Selma just pulled at my heart

Published 12:23am Friday, April 6, 2012

How did you come to live in Selma? How did two Harvard educated lawyers come to live in a small town in the Alabama Black Belt? I still get variations of these questions after nearly 41 years. During the 2012 Selma to Montgomery March, these questions came many times. They came up last week and again this week. I shared with some the story of how we came to live in Selma. Now I want to share the story with you.

In the fall of 1971, I drove from Huntsville to Montgomery to Selma. I later learned that this route was 50 miles out of the way because I did not need to go to Montgomery to get to Selma. It turned out to be critical that I took this route. I didn’t know anyone personally in Selma. Nor did I know where I would go in Selma or what I would do. I just knew I had to come to Selma.

I crossed the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, traveled one block, turned right and traveled one more block. The scene at Alabama Avenue and Washington Street, the heart of Selma’s Black business district, stopped me and my car. People were going about their business this Saturday morning but there was something powerful in their presence. I instantly knew this was where I was supposed to live and work. I began that very moment figuring how to best persuade Rose Mary Gaines Sanders to come to Selma with me.

We need to go back before this moment of decision to understand why I was in Selma by myself. To be blunt, Rose (now Faya Rose Toure’) refused to come with me. She said Selma was out of the question as a place to live and work. Her father’s brother, Jethro Gaines, had lived in Selma operating a small store until he died. She had personal experiences with Selma in the 50’s and 60’s that were not at all positive.

I wanted to practice law in Mobile, which was about 25 miles from Bay Minette, where my folks lived. Faya Rose had ruled out Mobile. Both her mother and father were from Mobile and she felt strongly it was not the place for her. I freely acquiesced in that decision.

After we returned from a year in West Africa on a joint Ford Foundation Fellowship, we worked for the poor with the Madison County Legal Aid Society in Huntsville. We were on Reginald Heber Smith Fellowships but within a couple months we knew this was not the situation for us. In an effort to find the right place to live and work, we visited a number of places including Montgomery, Tuskegee, Dothan, Bessemer and Tuscaloosa, but none felt right. I suggested Selma, which met implacable resistance from Faya Rose. But I still felt strongly about at least visiting Selma. That’s why I traveled the 250 miles from Hunstville by myself this Saturday morning and found myself on Alabama and Washington.

I knew it would not be enough just to tell Faya Rose that I had these strong feelings so I gathered my facts. Selma was almost half Black (48 percent), the county was majority Black and was surrounded by majority Black counties on three sides — Lowndes, Wilcox and Perry. There was one Black lawyer in the entire west Alabama Black Belt. We could be of real service here. The people needed us.

None of these arguments moved Faya Rose. Yet, I still felt so strongly about Selma. We continued at loggerheads for some time. Finally, we struck a deal: I would choose where we would live for the first five years and wherever that was she would go. After five years, she would choose where we would live and I would go wherever she chose. I moved to Selma in the fall of 1971 and Rose followed in the spring of 1972.

Faya Rose is a strong, intelligent, assertive, outspoken Black woman who dresses differently and responds intensely to injustice of whatever stripe. This is a tough combination for any small place, even Selma. Faya Rose loves big cities and thrives in them. I love small towns and thrive in them. Small towns are hard on her. Big cities are hard on me. After five years, we revisited the agreement. She said, “I really need to leave Selma but the people really need you. I will stay another five years.” I felt strongly the people needed Faya Rose as much as they needed me, if not more.

Every five years we assess where we will live the next five years. Each time the same decision is made for the same reasons. It was 40 years last fall and eight assessments later. Since Faya Rose has lived where she did not want to for so many years, I will not hold her to this five-year agreement. I will go wherever she chooses for the next five years. Forty years of sacrifice is a whole lot. Let me be clear. Faya Rose is not currently asking me to leave Selma. However, I know the issue may arise at any moment. I also know how I will respond.


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