SELMA, Ala. — When Marie Foster first attempted to march the 50 miles from this rural west-central Alabama community to Montgomery, the state capital, she got only as far as the outskirts of town before she was knocked to the ground in a clash with state troopers and mounted sheriff's deputies at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
That was 20 years ago. Foster, then a feisty widow with three teen-age children, was among the more than 500 voting rights activists and supporters who were clubbed, tear-gassed and routed back over the bridge on "Bloody Sunday" for daring to defy Gov. George C. Wallace's ban on any voter-registration protest marches from Selma.
Today, a grandmother of six and still as feisty as ever, Foster will take part in another march over that same bridge--a 20th anniversary trek in honor of "Bloody Sunday" and the ultimately successful five-day march to Montgomery that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led just two weeks later.
The marchers will follow the same route as the 1965 King-led march: from the red-brick Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church near downtown, across the Pettus Bridge and along the winding four-lane highway of U.S. 80 due east to the sparkling white-domed Capitol in Montgomery.
But this time the marchers step off in a dramatically changed atmosphere. There will be no club-swinging, tear-gas-tossing troopers and sheriff's deputies to greet the demonstrators. No knots of glowering white onlookers shouting threats and insults or silently waving little Confederate flags. No cars with signs in whitewash lettering saying "Martin Luther Kink" and "Walk Coon."
Selma has gratefully retired those kinds of shameful displays along with the "Whites Only" signs and Jim Crow laws that long flourished in this 165-year-old city of 27,000 along the twisting Alabama River.
What's more, the same George C. Wallace who once declared "segregation forever" now woos black voters here, and was reelected to the governorship two years ago with crucial black support.
Selma's mayor in 1965, Joe T. Smitherman, is still in office, but he also is a changed man. Once a die-hard segregationist who opposed any effort to open up the political process to blacks, he now courts black voters, has appointed blacks to many City Hall posts and calls the Voting Rights Act of 1965 "the most significant legislation ever passed in my lifetime."
Black elected officials here now include two of five City Council members and one of two state senators representing this district. In addition, black appointed county and city officials include a school board member, a deputy police chief and one of three voter registrars.
'Not Promised Land'
"From that point of view, things have certainly improved," Marie Foster said. "But Selma's not the promised land yet. There's so much done to impede our progress that's not on the surface--it's swept under the rug. They are still trying to keep us back."
For that reason, the march that begins today is not simply a celebration. Foster's comment mirrors the widespread discontent in Selma's black community over the political and economic obstacles blacks still face, and march organizers say that they intend to dramatize those issues.
Selma's public schools, which have gone from a ratio of about 55% white and 45% black in 1965 to 70% black and 30% white today, suffer from chronic lack of funds and dismal student achievement scores.
The overall unemployment here is a heavy 15%--but in the black community it is more than double that. According to a December, 1984, report by the Southern Regional Council, poverty among blacks in the 11 states of the old Confederacy has probably risen to 39%--"a rate which makes almost two out of every five blacks below poverty."
Little Change Seen
"I don't think things have improved too much," said Sam Evans, 48, an unemployed cotton press worker who lives in a ramshackle "shotgun" house in the depressed black ghetto known as East Selma. "People around here are walking around hungry, they can't get jobs. It's the whites that gets the jobs."
Mayor Smitherman sees things differently. Smitherman, 55, who was reelected to an unprecedented sixth term last year with more than 10% of the black vote, said: "We've made more progress here in Selma than in the South as a whole. If you want hate these days, go to Boston, where they've got less than half the percentage of blacks that we do and the whites and blacks can't stand each other."
"Bloody Sunday" contributed greatly to the positive changes in Selma. Five months after that brutally violent incident made national headlines and television footage, stirring up widespread public outrage, Congress overwhelmingly approved the landmark Voting Rights Act.
That measure--signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson and widely regarded as the most important piece of civil rights legislation in this century--broke down longstanding barriers that had denied blacks in the South any effective voice in political life.