Images of America: Selma
© 2014 Sharon Jackson
When I heard that the Images of America series had commissioned a book on Selma, I stood midway between excitement and dread. The series offers a pictoral recounting of small-town America, an experience overlooked by standard histories, but Selma for most is less a town and more an image — a memory of violence. This collection of photographs was done by an author who loves the town, however, and accords her a just tribute. While not overlooking the role of Selma in the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, Images renders a view of the town itself, a booming center of agriculture and wholesale commerce, a place that generations have cared for and loved. Long before nation-wide political movements decided to use the town to make history, Selma had its own proud history. Sited upon the bluffs of the Alabama river, it found early success as an agricultural boomtown, and the aggressive pursuit by city fathers of railroads ensured it commercial prosperity throughout the 19th century, surviving even the arson of an invading army during the Civil War. Selma’s industrial importance to the Confederacy was then second only to Richmond, a fact lost on modern residents who see it as a chronic small fry. Selma attracted its fair share of immigrants during the gilded age, especially Jewish families from central Europe, whose shops lined the stretch of the city’s central Broad Street. The city these residents across the generations built was utterly beautiful, and though some of that has faded through the years — the trees lining Broad Street lost to utility poles, the magnificent Hotel Albert deemed too costly to maintain and bulldozed — the city still boasts one of the largest intact historic districts in the nation. There is no shortage of homes whose stately columns and beautiful cornices make one feel like a Goth wandering amid the ancient beauty of Rome. Selma is not merely a celebration of beautiful architecture and booming enterprise, however. Like another book in this series, Montevallo, this is something of a family album. People, not buildings, dominate the pages — from city fathers to contemporary politicians, each with their story. Jackson integrates the lives of Selma’s citizens with nation-wide social movements, particularly women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights movement. Jackson does not shy away from the darker side of Selma’s history, its agricultural expanse going hand-in-hand with a massive population of people held in slavery, people whose ancestors remained held back by Jim Crow legislation for a full century after the war. Those who fought in ’65 — in both centuries — are honored for defending their homes and and personhood. Images of America: Selma is markedly balanced and contains photographs that even someone who collects them — someone like me — hasn’t seen.