Caught in a time warp

Published 9:35 pm Friday, January 23, 2009

Some people take the slogan, “History lives in Selma,” too literally. David Holthouse’s recent article about Selma suggests that he is one of them.

In his mind, “crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma feels like entering a time warp in which the past maintains such a stranglehold on the present that a breeze off the Alabama River seems to carry a whiff of tear gas or the distant crack of a “slave master’s whip,” which was his description of Selma in a recent article for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Wow. The U.S. State Department must not agree, since it frequently sends distinguished guests from foreign countries (such as a Saudi Arabian prince) to Selma to meet our Muslim legislator and see how far we have come since 1965.

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Holthouse’s article “Outside Agitators,” in the winter 2008 issue of Intelligence Report, describes Selma as “a hotbed of neo-Confederate activity and racial tensions.” He sees the Freedom Foundation as following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King by bravely fighting for racial justice.

He goes on to depict Selma blacks as living in fear of whites, because all economic power is still in white hands. Apparently he didn’t notice that blacks are in charge of city government, our public school systems, our three colleges, our largest department store, our most prestigious hotel, a major supermarket and a host of other businesses. In short, blacks now have the ability to hire and fire. If that isn’t economic power, what is?

While Holthouse is focusing so heavily on Selma’s past, you hope that he would notice some of the positive events in our history, such as Yussuf Salaam’s election in 2002; or the election of Alabama’s first lady legislator (Harriet Hooker Wilkins) in 1922; or maybe the election of a former slave (Ben Turner) as Alabama’s first African-American Congressman in 1870. But no, he seems permanently stuck in 1965, except when he leaps all the way back to 1865 and “the crack of a slave master’s whip.”

Some of his assertions about our history are doubtful. There’s no evidence that John Tyler Morgan was a Klansman — and some are wrong. But they will have to wait for another column on another day.

The Freedom Foundation has done some excellent things in Selma, and I was delighted by John Tyler Morgan Academy’s decision to integrate. Two other private schools here integrated a while ago, without the benefit of national publicity. But I don’t think Mark Duke should be confused with Martin Luther King, or that his teenage critics should be demonized as though they were comparable to the state troopers who confronted the marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

We can deal with today’s problems better if we can shake off the “stranglehold” of seeing everything in terms of 1965.

Alston Fitts III