Not black and white: Fees that threaten march unite Selma

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Black people who celebrate the civil rights movement and white people who commemorate the Civil War are suddenly finding themselves fighting on the same side in historic Selma, Alabama: against City Hall.

Both groups say the city is squeezing them with demands for thousands of dollars in up-front payments to stage annual events that bring tens of thousands of visitors to an otherwise sleepy community where unemployment is high and boarded-up homes and businesses are a common sight.

Plans for next month's Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, which commemorates the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march of 1965, are up in the air over the city's demand. And the re-enactment of the 1865 Battle of Selma, involving hundreds of history buffs in Civil War garb, has been canceled because organizers couldn't afford the tab.

The jubilee draws mostly black people, the battle re-enactment mostly white people. So now, two groups with different interests and membership rosters are united in being upset with Mayor Darrio Melton and other leaders who say the city can't afford the police overtime, fire protection and cleanup the events require.

For a change in Selma, where race sometimes seems like a factor in everything, something isn't solely black and white.

"Maybe we've been able to bring two opposing sides together for a month," the first-term mayor of Selma - a city of around 20,000 people, about 80 percent of them black - said with a chuckle Thursday.

State Sen. Hank Sanders, a black Selma Democrat, said organizers of the four-day Bridge Crossing Jubilee still plan to hold the celebration March 2-5 but won't pay the demanded $23,882. The event in part recalls Bloody Sunday, when black marchers were beaten by white police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

"We will not pay in 2017 to commemorate sacrifices made and celebrate victories won in 1965," Sanders wrote in an opinion piece in The Selma Times-Journal. Sanders and his wife head the group that organizes the jubilee.

But the city says that without the payment, it won't close streets or provide assistance as usual until the climactic final day, when thousands typically gather to walk across the bridge. That means plans for three days of street concerts, vendors and other events are uncertain.

"Every day we have people who come to this city to walk across that bridge. We welcome everyone to do that," the mayor said. But to stage other parts of the event, he said, "they'll have to pay."

A few weeks ago, organizers of the far-smaller Battle of Selma re-enactment canceled over a similar demand for $22,054 from City Hall. Volunteers who stage that event say their total budget is only $28,000 and they simply can't afford it.

"It's disappointing. But I certainly understand the need to have a balanced budget," said Candace Skelton, a former Selma tourism director who now chairs the committee that stages the Battle of Selma.

The jubilee includes a music festival, a beauty pageant and workshops, while the Battle of Selma has days of simulated fighting and a military-style ball, plus encampments for the re-enactors at a city park.

Losing either gathering could hurt the economy in Selma and surrounding Dallas County, which has one of Alabama's highest unemployment rates at 9.2 percent. Visitors spent $81.7 million in the Selma area in 2015, according to the state tourism agency.

Although planners of the two events haven't actually joined forces to try to overturn the city's decision, battle re-enactment organizer James Hammonds said there have been "casual conversations" about such an alliance.

Even that is unusual in a city where black residents have fought a Confederate statue in a cemetery and white residents typically send their kids to private academies rather than public schools. But Hammonds said both black and white people want to promote history and generate tourist dollars.

"Selma is so unique to have two tracks of history that draw from different groups that may not be interested in one part but are interested in the other," he said. "I think to not utilize that uniqueness is the wrong way to go."