Just two hours south of Columbiana is Selma, the birthplace of the best-known voter mobilization efforts in U.S. history. On March 7, 1965, 600 marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to the state Capitol to protest the death of a black voting rights activist shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper. When marchers crossed the bridge, they were met by officers who released tear gas into the crowd, and beat protesters. The event became known as Bloody Sunday.
Two weeks later, Martin Luther King Jr. led another march to the state Capitol for a new law to allow blacks to vote without barriers. The Voting Rights Act was passed that summer.
But Selma is a city still struggling. Its population has plummeted by about 30 percent since the Civil Rights movement, and at least 43 percent of its people live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data. Almost all of those leaving Selma are white.
Though 80 percent black, it took almost a decade after the Voting Rights Act was passed to elect a black city council member. A black mayor wasn’t elected until 2000.
According to Who Leads Us, a project of the nonprofit San Francisco-based Women Donors Network, most Southern states are behind the rest of America in the diversity of elected officials. The Center for American Progress Action Fund also gave previously covered Section 5 states low marks in accessibility of the ballot.
“We look at surface gains. We have African-Americans in office, we own businesses - businesses we never owned before,” Bland said. “We are much more prosperous in so many ways, yet each day our rights keep being eroded by hateful, mean people.”
In September 2015, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley also announced plans to close 31 driver’s license offices throughout the state. Critics said the closures would make it more difficult to get photo IDs. Less than a month later, Bentley announced services would instead be reduced to one day a month.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s website shows 30 of Alabama’s 67 counties currently have one Department of Motor Vehicles office open once each month. According to U.S. Census data, counties in Alabama with the smallest number of DMV services have an average population of almost 29,000. About a quarter of them live in poverty. A third of them are black.
“People say the Civil War is not over,” said Joe Reed, a lawyer in Montgomery. “The shooting has stopped, but the war is not over.”
Democratic state Sen. Hank Sanders, who represents the state’s Black Belt, introduced a bill last session that would have required each county to have at least one DMV open twice a week. It overwhelmingly passed both chambers of the state Legislature. The governor vetoed the bill, citing a lack of resources. “I think it has caused people to lose faith in government,” Sanders said.
In December, the U.S. Department of Transportation opened an investigation into whether the cuts violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bans racial discrimination in state programs receiving federal support. A DOT spokesperson declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.
Since then, the Alabama secretary of state’s office has been sending staff members to each county at least once a year to give free photo IDs to any citizen who needs one. Carl Nelson, who works in Selma for the Dallas County Board of Registrars office, set up a registration drive in Selma in June. No one showed up.
Nelson, who is white, says that everyone who wants to be registered to vote in the area is already registered. “Honestly, by this time we should be registering people and we’re not. I don’t know why we’re not having people here today, really,” Nelson said. “If folks don’t get registered, it’s their own fault.”
“There are some naysayers who say these are hard times (to get an ID). They’re not. If they want to get registered, they can get registered,” he said.
One of the harshest critics of the Alabama ID law is Johnny Ford, the mayor of Tuskegee. “There should be no barriers,” he said. “(Voting’s) a freedom.”
Tuskegee is in Macon County, deep in the rural Black Belt where 82 percent of residents are African-American. Macon was among the counties selected to have a DMV office open only once a month.
“One day a month is just not adequate,” Ford said. But he called Alabama’s mobile ID units “a step in the right direction.”
Alabama overall had a 40.45 percent turnout rate in this year’s presidential primary. Macon County had a turnout of 31.25 percent – the second lowest of any county in the state.
But Ford says the new laws won’t stop registration efforts in Tuskegee. “It won’t discourage us; it has empowered us,” he said. “We are more encouraged than ever to register our people to vote, educate them on how to vote, and most importantly turn out the vote. In the words of Tuskegee Airmen: We fight. We fight. We fight. We fight.”
According to a 2012 Brennan Center study, more than 213,000 Alabama citizens have no vehicle access and more than 57,000 lived more than 10 miles away from the nearest state licensing office. Alabama also spends no state money on public transportation.
John Jackson, a former civil rights activist and mayor in Lowndes County – a rural area between Selma and Montgomery – calls the lack of access to DMVs “a disgrace.”
Although the state’s mobile ID unit has visited Lowndes County, Jackson said it is not comforting to its rural residents. “If they send it to Hayneville, from here that’s 15 miles. From Fort Deposit, that’s 30 miles,” said Jackson. “This is a poor county. … A lot of the time, people have to pay people to go into Hayneville.”
Lowndes County is 57th out of 67 Alabama counties in per capita income.
Even poorer, at 62nd of the 67 counties, is Barbour County, where the history of the South is preserved in cities like Clio and Clayton. In Clayton, a Confederate soldier memorial sits in front of the county courthouse, and in Clio, the painted image of former Gov. George Wallace, a pro-segregationist, is the centerpiece of a mural dedicated to the city’s history.