Thursday, April 2, 2015

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1451: Answering the question, "Why did you go to Selma?"

  Why did you go to Selma? How did you end up in Selma? What made you go to Selma? I have been asked various forms of these question many times. My wife, Faya Rose Toure’, formerly known as Rose M. Sanders, has also been asked these questions numerous times. Leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March, we were asked these questions even more. Last week we were again asked these questions during a joint documentary interview with Black Entertainment Television, better known as BET. These questions got me to thinking.

  One reason people ask these questions is because it’s hard to understand why two lawyers with law degrees from Harvard Law School would come to Selma, Alabama, a city of 20,000 located in the heart of the Alabama Black Belt. In their minds, people should be running away from Selma, not coming to Selma. These questions got me to thinking, going way back.

  After law school, Faya Rose and I spent nearly a year in Nigeria, West Africa on a joint Ford Foundation Fellowship during 1970-71. I knew I wanted to live and work in Alabama. When we returned from West Africa, we went to work at the Madison County Legal Aid Society (Society) in Huntsville to provide legal services to poor people. We each had a Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship, so the Society did not have to pay us. We weren’t there but a short time before we knew this was not a good fit for us. We wanted to really help change things for the better, but the Society limited us to evictions and similar legal matters. These questions took me way back.

  We soon decided to go into private practice. I really wanted to go to Mobile, which is 25 miles from Bay Minette where I graduated from high school in Baldwin County, Alabama. Faya’s mother and father were from Mobile, and she did not want to go there. She vetoed Mobile, and I acceded to her wishes. We visited various cities in Alabama, but none seemed quite right for us. I suggested that we visit Selma. Faya Rose immediately vetoed Selma. Her daddy’s brother, Jethro Gaines, had operated a store in Selma until he died. She also had other relatives in Selma and had been to Selma many times growing up. The visits were not positive experiences. These questions really make me think.

  I had been to Selma just once. That was in the summer of 1968, and it was at night. I came on a legal matter with Attorney Vernon Crawford of Mobile to help litigate an internal fight in SWACA (Southwest Alabama Cooperative Association). I do not recall any particular feelings about Selma after that visit. I encouraged Faya to just visit Selma.  She absolutely refused. These questions make me think, going way back.

  I decided to visit Selma by myself. One Saturday morning, I drove the nearly 200 miles from Huntsville to Montgomery and then headed west on U. S.  Highway 80 for the final 50 miles to Selma. If I had consulted a map, I could have saved 50 miles by taking Alabama Highway 22 at Clanton. I did not know anyone in Selma, so I crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, went one block, turned right on Alabama Avenue and traveled one block to Washington Street. This was the heart of Selma’s Black business district. It was something about the people that made me stop immediately. I instantly knew in my soul that this was where I was supposed to be. These questions really make me think back to yesteryear.

  I knew that I could not just go back to this strong, intelligent, determined woman lawyer and say that I had a “feeling” that Selma was where we were supposed to be. I had done a little research on Selma before I came so I explained to her that Selma was 52 percent White and 48 percent Black; Dallas County was majority Black; most of the surrounding counties were majority Black; there was a lot of poverty and the people in power in 1965 were still in power; there was only one Black lawyer in the whole Black Belt and he had a drinking problem; we were truly needed in Selma. Faya did not budge. Selma was out of the question.

  We struggled over the issue. Eventually, we reached a compromise: I would choose where we would live the first five years, and wherever that was she would go. She would choose where we would live the next five years, and wherever that was, I would go. That’s how I ended up in Selma in 1971.

  That was nearly 44 years ago. I expected to be in Harlem, New York City by 1976 because Faya loved Harlem. I did not want to live in Harlem even for a month, not to speak of five years. When her turn came to choose where we would live the next five years, she said, “I really want to leave Selma, but the people need you so we can stay a little longer.” I told her that the people of Selma needed her even more than me. She disagreed. Every five years she exercises her option to choose another place to live but she allows me to stay and struggle a little longer in Selma. I am thankful. However, if she says tomorrow that it’s time to go, I will go for she has sacrificed so much for so many years. These questions not only make me think but make me very thankful.

EPILOGUE – Sometimes we are just meant to do certain things. It may be tied to a person, a place, an organization, a movement, a moment or other things. I believe that I was meant to be in Selma. Alabama. However, I have often wondered whether I would be in Selma if I had taken the shorter route in 1971 and perhaps not ended up on Alabama Avenue and Washington Street where I had “that feeling.” Of course, some would say I already had “that feeling” as evidenced by my going to Selma by myself on that day.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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