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Poverty stricken Selma, Alabama

A sign advertising “prayer mile” on Highway 80 outside Selma, Ala., the route taken by participants in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery freedom march. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

The marchers are long gone from Selma, Ala. The poverty persists.

On March 7, 1965, civil rights marchers were viciously beaten by Alabama state troopers as they protested for the right to vote in Selma, Ala. The nightmarish images of Bloody Sunday, as it came to be known, were broadcast around the world and proved to be a turning point in the fight for civil rights. Just months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, a landmark bill that prohibited racial discrimination in voting.

But winning the right to vote wasn’t enough to spare Selma from the social and economic ills that have driven the community and others like it across small-town America into desperation. Five decades later, the town that made history has seemingly been left behind by it. Stung by the loss of jobs and industry, Selma is one of the poorest communities in the country, its neighborhoods scarred by horrific blight. More than 41 percent of the town lives below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census, more than three times the national average. The share of children under 18 living in poverty is nearly 60 percent.

The state of affairs in Selma is perhaps a testament to the unfulfilled promise of Martin Luther King Jr., who had shifted his focus to the struggles of the poor and of rural America in the final months of his life. King called his new movement the Poor People’s Campaign, and he envisioned people of all races uniting to demand a living wage and better access to education and health care. He also wanted to pressure state and federal leaders into doing more to encourage economic development in rural America—not just by creating jobs but also ensuring that communities had access to basic amenities like grocery stores and hospitals.

Fifty years after King’s assassination, a new Poor People’s Campaign recently launched. One of its first rallies was held in Selma.

Text and photography by Holly Bailey/Yahoo News

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