The Past Of Lowndes County’s Future

The Past Of Lowndes County’s Future

By Tom Gordon

Vol. 2, No. 7, 1980, pp. 11-16

HAYNEVILLE, ALA.—The 124-year-old courthouse in this Black Belt town once was the political hub and social watering hole for White Lowndes countians. Remembered as stylish and attractive, the whitewashed building with green shutters not only housed most county government offices but also was the site of square dances, dress balls, and other items on the social calendars of the local White populace. The dances usually took place in the second floor’s courtroom, where couples would reach from an inside staircase or from two winding outer stairways facing the courthouse square.

The outer stairways are gone now and the music of the courtroom’s lively dances hasn’t been heard for years. Today the courtroom couldn’t host a ball, nor can it even house a trial. Leaks, cracks, peeling walls, and general deterioration prompted the state fire marshal to condemn the courtroom last fall. The rest of the courthouse is not far from a similar fate.

The historic building is giving way to the strain and neglect of decades—pressures that are perhaps as political and economic as architectural. Unlike the old faceless Confederate monument standing immovably and self-evident across the square, the courthouse has shifted symbolically with time and remains unrestored, condemned by local Black folks’ memory of the past and the White people’s view of the future.

As seventy-five percent of Lowndes’ 13,000 residents, Blacks for most of their lives knew this courthouse as a building only to be entered from the rear, a place where they could pay their taxes but not register to vote, the place where all-White juries could be counted on to acquit those charged with murder in civil rights cases. It was the most visible reminder of the do’s and don’ts that Blacks, not Whites, had to observe.

Since 1965, when the courthouse doors were thrown open to Blacks by the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and certainly by 1968 when Lowndes’ political leadership became shared by Black and White alike, the courthouse has not been the sort of place where Whites would wish to gather socially.

Facing a host of problems, the Blacks and Whites who sit on the county’s governing board probably couldn’t repair the building on their own anyway. Like most of its Black and some of its White citizens, the county government is broke and can only look to the federal government for funds to restore the structure.

It was 1965 when, politically, life began for many Lowndes Blacks.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. came around as did Stokeley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. Nearby Selma rocked and reeled under voting rights demonstrations. In March, King led voting rights marchers to Montgomery right through northern Lowndes on U.S. 80. One of the marchers, a Michigan housewife named Viola Liuzzo, was shot to death after the march as she was driving in Lowndes along Highway 80. Three Ku Klux Klansmen later were convicted of federal civil rights charges in the case. But in 1978, Lowndes authorities obtained a Liuzzo murder indictment of Gary Thomas Rowe, the former FBI informant who helped convict the Klansmen. Rowe is fighting extradition to Alabama.

Five months after Liuzzo’s murder, a sunny afternoon incident in Hayneville plunged Lowndes into the spotlight again. Outside a small grocery store, a state highway engineer and volunteer sheriff’s deputy named Tom Coleman shot two White civil rights workers—a New Hampshire Episcopal seminarian and a Catholic priest from Chicago. The seminarian, Jonathan Daniels, died almost instantly. The priest, Richard Morrisroe, suffered a serious wound. Coleman was indicted later on a manslaughter charge and acquitted in a state court trial with an all-White jury in the Lowndes courthouse.

The two shootings had little effect on Black voter registration, which had begun a few weeks before Mrs. Liuzzo’s death and increased with the help of federal registrars acting under the Voting Rights Act. Soon after that, Blacks began campaigning for public office. Two were elected justices of the peace in 1968.

Lowndes Blacks now hold two seats on the five-seat county

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commission and four of the five seats on the county board of education. The sheriff, superintendent of education, tax assessor and coroner are Black. In two towns recently incorporated, Mosses and White Hall, Blacks also hold the reins of local government. Most of Lowndes’ Whites live in Hayneville and the county’s three other municipalities—Benton, Lowndesboro and Fort Deposit -where the governing bodies are predominantly or all White. But Blacks are likely to make electoral bids for offices in some of those towns later this year.

Even with the political changes, Lowndes County’s problems are many. They include widespread poverty, isolation and little education for many of the county’s Blacks. The county’s listed per capita income for 1977 -$3,817—is one of the nation’s lowest. About half of the county’s 13,000 residents receive food stamps, and in 1977 county residents received about $2.3 million in public assistance. There are also the problems of inadequate medical care and substandard housing, plus high rates of teenage pregnancies and illegitimate childbirths.

In addition, much of the county’s 4,000-member labor force has had to look outside the county for jobs. On the whole, the county has not been able to afford much of an industrial development effort. While “broke” describes the county commission’s present financial state, “disrepair” is a soft way to refer to the courthouse and county jail’s condition.

Though severe, these problems don’t overshadow the significant progress the county has seen in recent years. Government figures show per capita income has doubled since 1970, and federal programs have helped some low-income Lowndes residents obtain better housing. Piped-in water is available to most Lowndes residents, the public school dropout rate has declined, and the county’s infant mortality rate has become one of the state’s lowest.

There are also adult and child day care centers operating and free meal programs for senior citizens. The county health department has a home health care program and a federally-sponsored health clinic provides low-cost care to the needy.

In February, county industry-seekers cheered when Hayneville was approved for a $1.9 million federal grant to help build a facility for refining contaminated petroleum products. The project should create about 150 jobs and town officials hope it will mean more industrial growth.

Thoughts of significant private industrial development, however, are tempered by the reluctance of industry to go into majority Black counties. Corporate officials look askance on such populations, fearing they could be easily led and unionized. Some Lowndes residents fear the county’s industrial potential is being lost

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as paper companies buy up much of Lowndes’ wooded acreage.

There is talk about stepped-up improvements for the county school system which lacks a vocational training facility and full accreditation, but White students, White money and White interest have gone largely to two private all-White academies.

Improved medical care and boosting the number of resident physicians have been hampered by the failure to induce a young doctor to stay and raise a family. In recent years, physicians have come into the county to serve two-year stints under a federally funded program. None has stayed.

“There’s nothing for them to come to,” says John Norman, a White who heads the Fortex Manufacturing Co., a clothing concern in the county’s largest community, Fort Deposit (pop. 1,400). “We’re caught between the chicken and the egg. We can’t get the industry to move in and look around because we haven’t got any population to call on for employment. We can’t get the people here because there aren’t any jobs..(and)we haven’t got homes and things.”

Most of those who do work in Lowndes are in farming, retail business, some kind of government work or at one of the few manufacturing plants. There are others who could work but don’t, many Whites believe, thanks to handouts from Uncle Sam. “The government is the drawback,” says Tommy Bargainer, a pulpwooder from Fort Deposit. “I imagine Lowndes County gets more government money than any other county in the state of Alabama.”

Adds manufacturer Norman: “It’s a sad situation where people I run into every day are more interested in making sure they are properly signed up on the welfare rolls than in keeping a job.”

In his lifetime, Charles Smith has seen cotton farming, supported by cheap Black labor, almost disappear from Lowndes County and be replaced by soybean farming, cattle raising and the pulpwood industry. A leader in Lowndes’ civil rights movement and one of the two Blacks on the county commission, Smith is 65 and serving his second term. While Whites have accepted Black participation in the political process, Smith says the legacy of attitudes from the cotton days is a strong one.

“The plantation concept has been a way of life in Lowndes,” he says. “And a Black man was looked upon as property, not a person. This outlook has been sort of passed down from one generation to another.”

Indeed, for most of Lowndes’ 150-year history, cotton was the county’s lifeblood and Blacks were needed to grow, hoe, and pick the crop. Wagons and then trucks hauling

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bales of cotton were as commonplace as the Spanish moss which dripped from the trees around the county’s antebellum homes.

“It’s going to take some time to even educate the Black man to where he can perform as a progressive-minded citizen. He has been indoctrinated to believe he was second class,” Smith said. “Once a man’s mind has been destroyed, he hasn’t got very much else to deal with. That complacency of the Black man has got to be overcome and it’s going to take time before he’s out of that rut.”

If Blacks are handicapped by their own apathy and poor education, Smith notes that many Whites are shackled by their own self-interest and the hands-off attitude they have taken toward the county.

“You can feel it,” says Mrs. Uralee Haynes, the county school superintendent. ‘We’re just sitting back and watching each other. I don’t think anybody’s actually doing anything against each other, but both races seem to be apathetic.”

Older Whites, especially, view Black political power in the county as a sure sign the day of the locusts has arrived. “It’s just the saddest thing,” an elderly member of a prominent Lowndes family said one day last fall as she sat in her white frame home in Hayneville. Her voice was an angry whisper. “I really don’t know how else to describe it, because we haven’t got a chance. It’s almost like Reconstruction all over again.”

Tom Coleman, now retired and still living on the outskirts of Hayneville, says that the past ways of keeping Blacks from voting were needed. That’s because, he says, most Blacks couldn’t be trusted to vote responsibly. He and others haven’t changed their minds: “They don’t know who to vote for when they vote,” he said recently.

If ever so slowly or hesitantly, most Whites do realize that Black politicians are now facts of life. “It’s just not like it was back then,” says O.P. “Buddy” Woodruff, White chairman of the county commission. “I even feel differently myself. I can work with these people and I hope they feel they can work with me.” As for the commission, he says, ‘We’ve worked mighty well and close together and I can’t recall a controversy we haven’t been able to work out to the satisfaction of all concerned.”

A member of the all-Black Lilly Baptist Church choir in the central Lowndes community of Letohatchee, pausing on Sunday morning to chat before traveling to sing at another church, voiced the same view but with an important qualification, “We’ve come a long way,” she said, “but we’ve got a long way to go.”

Realizing the county’s limited resources cannot readily be overhauled, Black officials find themselves in unenviable positions. The county’s poverty and the local government’s inability to provide little more than basic services burdens virtually all county offices. For example, John Hulett, a Black in his third term as sheriff, was forced late last year to buy used cars for patrol vehicles.

At the same time, while some Whites see the county’s economic problems as naturally what happens when Blacks take over, Blacks are disappointed when they don’t see political participation result in economic gains.

Black voters “expected a lot overnight,” says Frank Miles, the county’s other Black commissioner. “But we explained you don’t do a lot overnight.”

Also not done overnight, more than a few Whites have come to support openly Black officials. One of Hulett’s White supporters is Linda Viera, a Lowndes native who runs a service station and grocery in Fort Deposit. “The first time he ran, the Blacks wanted him in office just to show they could get him in office,” she says. “Now the Whites are voting him in strictly because they found out he does his job. It doesn’t matter what color you are. If you break the law, he puts you in jail.”

Mrs. Viera, in her early 30’s, is part of a younger generation of Lowndes Whites who see things somewhat differently from their parents. “When I went into the Marine Corps, everybody was equal,” she said one afternoon. “There was no discrimination or anything. In fact if you called a Black a ‘nigger,’ you were automatically asking for trouble.”

Dickson Farrior, a White 31-year-old cattle farmer, employs Blacks who were his childhood playing companions. As a teenager, Farrior was only vaguely aware of the civil rights tensions in Lowndes, but in August 1965,while riding to high school football practice, he came

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upon the scene in Hayneville where Jonathan Daniels and Richard Morrisroe lay shot. He recalled how incredible such an event was at the time. As he grew older, he says, he also couldn’t understand how Lowndes Blacks could join the military, come home wearing a uniform and not be able to vote.

This regard for Blacks by younger Whites seems genuine and is based on some personal, past friendship. But even now for their children, these Whites’ closeness to Blacks ends at the schoolhouse doors.

Though the county schools were integrated by federal court order in the 1960s, they now are predominantly Black. Linda Viera’s two children attend the private, all-White Lowndes Academy.

Uncomfortable with having to choose between an all-Black school and an all-White school for his son, Farrior says he considers the academy the lesser of two undesirables. “We’ve just got a bad situation here,” the soft-spoken farmer said recently. “I really would like him to go to an integrated school because that’s the way life is. But we don’t have it here, so what do you do?”

0ne day last fall, Tom Coleman stood under the twin pecan trees outside his home and talked about his view of Lowndes county’s future. He didn’t expect a lot from the county’s Black leadership, and he didn’t think many of their Black constituents were capable of being responsible citizens anytime soon. The tone in his voice was not one of malice, but of someone who feels he knows what anyone else would know if they had lived in Lowndes.

“It’s not going to get much better unless they get some industry in here,” he said, “and if they get some more White workers to move in.”

Although he probably doesn’t know it, census projections may offer Coleman some hope since they do forecast that the White population of Lowndes will increase, especially as the county becomes more a part of the expanding Montgomery metropolitan area. The trend does not indicate, however, that the change in population will allow a reassertion of White political control.

Questions about the future of Lowndes County probably will be answered as much by a release from the past which Coleman and other Whites helped shape as from dramatic, unforeseen changes which come from outside. As the older generation of Whites finds some basis on which to work with Blacks, many of them carry a baggage of opinions and experience that defines progress as only White progress and the politics of accommodation as an art of limiting, not reconciling with Black influence.

By changing circumstances and outside experiences many younger Whites have been freed to see race relations more humanely. However, integration still appears to many Whites as acceptable only if on their terms. In a county where three-fourths of the population remains Black, integration to these Whites can mean Blacks sharing, but not controlling, power and privilege.

They also seem to be waiting for Blacks to make the changes that even they can accept. If Sheriff Hulett is elected and shows he is fair, they’ll support him. If the schools are separated, however, they’ll just wait until they are offered a better choice. They are not ready to see their own interests in integrated schools—apparently not enough to take the initiative with Blacks.

At the same time, Blacks in Lowndes have come to see that “the long ways to go” can’t be reached only by the vote. Disenchantment could set in and disinterest in voting could compound the severe limits that local Black officials already face. With those limits, it is also possible that Blacks may become the captives of the local and economic political system that offers welfare payments as the most attractive future livelihood for much of the population.

In the view of many Lowndes’ Blacks, White interest and commitment to the county would avert such a future. That White commitment, they say, also would have kept the courthouse from becoming a tattered shadow of its former self. White leaders, on the other hand, point to the planned petroleum refinery as a sign of better things to come. They also hope the future will bring another positive sign—a federally-funded restoration of the courthouse.

Neither of these developments will go a long way towards freeing most Lowndes citizens from their economic woes, but hopelessness is not a word that characterizes the mood of most residents nowadays. While Tom Coleman has his hopes, Mrs. Willia Gadson, a Black teacher in Hayneville High School probably spoke for most Blacks and Whites best. “As a whole Lowndes could be one of the best places in the world to live,” she said recently. “It’s too small to be divided.”

With a pause, she added, “In order to be free, you’ve got to free not just your person, but your mind.”

Tom Gordon is state editor of the Anniston Star in Alabama.