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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.

Administrators are quick to acknowledge that Morgan, like most other private schools in the area, began as a response to desegregation. However, they insist that the racial motivations underlying the school’s nascent years no longer come to bear on the Academy. Headmistress McKnight reports that, though the vast majority of students at Morgan are white, the school now has several students of color, including African-Americans. Race, she says, no longer plays a role in admissions.

“I’ll bet that Morgan is the most diverse school in Selma,” she says.

McKnight feels that racial tensions no longer define Selma schools today.

“I grew up with a black lady that was our housekeeper and our maid, and I’ll bet you that a majority of students in this area did, too,” she said. “I don’t see color ... If you live with a different race, you learn to love them. These divides that people put in just don’t exist.”

Morgan Academy costs about $4,000 per student per year. The school offers no financial aid. Private school tuitions elsewhere in the country dwarf this figure, but in Selma, where the average annual income hits at around $21,000, affording a Morgan education remains a distant possibility for most.

A senior high school math class at the public Selma High in Selma, Alabama
(Christopher Morris/VII/GlobalPost)

'They don't hear us'

Principal Wanda Jean Lomax-McCall stoops to pick up a stray gum wrapper on the otherwise spotless atrium floor of the newly rebuilt Selma High School.

This past August, SHS opened its doors after receiving $27 million in national stimulus funding toward a new school. Now in her fourth year as principal, McCall is attempting to free Selma High of its past reputation. Over the last decade, Alabama’s public school systems have been consistently ranked as among the worst in the nation, and Selma High has long placed squarely at the bottom of statewide achievement barometers.

According to Principal McCall, “all or almost all” students qualify for free federal lunches, eligible for households reporting at or below 130 percent of the poverty line. The dropout rate hovers at 25 percent. Gang skirmishes within the community often overflow into school hours.

This year, Principal McCall has brought in more extracurricular opportunities for the student body, including the first-ever school newspaper and a pre-professional mentoring program. Still, despite the new building and Principal McCall’s best efforts, many feel that Selma High lacks the state- and local-level funding necessary to provide students with a competitive or even passable education.

And as SHS struggles to reach its annual yearly progress benchmarks, high-need and high-achieving students alike lack necessary support.

Between class, bubbly 18-year-old Whitney Strong uses the new media center to look at prom dresses with her friends. Unlike most of her classmates, she will leave Selma to pursue a degree in nursing.

Though she calls her teachers and administration “amazing...doing their very best,” she describes Selma High as just “average,” a place that only “kinda-sorta” provided her with professional preparedness. For Whitney, graduating means that she can finally put Selma in her rearview. The only kids who stay here, she says, are those that already have children – a significant portion of her class – as there “really aren’t jobs” here.

Gwen Brown of the Freedom Foundation, which provides supplemental educational opportunities to at-risk students, recalled a recent SHS graduate who approached the Foundation after failing the Air Force admittance exam. He was reading at below a first-grade reading level.

“I have no idea how that happened,” she said. “He literally could not read, and he walked across the stage and received a diploma.”

“Our public schools are chronically underfunded,” said Senator Sanders, who has served the longest tenure in history on Alabama’s Finance and Taxation Committee. In Dallas County, the district to which Selma city schools belong, citizens pay the state minimum in taxes toward public education, and as much as four times less than in other districts in Alabama.

Principal McCall affirms that securing state-level funding has also proven particularly difficult. It was easier a decade ago, when SHS boasted almost double their current enrollment and when white students still attended. Now, she says, the challenges have grown: “Being in a rural area, small school, majority blacks...that makes a big difference. They don’t hear us.”

Alabama made national education news last year when legislators tried to remove language in the state’s constitution requiring the government to guarantee its citizens “a liberal system of public schools.” The amendment didn’t pass, but if it had, it would have denied Alabamians the right to a public education.

Senator Sanders believes that racial dynamics contribute to state- and local-level antipathy. As he sees it, white residents simply don’t send their kids to public schools. And though private schools in the city offer no financial aid, “even the poor white people who can’t afford a private education somehow get one rather than going to a public school,” he said.

“Nearly all the businesses are owned by whites,” Sanders said. “That means that the economic system does not support public schools in the way it should. So when you’re trying to get additional funding or to create a community atmosphere that supports education, you don’t have the buy-in.”

“The economic and political power lies with white people, the people who run the segregated country club,” said Touré, who served as Alabama’s first African-American female judge. “That’s why it’s so hard to make any systemic change because for years they have kept progressive reform out of Selma. People say that overcoming slavery was our greatest challenge, but education has proven to be the greatest struggle. What’s remarkable is how little has changed.”

Even for those who receive a SHS diploma, Selma’s job climate offers little encouragement. Nearby factories like International Paper, Hyundai and Bush Hog have historically provided many middle-class opportunities in the area, but national cutbacks have resulted in shrinking departments. Brenda, who has worked at one such factory for fifteen years, was the first African-American hired to her department.

“They put a hangman noose on the rafter to threaten me,” she recalls. Though the climate has since shifted, she feels that higher-level opportunities still elude African-Americans. “You never see black managers. You don’t see black people moving anything above low-level supervisor positions.”

In search of a future

As president of the Freedom Foundation, Gwen Brown works to provide at-risk children with educational opportunities through tutoring and the arts. When she came to Selma six years ago, she was shocked at the extent to which a lack of education perpetuated poverty.

“Time and time again, we’re seeing twelve-year-old girls getting pregnant just so they can get welfare checks,” Brown said. She estimates that 98 percent of the students with whom she’s worked don’t have a reliable father figure, and that the majority of them have suffered from sexual or physical abuse.

“Everywhere these kids look, they’re being taught they don’t have a future,” says Brown. When driving around the city with her theater group, she often passes by Selma Country Club. “I still don’t know what to tell kids when they ask me why they aren’t welcome there.”

Seventeen-year-old Austin was one of the first students to join the Foundation’s Selma program. At a lanky six-foot-seven, most people expected him to play basketball – it’s one of the only tickets out of town for a black kid in Selma, he said.

Joining the Foundation’s Random Acts of Theater Company, he discovered a love of public speaking. Now, he’s looking at civil rights law and hopes to return to Selma.

These success stories could be far more common, Brown feels, if more students felt they deserved a fighting chance.

Unmet expectations

On that day in 2010 when Secretary of Education Duncan came to town, an expectation was created. Many here in Selma feel it is an expectation that has been largely unmet.

In the back of the crowd, Brown remembers being suddenly struck by a simple fact: aside from the other members of the Foundation and the media covering the event, she saw no other white faces in the crowd. “I remember thinking, why wouldn’t the whole city come to this, especially something so big, in the tiny town of Selma? But I’ve learned that’s just how it goes here.”