On January 2, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of a crowd of seven hundred people, packed into the pews of Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama. “Today marks the beginning of a determined, organized, mobilized campaign to get the right to vote everywhere in Alabama,” he declared from the pulpit. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had been looking for a place to stage its push for national voting rights legislation, and black Selmians’ long history of organizing around the vote and economic self-sufficiency made it a perfect location.
Voting rights had always been about power to black southerners. S.W. and Amelia Boynton had first come to Dallas County as black agricultural extension agents in the years before the Great Depression. Most black farmers worked as tenants, bound in unfair contracts with white landowners that left them producing cotton all year long and never breaking even. Intimidation and violence kept them in their place. Although black people made up the majority of the population in the Black Belt, Alabama’s 1901 Constitution had deliberately excised them from the voting rolls, leaving all political power in the hands of whites. The wrongs the Boynton’s encountered along the dusty backroads convinced them that only land ownership and voting rights could make life better for black people. They revitalized the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) to do this work.
As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction in the 1950s, the Boyntons saw a way to draw attention to their local struggle. The DCVL invited the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who had been organizing for voting rights in Southwest Georgia and the Mississippi Delta, to set up a voter registration project in Selma. SNCC organizers Bernard Lafayette and Colia Liddell recruited black teenagers from Selma’s R.B. Hudson High School and kicked off a movement. When white intransigence stalled SNCC’s efforts a year-and-a-half later, Amelia Boynton personally invited Dr. King and SCLC to stage its nationally-geared push for voting rights in Selma.
The celebrated story of Selma’s voting rights campaign is well known and has become a pivotal moment in the narrative of American democracy. Dr. King organized a campaign for voting rights. Black Selmians marched. The overtly racist Sheriff Jim Clark and his posse resisted. White state troopers brutally beat nonviolent black marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. The nation was outraged. Protesters marched fifty miles to Montgomery where Dr. King declared, “The arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice.” Then President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, securing justice for all.
Of course, the true story is not so neat and does not have a happy ending.
National voting rights legislation passed but much work remained to get what Joanne Bland, an 11-year-old participant in the Selma campaign and later director of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, called the “good freedom.” This freedom included meaningful political power, living wages, quality education, sturdy housing, clean water, security, and self-determination. Dr. King understood that the political victory in Selma was only the beginning of the fight for justice, humanity, and equality. That brought him to Chicago to fight for fair housing. It led to the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. “We are going to Washington to say that if a man does not have a job or an income at that moment, you deprive him of life. You deprive him of liberty. And you deprive him of the pursuit of happiness,” King explained. “We are going to demand that America live up to her promise.”
But black Americans long and simultaneous fight for economic justice rarely makes it into the triumphal story of voting rights.
Black Selmians secured their political rights at the tail end of an agricultural revolution in the Alabama Black Belt. Since the New Deal, millions of federal dollars had gone to white landowners to take their land out of production. Cattle had taken over the cotton fields, and black tenants were left jobless and homeless. Meanwhile, white businessmen and politicians had actively recruited low-wage, anti-union industries to Selma in an effort to preserve the racial status quo. That policy became a liability in the 1970s as globalization siphoned those jobs overseas, while the rising Sunbelt South rewarded urban places that were home to educated and skilled workers. The federal government only made the situation worse when it closed Selma’s air force base in 1977 at the same time it was cutting social programs and other funding for rural America.
After 1965 black people tried everything they could to bring about the "good freedom" in the bleak economic landscape of the Alabama Black Belt. They formed independent black-led political parties. They joined labor unions and struck for living wages. They organized the Southwest Alabama Farmers Cooperative Association so that black farmers could grow and sell their own produce and be self-sufficient on their land. They ran for and won political office. They established a black-owned law firm that repeatedly sued local governments to secure equal representation. They protested racial tracking in the city’s public schools.
But voting rights don’t buy much in the places that have been left behind by globalization and government cutbacks. That fight for economic justice continues fifty years later. “We are going to demand what is ours and, my friends, the resources are here in America,” Dr. King declared in front of New York City union workers in 1968 “The question is whether the will is here.”
 Martin Luther King Jr., “Other America,” Delivered at the Local 1199’s “Salute to Freedom,” New York, New York, March 10, 1968, in The Racial King, edited by Cornel West (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017), 235-244.
About Karlyn Forner
Amelia Boynton speaking to an audience during a civil rights meeting at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, May 10, 1966, Jim Peppler, Courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives and History