Lowndes County, Alabama, had at that time about 1,900 whites of voting age and around 2,100 registered voters, none of them black since Reconstruction. Yet there were over 6,000 blacks of voting age. A county Registrar told me they had one black farmer come to register, they handed him the forms to take home to complete, and advised him strongly not to bring it back, which he did not.
Black maids in Mobile at that time were being paid $6.00 a day, plus lunch and bus fare. Black maids in Fort Deposit got $1.50 a day and "tote," meal left-overs.
My wife hired a maid but we told her there was no way we could pay her less that $6.00 a day. She replied that she could not accept that. "If I did, the word would get out and I'd be the one to pay, not you. They'd take it out on me."
A black woman working as a maid five days a week could make $390 a year. If she worked 6 days a week, she would earn $468 a year. If she could not work and had three children, Alabama welfare would pay her about $500 per year.
In the local barbershop one Saturday, one farmer asked another why he had fired his new maid, since that maid had a reputation for being a hard worker. The former employer responded, "She wouldn't f-k me. Ain't about to have a nig-r work for me who won't f-k."
A man who served on a jury bragged that in a case where a black man had shot and killed another before over 100 witnesses the jury did not even retire to deliberate the verdict. They returned a "Not Guilty" verdict with the side comment, "Send him back to kill some more." Justice in Lowndes County and a number of other counties in Alabama depended on the race and social position of the plaintiff, that of the defendant, and that of the victim.
One week I learned a local member of my church (who never attended it) had sat in his car in front of the church with a machine gun because he had heard a rumor that a busload of blacks were coming to that church that past Sunday.
At that time, in the 1960s, peonage still existed in the rural South. A black tenant farmer in Lowndes County, according a group of whites there, had planned to sneak off and move to a tenant farming position in a nearby county. The landowner heard, rode on horseback to the tenant's house, called him out to the porch, and shot him in cold blood with a shotgun with impunity.
A white, married deputy sheriff was reported to have shot and killed a young black man because he had asked the deputy's black "girlfriend" for a date.
Before Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, I got a call from a Justice Department attorney. He asked if I would come talk to him and his partner in Selma about the conditions in Lowndes County. (The longest stretch of the Selma-Montgomery March was to be through Lowndes County.) I readily agreed to meet them, at his direction, at the Selma Holiday Inn at midnight Saturday night. "Don't go to the desk and ask for us. Don't park in the lot on our side of the motel, but on the opposite side, and come knock on our door."
I talked with them, told what little I knew about the County. As I readied to go home, one said to me, "If word gets out in the community that you talked with us, call the FBI. But don't call the Montgomery office (35 miles from my parsonage). Call the Mobile office (150 miles away), and ask for this specific agent. We know you can trust him."
The FBI agents at that time were often in collusion with the Ku Klux Klan and some Klan groups used the money paid to their self-chosen FBI informant to purchase weapons and dynamite.
The urban centers of the South and the North have a large number of black residents, many of them only one generation from Black Belt Southern counties, if not themselves from them. While urban areas tended to be less brutal, degradation and abasement was an everyday experience for blacks both North and South. Black boys from early childhood were constantly cautioned never to look a white woman in the eye. Black girls were reminded daily never to be alone with a white male.
The degradation, the brutality of those years are seared in the collective memories of the black community. Vestiges of those days still remain in the patterns of some whites toward blacks.
To add to these tragedies, the same, if a little softer, patterns of behavior were visited on poor whites, especially the tenant farmers and their families. Even worse, the poor whites were often convinced by those in power that their debased station was caused by blacks. As Will D. Campbell has asserted, "The white power structure stole the blacks' labor, but worse, they stole the poor whites' minds."
Also, the same sentiments, even the same words as those excerpted from Rev. White's sermons have been expressed for years on TV and radio by white preachers condemning America for allowing abortion, for permitting use of alcohol, for prohibiting King James Version readings in public schools, for teaching sex education, and endless other issues. We treat those as normal and understand from whence they come.
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