When it comes to getting a complete and accurate count in the 2010 United States Census, civic leaders in Selma, Alabama were serious enough to get state approval to close down the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The span — infamous for the vicious March 7, 1965 “Bloody Sunday” attack by state troopers on peaceful civil-rights demonstrators who were marching for the right to vote — was temporarily closed at 7 a.m. Saturday, July 11. Police had alerted citizens to adjust their schedules, or use a bypass route.
A diverse group of local elected officials, business people, educators and religious leaders used the event to raise awareness about the significance of the Census.
The move was part of the U.S. Census Bureau’s nationwide outreach to members of the black community, seeking to ensure that the Bureau gets an accurate 2010 population count.
The local group’s Edmund Pettus Bridge “demonstration” was the latest by the local Complete Count Committee there to influence where $300 billion a year in federal money will be invested over the next 10 years. The Census count will determine how the federal government will spend the money.
“At that time of the morning, to see the people come out, was very rewarding,” said Selma Mayor George Evans. “We have just got to have the numbers to justify the funding based on our population.
We can’t ignore that this funding is important for everything from roads to schools. It will be 10 years before we get a chance again. We’re just starting early.”
The three marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 marked the political and emotional peak of the civil rights movement. They were the culmination of the voting rights movement in Selma. The first march took place on March 7, 1965 — “Bloody Sunday” — when state and local police with billy clubs and tear gas attacked 600 civil rights marchers.
A second march took place on March 9, 1965. But only the third march, which began on March 21, 1965, and lasted for five days, actually made it to Montgomery, 54 miles away.
The route is memorialized as the Selma To Montgomery Voting Rights Trail, and is a U.S. National Historic Trail.
But Debra Howard of the local Census Complete Count Committee said last week that the black community still faces many challenges in 2009.
“At some point we have to stop reliving Bloody Sunday and move on,” she said.
Howard, a job developer for 24 years, added that “99 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged in our school system. How can they learn if they’re not taught? The problem is we in the Black Belt have no money.”
The Black Belt is a region of the southeastern United States. The term originally described the prairies and dark soil of central Alabama and northeast Mississippi, but has come to refer to a broad region of the South with a large African-American population. Communities in the Black Belt commonly face acute poverty, inadequate educational programs, poor health care, substandard housing, high levels of crime and unemployment.
Howard spoke last week during a summit hosted in Destin, Florida by the Census Bureau’s three-state (Florida, Georgia and Alabama) Atlanta Region. The Census Bureau invited African-American leaders to help find ways to increase awareness of and involve every segment of the population in the Census – particularly those communities that have historically been undercounted.
Seeking to help the situation in the Black Belt, Census Bureau officials and local leaders there plan to have fellow Dallas County residents accurately be counted in the April 1 snapshot of the country’s population. They are encouraging citizens to complete and return the questionnaire due to arrive in the mail next year.
“They even have reduced it to a short form of 10 questions,” Mayor Evans said. “It wouldn’t take you 10 minutes to complete it. So we hope that will encourage some people to return it properly.”
The U.S. Constitution requires that all U.S. residents be counted every 10 years. The data helps direct money for education, healthcare, housing, transportation and other public programs.
Census data also is used to determine voting districts, redistricting of state legislatures, county and city councils, and the number of seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The connection with government representation became glaringly clear for South Floridians after population growth measured in the 1990 census resulted in an increase in the state’s congressional districts from 19 to 23.
That data provided ammunition for federal judges to establish two districts with a majority of African-American voters, and two heavily Hispanic districts.
Moreover, with a new District 23 from St. Lucie County to Broward counties, former U.S. District Judge Alcee Hastings became one of three African-American congressmen to be the first elected from Florida since Reconstruction.
That kind of impact helps explain why Howard says, “I am excited about the Census 2010. It has set fire in my soul.”
Selma’s Complete Count Committee also has been busy providing Census workshops and hosting testing for Census jobs, including the hundreds of thousands of Census takers to be hired over the next two years.
Given the desperate economic needs across America, more communities may soon gear up their Complete Count Committees as proactively as Selma’s did.
“The 2010 census may help me initially,” Mayor Evans said, “but it is important to those who follow us. The seeds we’re planting will help our young people in the long run. We need to make sure to set the right tone. We’re trying to build blocks, build bridges. We want to see the city prosper and reach its potential based on its historical value. I’m confident and at peace because I believe we’re going to make it.”
C.B. Hanif is a former news ombudsman and editorial columnist for The Palm Beach Post who also blogs at www.cbhanif.com.
Photo: Selma Mayor George Evans
THE MORE YOU KNOW
Census Bureau links
2010 Census Timeline Key Dates
Summer 2009: Workers update lists of addresses to which questionnaires will be mailed.
Fall 2009: Recruitment begins for Census takers needed for peak workload in 2010.
Spring 2010: Hiring begins for Census takers to conduct interviews with community residents.
March 2010: Census questionnaires are mailed or delivered to households.
April 1: Census Day.
April – July 2010: Census takers visit households that did not return a questionnaire by mail.
Dec 2010: By law, Census Bureau delivers population counts to the president of the United States for apportionment.
March 2011: By law, Census Bureau completes delivery of redistricting data to states.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau