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In Alabama, tornadoes rattle historic civil rights community

Zakiya Sankara-Jabar’s cellphone buzzed relentlessly as a deadly storm system that spawned tornadoes throughout the U.S. South laid waste to relatives’ homes and churches across a part of Alabama known as the Black Belt.

Text messages and calls from loved ones, many of them hysterical, provided her with devastating updates of Thursday’s storms, which tore through her native Dallas County, including the history-steeped streets of Selma.

Family in the city synonymous with the civil rights movement saw their homes damaged, but they 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 unfathomable.

“I have family who lost everything,” she said Friday. “My great-aunt’s house was leveled. I saw pictures and it’s like the house was never even there.”

Sankara-Jabar’s family has called this part of Alabama home for generations. Taking its name from the rich, dark soil, the Black Belt is a region all too familiar with hardship, both economic and social. Many of the civil rights movement’s most important struggles took place in the area, including “Bloody Sunday,” when nearly 58 years ago state troopers and deputized klansmen viciously attacked Black people marching nonviolently for voting rights across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Nearly every year since the march, Selma and Dallas County have welcomed back hundreds to thousands of movement footsoldiers, tourists, politicians and activists who ceremonially cross the Pettus Bridge to commemorate the sacrifices of those who bled for democracy. But when the annual celebration is over, the Black Belt continues on as a working class region struggling to deal with gun violence and drug addiction, much like many U.S. communities, but with far fewer resources.

Dallas County, which includes Selma, is home to about 37,600 people, roughly 71% of them Black and 27% white. The county’s median household income is $35,000 and nearly one out of every three residents lives in poverty.

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

Thursday’s storm inflicted heavy damage on Selma, cutting a wide path through the downtown area, where brick buildings collapsed, oak trees were uprooted, cars were tossed onto their sides and power lines were left dangling. While Selma officials said no fatalities had been reported there, several people were seriously injured.

The city is famed for its historic sites: Pettus Bridge, where the Selma-to-Montgomery march is commemorated; Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, where the 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 that people keep Selma in their hearts right now, because it is the communities of color that have suffered the most in this particular storm,” said Felecia Pettway, a member of the voting rights museum’s board of directors. “We are really concerned about what happens next.”

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

It is not hyperbole to consider Selma’s downtown district hallowed ground. It’s the place from which the late Amelia Boynton Robinson, a Selma voting rights strategist and civil rights movement matriarch, convinced King to get involved in the movement, hoping he would help nationalize the voting rights struggle. It’s where the late Georgia congressman and voting rights icon John Lewis was beaten nearly to death by state troopers as he crossed the Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.

It’s also where the first Black president and the first Black vice president have offered tributes to a civil rights movement that helped their ascensions to high office go from pipe dream to reality.

When the expected ten of thousands gather there this coming March for the annual Selma Bridge Cross Jubilee, the downtown will resemble a huge street festival. There will be music blaring and vendors selling food, T-shirts and other memorabilia.

But when the national political figures leave and the news media cameras disappear, Selma’s high crime levels, pothole-covered streets, abandoned homes and vacant businesses will remain. The city famous for the voting rights struggle will still have to address its sagging voter turnout.

And undoubtedly, the community and areas of Dallas County will still be cleaning up and rebuilding from Thursday’s tornadoes.

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

Winfrey said the needs of the entire Black Belt in Alabama, not just Selma, are manifold. From water, sewage and educational infrastructure to childcare, parental support and activities for young people, the area isn’t getting enough funding to make progress faster.

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

The jubilee is a cherished community tradition and it provides some degree of economic stimulus, she added.

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

On Friday, Sankara-Jabar said she grew frustrated with the seeming lack of urgency from statewide leadership to provide relief and shelter to Black Belt residents affected by the storm. As friends reached out asking where they could donate to help her family, Sankara-Jabar took to Twitter and tweeted Republican Gov. Kay Ivey.

“Ma’am with respect what are you doing?? I have family in Dallas County that have lost everything,” she wrote. “You are missing in action.”

Ivey did send a tweet after Sankara-Jabar’s plea, but not as a direct response.

“I just got off the phone with (President Joe Biden) following my visits to Dallas and Autauga Counties,” the governor tweeted. “I have asked him to expedite a major disaster declaration for Alabama. He assured me he will approve that as soon as he receives it. We are truly grateful!”

Sankara-Jabar said she plans to be vigilant about how emergency relief funding is distributed in her home state.

“I want to make sure that the state government of Alabama, which is controlled by Republicans, does right by the Black Belt, when the cameras are gone and when the news is not there anymore,” she said choking up with tears.

“When those federal dollars come through for my family and everybody that lives in the Black Belt, those dollars need to go where they need to be.”


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