Video by Joel Cohen
Urban images dominate the news about nationwide protests against racially motivated police violence. But that doesn’t mean police violence against African Americans doesn’t occur in small cities and rural areas, according to Dr. James Mitchell, an educator and civic leader in Selma, Alabama.
“It’s just that we oftentimes don’t get the publicity because who really watches what’s happening in Selma, Alabama, … or towns smaller than Selma?” Mitchell said.
Mitchell is president of Wallace Community College Selma and helped organize the 50th anniversary commemoration of the marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Iconic images of those events underscore the importance of the rural South in the civil rights movement.
We asked Dr. Mitchell to help us understand the role of small cities and rural areas in civil rights history and in today’s turbulent events.
Tim Marema: So I want to start out and just ask if you were surprised at all by the breadth and depth of the response to the killing of George Floyd, and the aftermath from that.
Dr. James Mitchell: Well, I would say no, I’m not surprised. Because I think if we really think about it over the past what, four or five years, we’ve had people like George Floyd who have been killed. And when I say that, I’m not minimizing what’s happening and I’m not condoning all of the violence that’s taking place now. But in terms of recognizing why it’s happening, it’s nothing new. We have seen it before. People who are very frustrated. People who are just sick and tired of being sick and tired. And that’s really a prevalent thing here in Selma, Alabama. We are to a certain degree the cradle of civil rights movement and where we saw a lot of violence back in the early 60s. So it’s the same-old same-old, as the old folks say.
Marema: Well, obviously I was thinking about the history of Selma and the march and the 50th anniversary commemoration, which you were a big part of organizing. I was thinking about how that march and the violence that occurred from police and the authorities was part of a larger plan and a strategy. How do you compare that to what is happening now, with what apparently is not really as strategic?
Mitchell: Yeah. Good question. And the differences is, as you just noted, there is no strategy here within the last few years versus when the movement was started. There was strategy from both sides, believe it or not, in the sense that you had a movement, you had people who said, “We’re going to march across the bridge. We’re going to march to Montgomery, we are marching for our right to vote.” And there was a group that said, “No” more specifically, George Wallace, who said, “No, you will not. And I will show you how you will not, I will use violence.” And that’s what happened.
The difference is, I think now it doesn’t have to be a demonstration [for police violence to occur]. It doesn’t have to be someone who stands out. Usually, back during that time and I came along during the early ‘60, activists were the ones who were typically targets. But now someone walking down the street, someone who police just decide that they going to stop them and rouse them and shake them down, as we call it — and a person’s life is lost for something so simple as they claim a $20 counterfeit bill. Yeah. That’s not strategy there.
Marema: Do you have a sense of how the issue of law enforcement violence plays out in smaller areas than Minneapolis, New York and Washington. Are the same things occurring or is it different?
Mitchell: No, I think it’s occurring. It’s just that we oftentimes don’t get the publicity because who really watches what’s happening in Selma, Alabama, or who really watches what’s happening in towns smaller than Selma, Alabama? We were having a problem here a few years ago in Selma in which there was a lot of what we considered police brutality. There was a lot of police using their dogs to attack. Think about it. The optics of [attack] dogs and this was just one or two years ago.
So it happens but, luckily, that we know of, no one has been killed, we know people who have been had that rights violated. I was telling my wife this morning, we were talking about it. And I said, “To be quite frank coming up during the 60s”, I said, “Back then I didn’t trust the police.” And when I say trust them, I just feel a lot of them were dirty, I felt a lot of them would do things that they knew they should not do. And nothing much has changed as I continue to watch what’s happening in this country.
Marema: So is that a reflection of how things have not changed on a broad front of issues? Is there something specifically about police violence that’s been resistant to some of the change that may have occurred in other areas?
Mitchell: I think it’s the same in the sense that over a year ago I wrote an article and it was entitled, “The Senseless Killing of Unarmed Black Men” and during that time, I simply said, and again, let me preface that by saying, “I’m not trying to label all cops is bad,” and I want to make that clear. But what I said in this article, there are some bad, dirty cops who do not need to be in the positions they’re in. And it’s up to law enforcement leadership to weed them out. I went on to preface it with the idea, we have bad educators and it’s our responsibility to get them out of the system if they are bad educators.
There’s no difference with police. And that’s why I called upon law enforcement to go look at your training. What are you doing that’s perpetuating this whole belief that “I don’t care if I put my knee on your neck for nine minutes. And if I know you are dying and you’re telling me you can’t breathe, I don’t care because you know what, if you die, I’m going to move on and go to my next call.”
Marema: Where do you look for hope in a situation like this?
Mitchell: Well, I think we have to look for it where we always have, and that comes from grassroots movements. I am energized and hopeful about the young people that I see who are involved in the protest. I’m not talking about the looting and all of that. I’m talking about the young people who are involved because they care about the fact that this is the man who was killed right in the street, who was handcuffed, who had other police officers holding him down. I don’t understand and nobody else can understand, where was the threat? But I’m energized by seeing the number of young people who are out there.
Marema: Do you see any evidence from Selma or any other parts of Alabama, the South, or rural places of young people becoming more involved in their communities or young people moving back and taking up leadership roles.
Mitchell: I’ve seen more of in the last year or two of young people moving back to Selma and young people who are getting involved in terms of, they are beginning to run for office. They are community activists. They are trying to build infrastructure for their communities. They are trying to build leadership infrastructure to help uplift their community. So, yeah, I’m a little energized by that, even because I used to say that we have all these students come to the college and go on to four-year colleges and universities, and then guess what, they don’t come back to us. So we continued the brain drain. I’m happy to say I see that changing. And I think we need more, but they’re the people that we’ve got to get hold of and say, “Hey, we need you now more than ever.”
Marema: What do you think is going on that young people are sticking around or returning?
Mitchell: Well, I’m hoping it’s because they see a need. And for example, I have always had in my mind, I kept saying, “Selma is sick and it needs some new doctors.”
So those “new doctors” are those young people who left here and didn’t come back. I feel that we just got to be re-energized. We just got to have some new ideas.
And I think there’s been more of a concerted effort on the part of a lot of families to say to their children, “Hey, you’re needed here, or you can help here.” And I think that’s a part of it. It’s not that we have that many more things that normally attract young people, keep them from going to larger cities. But I think it’s the fact that there are people who in their heart say, “I can help and I want to help.”
Marema: Selma is iconic as a name and a place and the bridge. But behind the icon is a real place with real people. How do you feel about what’s transpired there since it became such an important part of our history? How has history treated Selma?
Mitchell: Not well. We have every year a commemoration of the bridge. We call it the Bridge Crossing Jubilee. And I always say and I hear other people say that other places, other cities, other states have benefited as a result of Selma except Selma.
I used to say Selma is the tale of two cities. Two cities in this sense that there was that side who said, “OK, [the civil rights march] happened.” And there was a side which they didn’t want to talk about what happened on that bridge. They didn’t want to deal with that part. Now, they wanted to talk about the [Civil War] battle of Selma when you celebrated and recognized the Confederacy. Whether you like it or not, what happened on that bridge happened. It’s a part of history. It’s etched in stone. The difference is rather than trying to deny what are you going to do about it to make sure it never happens again. That’s where I have a problem. And that’s why I say a lot of other places benefited as a result of what happened in 1965 on that bridge, except Selma. Because we’re still dealing with a lot of the same issues that caused that issue on the bridge.
Marema: Well, it seems like in so many ways, there’s a more or less a straight line from that set issues of 1965 to where things are today with the actions and reactions to police. Do you think that’s more or less true?
Mitchell: Well, no doubt. Until we can sit down and really have a real in-depth discussion about race, we’re going to continue to have these problems that we have, and people don’t want to do that. I understand it’s a tough subject. I understand it’s something that a lot of people want to just say, “Hey, it’ll go away by itself.” But it won’t because [the issues] haven’t over all of this time and look where we are.
Marema: What do you wish I’d asked you about that I haven’t?
Mitchell: Well, nothing that I wish you’d asked me about, but I’d like to say that these are very trying times and trying times call for people to say, “Hey, let me put aside what I think or what I feel and listen to others and how they feel” rather than me saying, “Oh, well, I don’t have to worry about a George Floyd.”
As a black man with two sons, I worry about it because one of my sons gets stopped and pops off at the police. You see how easily it happens. And it’s not just me and my son, it’s about black families who, every day that your child goes out that door, you don’t know whether or not they’ll come back, because some corrupt police officer deciding that, “I’m going to show my authority today and I don’t care what it will result in.”