By Kim Chandler and Jay Reeves
SELMA, Ala. — The mayor of Selma refused to back down last week in a fight that has united unlikely allies — black civil rights marchers and white Civil War re-enactors who refuse to pay thousands in fees to hold their events.
Both groups say the city is squeezing them with demands for thousands of dollars in up-front payments to stage annual events that bring tens of thousands of visitors to an otherwise sleepy community where unemployment is high and boarded-up homes and businesses are a common sight.
Plans for this week’s Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, which commemorates the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march of 1965, were up in the air over the city’s demand. And the re-enactment of the 1865 Battle of Selma, involving hundreds of history buffs in Civil War garb, has been canceled because organizers couldn’t afford the tab.
State Sen. Hank Sanders, a black Selma Democrat, said organizers of the four-day Bridge Crossing Jubilee still plan to hold the celebration March 2-5 but won’t pay the demanded fee. The event in part recalls Bloody Sunday, when black marchers were beaten by white police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Sanders and his wife head the group that organizes the jubilee which draws mostly black people, the battle re-enactment mostly white people. So now, two groups with different interests and membership rosters are united in being upset with Mayor Darrio Melton and other leaders who say the city can’t afford the police overtime, fire protection and cleanup the events require.
For a change in Selma, where race sometimes seems like a factor in everything, something isn’t solely black and white.
“Maybe we’ve been able to bring two opposing sides together for a month,” the first-term mayor of Selma — a city of around 20,000 people, about 80 percent of them black — said with a chuckle.
In an opinion piece in The Selma Times-Journal, Sanders wrote, “We will not pay in 2017 to commemorate sacrifices made and celebrate victories won in 1965,”
The city says that without the payment, it won’t close streets or provide assistance as usual until the climactic final day, when thousands typically gather to walk across the bridge. That means plans for three days of street concerts, vendors and other events are uncertain.
On Friday, Melton again said that people will be free again to march. But he questioned why the city should have to pay for other related events.
“People marched and they bled on that bridge. They weren’t marching for commercial purposes, to commercialize off the event. They were marching for voting rights,” Melton said.
The city offered to lower the bill Friday from nearly $24,000 to $17,000, but organizers refused: “That is not reasonable considering what this event does for the city,” Faya Rose Toure said.
A few weeks ago, organizers of the far-smaller Battle of Selma re-enactment canceled over a similar demand for $22,054 from City Hall. Volunteers who stage that event say their total budget is only $28,000 and they simply can’t afford it.
“It’s disappointing. But I certainly understand the need to have a balanced budget,” said Candace Skelton, a former Selma tourism director who now chairs the committee that stages the Battle of Selma.
The jubilee includes a music festival, a beauty pageant and workshops, while the Battle of Selma has days of simulated fighting and a military-style ball, plus encampments for the re-enactors at a city park.
Losing either gathering could hurt the economy in Selma and surrounding Dallas County, which has one of Alabama’s highest unemployment rates at 9.2 percent. Visitors spent $81.7 million in the Selma area in 2015, according to the state tourism agency.
Although planners of the two events haven’t actually joined forces to try to overturn the city’s decision, battle re-enactment organizer James Hammonds said there have been “casual conversations” about such an alliance.
Even that is unusual in a city where black residents have fought a Confederate statue in a cemetery and white residents typically send their kids to private academies rather than public schools. But Hammonds said both black and white people want to promote history and generate tourist dollars.
“Selma is so unique to have two tracks of history that draw from different groups that may not be interested in one part but are interested in the other,” he said. “I think to not utilize that uniqueness is the wrong way to go.”
Reeves reported from Birmingham, Alabama.