dallas County Juvenile Court Judge Bob Armstrong says the city is emerging from its legacy of white guilt and black blame.

JUDGE ROBERT ARMSTRONG, Dallas County Juvenile Court: We’re working together. That wouldn’t have even been a remote possibility in 1965.

GWEN IFILL: Six months ago, Armstrong helped turn an abandoned school into a home for alternative programs for troubled young people. Hope Academy offers counseling, job training and the chance to get back on track.

JUDGE ROBERT ARMSTRONG: I’m excited about our computer lab.

GWEN IFILL: Armstrong bases his optimism on the numbers, a recent and dramatic drop, 72 percent, in youth crime and an even steeper decline in violent crime.

JUDGE ROBERT ARMSTRONG: We have got problems. We own them. But we’re doing something about it in a positive, progressive way. And we’re doing it together. We’re not even close to being the same community we were 50 years ago.

GWEN IFILL: Yet, many descendants of the civil rights leaders who returned to the bridge this weekend still worry about the present and the future.

SHERRILYN IFILL, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund: Oh, my God.

GWEN IFILL: Can you imagine?

SHERRILYN IFILL: It’s amazing.

GWEN IFILL: One of them is my cousin, Sherrilyn Ifill, who is president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The LDF defended the demonstrators 50 years ago and monitors progress now, a top concern, the latest spate of police-involved shootings of unarmed black teenagers.

SHERRILYN IFILL: Those changes have not changed everything, and we also are very keenly aware perhaps more in the last 18 months than we have been maybe even in the 10 years before how much further we have to go.

GWEN IFILL: Many of those who came to Selma this weekend, including the mother of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, had their own reasons for making the pilgrimage.

JOSHUA BARKER: And I came here to learn more about the history of what African-Americans used to go through and what they went through to get their freedom.

MAJORIE WILSON: I was around, you know, with voting and the poll tax and all of that stuff. I have lived this. You have got to vote. If all of these people on this bridge had voted, things would be different.

TOBY RICHARDS: I used to hear my father. He would take us back when I was a young teenager to some of the local places where the Ku Klux Klan would throw rocks at him. And he just wanted us to pass down through his legacy to honor the struggle of the people who came before us, before him, and he just wanted us to just know the struggle that they went through.

GWEN IFILL: For the city of Selma, the struggle continues.


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