This is Money Road, a pocked ribbon of asphalt that traverses some of the most storied land in the South, a sparsely populated route that hugs the dark Tallahatchie River closely and holds its secrets even closer. You won’t find a gas station here, and if you want a Coca-Cola, you’d best turn around. But thousands of tourists come here annually, seeking one of two places — Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where bluesman Robert Johnson is buried, or Bryant’s Grocery, where 14-year-old Emmett Till supposedly whistled at a white woman and was found in the river four days later with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck. It was 1955, and change had not yet come.
“For those on the outside looking in, they’re seeing that the churches can’t even come together,” says Urban Hope member Dion Watts. “That’s something that has been a Goliath – a huge stumbling block. If we can come together on this, the message it will send to the rest of the world will be profound.”
Selma is a reflection, both good and bad, of life in Alabama’s rural Black Belt, where poverty remains entrenched. Selma has both been lifted by and bears the burden of its history. As one of the main cities in this agricultural area, many expect it to forge a renaissance and lead some of the South’s poorest counties back to prosperity while providing a glimmer of hope to an increasingly racially polarized nation.
For most of the 20th century, blacks were buying one-way tickets out of the Jim Crow South in hopes of a better life. Nearly 6 million African-Americans followed the railroads to places like Detroit and Chicago, never dreaming that their children and grandchildren would someday lead a return migration, chasing the American dream back down the Mississippi and straight across the Mason-Dixon line.
Hot-button issues like racial profiling, police stop-and-frisk practices, and social justice have joined global causes like immigration reform, women’s rights, and issues affecting other minority communities, suggesting a blurring of the lines between the ideological underpinnings of today’s youth-led civil rights movement and that of the 1960s. Call it Civil Rights 2.0.
She left her clothes on the back porch. She left her gold, Hunt High School Class of ’56 ring on the dresser. She left her baby, Gloria, in her sister Betsy’s arms. And then, on a hot summer day in 1960, Lyrian Wyvonne Barry boarded a Greyhound bus bound for St. Louis and disappeared behind a cloud of Mississippi dust.