A large crowd marches down the streets of Selma, Ala., in 2007 while re-creating a peaceful voting-rights march that was violently repressed by Alabama troopers in 1965. 
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Almost 75 percent of the registered voters in Selma, Ala., and the surrounding areas went to the polls in the 2012 general election, casting a majority of their votes for President Barack Obama and Democratic U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell.

The movie Selma depicts the 1965 struggle for voting rights in the Alabama town where cotton and Jim Crow once were kings. Marchers attempting to make the 54-mile trek from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to petition the state for voting rights were driven back by authorities before getting protection from the federalized National Guard to ensure their safe passage.

A solid turnout of registered voters who help elect black politicians is an example of change in Selma, but the region’s high unemployment rate and poverty signal a need for even greater change.

Sewell, a Selma native who in the 1980s was the first black valedictorian at Selma High School, is hoping that the attention from the star-powered movie will help Selma, Dallas County and Alabama’s entire Black Belt region attract economic development.

“Our biggest challenge today is the economy,” says Sewell, a Harvard-educated lawyer. “I am always looking for resources and opportunities to bolster the economy, and it is my hope that more people in business and industry will see the viability of Selma. Selma is a great place.”

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Currently, Selma—with a population of nearly 20,000—has an unemployment rate of 10.7 percent, among the highest in Alabama (the national rate is 5.8 percent). Its poverty rate of 42 percent and median annual household income of only $22,000 also are strong indicators of the economic challenges in the area.

The people of Selma want to have strong, vibrant communities, Sewell says. “They deserve more opportunities.”

Many of Selma’s most recent economic struggles can be linked to the closing of Craig Air Force Base several years ago. The facility was one of the busiest air bases in America during World War II and for years was home to the Air Force’s Undergraduate Pilot Training Program. Now the hundreds of jobs and dozens of companies associated with the base are history.

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Also history is the desegregation of Selma’s public schools. In the late 1960s, the schools integrated after bitter fights, but today the student population at Selma High School, which was about 55 percent black and 45 percent white when Sewell graduated, is almost completely black. Photos from private and Christian schools in the city, however, show mostly white student bodies. The racial makeup of Selma is roughly 80 percent black and 18 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We’re working to bring the community together. The group One Selma meets regularly and is having some success,” Sewell says, referring to the community organization that’s working to bring black and white residents together.

In March, Selma and much of the state of Alabama will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march, the focus of the acclaimed movie being released nationwide this week. The commemoration, Selma leaders say, is another opportunity for the community to come together and to educate the nation on the contributions and sacrifices of Selma.

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Sam Walker, historian for the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, grew up in the city and graduated in 1971 in the first integrated class at Selma High School. In 1992 Walker, who is now 61, returned to his hometown and helped establish the museum because of his commitment to the story.

Information housed in the museum’s archives served as the basis for research for the movie, Walker points out. “This is an important story,” he says. The museum, located on Water Avenue near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, was opened in 1993 to help share that story with the world.

“Now that the movie Selma is coming out, more people will be aware of what happened here, and they can learn and appreciate it,” Walker says.

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As the popularity of the movie spreads and the 50th commemoration nears, Walker says, he looks forward to seeing an increase in the number of visitors in the city and especially at the Voting Rights Museum.

While Selma residents are surrounded by history, the city does not have a theater in regular operation. Viewing the movie in the city where voting-rights history was made would not have been possible before last week, when Paramount Pictures announced free showings at the Walton Theater, the closed fine arts theater that will be reopened Jan. 9-30. Residents will be given tickets on a first-come, first-served basis.

On Saturday a special showing for senior citizens is planned at 1:30 p.m.

“I’m excited the citizens of Selma will be able to see this movie, in their city,” Sewell says. Just as the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 had a tremendous impact on voter registration and the election of black officials throughout the South, she says, “The movie Selma will have a great impact on the city.”

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Sherrel W. Stewart is a freelance writer based in Alabama.