- Why the Vote Wasn't Enough for Selma by Karlyn Forner
Selma, Alabama, has been a defining symbolic location for twentieth-century U.S. history, as most recently memorialized in the popular film Selma (2014). Yet as Karlyn Forner deftly shows in her book Why the Vote Wasn't Enough for Selma, these snapshots of the city as a timeless icon of the civil rights movement run the risk of oversimplifying the long history of struggle before and after 1965. More crucially, Selma as symbol nourishes a triumphalist narrative of the civil rights movement as past rather than present and erases the decades of political exclusion and economic dispossession that continued long after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the spirit of several historical works over the past decade that have complicated understandings of the unfinished work of economic transformation in the civil rights movement, this book highlights the resilience of communities both in the city and on the farms of Dallas County in the Alabama black belt that historically linked many black families to the region. Drawing on a rich array of sources from local and state agencies, personal papers, government minutes and census records, oral histories, personal interviews, and newspapers and organizational pamphlets, Forner provides the reader with a complex story and a clear, powerful narrative. Because Forner focuses so consciously on a sense of place, the reader is able to watch over decades as black tenant farmers were gradually forced off their land through intertwined systems of racial and economic control at the local, state, and national levels. Forner exposes the complex tools with which white supremacy operated over the twentieth century to ensure that black Alabamians bore the brunt of economic hardship in a geographic area in which black people had long outnumbered white people. She traces these processes as they circled back to each other, including the better-known histories of the Great Depression, the boll weevil outbreak, and the New Deal agricultural policies that often benefited white landowners at the expense of black tenant farmers, as well as the interwoven stories of agricultural extension officials, consolidated livestock farming, anti-union intimidation, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the systematic targeting of any black leader who spoke in favor of economic justice. [End Page 231]
Forner traces the experiences of local leaders and groups in Selma and Dallas County through the demographic and economic shifts during and after both world wars, showing how these major global events solidified particular kinds of black community organizing as well as specific types of white supremacist opposition. The roles played by the farm bureau and the chamber of commerce receive as much attention as the state and national Democratic Party, speaking to the important historiographical trend of focusing on local processes and systems in addition to national politics and parties. Forner also emphasizes the mounting frustration over decades of Jim Crow segregation and the cold, casual brutality of white economic control, as the community came together to respond to black men brought to trial before all-white juries, to create a petition to desegregate Selma's schools the year after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and to provide political education on the theft of labor to Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) antipoverty organizers. By the time Forner's story reaches SNCC's voter registration efforts, Bloody Sunday, and the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, the reader has a clear understanding of how and why the voting rights movement reached its peak in Selma—and also why it was never just about the vote.