Rural, Poor and Southern Directions of the Civil Rights Movement

Rural, Poor and Southern Directions of the Civil Rights Movement

By Robert Anderson, Jr.

Vol. 2, No. 3, 1979, pp. 20-21

The American South has long had a singular attraction for scholars and journalists. The region has seemed to embody all our social and racial tensions. It has been all too easy to find in that society extreme examples of poverty and racism and the corrosive effects of both on the lives of people. In the last two decades a great deal of change has come to the South. Blacks at last have gained the right to vote, the right to equal educational opportunity, the right to equal employment – and the right to eat a hamburger at a lunch counter. In addition, the attitudes of Southern Whites have moderated to a degree that would have seemed impossible not too long ago.

But harsh realities remain. Despite political gains and the lowering of social barriers, most Southern Blacks still face formidable economic obstacles. Although they constitute 20 percent of the region’s population, their share of the financial benefits of the region’s economy is far below that mark.

The consequences of economic obstacles to the well-being of Southern Blacks are readily apparent in Bureau of the Census statistics. With 25 percent of the nation’s total population, the South is home for 38 percent of the nation’s poor. Comparisons between Black and White poverty are even more dramatic. More than half of rural Southern Black families are living at or below the poverty level while only 17 percent of rural Southern White families live in such conditions. Almost half of Southern farm laborers and about one fourth of all Southern farm owners live in poverty. However, the percentage of Black farm owners who are poor is nearly as high as the percentage for all farm laborers. (The average Black-owned farm is only about one-fourth the size of the average White-owned farm.)

The Southern farm population has declined sharply in recent decades. From 1960 to 1970, the number of farm workers dropped from approximately 3 million to about 1.7 million. The total rural population, however, has remained constant. About 42 percent of the total Southern population lives in rural areas – 5.7 million people on farms, but 1 5 million off the farm.

Many thoughtful Southerners have become increasingly concerned about the consequences to the South of the displacement of its agricultural workers and the neglect of the needs of its rural people in general. For example, the Southern Regional Council and the Southern Growth Policies Board have analyzed the Southern rural needs. In 1977 the Council’s Task Force on Southern Rural Development issued a report based on the deliberations of Southern leaders from diverse backgrounds. The report calls for governmental action to make rural areas more attractive to their residents through more effective manpower policies, better health care delivery, increased rural credit, and better housing. Such improvements, the Task Force report says, would make it possible for more people to remain in the rural South and would also relieve pressures on the cities that now absorb the in-migration.

Two years earlier, the Southern Growth Policies Board through its Commission on the Future of the South, which treated rural needs as just one of several subjects, did note that rural areas have special problems to be solved. It, too, recommended ways to achieve a better quality of life in rural areas; these include measures to

Page 21

improve health care delivery, housing, and land use.

Both reports suppor the idea of self-help among the poor, and the Task Force report explicitly urges the strengthening of poor people’s cooperatives as a means toward self-help. “The rationale for a development cooperative or CDC (community development corporation) is fairly clear,” the report states. “Private market forces arelikely to isolate many people and places from the development process…In the rural South, the old plantation areas with heavy Black populations are often ignored. Firms seeking profits alone tend to avoid these locations… The major advantage of a successful development organization is its ability to meet a variety of community needs and remain relatively independent of local political and economic power structures.”

One time-honored sign of a people’s social or economic despair is its pattern of migration. During World War II and for many years after, some three million Southern Blacks, driven from the land by mechanization and barred by discrimination from decently paying jobs, moved to the large cities of the North. Most were tragically ill-prepared to compete in an industrial job market and to adjust to the pace and pressures of urban life. But the out-migration of Blacks is now considerably less than it was ten years ago. Blacks are more and more coming to see that Detroit, Chicago, Washington, andd New York are not utopias.

Increasingly, Blacks are opting to stay South. Many of them feel that the South is their home not merely by geographical happenstance but by social and cultural heritage. The civil rights movement, although it did not itself appreciably alter the economic conditions of Southern Blacks, had much to do with this change in the social and political life of the South and, in addition, helped create conditions under which economic change could also take place.

Today, the legacy of the civil rights movement is found not only in Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and other battleground cities known so well to civil rights activists of the sixties, but also in the South’s rural areas. It is found in places such as Lafayette, Louisiana, where the Reverent Albert McNight, an intense and dedicated Roman Catholic priest, directs the Southern Cooperative Development Fund; in Greenville, Mississippi, where Charles Bannerman, outgoing, entrepreneurial, and gregarious, directs the Delta Foundation and an organization called Mississippi Action for Community Education; and in Tuskegee, Alabama, where John Brown, a taciturn former high school teacher, provides effective, low-profile leadership to the Southeast Alabama Self-Help Association.

These men and their organizations, and other leaders and organizations like them, are dedicated to improving the lot of Southern rural Blacks. The organizations include veterans of the civil rights sturggle who are mindful of the continuing need to guard social and political rights. But there main concern today is to foster the economic well-being of their constituents, particularly through self-help programs and cooperative economic institutions. The common goal of these organizations and others is to enable those who wish to remain in the rural South to do so. They aim to achieve their goal by providing a social and economic environment in which people can live and work with dignity and security.

Although much does remain to be done, for the first time since the exodus of the poor began more than 30 years ago, more poor people are entering the rural South than leaving, the Census Bureau reported late in 1978. The reversal of the migration tide is also due to the tendency of the Southern poor to stay in the South and find jobs there above the poverty level, according to the report.

The social climate has also changed dramatically. Black residents who assert their rights, and outsiders who seek to help them improve their social and economic condition, no longer live inpervasive danger. Slowly and sometimes with difficulty, the South’s rural poor are begining to reap some of the opportunities envisioned in the American Dream.

Articles adapted from Rural, Southern and Poor, a Ford Foundation report.