When Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said that he didn’t view President-Elect Donald Trump as a “legitimate” president in an interview for NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that aired Sunday, he also refused to invite Trump to visit Selma, Alabama, with him.
Lewis has often invited and escorted politicians from both sides of the political aisle to visit Selma — the city where Lewis himself was badly beaten on Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, as he and hundreds of others marched during the height of the civil rights movement. In fact, Lewis held hands and marched with President Obama and former President George W. Bush on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in 2015.
“I think Selma has done a lot more for the rest of the world than it has done for itself.”
“By going to Selma, maybe [Trump] would learn something,” Lewis said, before adding, “I would not invite him to come.”
But Selma may still have lessons to teach Lewis and his Democratic colleagues.
As the U.S. celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the country draws attention to the civil rights movement and highlights the sacrifices of those like King and Lewis.
But when MLK Day has passed, the politicians, press, and celebrators all leave Selma behind, with a remaining question unanswered: What is to be done about Selma today and the dozens of other cities like it that remain racked by poverty?
Roughly 80 percent of Selma’s residents are African-American, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, and data from 2011-2015 shows the median household income to be $22,414 — less than half the country’s average. Although the unemployment rate fell from near 20 percent in 2010 to roughly 9 percent in 2015, that number is still almost twice the national average. And even when jobs are available, they are often insufficient to meet residents’ needs. Nearly 42 percent of the city’s population lives or has lived in crushing poverty, which is nearly double the rest of the state’s average. In addition, rampant crime festers throughout the city.
“This is slave work, that’s what it is, but the only work around,” a man laying bricks for a mere pittance that were handmade in the 1870s for a construction company told a reporter for The Guardian last February. “Kind of funny when you think about it, because them bricks were probably made by slaves. That is Selma for you, though: still a city of slaves.”
Council McReynolds, a man who has spent all of his 50-plus years in Selma, told The Guardian reporter that “all the factories that used to be here are closed” and left joblessness in their wake.
“Selma ain’t like that movie. There everyone is shown working together and putting the past behind them,” McReynolds said. “But the reality is Selma has been left behind, and folks are certainly not working together.”
Selma’s first black mayor, James Perkins Jr., once said that there’s “still a lot of healing to be done” within the city, according to AL.com.
“I think Selma has done a lot more for the rest of the world than it has done for itself,” Perkins said.
There is a stubborn reality in the city that cannot be ignored — decades of Democratic policies have not worked for Selma.
Although Lewis refused to invite Trump to visit Selma with him in the future, the president-elect still campaigned on a message of hope for African-American communities and those communities across the country stricken with joblessness. It is ironic, indeed, that the 2008 campaign promises from the nation’s first black president also promised “hope” and “change” for black Americans. But as Selma knows, both hope and change have been strangers to their city.
“What the hell do you have to lose?” was the question Trump repeatedly posed to black Americans when he campaigned directly for their votes.
During a campaign event in October in Charlotte, North Carolina, Trump spoke directly to African-American voters and asked them to “break from the bitter failures of the past and imagine the amazing possibilities for our future.”
“[Democrats’] policies have failed at every turn,” Trump said. “They’ve trapped children in failing government schools,” he added, and their “policies have also given rise to crippling crime and … violence.”
“Every African-American citizen in this country is entitled to a government that puts their jobs, wages, and security first,” Trump added.
Now that Trump has been elected, he will have ample opportunities to follow through on his promises to African-American communities and those communities hit the hardest by job losses and systemic failures — whether Lewis deigns to invite him to Selma or not.