Benign Neglect in Wilcox County, Alabama

( The author is a senior living in Dunster House. )

HANGING on the rough plank wall of nearly every black sharecropper's shack in Wilcox County, Alabama, are dime-store pictures of Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. ( Jesus Christ is hanging there too, but he doesn't fit into the story yet. ) The relatively conservative blacks of the rural South worship these three charismatic men, as overly moderate as they may seem to us. But now King, Kennedy, and Kennedy are dead; there is no one to follow. Now we have benign neglect. With the war, northern urban political repression, campus struggles, and ecology, civil rights is all wrapped up: Congress passed some bills. Nix-on and his associates are not the only people colluding in benign neglect.

I spent last summer teaching in a program for college-bound black high school graduates in Annie Manie, a town of 50 in Wilcox County, Alabama. The following is addressed to the naive: its simple message is that there are still people in this country who do not enjoy some very basic human rights.

I

The towns around here are all so small that it is better to think in terms of counties. I am in Wilcox County, which borders on the better-known Lowndes County, which Stokely Carmichael wrote about in Black Power. There are about 18,000 people in the county-15,000 blacks and 3000 whites-but the whites still own and run everything. The economy is almost totally agricultural; cotton, soybeans, corn, greens, and cucumbers are grown. Many blacks are sharecroppers living on $300 to $400 a year. The average annual black family income in the county is $500. Some people don't know that they can get on welfare; or if they do know, they can't seem to get anywhere at the white-run welfare office. This is the second poorest county in the country. The one industry is a good-sized paper mill which somehow manages to pollute the whole county with a nauseating sulfur smell.

The whites in Wilcox-and seemingly in most of Alabama-seem to thrive on a heavy diet of hatred and racism. There are still lynchings in this county. Within the past two years, a black man has been castrated, a white woman has shot a black male child, and a white doctor who is a member of the KKK has plotted to have the county's black VISTA director assassinated. In Selma (50 miles from here) only a week before I got here, a policeman beat a black man to death on the street.

In this spring's elections, the blacks in Wilcox County finally got organized. They voted out Lumbar Jenkins, a white who had held the post of sheriff for 32 years. During those years he had murdered many black people. He has vowed to "fill the jails with niggers" before he leaves office; and he and his deputies have been stopping black people on the road at night, beating them, kicking them, and hauling them off to jail.

In June a black man just back from serving in Vietnam went into the white side of a segregated cafe. They served him; but when he left, the sheriff chased him and stopped him on the road right in front of our school. The officers of the law kicked and beat him. His head was badly lacerated and his blood was all over the road; and they put him in jail without letting him see a doctor. People tell me that this man's mind had not "been right" since he returned from Vietnam. I suppose that's why he was fighting for liberty and justice in that damned war.

II

The children here have such beautiful names, like Rutha Mae Mason and Vincent Lee Mendenhall. Most of come from large families of about six to ten children, sometimes 14. They live in shacks out in the fields. Many of them have infected navels and scars on their skin from cuts that did not heal well due to malnutrition. One of the reasons that so many of them have trouble learning is that their brains have not gotten the proper nutrients, perhaps at some critical period in their biological development-not to speak of the obvious detrimental factors of their home and school social environments.

The children are beautiful. Many of them have worms.

One teacher in the school here whips her students with an extension cord. When she took over this summer, she immediately took down the children's art work and arranged the chairs in straight rows. Whenever I looked into her classroom, the students were cringing with fear. All of the teachers carry sticks with them most of the time for beating children. A few children have welts from brutality inflicted upon them by the principal, who is a big, strong Tom.

Most of the textbooks used in the school are cast-offs from other (white) schools systems and are copyrighted in the 1940's or 1950's. They are usually chauvinistic and racist, as well as insipid. The principals of the black schools are masters at exploiting the black people. Children have to pay for their own pencils and paper. And frequently there are school functions, sometimes during school time-like dances or a May Day festival-for which all those who attend must pay. To some extent the principals are forced to do this, because the county school board gives the black schools pitifully small budgets.

I heard that when the Supreme Court made its most recent desegregation decision, the white school board drew up a petition against it. The black principals had to sign it or lose their jobs; and the principals, in turn, threatened teachers and students down to the third grade who wouldn't sign it. There will be no integration anyway. Private schools are expanding and some new ones are being started in churches. There is some evidence that public funds are being used to start these schools. A prominent black has to be an Uncle Tom to survive in Wilcox County.

III

Most public facilities are still segregated. This includes the schools; no move was made to integrate them this fall, although the whites are starting new private schools in preparation for integration. Also included are laundromats, parks, swimming pools, restaurants and cafes, hotels and motels, theatres, and the local doctor's office. The only doctor near Annie Manie is a Klan member. In the waiting room at his office there are separate areas for blacks and whites. This same man is the one who plotted to shoot the county's black VISTA director two years ago.

IV

There was a baseball game here this afternoon, and many of the black people in the area must have come to it. Some of them got so excited; they really enjoyed it. Blacks in Wilcox County are allowed to enjoy using their muscles; but if they start using their minds too much, they had better be very careful. I think Eldridge Cleaver's analysis in Soul On Ice was really quite penetrating.

V

This morning I went to church. You can learn a lot about the local people's minds by observing them in church. There are two black Presbyterian churches in Annie Manie, and one is just down around the corner from the other, which is here at the school. The one here at the school is for the elite blacks, the teachers and principals of the county. The one down around the corner is for the rest of the black people. This morning I went to the one down around the corner.