Tornadoes rock historical civil rights community in Alabama

Zakiya Sankara-Jabar’s phone buzzed relentlessly as if on deadly storm system that spawned tornadoes Throughout the US South, they vandalized the homes and churches of relatives in a part of Alabama known as the Black Belt.

Text messages and calls from loved ones, many of whom were hysterical, provided her with devastating news about Thursday’s storms that battered her hometown of Dallas County, including the history-making streets of Selma.

Families in the city, which represents the civil rights movement, saw their homes damaged but remained structurally sound. For those in Beloit, a nearby unincorporated town where Sankara-Jabar spent the first 20 years of her life, the damage was almost unimaginable.

“I have a family that lost everything,” she said on Friday. “My great-aunt’s house was leveled. I’ve seen pictures and it’s like the house was never there.”

Sankara-Jabar’s family has called this part of Alabama home for generations. Taking its name from the rich, dark earth, the Black Belt is a region all too familiar with hardship, both economically and socially. Many of the civil rights movement’s most important struggles took place in the area, including “Bloody Sunday,” when nearly 58 years ago, state troops and clan proxy members brutally attacked black people who were nonviolently marching across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge for voting rights.

Almost every year since the march, Selma and Dallas County have hosted hundreds to thousands of foot soldiers, tourists, politicians and movement activists solemnly crossing the Pettus Bridge to commemorate the sacrifices of those who bled for democracy. But when the annual celebration is over, the Black Belt remains a working-class region struggling with gun violence and drug addiction, much like many U.S. communities, but with far fewer resources.

About 37,600 people live in Dallas County, which also includes Selma, of whom about 71% are black and 27% are white. The county’s median household income is $35,000, and nearly one in three residents lives in poverty.

“These are people who are not poor in spirit but are poor financially,” said Sankara-Jabar, a racial justice activist who now lives just outside of Washington, DC. “To lose everything for someone who was already working class and already financially poor is devastating.”

Thursday’s storm caused severe damage to Selma and cut a wide path through downtown, where brick buildings collapsed, oak trees were uprooted, cars were thrown on their sides and power lines dangled. While Selma officials said no deaths had been reported there, several people were seriously injured.

The city is famous for its historic sites: Pettus Bridge, which commemorates the Selma to Montgomery march; Brown Chapel AME Church, where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked with local activists during the Selma movement; and the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, founded in 1991 and opened near the bridge.

“We ask people to keep Selma in their hearts now, because it’s the communities of color that have suffered the most from this particular storm,” said Felecia Pettway, board member for the Voting Rights Museum. “We do so really worried about what happens next.”

Pettway is also the director of development for Legal Services Alabama, an organization that provides free civil legal advice to low-income residents. The organization’s Selma office was damaged by the tornado.

It’s no exaggeration to consider downtown Selma sacred ground. It is the place from which the late Amelia Boynton Robinson, a Selma suffrage strategist and matriarch of the civil rights movement, convinced King to get involved with the movement in hopes that he would help nationalize the suffrage campaign. This is where the late Georgia congressman and voting rights icon resides John Lewis was beaten nearly to death by State Police officers while crossing Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.

It is also where the first black president and the first black vice president paid tribute to a civil rights movement that helped transform their rise to high office from pipe dream to reality.

When the expected tens of thousands gather there next March for the annual Selma Bridge Cross Jubilee, downtown will be one giant street party. Music will be blaring and vendors will be selling groceries, t-shirts and other memorabilia.

But when national politicians leave and news media cameras disappear, Selma’s high crime rate, potholed streets, abandoned houses and empty businesses will remain. The city famous for the electoral campaign will still have to deal with it falling voter turnout.

And no doubt the community and areas of Dallas County are still being cleared and rebuilt from Thursday’s tornadoes.

“The community needs an abundance of support,” said Adia Winfrey, executive director of Transform Alabama, a nonprofit organization that promotes civic engagement and voter participation and a member of the Black Southern Women’s Collaborative.

Winfrey said the needs of all black belts in Alabama, not just Selma, are diverse. From water, sanitation and education infrastructure to childcare, parent support and activities for young people, the area isn’t getting enough money to move faster.

“There are great people doing great work, but their capacity is limited,” said Winfrey, who is also board secretary of the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee.

The anniversary is a cherished community tradition and provides some economic incentive, she added.

“People just come for the photo op or the experience and they don’t really leave anything behind,” Winfrey said. “And that’s partly what Selma is missing. How do we use the excitement about the anniversary and the interest in Selma’s history to bring the resources to Selma?”

On Friday, Sankara-Jabar said she was frustrated by the nationwide leadership’s apparent lack of urgency to provide aid and shelter to Black Belt residents affected by the storm. When friends asked where they could donate to help their family, Sankara-Jabar took to Twitter and tweeted Republican Gov. Kay Ivey.

“Ma’am, with all due respect, what are you doing? I have a family in Dallas County that lost everything,” she wrote. “You’re missing on duty.”

Ivey tweeted after Sankara-Jabar’s request, but not in direct response.

“Just got off the phone with (President Joe Biden) after my visits to Dallas and Autauga counties,” the governor tweeted. “I asked him to expedite a major disaster declaration for Alabama. He has assured me that he will approve it as soon as he receives it. We are really thankful!”

Sankara-Jabar said she plans to be vigilant about how funds for emergency relief are distributed in her home state.

“I want to make sure that the Republican-controlled state government of Alabama, when the cameras are gone and when the news is gone, that the Republican-controlled state government of Alabama stands up for the black belt,” she said through tears.

“If these federal dollars are going to get through for my family and everyone who lives in the black belt, these dollars have to go where they need to go.”


Associated Press writers Kim Chandler and Sharon Johnson contributed from Selma, Alabama. Aaron Morrison is a New York City-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter:

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Tornadoes rock historical civil rights community in Alabama

Sarah Y. Kim

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