Black Boss: Political Revolution in a Georgia County
By Lawrence J. Hanks
Vol. 5, No. 1, 1983, pp. 16-18
Black Boss: Political Revolution in a Georgia County. John Rozier. The University of Georgia Press, 1982.
John Rozier’s Black Boss is a narrative of John McCown of Hancock County, Georgia and the political revolution that most observers felt reached fruition in 1968, the year that blacks became the majority of members of the county commission. Rozier, a Hancock native, deserves to be commended for bringing the county to the attention of scholars as well as a general audience. It has been fourteen years since blacks ascended to political power, yet the political science journals have yet to publish any analysis of the political changes in Hancock. Thus, Black Boss breaks new ground.
On leave from his post as Public Information Services director at Emory University, Rozier manages to do a thorough job of research. He interviewed numerous black and white Hancock citizens; he combed through the newspapers that covered the stories; he searched the files of the Georgia Council on Human Relations; and he examined the transcripts from the pretrial hearings and other documents relating to the trials that were held. Rozier had sufficient information to give his readers a balanced story of John McCown and the political revolution in Hancock. The book’s strength is its wealth of material.
Unfortunately, there is a serious problem with Black Boss. The book has a blatant bias against McCown that permeates the work and inhibits the author’s ability to view the political, social, and economic dynamics. While Rozier concentrates solely on the character of McCown, the changes that McCown stirred to life are more important historically than the man himself.
Although Rozier acknowledges the “widely varying views” concerning McCown in his preface, he proceeds to use the negative appraisals of him as the central focus of the book. He never acknowledges, perhaps he does not realize, that he is telling one side of an extremely controversial story. McCown, with his charismatic, unorthodox, and noncompromising style, came to Hancock in 1966 as a seasoned civil rights activist. He led the first civil rights march in Colorado Springs, Colorado, protesting the injustices in the armed forces. He later worked with CORE, SNCC, and the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in Savannah. While affiliated with SCLC in Atlanta, he saw the potential for black political empowerment in Hancock and decided to move himself and his family there. His childhood in Loris, South Carolina, and his adolescence in Harlem taught him that only the bold, aggressive, and self-assured survived. These qualities became an integral part of his personality.
Hancock County was fertile soil for McCown to test his theory of black self-help through political participation. A devout believer in democratic theory, he emphasized the accountability of elected officials to their constituents. Moreover, he felt that political power and economic power were flip sides of the same coin–one could not expect to make changes in either of these areas without simultaneously working in both arenas. He took this message to homes, bars, street corners, and churches. Armed with charisma and expertise in federal regulations, McCown won the confidence of many Hancock blacks by showing them that white county officials could be successfully challenged when they denied blacks benefits that they were entitled to receive. One person could make a difference. Moreover, that one person, when organized with others, could make substantial changes. This is the legacy of McCown which Rozier totally neglects.
McCown organized the Eastern Central Committee for Opportunity (ECCO), a community development corporation, in 1970. By 1974, after having received approximately 5.5 million in private and federal aid, ECCO had established itself as the center of economic development in Hancock County. Blacks held every elective or appointive position in the county except sheriff and tax commissioner. In their attempt to salvage whatever political power they could, segments of the white community appear to have participated in many activities that Rozier chose to ignore or treat lightly: “white flight” into Sparta and gerrymandering were two methods used to maintain white political dominance; the Klan demonstrated on the eve of the 1966 election; the broodstock at the ECCO fish farm was mysteriously poisoned; the concrete block plant was vandalized; there was a white boycott of ECCO fish farm products; death threats were directed towards McCown and other black elected officials; the harassment of ECCO employees by law enforcement officers was commonplace; the ECCO threatre was burned; and, IRS and FBI agents were illegally used to gather information for the federal grand jury. Moreover, the white communities in neighboring counties gave assistance in trying to thwart the movement: they supplied political contributions; black drivers from Hancock were routinely cited for violations while passing through; and on at least one occasion, a group of “night riders” entered the county to pay the ECCO headquarters a visit.
Much of this white reaction was due to the considerable amount of political and economic power that the black community was gaining. Until the school desegregation squabbles of 1969 and 1970, a small portion of the white community supported ECCO. After the attempts to desegregate the school however, even this support disappeared. The battle lines were drawn–the white community was determined to get rid of ECCO and McCown, while most blacks were determined to protect both. A good number of citizens, both black and white, carried guns at all times. For the remainder of the McCown Era, there would be at least two versions to practically everything that happened.
After almost four years of concerted effort to discredit ECCO and McCown, events began to favor those opposed to ECCO. The Atlanta Constitution ran a series of
articles (June 30, 1974 – July 4, 1974) which seriously questioned the legitimacy of McCown and the ECCO enterprises; this series had been preceded by a similar series in the Macon Telegraph. These two series, combined with years of letter writing and public pressure for an external audit of ECCO, prompted the Washington office of OEO to conduct the long desired audit. On July 24, 1974 Senator Nunn’s office issued a press release stating that the General Accounting Office had briefed Senator Nunn telling him that “their initial report indicates that the OEO external audit will show substantial discrepancies.” As a result, a federal grand jury investigation of McCown and ECCO was initiated, contributions came to a halt, and after eighteen months of a federal grand jury investigation–five guilty pleas to fraudulent use of federal poverty funds ended the economic phase of the political movement in Hancock. The man that Hancock whites wanted to convict most, John McCown, was killed in a plane crash in January 1976. Thus, the “McCown Era” ended with both sides unsatisfied. The anti-McCown group had wanted McCown to stand trial while the pro-McCown group felt that they had no alternative to pleading guilty.
In Black Boss, Rozier has shaped his first two chapters, “Hancock County” and “John McCown,” in a manner which prejudices readers thinking about the political movement in Hancock. First Hancock is portrayed as an unlikely place for a political revolution: Hancock’s early leaders were Whigs and Unionists who opposed succession although they favored slavery; slaveholders treated their slaves well; the county had no record of lynchings; blacks could buy land more easily and they led the state in the number of black farm owners; and, “Hancock was noted for good race relations until the troubles of the 1960’s.” Then in chapter two, McCown is portrayed as a moral degenerate accused of a wide variety of acts: lying, stealing, “shacking up” with a German woman, having bad credit, contributing to the delinquency of minors, and rape. The picture has been painted clearly: an immoral degenerate comes to peaceful, idyllic, racially harmonious Hancock County and upsets the balance. In both instances, Rozier overstates the case.
Although race relations in Hancock were reputed to be relatively good, the credit for this state of affairs should not be contributed entirely to the good will of whites. With an overwhelming black population, blacks in Hancock have a history of assertion. Although the historical antecedent is obscure, present day blacks in Hancock recount many stories about blacks from slavery to the present who challenged the authority of whites, demanded respect, and fought in the defense of rights. Conditions were not as peaceful as Rozier would have us believe.
Rozier’s attempt to point out McCown’s alleged moral weaknesses point to a major weakness in the book–the trustworthiness of anonymous sources. Moreover, much of the nonflattering information about McCown, e.g., his speeding tickets, his “shacking up” are simply nongermane to his role in the movement towards black politcal and economic empowerment in Hancock. In his attempt to cast a negative shadow on McCown and the political revolution in Hancock, Rozier undermines the conclusions he reaches by his willingness to raise gossip to the status of fact. Although McCown was posthumously indicted, of course he was never tried–his case was never presented in court. Rozier writes as if McCown’s assumed guilt is a proven fact. His bias is most blatant when he has the opportunity to decide who is telling the truth between McCown and some other party. Illustrative of this is his treatment of the “arms race” incident and the burning of the Clinch House.
The “arms race” occurred in 1971 after several years of tension. After hearing frequent shooting in the night, Mayor Patterson of Sparta, the county seat of Hancock, decided that McCown and his followers were practicing for a battle with the white citizens of Sparta. He ordered ten machine guns for his two man police force. After McCown and the other county commissioners learned of the purchase, they felt that the black citizens of the county needed to be protected from the whites in the city. They immediately ordered thirty machine guns. The arms build-up continued until Governor Jimmy Carter intervened. He convinced them both to dispose of their weapons. Although Rozier offers no concrete evidence that McCown or his followers were actually the source of the shooting, he writes under the assumption that McCown started the “arms race.”
The Clinch House, an antebellum mansion, was burned while McCown was jailed during a disturbance in
May of 1974. The house had been recently refurbished by the Hancock County Foundation for Historical Preservation; “the refurbished home was preserved as a reminder of the county’s past . . .” When the house went down in flames, the mayor accused ‘McCown’s followers of burning it. Since most of ECCO’s employees were guarding his jail cell, this was unlikely. In turn, McCown accused the mayor of “knowing something about the fire.” Once more, without offering a shred of concrete evidence, Rozier accepts the anti-McCown version as fact.
Rozier criticizes the Thames Production Company, a British film company, for bias in their film on the county; he also criticizes the New Republic for not being balanced in their March 6, 1971 article on the events of the county: “the point of view of the McCown faction was accepted without question.” It is ironic that he falls prey to his own criticism in reverse–he accepts without question the perspective of the anti-McCown faction.
The successful efforts for political empowerment in Hancock were the source of local as well as national pride. Between 1966 and 1976, theory progressed to reality as blacks won every county office except sheriff. The stage was now set to see whether or not political power could be transformed to economic power. The major accomplishments of black political empowerment were symbolic, social, and psychological until McCown became active. During the McCown era, the accomplishments of the county government were becoming more practical as ECCO was expanding to offer more jobs through the skillful gaining of foundation and federal funds. Black I economic independence was becoming a reality and political participation became less of a threat to the livelihood of black Hancock citizens. After his death and the demise of ECCO, the benefits of black empowerment were reduced to the symbolic, social, and psychological although blacks presently hold the same number of offices. Although it has not yet happened in Hancock, black constituents usually grow accustomed to these nontangible benefits and grow apathetic if the black elected officials cannot convince industries to locate in the county to provide jobs.
The veterans of the civil rights movement greatly overemphasized the power of the ballot to make changes. Although the Voting Rights Act freed blacks from legal barriers to voting, it did not remove the threat of economic intimidation. McCown realized that the black vote would never reach its full potential as long as blacks were subject to economic intimidation. Because McCown operated on this premise, Hancock, for a brief period, served as a national model for black political mobilization, especially in the Black-Belt South. Rozier’s failure to critically examine the merits of this philosophy seriously diminishes the value of Black Boss.
Lawrence J. Hanks is a graduate student in government at Harvard University. He is presently studying Hancock County as part of his dissertation on black political participation in the rural South since the 1965 Voting Rights Act.