By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
SELMA, Ala. – There is a streetlight with two graceful arms outside the library here, a lovely building all done up in wrought iron and hope. A sign on one side of the lamppost says “MURDER.” A sign on the other, “NO MURDER.”
I was at the Selma Library last week and happened to park right in front of the strange, sad light. I asked my old newspaper friend Leesha Faulkner about it. Already that morning I’d read her column decrying violence, the kind that happened in Arizona, the kind right here in Alabama.
The light has been there since 1990, she said, to raise awareness of youth murders. If there’s a murder, one side burns. If not, the other.
In 2010, the MURDER side burned 12 times, an average of once a month. “Most of the murders were the result of arguments that got out of control,” Leesha said. “The arguments were based on bad drug deals, people who owed people money, you get the drift.”
The stunner, she said, was the third murder of last year, when Rosjah Butler Jr., 3, was killed in his home. A bullet pierced his bedroom wall during an exchange of gunfire outside the house involving his uncle. Rosjah died in his pajamas, ready for bed. Now I lay me down to sleep.
I hadn’t been home in north Mississippi two days before Leesha emailed with news of the second Selma murder, 2011. Police are searching for a 29-year-old who shot five people, killing one, at an Alabama Avenue club. I had strolled that street two days earlier, admiring the smells and Mayberry look of the old river town.
“Selma is a poor town, and her poorest need help,” a reflective Leesha says. “When one of us commits violence, it is the essence of all of us. Just as when one of us dies in a violent way, a piece of all of us dies. We are community.”
Would that everyone thought like Leesha. Or thought at all. For a lot of us, murder is something that happens somewhere else: in another part of town, on the wrong side of the tracks, in nightclubs with no windows in the wee hours. We avoid those places – and the reality that murder has jumped the tracks, has spilled into sunlit Safeway parking lots, suburban shopping malls and Amish schools in peaceful Pennsylvania.
We are community.
Leesha ticked down the familiar litany of things that might help. More and more effective police officers. More jobs. Better education. Understanding.
In a country that no longer manufactures its own goods, where politics is polarizing, where the middle class is evaporating, where leadership is missing or punished, where health care is a con game and preventive care a joke, I wonder if there can be real hope. Or if “awareness” is any more than a splash of light on a sidewalk in the dark of night.
I’ve always loved Selma, a beautiful burg that is home to one of my literary and personal heroines, Kathryn Tucker Windham. It’s a town that tries, where boosters gather once a year to play combs in the name of community spirit. Where determined black citizens once defied deadly odds for the fundamental right to vote. Where the library educates and entertains.
Selma has spunk.
But already in this, Selma’s new year, a manhunt is in progress, and the dark side of a streetlight is burning.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.