Michael Paul Williams

A delegation from one city trying to outdistance its painful past spent 24 hours in Richmond in search of guidance on its path to truth, racial healing and transformation.

If you think our racial history — as reflected by Monument Avenue — is challenging, try Selma, Ala., whose notorious Edmund Pettus Bridge was the site of one of the most brutal episodes of the civil rights movement.

On Tuesday, the Selma delegation — about a half-dozen folks, including representatives of the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth and Reconciliation — took a brief but moving tour of Richmond history. They visited the Slave Trail, the site of Lumpkin’s Slave Jail, Libby Hill (with its Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument) and the Slavery Reconciliation Statue. Richmond-based Initiatives of Change served as the tour guide.

Richmond and Selma are among 14 places nationwide that received grants this year from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to support Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, a comprehensive community-based process “to address the historic and contemporary effects of racism.”

The Selma delegation, as part of this work, is visiting other Kellogg grant cities.

“Richmond’s Initiatives of Change has been doing this work in this fashion the longest,” said Ainka Jackson, executive director of the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth and Reconciliation, launched 2½ years ago. “We thought it was best to start with the group who had the most history so we could learn to incorporate some of the things here in Selma.”

The Rev. Robert Turner of Black Belt Community Foundation said Initiatives of Change “was the group who birthed the American healing process” and could “help us better conceptualize the founding principles.”

“If you’re going to be part of something,” Turner said during a phone interview Thursday, “one of the best things is to know how it started.”

Initiatives of Change — then known locally as Hope in the Cities — had established relationships in Selma as a result of its participation in the March 1999 march to commemorate the 34th anniversary of the vicious “Bloody Sunday” attack on civil rights demonstrators by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

“This was a chance to build on that relationship and form a partnership,” Jackson said Thursday.

For all of our resurgent RVA pride, some folks may find it hard to fathom Richmond as a role model worth emulating.

“For all of its problems, Richmond has found a way of at least shifting the conversation in some significant ways they’d like to see happen in Selma,” Rob Corcoran, Initiatives of Change’s strategic adviser for community trust-building, said Thursday.

For sure, conversations about Richmond’s fraught history as a major slave trade market did not happen before Hope in the Cities highlighted that painful history with its 1993 Unity Walk.

“I think it’s fair to say at least now we’re at a point where the community is at least able to talk about some of the difficult aspects of our history,” Corcoran said. “The fact that we now have the universities, the libraries, the museums working intentionally to change the narrative about Richmond, I think is significant, really.”

On Tuesday, after their tour of Richmond, the Selma delegation settled into a Richmond Hill conference room that offered panoramic views of the Richmond skyline.

Seated around the same table were Corcoran; the Initiatives of Change executive director, Jake Hershman; and Sylvester “Tee” Turner, the organization’s director of reconciliation programs. Also briefing the Selma folks were Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond; Carol Adams, who recently retired as a Richmond police sergeant to run for sheriff; and Risha Berry of the Richmond Office of Community Wealth Building.

The Selma folks lamented how little tangible change had occurred in Selma since 1965, when that historic march sparked passage of the Voting Rights Act. Police-community relations remain problematic; black political power has not translated into black citizen uplift. (Black Richmonders have expressed similar disappointments about the limitations of black political power.)

“So often, people think of reconciliation as us just getting along, and not being part of truth and racial healing,” Jackson said. “But justice is a mandated part of truth and racial healing.”

Selma, a city of about 21,000 people, and Richmond, a capital city with a population of about 223,000, would seem to have little in common at first glance. But the cities share contemporary problems of poverty and public school quality, and lots of history.

Jackson noted that a river — the Alabama — flows through Selma, also. That river helped make Dallas County, Ala., the fourth-wealthiest in the country during its mid-19th-century heyday. And the Selma Ordnance and Naval Foundry was second only to Richmond’s Tredegar Ironworks in supplying munitions in the South.

The Alabama legislature, like Virginia’s, has erected barriers to prevent the names of Confederates from being stripped from schools, highways and the Pettus Bridge, named for a former Confederate brigadier general, U.S. senator and grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.

The Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901 — not unlike the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901-02 — went about the business of disenfranchising black citizens and reasserting white supremacy.

“You all followed our lead for what I’ll call destruction,” Jackson said, “and we will follow your lead in transformation and healing.”

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