Old divisions in the new South

MARCI McDONALD March 14 1988

Old divisions in the new South

MARCI McDONALD March 14 1988

Old divisions in the new South


CAMPAIGN ’88 lt was a stunning moment of reconciliation. Above the banks of the muddy Alabama River, Democratic presidential contender Jesse Jackson took a stand squarely beneath the iron arcs of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.—the scene of the Bloody Sunday protest on March 7,1965, whose violence galvanized the American civil rights movement. There,

Selma’s white mayor Joe Smitherman had ordered state troopers to attack the mainly black crowd of 600 with dogs and bullwhips, leaving 17 hospitalized and 70 wounded. But last week, 23 years after that march for black voting rights, Smitherman, who is still mayor, presented the keys of the city to Jackson —the candidate whom analysts expected to gain the most from this week’s 20-state, largely southern primary known as Super Tuesday. Smitherman praised Jackson for “articulating the issues better than anyone else.” And Jackson waved off any legacy of bitterness. He said, “We must have the capacity to forgive each other.”

That scene—like Jackson’s candidacy itself— was vivid testimony to just how far blacks and whites have progressed in the South. But as Jackson has pointedly refocused his campaign away from questions of race—and onto economic issues that mobilize the white working class and poor as well—many blacks are asking if the old battles for integration have in fact been won. Last week whites in Selma stayed away from Jackson’s rally. And there, as in the state capital of Montgomery, 80 km west, the two races still live apart, worship in separate churches and educate their children in schools that have become largely black or white.

In fact, a few years ago Lillian Jackson, president of the Metro-Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, turned up at a white dentist’s office only to be redirected to the side of the build-

ing and a separate black waiting room. As she put it: “We do have some white people here in power who like to project the image that we have progressed further than we have. But segregation still exists. It’s just become more subtle and more sophisticated.”

Her comments echo across the South, which The Wall Street Journal last month characterized as “still a house divided.” Last week a study by a group of

experts—some of whom had worked on a landmark presidential commission studying the 1967 race riots in U.S. cities—reported that 20 years later “America is becoming two separate societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. Segregation by race still sharply divides America’s cities—in both housing and schools for blacks.” Nowhere is that division more evident than on the ancient southern battleground of education. It is 31 years since President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the U.S. 101st Airborne Division to escort nine black Arkansas teenagers through a seething, rock-throwing white mob to Central high school in Little Rock, the nation’s first forcibly integrated school. But earlier this year a four-month study by an Atlanta news-

paper showed disquieting results. The survey of 30,000 schools in nine U.S. cities by The Atlanta Constitution found that between 1980 and 1984 the number of schools with 90-per-cent to 100-percent minority populations had doubled. The title of the newspaper’s seven-part series: “Divided we stand—the resegregation of our public schools.”

The newspaper’s conclusions were not surprising to Lillian Jackson, a guidance

counsellor at a Montgomery junior high school. Of the school’s 500 students, not one is white. And in a city where the population is evenly divided between blacks and whites, 72 per cent of the 35,904 students in Montgomery’s public schools are black. Whites, abandoning the integrated town centre for the suburban east end, now send their children to private schools, such as The Montgomery Academy or exclusive Huntingdon College across from the allwhite Montgomery Country and Beauvoir Club. Said Jackson: “White flight is what we call it. The schools of Montgomery are desegregated, but they’re not integrated by any means.”

There are other signs of the racial standoff as well in Montgomery, the first capital of the secessionist Confed-

erate states in 1861 and the city that ignited the civil rights movement nearly a century later. There, on Dec. 1, 1955, police arrested a black seamstress named Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated Montgomery bus—provoking a 381-day bus boycott by blacks that swept across the South. During that boycott, a young black minister named Martin Luther King, newly arrived at the city’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, emerged as the leader who would change the complexion of the nation. Now blacks freely ride Montgomery’s buses. But they find an updated

version of the old legal separations. Said Don Westgate, a white former clerk in the Alabama tax department: “Only blacks take the bus. Whites around here drive or take a taxi.”

Westgate sported a navy and red baseball cap emblazoned with the Confederate flag and a motto: “These colors don’t run. Never have. Never will.” And he acknowledged racism lives on. “But see, I’m polite,” he said. “When I meet a black person, I take off my hat.” Added Westgate: “There’s still some prejudice. When blacks occupy, whites just kinda fade away quietly. They’re learning their actions can make news, and news makes them look stupid. They still worry about other people thinking they’re dumb hicks.”

Now middle-class whites have largely

abandoned Montgomery’s Cleveland Avenue—renamed Rosa L. Parks Avenue-sections of which are lined with black public-housing projects and crumbling clapboard bungalows. And across from King’s all-black Dexter Avenue Church, the white-domed Alabama capital last month witnessed another kind of civil rights protest. On Feb. 2 state troopers arrested 16 of the legislature’s 24 black members for attempting to scale a chain link fence to tear down the Confederate battle flag that has flown from the dome since then-governor George Wallace’s 1963 inaugural speech proclaiming “Segregation forev-

er.” The current governor, Guy Hunt— the state’s first Republican governor in this century—had refused to remove the flag, which black leaders objected to as a symbol of slavery and repression. But some blacks did not support the protest. Said Jerome Gray, field director of the black Alabama Democratic Conference: “I’m more worried about what’s goirg on under the dome than on top of it.” Last year 2,000 marchers protested what one demonstrator called Hunt s “antiblack attitude” and his failure 1o appoint blacks to government posts. And last month Attorney General Don Siegelman threatened to sue Hunt s Medicaid commissioner, Mike Horsley, charging that Horsley has blocked action to lower Alabama’s record infantmortality rate—the highest in the na-

tion—which affects a larger percentage of blacks than whites. At Hunt’s request, Horsley last year refused $5.27 million voted by the legislature to help fund prenatal care for impoverished rural families not eligible for Medicaid because they earned slightly more than $118 a month. Said Lillian Jackson: “He said he did not need the money. And here we have all these babies dying.” Still, not all the racism that persists is subtle. Campaigning for Super Tuesday in Fort Smith, Ark., last month, Democratic candidate Senator Albert Gore told of his shock as a small boy, when he learned that the iron rings in the cellar walls of his house in Carthage, Tenn., had once been used to chain slaves. Gore used the story to show how much the old South had changed. But in the audience, black community developer Euba Harris-Winton pointed out that since a trial of 14 white supremacists began in Fort Smith on Feb. 16, the Ku Klux Klan had staged 14 public rallies in Arkansas. Harris-Winton said that she blames the administration of President Ronald Reagan for setting the tone with its attacks on affirmativeaction programs. Said Harris-Winton: “I feel the Reagan administration has caused these people to feel free to speak up.”

Racism clearly remains a salient issue for í black southern voters. In a 96-page report entitled “They Don’t All Wear Sheets,” Atlanta’s Center for Democratic Renewal documented 3,000 cases of hate-related assaults and cross burnings nationwide between 1980 and 1986—mainly by a new, younger generation of white supremacists. Said the centre’s research director, Leonard Zeskind: “What we have on our hands now is not the remnants of the racism we had years ago, but the beginning of a whole new generation of problems.”

Those trends were one reason why blacks, who make up only 20 per cent of the South’s population, were expected to vote in disproportionately higher numbers on Super Tuesday. Said Lillian Jackson: “We know the next president sets the tone for this nation. And a lot of damage or a lot of good can be done.”

— MARCI McDONALD in Montgomery