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Selma residents are still recovering from January's tornadoes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden will travel to Selma, Ala., tomorrow to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the attack on civil rights activists who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. People will make the symbolic crossing as they do every year, but this time it takes place in the aftermath of deadly tornadoes that struck the city in January. Troy Public Radio's Kyle Gassiott reports.

KYLE GASSIOTT, BYLINE: This won't be Biden's first trip to Selma. He came for the bridge crossing as vice president in 2013, but Selma looked different then. Today, a number of homes near downtown, those in the tornado's path, are devastated, and many residents still need help getting back on their feet. Every Thursday since the storm, cars have circled the block around Temple Gate Seventh Day Adventist Church. Many of the drivers are storm victims. They pull up, and volunteers like Mona Bonner put bread, salad kits and even pastry boxes into their cars. Bonner knows their pain firsthand. The storm tore apart her home and her life, and it's part of the reason she's here.

MONA BONNER: To help. Somebody helped me, so I need to help somebody if I can.

GASSIOTT: And there are still so many people to help. Because of the Bloody Sunday march, which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Selma is one of Alabama's most famous towns. It's also one of its poorest. Nearly 30% of its residents live in poverty. The tornado hit parts of the city where people were already struggling to put food on the table. Now Temple Gate's pastor, Thiea Wilson, and others have coined a phrase that Biden often uses - build back better. And that means more than just buildings.

THIEA WILSON: People all throughout Selma are trying to be very intentional about tearing down the racial walls, the class wall, the economical walls that often separate - have often separated Selma.

GASSIOTT: A few streets away, Steve Criswell stands on the porch of a 150-year-old home that's set to be demolished in a few days. He says that Selma has a chance to improve even its race relations. A good sign is that in the hours after the storm, age or color didn't seem to matter.

STEVE CRISWELL: It wasn't a, well, he's with him or he's with him. They just walked across the yard to the next guy and started helping.

GASSIOTT: Federal emergency dollars are now helping a lot of homeowners rebuild, and one of the city's goals is to keep displaced residents, 80% of which are African American, in Selma. Author Willie Mae Brown is in town to talk about her memoir of growing up in Selma and hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at Brown Chapel in the days before the march.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Deep down in our nonviolent creed is the conviction. There are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true that they're worth dying for. And if a man...

GASSIOTT: Brown sees the city's economic and racial divisions, but she says Selma is now open with opportunity, the way that King saw it 58 years ago.

WILLIE MAE BROWN: People of all nations and genres or whatever, just come and let's build this together, a new Selma, and keep it that way.

GASSIOTT: Pastor Wilson also agrees that this is the moment.

WILSON: I think it's Selma's opportunity again, and I think the world is watching.

GASSIOTT: She's going to lead a prayer on Sunday at the commemoration, where the president will also speak. She's praying that all citizens, whatever their race or class, can finally come together to make Selma a better place. For NPR News, I'm Kyle Gassiott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kyle Gassiott