Blacks Elected in Wilcox County

By Randall Williams

Vol. 3, No. 1, 1980, pp. 20-21, 22

For Larry Threadgill, whose family has been active in civil rights organizing and Black politics here since the early 1960's, things are looking up. It has not been too many years ago that his older sister was being beaten as she took the first pioonering steps to integrate the local White high school. Nor has Threadgill forgotten having his shirt ripped off by the White superintendent of education as still more Blacks tried to register at that same school a few years later.

When he was subsequently expelled, Threadgill skipped from the 11th grade to college and graduated with a pre-law degree. In 1978, a chance weekend visit to help a Black man campaign for office brought him home. His candidate did become sheriff and another Black was elected tax collector, making history in Wilcox County. Threadgill chose not to go back to Atlanta. Now in the election just past, four more Blacks have won public offices in this Black Belt county in southwest Alabama.

At least it seems, change is in the wind here.

In January, for the first time ever, Blacks will take seats on the Wilcox County Commission and the Board of Education. About 70 percent of Wilcox County's citizens are Black and they now have a determined and effective political organization. With a majority of Black voters, at last united, they will elect more Blacks in two more years and will control both these boards. Given recent trends and the mood of the Black electorate, it may now be impossible for a White to be elected in Wilcox County.

The Surprise is not that this is happening, but that it took so long. In the restaurant at the Bassmaster Inn in downtown Camden the morning after the September 2 Democratic primary, the mood of the Whites eating there was eerily reminiscent of what one used to read about Rhodesia. The threat has not yet arrived, but its shadow looms large on the horizon. "I'm about to sell what I got and move to to Australia or somewhere," a forest ranger muttered.

Asked if the effectivenss of the Black political organization does mean that Wilcox Whites are now locked out of public offices, Larry Threadgrill replied: " I hope it does not. I hope we have some good White peope in Wilcox County. I would hate to completely segregate the whole thing. I worked for integration in education and politics. I would hate to turn around and defeat my purpose. All I want to see is just some responsible people in office, be they Black, White, Japanese or Indian. If a Black is elected who doesn't have the interest of the whole county at heart, I will work just as hard to get him out as I'll to get a White out".

Sheriff Prince Arnold echoes Threadgill, saying, "If a man goes in there and proves that office is for the full power of the people, he can get elected."

Arnold became the youngest Black sheriff in the United States when he was elected over five White opponents in 1978. Arnold's age, 27 at the time of election, and his color gained him national prominence, an invitation to President Carter's Salt II White House Conference, and a seat at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. Arnold is generally considered by both Whites and Blacks to have done a good job as sheriff. The statistics indicate that crime against persons and property have declind slightly since he took office. (Previously White sheriffs had tended to ignore Black-on-Black violence; Arnold put out the word early that he would not). He says he has tried to fulfill a campaign promise to "treat everybody the same", making point of keeping on his staff a white deputy who had been with the former sheriff.

"The only thing people want is to be treated like a human being and Whites who do that can get elected. But I don't know too many in the offices now who do," Arnold says.

The catch is theat the Whites who would be the most acceptable candidate to Blacks, those who are themselves most willing to accept Blacks, the young professionals, are the least likely to accept to seek public office. One such White man revealed that a group of about 30 young professionals recently met to discuss their shared belief that the mayor of Camden was inadequate for the office. The group tried to select one of their own to run against the mayor, but each person nominated declined too busy, not planning to stay in Camden, conflict with job, etc. Not one of the 30 young professionals was willing to run.

Even if, however, Blacks take complete control of the government of Wilcox County, they will be shut out of the greatest power base of all, the economic bloc. Wilcox is a relatively large county, roughly 900 square miles of land, some of the richest, balckest soil in North America. Before cotton was dethroned, virtually all of this land was farmed. Most of the farms were huge by Alabama standards--3,000 acres and up. Today 70 percent of the land is in pine forests, either privately managed or under the control of the giant paper companies. McMillan-Blodell, a Canadian wood products company built a $77 million plant here in the 1960s and is now the county's largest employer (the Wilcox Board of education is second). Today's farm products are beef cattle, soybeans and some cotton. All farming is heavily mechanized. If he has $80,000 to spend for a piece of equipment, it is possible for one man, riding in an air-conditioned and CB-and stereo equipped cab, to do the work that previously took a small army of slaves, sharecroppers, or hired field hands. There are only a handful of Black landowners in the county, most of them in Geese Bend, the isolated section on the far side of the river from Camden. Blacks there own farm land because of an experimental Farm Security Administration program of the 1940s.

The transition from crops to trees and the mechanization of the farming created or coincided with,depending on one's point of view, the exodus of Blacks from Wilcox County. The county's population to be 13,000. the loss has been among the Black population; the White populaion has remained steady and may have increased slightly. In another two decades, the Black-White population in Wilcox County could be about even.

But meanwhile as long as they have a majority, Blacks have an opportunity to make substantial changes in the way Wilcox County is run. The first necessary step seems to be to broaden the revenue base. With control of the school board and the county commission, and with a unified Black voting bloc, an increase in property taxes could be effected. This is not a new idea; as early as 1966 a published report cited landowners' fears that Blacks would take control and raise taxes.

Will it happen? During the recent campaigns, the screening committee asked the county commission candidates what they would do about taxes. One of the men who was ultimately elected said he thought the answer was to impose a sales tax "because that would be easiest and fairest". The screening committee endorsed his candidacy anyway, hoping that before he takes office he can be made aware of the distinctions between progressive and regressive taxation.

Should a tax initiative be successful, there would be considerable irony in that the same wealthy landowners and merchants who dominated the schools when Blacks' slice of the pie was almost invisible would now have to pay for the improvements so long needed for education. Of course, to effect significant change in taxation, Blacks will also have to gain control of the Board of Equalization, a body which has the authority to reduce property assessments if a lnadowner feels his taxes are too high. This board's members are nominated by the county commission, the school board and the Camden city council. Aside from the paternal attitude expressed by school board member Robert Lambert, who says Whites need to control the board because Blacks are financially inept, one wonders if White determination to control the school board long after White children had left the public schools might be linked to the essentials need to control the appointments to the Board of Equalization.

One also wonders why, in a county which has almost 70 percent Black population, it has taken until 1978 and 1980 to elect Blacks to important county offices. Sheriff Prince Arnold says it was fear that kept Blacks from realizing the full strength of their numbers at the voting booth "fear of the structure in this county". School board member-elect K.P.Thomas says flatly that the fear of losing their jobs made many Black teachers work against Black political efforts. "Most of the time to get hired, you had to make committments not to be in this or be in that. During the election time the superintendent and the school board members get out among the teachers and workers and campaign against the people who are running. This is what hurts us so much."

Fear, intimidation, White influence--each of these explanation is a part of the picture of political ineffectiveness which handicapped Blacks up to this time. It is a waste if effort, really, to wonder why change was so long cominh. Wilcox county was one of the handful of "cipher" counties in which there were no Blacks registered when the Voting Rights Act was passed. Says Monroe Pettway, a Black farmer, "I remember when I wasn't no Black registered voters in Wilcox County. Right there in Gees Bend we were the first ones to register over to that court-house. The White folks over there went crazy. Acted like they didn't know where the courthouse was and some of 'e, working in the courthouse."

There is an expression "Colored Peoples' Time," which is sometimes used (with no respect) to describe the in-their-own-time pace at which older, especially rural, Blacksconduct their business. Certainly years of dealing with the Wilcox White folks would teach one a thing or two about patience, perseverance and prayer. Ultimately, he best explanation may be merely that it took time for Blacks to gain their leadership network, and to realize, as Prince Arnold pointed out, that "it could be done."

Now, of course, time seems to be on the side of the Blacks, though the Lord knows there are problems enough to keep them occupied.

Randall Williams is an Alabama journalist now in Georgia