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Selma: Day of Witness To Hate Crimes

by Chapin Gray and Jim Toweill |
July 22, 2007
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Selma, AL - Over 100 activists, youth and community organizers met at the 21st Century Youth Leadership Center outside Selma, Alabama, July 14 to witness the aftermath of a recent attack on the center. The 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement is an organization that helps train African-American youth for future leadership roles in their communities.

In March, while thousands, including big-name politicians and civil rights leaders, rallied to commemorate Bloody Sunday - the march for voting rights in 1965 that was met with fierce police brutality - vandals broke into the center, trashing rooms, destroying office equipment, pulling plumbing from ceilings, cutting appliance cords and spray painting racial slurs and obscenities on the walls, even severing gas lines. This resulted in a total of $200,000 worth of damage.

This is not the first hate crime committed against members and leaders of the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement. Cars were firebombed outside the law offices of organizers Hank and Rose Sanders at the height of the “Joe Gotta Go” campaign against Selma’s incumbent republican candidate for mayor, Joe Smitherman, in 2000.

The progressive local African-American radio station has been the target of multiple attacks, and both the tower and the station itself have been set fire to and burned down. Road signs for the nearby Martin Luther King Drive have been shot up repeatedly, as has the grave of Jimmy Lee Jackson, whose murders sparked the march on Selma in 1965.

Yet despite the atmosphere of national oppression and racism, the FBI refuses to classify this incident as a hate crime, instead shifting the blame to the organization. “The FBI won’t take this seriously,” Rose Sanders, president and co-founder of the 21st Century Youth Leadership project, said in exasperation. “They say it’s not a hate crime, but they’ve only sent one agent here one time to survey the crime scene. They say to us, ‘You did it to yourself.’ They always try and turn it on us. We can’t depend on the FBI, and we get no protection from the law. They’ll wait until somebody’s dead and even then they’ll say, ‘Oh, that's not a hate crime!’”

Hate crimes are unfortunately all too familiar in Selma, a city Martin Luther King chose for voter registration drives in the 60’s precisely because of its reputation for intense racism and national oppression. Local politics are notoriously corrupt, and, according to Malika Sanders Fortier, the Justice Department is called in to intervene in practically every election. Still, election fraud is a well-known fact, and has ensured that most of the city council stays white and that the reactionary segregationist Joe Smitherman, who once referred to the Rev. Martin Luther King as “Martin Luther Coon,” cheated his way into the mayor’s office from 1964 to his death in 2000. “The mayor has stated publicly that he thinks Black people can’t run their own cities,” says Fortier.

Gerrymandering has ensured white control of political offices in this Black Belt city, where the majority, 70% of the population, is African-American. “We outnumber them here,” explained Fortier, as she pointed to where the vandals ripped sinks from the wall in the kitchen. “That is why that are afraid, that is why they want to keep tight control on us...they try and keep high-paying jobs out of Selma. They don’t want us to have enough money, they want us to stay in check.”

The 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement and its supporters are hoping to organize future clean-ups to help restore the center, as well as raise funds for renovation. Students and activists come to camps at the center from various areas in the South and from as far away as Senegal and Mali in West Africa.

The center needs assistance from those skilled in plumbing, electrical and other types of maintenance. They are also calling on the nation to demand that the perpetrators be brought to justice and that this be called what it is - a hate crime, not a burglary.

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