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Benign Neglect in Wilcox County, Alabama

By Darrell Prescott

( 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.

The sermon was heavy conservative politics. The minister, preaching some-

times in a monotonic chant, spoke against people with long hair and mod clothes. In the past this same man has preached against the VISTA project. He then told the story of the Dutch boy who put his finger in the dike; the preacher said that the United States was about to burst wide open and that everyone should put his finger in the dike. Wild. Then, speaking figuratively, he said that God would make us drive our new cars straight and on the right side of the road.

They took two collections. I put some money in the first one and refused to put anything in the second one. After the second one, a man sat at a table right up front and counted the money, gave people change, and finally reported the amount collected. All the while-this process took at least as long as the sermon-the choir hummed hymns and the preacher read form the Bible. After the money was counted, a man got up and said you had to give money to have God come into your hear. I think the comment was directed at me.

They have a new church building. Money goes to pay that preacher even when many of the church members do not have enough to eat. Black ministers around here are usually quite well-off, in marked contrast to those who contribute each Sunday toward paying their salaries. The church in this county is holding the people back. It is basically a conservative political force. Pray instead of getting out and working in the elections. The church here is an opiate.

VI

Not much is being done to really change things in Wilcox County. There were elections this year, but no blacks won. The only result that might be called a victory was that a white sheriff who has murdered blacks was replaced with a white sheriff who has only beaten blacks. There was a complete slate of black candidates for the school board. But most of them withdrew from the race before the election-for reasons known but unknown. Of those who stayed in the face, none were elected.

Funny things happen in elections in Wilcox. Dead white people vote for white candidates. Illiterate voters are not allowed to take people into the booths with them to read the ballots. And sample ballots are not given our to blacks.

Voter registration is no longer the basic problem. There are now other dynamics in the election process which prevent the county's great black majority from voting for its own benefit First, many of the "respected" black leaders in the county are Uncle Toms. They are probably allowed to hold their positions exactly because they oppress and misdirect their own people. Second, many black people still vote the way their land-owner tells them to vote. Third, Wilcox County is a dry county with a thriving moonshine business. Incumbent white officeholders need only to threaten to bust the moonshine business during their lame-duck period if they are not reelected. Blacks and whites alike depend on moonshine for constimption and profit. So this type of threat is quite effective.

Then there is a VISTA project in the county. Too many of the VISTA volunteers whom I knew were lazy and uncommitted. For those who are committed, I have only the greatest admiration. But even these are rendered ineffectual by the system in which they must work. The Nixon administration has cut back the VISTA project in the county by fifty per cent and has forbidden VISTA to do anything in politics. This has had the effect of reducing their efforts to what some volunteers have aptly called a "band-aid strategy." They can teach kindergarten, but they cannot work to change the power structure. Consequently, a kindergarten with which a volunteer has worked for a year may pass on to a first-grade teacher who is an alcoholic and who will ruin all of the progress made so far. This very example was the case with one volunteer whom I knew well. VISTA may do some great things for a relatively small number of individuals. But it's not allowed to attack the real sources of overwhelming problems.

Finally, there is a mission project run by the Presbyterian Church. Unfortunately, this program is incompetently run and very possibly corrupt. The minister running the program is black and has four cars, a beautiful new home in Selma, and a black servant. He spends little time in Wilcox County and really remains apart from the people he is supposed to be helping. Much evidence indicates that he and some black school principals are working together for their own personal benefit. For example, some principals were paid three times over for school lunches this summer-once by the federal government, once by the church, and once by the children themselves who had to pay 15c for breakfast and 20c for lunch, as little as their families could afford it.

Poverty programs seem to be a profitable business for those who administer them.

Yes, things have improved in the deep South. Two years ago black people couldn't walk on the main street in Camden, the county seat of Wilcox County. Now they can. This is the level to which progress has been made.

Tonight it is beautiful here. Crickets squeaking, frogs croaking. Fresh air. Dew. Every night a mocking bird roosts in the tree outside my window and singe. Tonight a nearly full moon rises, pink-orange, over the forest. It is easy to see how people could become attached to this part of the earth. It is so verdant and fertile and teeming with life.

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