A New Day in Wilcox County: 1978
By Harriet Swift
Vol. 1, No. 6, 1979, pp. 15, 16, 28
“Bad Wilcox,” the civil rights workers used to call it.
“In Alabama they say that there are 66 counties and then there’s Wilcox,” sighs a federal official.
Wilcox County, resting squarely in the center of Alabama’s Black Belt, presents a storybook picture of the rural Deep South. Its sparse population has steadily declined since 1900, leaving only 16,000 people (about 68 percent of them Black) to populate the tiny towns and large plantations. A pleasing vista of fertile fields, rolling hills and proud Southern forests intertwined with the Alabama River, Wilcox is dotted with white-columned mansions and pathetic wood and tin shacks. The insular, provincial social life has bred a steady line of stock Southern characters from the imperious Miss Ann in the Big House to the wise and folksy Dilsey living out back.
The county’s abundance of traits identifying it as the archetypal Black Belt county have not gone unnoticed. In 1950 sociologist Morton Rubin published his well-known social anthropology study of the Southern plantation culture, “Plantation County,” which was entirely drawn from his field research in Wilcox County. Photographer Bob Adelman expanded his 1965 cover story on the county for the old Look magazine into a book in 1972, the poignant and moving “Down Home.” National Geographic, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journalhave all used the county as a Southern metaphor, while its motherlode of social patterns and inculcated race and caste obsessions have been steadily mined by graduate students and historians.
The characteristics of Wilcox County that have made it such an attraction for writers and journalists are the same features that have kept it a segregated, repressive society that has driven away the best and brightest of both races. In 1970 the median family income was $3,920 a year, compared with $7,200 for the state of Alabama. A recent study based on conservative data indicates that 1.1 percent of the county’s population owns at least 70 percent of the land. The infant mortality rate is an outrageous 32.6 per thousand births. Until 1965 no Black person had voted in the county since Reconstruction. Under the eyes of federal
marshals dispatched by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Black voters were added to the poll lists. But Wilcox County remained in the tight grip of White office-holders until 1978, despite repeated attempts by Blacks to win seats on the county commission, school board and positions in the courthouse.
A combination of factors worked against the Black community, including splits within its own ranks. But none of these divisions and frustrations were visible on a rainy, bleak January night when men, women and children from all parts of Wilcox County and the Black Belt gathered to pay homage to the two men that they had finally catapulted into the antebellum red brick courthouse in Camden.
Billed as an inaugural ball and program, the evening had all the trappings of a formal event and was held in the cavernous National Guard Armory on Whiskey Run Road in Camden.
“Something has happened to the heat,” the Rev. Thomas Threadgill apologized to visitors who kept on overcoats and wraps over their tuxedos and evening gowns. No one mentioned that the armory is in the middle of a White residential section and almost adjoining the White segregation academy. At this moment of triumph there was enough warmth and generosity to ignore the chill and overlook the suspected pettiness.
The program was long and carefully structured. They had waited a long time and everyone was going to get a chance to share the glory. Ferdinand Ervin, a retired school principal, was the master of ceremonies and welcomed everyone to this “new day in Wilcox County.” It was the official theme of the program and every speaker used it at least once, some like Ervin rolled it out in a sonorous bass and savored each syllable.
Threadgill, a tall imposing man who has weathered untold crises in the county with courage and dignity took the podium early in the program. The unofficial leader of the Black community in the county, the “Rev.’s” influence goes far beyond the perimeters of his New Trinity Presbyterian Church.
“We come to make a collective pronouncement,” he said evenly. “We’d like to have some elbow room. To those crowding us in we say, get back and let us move about. Let us grow, mature and render contributions like other folk.”
“If there are those bent on preventing that, we say, ‘Get back. Here we come’.”
The “those” warned by Threadgill were not in attendance. Out of several hundred people gathered, only five were White: two out-of-county visitors and two old civil rights hands and their seven-year-old daughter.
Choirs from two county high schools were included on the program and their role was oddly reminiscent of a Greek chorus. One group was resplendent in blue robes, the other in pastel gowns and conservative suits. Their songs underlined the optimism and pride that filled the room like an aroma. “I want to be ready,” they sang earnestly, “to walk to Jerusalem.” Without a smidgen of irony, they poured most of their fervor into “God Bless America.” “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” sang voices that know what it is to attend a segregated school system that has little money and fewer resources – voices that know the hard physical labor of picking cotton and hauling water because there is not running water at home. Strong, clear voices that have rough edges and waver with emotion and energy said as much about the new day in Wilcox County as the men and women who held the podium.
The two new office-holders present an interesting contrast between the old and the new in the county. The newly elected sheriff is college-educated, young (26) and well versed in the unfussy rhetoric of the ’70s. He is a “home boy” who headed for California and found urban America unsympathetic and unlivable.
His colleague, the tax collector, is a white-haired veteran of many civil rights campaigns. He has lived in the county all of his life, making his way with various jobs at various times.
Prince Arnold, the sheriff, was introduced first. A former special education teacher, he radiated confidence and pride. A handsome, compact man in a well-tailored three-piece suit, Arnold stepped up to the podium and waited for the standing ovation to subside.
“We are facing crucial decisions in the year ahead,” he told the jammed auditorium. “We must win the war against racism by a landslide!”
He talked earnestly of brotherhood and unity, and like Threadgill, spoke to the people who were not there. “I will be sheriff of ALL the people of Wilcox County,” he vowed to warm applause.
Arnold then addressed himself to specific issues which had much to do with his election. “I’m greatly disturbed by the number of murders in Wilcox County,” he said as a murmur of approval circled the auditorium. “Today, here tonight, I am declaring a war on murder in Wilcox County!” This declaration was greeted with the most sustained applause of the night. The indifference of White law enforcement officials to crime within the Black community is a sore point in the county. Killings and other violent crimes are desultorily investigated and trials are casual. Light sentences are the rule and early parole is frequent. As one “Plantation County” resident explained to Morton Rubin in the 1940s: “When a White man kills a colored man, it’s self-defense. When a colored man kills a White man it’s murder. But when colored kills colored, it’s just one less nigger.”
Not any more.
The declaration of war was also extended to drug dealers, “overseers of those who would like to enslave us; Judases who would betray us for a few pieces of silver while calling us ‘brother.'”
Arnold summed up his approach to law enforcement simply. “Freedom must be deeply rooted in responsibility,” he said. “We will work within the constitutional framework of the law.”
When the affable Jesse Brooks took over the speaker’s place he didn’t talk about his office (a non-controversial job) or campaign promises.
“I stand here before you as your tax collector,” he told his friends and neighbors. “But I also stand here tonight for someone else. I stand here as the grandson of a little Black slave boy who was brought down river from Charleston, South Carolina, to Lower Peachtree, Alabama, and sold for a thousand dollars. Thanks be to God there’s not going to be any more bidding off of human beings!”
It was a wildly emotional moment and Brooks stood in the center of it ramrod straight, letting the cheers and clamorous applause roll around him. It was a golden moment when the years of struggle, pain and despair were faced squarely and dismissed. The sufferings of that “little Black slave boy” had been vindicated. Against ridiculous odds something very fine and strong had survived in Wilcox County and was now going to take its place in the sun.
Brooks did not fail to mention that what is ahead is more struggle, but “we plan to push forward until justice runs down like mighty waters.”
He vowed to walk into the courthouse “just like John walked into Jerusalem” and begin working hard to build what he predicted will become “one of the best counties in God’s country.”
Bobby Joe Johnson, a Vietnam veteran who lost a hand and a leg in the war, stepped forward to close out the program. He is the president of the Wilcox County Democratic Conference, the Black arm of the Democratic Party in the county. He also has a seat on the more powerful Democratic Executive Committee, but it was the conference that sponsored the inaugural celebration. Johnson began introducing the evening’s “Special guests,” an exercise which turned into a sort of who’s who in the Black Belt. One by one he asked them to stand and be applauded, elected officials and activists from Perry, Dallas, Monroe, Bullock, Marengo, Lowndes, Greene, Macon and Montgomery counties. Men and women who had fought the same long, harrowing battles and knew the price that had to be paid to elect Blacks in Bad Wilcox.
Like those before him, Johnson reiterated the need to look to the future. He also took the occasion to announce his candidacy for the Wilcox County Commission in 1980. “We can’t stop now!”
“Things in the county are going real well,” says Bobby Joe Johnson a month after the inaugural ball. “Prince is doing a good job. Now there’s some that thought just because he was Black and they were Black, well, he’d just look the other way. But he arrested them and put them in jail. ‘If you break the law I’m going to arrest you,’ he told them.”
But there have been problems. The new tax collector isn’t scheduled to take over until this year’s taxes are all closed out in the fall. Until that time the current tax collector is not allowing his successor in the office. A small vexation, says Johnson. A plan has been worked out for Brooks to work in the tax collector’s office of a neighboring county until October.
Despite the great success of the inaugural ball, all did not end pleasantly. Several persons left the armory to find their tires slashed. Eye witnesses named the outgoing sheriff one of his former deputies and two other men as the culprits. All four have been arrested and charged. Although they have attempted to end the incident by apologizing and paying for the damage, they’ll be tried in circuit court.
But nobody expected Bad Wilcox to crumple in a day. “We’re making it,” says Johnson confidently. “We’re doing real well.”
Harriet Swift is a copy editor at the Birmingham Post-Herald.