What Price Are We Willing to Pay?

By Rose Sanders

Vol. 10, No. 2, 1988, pp. 23-24

Since I have been in the South it has come to my attention that the Black Belt has the greatest potential of any region in this country to reach economic independence with equity and justice.

Historically, the Black Belt has experienced some of the harshest forms of economic and racial repression. In spite of the political gains that have been made there since 1965, the Black Belt remains one of America's poorest regions. In spite of the fact that we now have black elected officials, we still remain economically under the control of the same people who politically controlled us for over a century.

But there is potential in the Black Belt and with the emergence of political voices, some of the desires of the people are beginning to be heard. Yet even the voices of our recently elected political officials in the region are not heard by those in power who can change things. For it is not in their best interest to change things.

It is disheartening for me as an individual, a mother, and a community worker to have people come up to me day after day and ask for something that should be very simple in this country. Teenagers with whom I work come to me and ask, "Ms. Sanders, can you help me find a job." I have young friends who have made the sacrifice and have gone to college asking me to help them find jobs. Only yesterday a hardworking couple that I know came to me wanting to buy a house. Despite their hard work, they remain without the income to purchase even a modest home.

We have a situation that clearly deserves a new vision.

Not long ago I had the opportunity to spend ten days in


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Cuba with a group of state legislators, including my husband. I was touched by things that I saw. I could not help but think of things I had experienced in the Black Belt.

In Cuba, I didn't see any beggars on the street. I didn't see any homeless people. In each of the communities that I went into there was a doctor taking care of the sick. I saw an educational system where every person received schooling up to the university level free of charge. I saw a system where everyone had free medical care. I wondered how is it that a country that is considered "underdeveloped" can provide for its poor, can provide for women and minorities, while America, the richest country in the world cannot or will not.

If we ask who would agree that all people have the right to health care, all of us would say yes. To an education? All of us would say yes. To live above the poverty level? All of us would say yes.

But how do we plan to achieve these ideals in the Black Belt or in America? I have just about reached the conclusion that the methods that we are using now will not do. We have economic development programs. We go to seminars on economic development But something remains wrong.

I recall asking my husband why would someone be against free medical care. He said, "Rose, don't you go back to America talking about free medical care. The doctors would have a fit. They have a monopoly on how many doctors, who is to be admitted, how much money is going to be made...."

What I am trying to say is that we have to focus on what we want and how to get it. We don't want people in poverty. We don't want homeless people. We don't want people uneducated. How will we turn it around? How can we turn it around in this system?

One thing the Cuban people did right after the Revolution that we're trying to do in the Black Belt of Alabama was to educate their people. To rid the country of illiteracy.

In the Black Belt of Alabama, there are as many people who can't read as there are those who can. So, even if we could find the jobs, how can people do the work? People who gain literacy gain hope. They are more likely to dream and to make those dreams come true. So, when we talk about economic development, we must place more emphasis on education.

How do we do it? In the Black Belt of Alabama, we are in control of at least five of our school systems. We are physically in control of them, but we are, in fact, trapped by tradition. If you're in a race and you are behind, you can't do things like everybody else and expect to catch up. So it requires creative solutions not just with community organizations, but in institutions and in systems like the public school system.

There are a few superintendents who are beginning to move in that direction. But it should not surprise you if the innovators are being attacked by the power structure in the Black Belt that still finds a way to manipulate even though politically they are not in control.

Most of us want to maintain our present standard of living and not give up anything. Most of us, even the activists among us--including me--really don't want to change ourselves as much as we want to change those around us who are less fortunate. But, change is going require some sacrifice from us, the fortunate.

There's a community in the Black Belt very close to my nice house that was one of the most impoverished that I have ever seen. The community was known locally as "Slave City." No water, no running water; the outhouses didn't have tops on them. There were ninety children living in that community. We began a campaign to try to find decent housing for the people of that community. Because of the national attention we generated we were able to get those people into some decent housing.

But that did not solve the problem. The people who lived there had become so dejected, so full of hopelessness, that moving them out of their physical surroundings did not solve their problems. There are so many people in deep poverty who are psychologically enslaved, who do not realize that they have the power to be heard by themselves as well as by others. There are so many people who are working on jobs that are being mistreated, who are being paid low wages, who remain psychologically indebted to a system that has shown them very little grace. And then there are people like us who remain enslaved to old ideals and to old ways of thinking and doing things.

If we want full employment, if we want to make sure that there are no homeless people, if we want to decently educate every child, if we want to end hunger--what price are we willing to pay to make this happen?

Rose Sanders practices law and community activism in Selma, Ala.