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Income inequality is surging, and there are few countries where it is rising faster than the United States. The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences. GlobalPost sets out on a reporting journey to get at the ‘ground truth’ of inequality through the lenses of education, race, immigration, health care, government, labor and natural resources. The hope is to hold a mirror up to the US to see how it compares to countries around the world.

In Selma, income inequality, education and race still deeply intertwined

For poor African-American students with little hope for a better future, the Civil Rights Movement is unfinished.

Comparing the Divide: Education lies at the heart of inequality — economic and racial — in America and around the world. As the US approaches Martin Luther King Day, two cities still struggling to learn that lesson are Rio de Janeiro and Selma, Alabama. These two cities, which share a history of both economic and racial inequality, also share a close ranking for economic inequality on the Gini Index: 0.523 (Selma) and 0.519 (Brazil).

SELMA, Alabama — The steel bridge over the Alabama River spans American history, the place where in 1965 peaceful protestors were brutally beaten with billy clubs and choked with tear gas, bringing widespread attention to the Civil Rights Movement.

On March 8, 2010, forty-five years after that ‘Bloody Sunday’ which touched off Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, President Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the landmark is known. He spoke about the battle the bridge represents, the progress made and the enduring promise it holds.

“Yet for all that unquestionable progress, no one can testify to what happened here without being reminded that the dream of equal opportunity in America has yet to be realized. As a nation, we are still a long way from reaching Martin Luther King's dream,” Duncan said, his words carrying out across the bridge to a large crowd that had assembled, many of whom had also been present as protesters on Bloody Sunday.

Secretary Duncan’s speech, entitled “Crossing the Next Bridge,” unveiled a new national agenda to close the achievement gap within public education. He said education was the next great civil rights issue facing the nation. Referencing American education reformer Horace Mann, he highlighted education’s potential to service as the nation’s “great equalizer.”

“You have two completely separate systems: one black and one white, one public and one private ... one poor and one rich.”
~Sen. Hank Sanders

But three years on, as the nation’s first African-American president begins his second White House term, many in Selma say the expectations that Obama created and the promises that Secretary Duncan made are far from being fulfilled. They worry that progress in race relations is challenged by rising income inequality, a reality that cuts across racial lines but that economists say affects the black population in America far more acutely than whites.

State Senator Hank Sanders and his wife Faya Rose Touré huddled close to the podium. For the past thirty years, the two have fought for education reform and civil rights in Selma despite bomb threats and assassination attempts. They felt validated and hopeful.

Looking back on that day now, Senator Sanders feels great disappointment. “I think it was a very powerful experience to have the Secretary of Education come to Selma. I really thought he was onto something, but I’ve never seen any material follow-up to his declarations. We have not seen evidence of him treating education as a civil rights issue, and when you rise that high in your hopes, then the fall is much greater.”

'Like a bomb went off'

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. This steel bridge over the Alabama River is where peaceful protestors were brutally beaten with billy clubs and choked with tear gas in 1965, bringing widespread attention to the Civil Rights Movement.
(Christopher Morris/VII/GlobalPost)

If Selma stands as an emblem of the Civil Rights Movement’s achievements, it also symbolizes its failures and the many challenges that lie ahead.

Crossing the bridge into Selma’s small downtown reveals rows of boarded-up buildings. Side streets lead to housing projects, where kids sit and watch inside a maze of trap houses for a gang-led drug market.

“It’s like a bomb went off, isn’t it?” said Afriye We-Kandodis, a Chicago native who leads slavery reenactment tours and started a community art space in town. “When you look at other places that went through the marches – Birmingham, Montgomery – they’re growing. But Selma, she’s the child that should have kept her mouth shut.”

On the other side of a set of railroad tracks is a more prosperous and largely white neighborhood where alarm systems and watchdogs protect homes that are circled together in cul-de-sacs. Selma’s country club has yet to effectively desegregate, and on this side of town, people of color exist mostly as employees within the service sector.