Southern river towns – dark waters, new currents

November 26th, 2021

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(published in The Daily Memphian, November 19, 2021)

I woke up this morning, as I have most of the mornings of my life, in a Southern river town. A town here because of a river, and here because that river could bring anything brought to its shores to the rest of the world.

Cotton and timber in the main, generational wealth and influence in return.

Cotton grown and picked, then baled and loaded, timber raised and cleared, then lashed and floated, by Black slaves in the main, commerce and growth for white men in return.

All as sure and certain, even ordained, as the flow of the river, as its rise and fall by the season.

All blown up by war, a war lost 156 years ago yet still glorified, an order defeated, yet reestablished by oppression and repression, all ensured by the manipulation of history and law.

All exposed to the nation and the world a century after the war’s end by those who would question the imposed order of white supremacy and institutionalized racism, by those who would organize and stand against it, by those who would fall bloodied, by those who would die. Simply asking for their rights in the streets of this river town. Simply asking to be seen as equal, as is their lawful right, as is a basic tenet of the Christian faith their oppressors so ardently claim as their own.

All finally seen, finally reported, finally burned into the consciousness of America. These seminal events of the 1960s would change this river town forever.

I woke up this morning in Selma, Alabama. But all of this can be said of my hometown as well. John Lewis and dozens more clubbed on a bridge named for a Klansman in Selma in 1965. Martin Luther King, Jr. shot on a motel balcony in Memphis in 1968.

As the bright white of cotton and caste faded in the bright lights of national television, as the castles of King Cotton were abandoned and the shackles, actual and virtual, removed, a new order had to follow, new livelihoods and purpose and futures found.

In Selma, all that still waits.

The still lovely but faded facades, the detailed cornices, the stately windows of building after empty building downtown front largely empty streets, dark sentinels from a past that can’t return, hard brick, stone, and stucco reminders that the past is not a destination.

The past is a lesson.

The Alabama River is no longer navigable to Mobile Bay, and the manmade Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway now carries the commerce that once floated Selma. Craig Air Force Base, a huge feeder of Selma’s economy and a connection to the world, moved not long after Bloody Sunday, some say because of Bloody Sunday. Interstate 65 might have accessed Selma, but those plans changed after Bloody Sunday, some say because of Bloody Sunday, and I-65 shifted to Prattville.

But promise stirs.

We were in Selma to visit our friend, the Rev. Amy George, who serves as rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Amy herself represents promise. The first woman to head the church. The first rector to look out on a more diverse congregation. Modestly diverse, but diverse nevertheless, and the invitation is open. The church is simply stunning. Two Tiffany windows grace one wall of the nave, and they have to compete with many other windows for your eye, with intricate mosaics and carved wood and soaring pipes, all beautifully balanced in a space that invites your reflection and soothes your soul.

Cotton built it. It burned during the Civil War and was rebuilt in 1878 from bricks salvaged from the ruins of Cahaba, the original state capital of Alabama just upriver, bricks made by slaves.

Promise stirs in confession.

Around the corner from the church is the Five and Dime, once a Woolworth’s now reimagined by AC Reeves, a member of Amy’s parish. Now a bright and inviting community center, a gallery, a shop of handmade this and that, a pop-up bakery – an Egyptian bakery, no less. There are lofts above and tables and chairs out front on the sidewalk. Orange Crush is in the vintage cooler.

There’s a new bookstore just down the street, Books on Broad, owned by St. Paul’s parishioner David Tipmore. It feels more like a living room full of books and conversation than a store. David is more host than owner. He’s lived all over the world. He’s home in Selma.

Someone says there are contracts on 18 of those sentinel downtown buildings. Someone else says that may be an optimistic number. Optimism is a budding new theme.

Promise stirs in forgiveness.

Across from our breakfast booth at The Downtowner several tables are strung together to make one long one. Eight old men hover over coffee beneath their ball caps as they have for generations of mornings, these eight and those before them. Nothing much has changed at this table and tables like it in diners everywhere.

Yet a Jamaican, Winston Williams of Amy’s flock, stands next to our booth discussing a new idea. He wants to help his brother open a Jamaican restaurant in Selma.

“Might shake things up some,” he said.

People in river towns understand better than most that nothing good happens when the flow stops, worse still, if it flows backwards.

I’m a Memphian, and hard lessons have been taught in Southern river towns.


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