In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens contrasted the plight of the poor in France with the lavish wealth of the aristocracy, the city of need with the city of greed. That harsh exploitation eventually erupted in the French Revolution, and the brutal revenge of the revolutionaries on their former oppressors.
In some ways, Selma and Shelby County, Alabama represent our tale of two cities. Fifty-two years ago, John Lewis, Hosea Williams and a host of ordinary heroes were beaten by Alabama state troopers as they sought to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, marching for the right to vote. The demonstration followed nearly 250 years of slavery, the whitelash against Reconstruction following the Civil War, and another six decades of legal apartheid and segregation.
In Selma, the modern civil rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, chose nonviolence over violence, reconstruction over revolution and forgiveness over revenge. The Selma beatings shamed a nation, and helped Lyndon Johnson drive through the Voting Rights Act and finally put an end to segregation.
Four years ago, a gang of five right-wing justices on the Supreme Court issued a ruling in a case called Shelby County v. Holder that gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Most Southern states — and many northern states led by right-wing governors — moved quickly to pass restrictions on voting designed to make it harder for people of color, college students, the poor, workers, the disabled and the elderly to vote.
Voter ID requirements, gerrymandering, limiting early voting, no same-day on-site voter registration, eliminating Souls to the Polls Sundays, packing and stacking political districts, cutting polling stations — all were designed to constrict, not expand the right to vote.
And now we have a tale of two cities once more. Fifty-two years ago in Selma, we were full of hope. Fifty-two years later, with Shelby County, we are filled with foreboding. Selma represented expansion, Shelby County contraction. Selma was about integration; Shelby County is about separation. Selma led to an assertion of federal, constitutional rights. Shelby County reasserted states’ rights.
Fifty-two years ago the U.S. attorney general and the Justice Department were leading on voting rights and enforcing the law.
Fifty-two years later Attorney General Jeff Sessions, born in Selma but aligned with Shelby, is withdrawing legal protections for the right to vote and claiming the Voting Rights Act is an intrusion on the states.
Fifty-two years ago, we had a Texan, Lyndon Johnson, in the White House, launching a war on poverty. Today, we have a New Yorker, Donald Trump, in the White House launching a war on the poor. Lyndon Johnson called on our better angels; Donald Trump summons our darker fears. A tale of two presidents.
And across America, as the wealthiest few capture virtually all of the rewards of growth, we see once more a tale of two cities, one of lavish excess, one of harsh struggle. America’s middle class is sinking, home ownership is down, life expectancy is down, wages are stagnant at best, and good jobs are scarce.
Dr. King’s Civil Rights Movement never achieved its final goal, economic justice. And now across lines of region and race and religion, most Americans struggle to stay afloat in a nation of obscene and growing inequality.
Donald Trump claimed to lead a movement that would change that. But his Cabinet is stacked with bankers and billionaires. His first actions are items on the CEO wish list. His budget seeks tax cuts for the rich and corporations while slashing support for working people and the vulnerable. He seems intent on making the contrasting tale of two cities even starker.
When Alabama played Clemson for the national collegiate football championship, the two schools had black quarterbacks, both black and white players, and black and white fans, cheering for their respective teams. That was the spirit of Selma.
When North Carolina, Texas and other states constricted the right to vote, when states refused to expand Medicaid to allow the working poor health care, when states passed laws designed to bust unions and worker power, that was the spirit of Shelby County.
And people of conscience across America have to stand and march once more. We will either build a more just society or we will face a far harsher reaction.