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Activists Confront Hate In Selma, Ala.

When members of a Colorado church moved to Selma, Ala., to fight for racial justice, they were met with ghosts of the past

Selma, Ala. — Lynching blacks was just fine with John Tyler Morgan. In fact, when Morgan represented Alabama in Washington, D.C., following the Civil War, the former Confederate general-turned-grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and six-term U.S. senator introduced and championed several bills to legalize the practice of racist vigilante murder as a means of preserving white power in the Deep South.

A lawyer from Selma, Morgan was one of the fiercest segregationists and white supremacists of the early Jim Crow era. During Reconstruction, he advocated the forced removal of the South's entire black population to Cuba, Hawaii and the Philippines. He once said, "The snows will fall from heaven in sooty blackness," before whites would accept blacks as their equals.

So in June 1965, when white citizens of Selma founded a private segregated academy three months after the celebrated voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., they meant to send a message of militant defiance by christening it the John Tyler Morgan Academy.

First housed in Morgan's former residence in Selma's historic Old Town district, the private academy relocated in 1968 to its present location on a well-appointed, 29-acre campus in West Selma. Every year since 1965, its student body population has included not a single black student from a community of 20,000 that is 70% black.

Every year, that is, until this year.

Freedom Foundation
Freedom Foundation President Mark Duke (far right) in the studio with "Real Talk" co-hosts Gwen Brown and Ronald Smith.

Last May, the Morgan Academy admitted a 5-year-old black girl into its kindergarten class, marking another milestone in the slow and unsteady progress of the city that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once called the most segregated in America. To this day Selma remains a hotbed of neo-Confederate activity and racial tensions.

Two weeks after word spread that Morgan had effectively been desegregated, the school's board of directors held a regularly scheduled open meeting. "You could feel the anger in the room," said the father of the kindergartener, Sean Black, who attended with his wife Tylia. "No one said the word 'segregation' or mentioned my daughter by name. Instead they were all talking about 'this thing that happened two weeks ago.' They were asking questions like, 'What about our traditions? What about our heritage?'"

Black and his wife are newcomers to Selma. Challenging their new home's worst traditions is what led them to move there last year. They did not come alone. In all, 44 adult members of the Freedom Foundation, a faith-based, non-profit charity that was based in Colorado, have relocated to Selma in the last year-and-a-half, along with 16 of their children.

Like the civil rights activists of the 1960s, the members of the Freedom Foundation claim to be answering what Martin Luther King Jr. termed "a call of conscience" to promote racial harmony and social justice in the Deep South. Also like those activists, their presence is generating hostility and resentment among old-school racists who don't appreciate their meddling.

White supremacist organizations are paying increasing attention to the Freedom Foundation's controversial efforts. History is repeating itself in Selma. Even the epithets are the same: Troublemakers. Outside agitators. N----- lovers.

'Keep the Skeer On 'Em'
When the first wave of Freedom Foundation members arrived in Selma, a billboard depicting Confederate Army General and (later) Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest loomed over the site of the infamous Bloody Sunday beating of mostly black civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965. It showed Forrest astride a warhorse next to his signature battle cry: "Keep the skeer [scare] on 'em!"

The billboard was funded by the Friends of Forrest, a local outfit with ties to the League of the South, a neo-Confederate hate group that promotes racial separation, argues that slavery was ordained by God, and advocates modern-day secession.

Although the billboard supposedly promoted Civil War tourism in Selma, its menacing subtext wasn't lost on Freedom Foundation President Mark Duke.

"White power in Selma depends upon black fear, and to the black community, Nathan Bedford Forrest is a symbol of fear and the old Confederate white superiority mindset," Duke said. "Likewise, he's a hero to the racists in Selma. Some say they honor Forrest because of his war strategy, but it cannot be denied he was a leader in the original KKK."

Duke noted that Civil War reenactments are a popular diversion in Selma. "But while it's one thing to play a confederate in a reenactment, it's totally another thing to actually believe like one," he said. "There are some in Selma who still believe the South was right and that blacks were better off in slavery. They believe in maintaining segregation and celebrating the worst of the old southern traditions."

The Freedom Foundation members relocated to Selma after Duke passed through the city during a tour of Civil Rights landmarks and was shocked by the blatant economic disparity and systemic racial segregation that continue to afflict the storied city more than four decades after it became a symbol of the civil rights movement.

To many outsiders, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge into Selma feels like entering a time warp in which the past maintains such a stranglehold on the present that a breeze off the Alabama River seems to carry a whiff of tear gas or the distant crack of a slavemaster's whip.

Some things haven't changed much in Selma since Bloody Sunday. The Selma Country Club has yet to admit a black member. Other customs have yielded to modernity. The city marked a turning point in 2000 by electing its first black mayor, James Perkins, who took on the city's entrenched white power structure. Although Perkins was defeated in his second re-election campaign last August by a candidate, George Evans, who was backed by Selma's white leaders, Evans, too, is black and had significant black support. The days of black voters being disenfranchised in Selma are gone forever, even if the city has a long way to go before it becomes a model of egalitarianism.

Viola Liuzzo
Viola Liuzzo was murdered after the Selma-to-Montgomery march by Klansmen who shot through her car window.

"It used to be that whites in Selma had all the political power and all the economic power. Now, half that equation has changed. Blacks have the political power. But the economic power? It's still in white hands, and a lot of those white hands are not exactly reaching out to shake the black hands," said Joanne Bland, a lifelong Selma resident, operator of the civil rights tour company "Journeys for the Soul" and the executive director of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. "You must understand, Selma is still Selma. We're still chasing the dream, and we're still behind."

The dream pulled hundreds of idealistic outsiders to Selma in 1965. Unlike the Freedom Foundation members, they didn't come to stay. "We believe it is important to come and live and work beside those who may not have the same opportunities as others throughout America," said Duke.

Since moving to Selma, two members of the Freedom Foundation have joined the Selma Police Department. Nine have become public school teachers in Selma and surrounding Dallas County, one of the most impoverished school districts in the nation. Another member is a nurse practitioner in a county health clinic. Sean Black took a job as the director of a mentoring program for at-risk youth run through the office of an influential local juvenile court judge.

Fifty years ago, Black would never have been allowed to enter the courthouse where he works through its front doors because of the dark color of his skin. Now he can walk through them anytime he likes, day or night, because he literally holds the keys.

Selma bridge

"Go Back To Colorado"
Beyond the employment of its members the Freedom Foundation furthers its agenda with high-profile good deeds. Thus far these have included painting the classrooms inside all-black Selma High School and buying uniforms for its tennis team; putting on basketball tournaments and youth talent shows; arranging and funding the production of high-quality educational videos for the Voting Rights Museum and Brown Chapel, a hub of activism in the 1960s; and organizing neighborhood clean-ups in parts of town where the sight of dozens of white folks picking up garbage is out of the ordinary, to say the least. (Though a handful of Freedom Foundation members are black or Latino, the majority of them are white, including Duke).

The Freedom Foundation's centerpiece Selma project is the purchase and ongoing renovation of the Tepper's Building, a former department store on Selma's main business corridor. The Foundation is converting the building into a multi-story gathering place with a youth center, coffee shop, ice cream parlor, health food deli and on-site job training programs in marketing and small business administration.

Shania Black
Shania Black, pictured with her parents Tylia and Sean, became the first black student ever to attend the city's esteemed Morgan Academy. Photo by Craig Bromley

Earlier this year the Freedom Foundation sponsored a community theater production, directed by one of its members, of the musical "Footloose" with a cast of 50 Selma residents that included 20 public school students. All three nights of the show's run sold out.

"Footloose" tells the story of a young liberal from a big city who struggles to broaden the minds of a small town's conservative establishment with the help of local youth drawn to his cause. It's no accident that the Freedom Foundation debuted its community theater initiative with this particular show. Last September, rehearsals began for "Seussical the Musical," based on the works of the children's author, Dr. Seuss. It has 60 cast members including the chief of the Selma Police Department and dozens of kids, black and white.

The racist holdouts of Selma despise this sort of mixing, just as they don't like it one bit that around 200 black Selma residents have joined the Freedom Foundation's network of volunteers. The Colorado do-gooders are upsetting the social order in Selma. That proved to be a dangerous business in the past.

The Klan gunned down Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo on the highway between Selma and Montgomery in March 1965, the same month Unitarian minister James Reeb was beaten to death by white men with clubs in downtown Selma in broad daylight. One of Reeb's alleged killers owns a used car lot in Selma to this day.

Nowadays, some of Selma's old-school racists aren't that old. Last May, a group of high school students at Morgan Academy formed an online Facebook social networking group to protest the Freedom Foundation. The group was called "Go Back to Colorado."

One of the first posts, dated May 4, was short and to the point: "Those damn n----- lovers can kiss my country ass!!"

"Stirring Up Problems"
The leader of the "Go Back to Colorado" group, Kyle Lewis, posted this message:

"First off, I am not a racist. N----- is not a term refferring [sic] to blacks. When I say 'n-----' I am refferring [sic] to the lazy, worthless people who think everything is owed to them. Selma is full of n------ both black and white. However, I have a problem with people who think having an all-white school, and being a member of an all white country club is bad. This is the way Selma has been for years and 99% of blacks and whites have been fine with it. Furthermore, flying a rebel flag does not make u a racist either. I am a proud Southerner and am proud to support my Confederate heritage that my past generations died fighting for. I don't call blacks racist for marching over the bridge supporting their heritage, so why does it make me a racist to support mine? The Freedom Foundation has come down here and are [sic] stirring up problems for all of us."

Bradford Smith
Longtime resident Bradford Smith warns that it's still dangerous to "get crosswise with the powerful" in Selma despite signs of progress. Photo by Craig Bromley

That same week, Duke woke up one morning to find his front yard had been "rolled" with toilet paper. "Go Home" was spray-painted on his grass. Duke's home isn't hard to find. He owns one of the grandest mansions in Old Town, a neighborhood where 13 historic homes have been purchased and occupied in recent months by members of the Freedom Foundation.

Duke isn't too worried about the toilet paper vandalism or the Facebook page. That's just kid stuff. But a rant that circulated online last August represented a higher level of threat. After first appearing on an anti-Freedom Foundation online forum that has drawn more than 6,000 posts since it was set-up in November 2007, the rant was re-posted on several hate group websites.

Signed "Nehemiah," it read:

"This farce, foolish 'thing' called Freedom Foundation is toying with explosive issues that Men of Action do not take lightly. Take notice. We will not wait for federal guns and federal gunpowder as was in Waco, Jonestown or Ruby Ridge. We do not turn the other cheek when striked [sic]. In fact it is best to strike first. The poor persons in this 'cult' cannot be helped. They will be collateral damage. They must be destroyed as the cowardly head of this false religion will most likely survive the wrath of Men of Action who love their children and respond with violence when threatened by pseudoreligious groups. Giants that were working or sleeping have been awakened. We will spend eternity in Hell if need so [sic] to protect our children and families."

"The South Was Right!"
One of the Freedom Foundation's most powerful detractors is Cecil Williamson, a Selma city councilman, prominent local preacher, attorney and chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party. Williamson is also an unrepentant neo-Confederate. A longtime supporter and self-described former member of the League of the South, Williamson is currently identified by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Southern heritage organization that in recent years has been largely taken over by political extremists, as the Lt. Commander of the group's Southwest Central Alabama Brigade.

In 2000, Williamson and Pat Godwin, another Selma neo-Confederate, raised a furor when they commissioned and erected a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest on public property in downtown Selma. It was later moved to a cemetery.

"The South and its heritage is the only thing restraining the liberals, multiculturalists and the politically correct from completely eradicating the values and principles upon which this nation was founded," Williamson wrote in a 2000 essay titled "The Real Reason Our Heritage Is Attacked."

"The South was right in 1861," he wrote. "We are right today!"

Last summer, Williamson helped organize a secret meeting to muster resistance to the Freedom Foundation. Someone using the screen name "Nehemiah" in the anti-Freedom Foundation online forum directed prospective attendees to pre-register for the meeting by calling the Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church in Selma, where Williamson is the pastor. Because Williamson is a lawyer, "Nehemiah" wrote, their identities would be shielded by attorney-client privilege. It's not clear how many people attended the anti-Freedom Foundation meeting or what exactly was discussed or decided.

"We are united in our determination to expose the treachery of the Freedom Foundation and to protect our beloved community from [Mark] Duke and his teachings," stated Nehemiah. Williamson did not reply to messages seeking comment for this story.

Twice a day, Duke advances the Freedom Foundation's so-called treachery by co-hosting a local talk radio show. His morning slot is sandwiched between syndicated right-wing all-stars Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Duke adopts a folksy, relentlessly positive tone when he's on the air. He spent the bulk of one show in September tracking the movements of a missing 600-pound heifer whose disappearance was heralded in that morning's edition of the Selma Times-Journal. It's clear that his underlying goal is promoting dialogue between whites and blacks in Selma, even if they're just swapping amusing stories about wayward farm animals.

Also, he delights in pushing hot buttons. "Do you think Adam and Eve were black?" he asked one recent caller. "Don't you think that would upset some people in this town if they found out they were descended from African Americans?"

"It's About Time"
When Bradford Smith heard that zinger come out of his portable radio, he busted out laughing. "Oh, that was a good one," he said. "I think that surely would upset some people around here, yes sir."

Smith was born in Selma, the grandson of a slave, and has lived there most of his life. He spends a lot of his time reading books and newspapers while listening to the radio on the front porch of his cottage in an all-black neighborhood near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jefferson Davis streets. "There's always been a few white folks in Selma that would treat a man right," Smith said. "But most of them? No, sir. You see, Selma has a long, long history of just a few whites runnin' the show. They keep all the other whites in line the same way they keep the blacks in line, through fear. If you want to live here and be halfway comfortable, you can't get crosswise with the powerful. Because when you violate their code, you are damn sure going to suffer. Whatever they can do to freeze you out, they going to hit you from all dimensions."

Last spring, white power brokers in Selma organized a boycott of all the businesses that were advertising on the Freedom Foundation radio shows. Some of the advertisers received anonymous threatening phone calls. Within days, all but one had pulled their ads. Now, Duke gives away ad time to black entrepreneurs ranging from a convenience store owner to a sidewalk watermelon vendor.

Despite the Freedom Foundation's apparent resilience thus far, Smith isn't too optimistic about the group's long-term chances. "I think it'd take nothing less than Jesus Christ himself to change Selma."

Jesus has yet to appear, and sooty black snow has yet to fall, but the facts remain that a black man is sitting in the Selma mayor's chair for the ninth year in a row, and 5-year-old Shania Black is attending classes at Morgan Academy.

"She doesn't have any idea she's making history," her father said. "She's just having a good time. The other kids are nice to her, and the teachers are treating her well."

During the first week of classes, Black was picking up his daughter from school one day when a white man, a parent of another Morgan Academy student, stopped him and shook his hand.

"Thank you," the white man said. "It's about time."