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Weekend Read: In Selma, Alabama, whose heritage?

On each anniversary of Bloody Sunday, people from across the country and the world make a pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama, to listen to civil rights luminaries, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and recommit themselves to the fight for equal justice.

One place these pilgrims are unlikely to visit is Selma’s Old Live Oak Cemetery, home to a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who lost the Battle of Selma and, after the Civil War, became the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

A group that calls itself “Friends of Forrest” gained ownership of an acre at the cemetery in 2015, planting Confederate battle flags in a circle around Forrest’s bust and sprinkling miniature battle flags throughout the cemetery.

The group’s leader, Pat Godwin, lauded these accomplishments on a website that she maintains for the purpose of “Defending Southern Heritage.”

“We are very GRATEFUL for ALL our supporters and contributors toward our efforts to defend, protect and preserve our noble Southern history and heritage here in Selma,” wrote Godwin, signing her 2015 post, “Keepin’ the skeer on’em! DEO VINDICE! Patricia S. Godwin.”

Godwin’s is a common refrain in the South. But in a place as pivotal to the civil rights movement as Selma, her heritage is not the only “Southern heritage.”

This spring, Selma native Tad Bartlett set out to explore a more expansive understanding of the heritage of the South with two friends from New Orleans, Maurice Carlos Ruffin and L. Kasimu Harris. They started their road trip by witnessing the removal of New Orleans’ statue of Robert E. Lee, before traveling to Selma for the Fourth of July, a journey documented at The Bitter Southerner blog.

Along the way, the men meditated on the Confederacy and the complicated project of reconciliation in the historic town, which is grappling with white flight. They met with an array of people, including the mayor and a daughter of refugees from Nazi Germany, as they explored the meaning of Southern heritage in today’s Selma.

It became evident that Selma is “a continuum of the American experience,” Bartlett writes. The town is the “good, the ugly. The frustrations, the hopes. … A place to reconcile good intentions with old grudges.”

Indeed, the challenges facing Selma aren’t confined to the city limits of this Alabama town. And it’s not simply a place to reflect on the sacrifices and victories of the past – but a place to chart the path to a more just future.

“Selma had its hooks in me,” Ruffin writes. He added: “I liked this little Mayberry. Its problems were American problems. If we could solve Selma, we could solve America.”

We couldn’t agree more.

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:

SPLC’s Weekend Readings are a weekly summary of the most important news reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequality, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Readings every Saturday morning.