In 1972, seven years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, abolishing tools and tactics used to disenfranchise Southern black citizens, Selma, Ala.—the crucible of the civil rights movement—elected its first black City Council members since Reconstruction.
A huge voter turnout and a shift to district elections in the city where people had been beaten and harassed in their quest for basic rights propelled the Rev. Lorenzo Harrison Sr., the Rev. Frederick D. Reese, Ernest Doyle, James Kimbrough and the Rev. William Kemp to victory.
Today, 50 years after the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted, people in Selma still refer to those first black council members as the Courageous Five—men determined to vote and to serve.
“They went through a lot for us,” said Selma Councilman Michael Johnson of District 8. The 53-year-old businessman grew up in Selma and as a youngster looked up to the leaders.
“I really didn’t know a lot about what was going on with the council at the time, but I knew Rev. Harrison, and I knew he was always trying to do things for our community to make it better,” Johnson said.
Nancy Sewell, elected in 1993 as the first black woman on the Selma City Council, puts it this way: “They truly opened the doors for us. Their election made it easier for all of us.”
Sewell served on the council 11 years. Her daughter, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, represents Alabama’s 7th Congressional District.
When the first five black council members were elected, they worked to get improvements added to the budget for the black community, Nancy Sewell said.
“They got things placed in the budget that had never been done before in our community—sidewalks, sewers. They were God-fearing and humble,” she said.
Reese, the leader of the Dallas County Voters League who had invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to assist with the Selma campaign in the 1960s, was often viewed as the leader on the council, Sewell said. The 85-year-old preacher and retired educator prefers not to talk much about his personal role in the movement. “I was just doing what God led me to do for the people,” he said in an interview with The Root earlier this year. All people should have a right to vote, access to the polls and an opportunity to run if they wanted to hold office, he stated.
Reese and Harrison are the only two surviving members of the Courageous Five.
Harrison, a feisty, 40-year-old minister at the time of his election, served more than 20 years on the council and was instrumental in the 1993 fight to get another black-majority district. “We’re trying to get [another] black-majority district so the city can move,” Harrison told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1993. At the time, the black councilmen and the mayor didn’t get along. Blacks were in the minority on the council, and votes were based on race instead of the best interest of citizens, Harrison said.
In recent years, Harrison said, he has battled illness, but he takes care of his civic duty. “I vote. Every time there is an election, I vote,” he said.
“We’ve got quite a few blacks on the council, and we’re getting better candidates,” he continued. “My councilman is a young man—a businessman,” he said, referring to Johnson, one of six blacks on the nine-member governing body. The mayor of Selma, George Evans, is also black.
Now that Johnson represents the district previously served by Harrison, he said he often tries to pattern his efforts after the former councilman.
“He has always wanted to do things that made a difference for people. He even helped establish a cemetery,” Johnson said of Harrison. Last year Johnson led the city’s effort that renamed the cemetery in honor of Harrison.
The fight for voting rights in Selma has ended, but the fight to improve the area’s economy continues.
“We’re trying to get jobs in here,” Johnson said. He employs 22 people in his three businesses, but the city needs much more economic development.
Currently, Selma has an unemployment rate of 10.7 percent, among the highest in Alabama. Its poverty rate of 42 percent and median annual household income of only $22,000 are also strong indicators of the challenges in the area.
“Because we now have fewer jobs, we see stores closing and businesses drying up,” Nancy Sewell said. “We need economic development, not just in Selma but throughout the Black Belt.”
Sherrel W. Stewart is a freelance writer based in Alabama.