The Cold Hard Truth

The Cold Hard Truth

By J.L. Chestnut, Jr.

Vol. 11, No. 2, 1989, pp. 24, 22-23

I am proud of America and proud to be an American. Almost no other nation in the world would have waged a civil war to abolish slavery, enact the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and pass civil rights statutes in 1964 and 1965. America did these things solely because they were the right and proper things to do. We have quite a ways yet to go, but by golly we’re getting there!

Last issue, I wrote about the January installation–more than two decades after the protests that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act–of the first black commissioners in my home of Dallas County, Alabama. There are many good and decent people, black and white, in Selma, as there are across the country. There are honest, decent whites who are genuinely interested in fair, unfettered progress by black citizens.

On the other hand, there are whites who fraudulently claim an interest in our welfare and progress but don’t really mean it and are somewhat difficult to deal with. One can easily fight an enemy, but, pray tell, how does one fight an alleged friend whose subterfuge is both socially acceptable and institutionalized?

Many of us detest awards for “doing good” in the field of race relations. Once an elected official, business man, preacher or whatever gathers a roster of “human relations” citations, it is next to impossible to convince him–or the public–that he is really an insincere, foot-dragging impostor and that more often than not is the case.

Such people are examples of the “thinking man’s prejudice.” By definition, they think for themselves but often harbor a deeply seated and secret emotion that tells them they can’t really believe in honest equality for blacks. That feeling or emotion is irrational but real. Thus, many “do-gooders” (thinking people) are really ambivalent on most of matters of race.

And that is one of the reasons why some otherwise good people have half-heartedly and quietly accepted so many racist onslaughts by bigots against black people. It is also a tragedy in America generally and in Dallas County in particular. Of course there are always other social and business pressures working in the white community.

The white Dallas County School Board members are thinking people. They know it would take a miracle for the Supreme Court to even consider their silly eleventh hour appeal to forestall redistricting. They also know maintaining this legal charade is a gratuitous insult to the black people of this county; nevertheless’ they voted in a racial bloc to continue. They are victims of the thinking man’s prejudice. They are also politicians in the cheapest sense.

The white majority on the Selma City Council consistently votes in a racial bloc on all matters of substance. Councilman Edwin Moss is so frustrated he has questioned his own utility in conversations with this writer. He wouldn’t believe what I tried to tell him years ago. The white councilpeople are victims of the thinking man’s prejudice. In a very narrow sense, they even mean well.

As to the county commission, blacks have no doubts whatsoever concerning one of our white commissioners–they know who and what he is. They had the wrong idea about the other one because we endorsed him and black voters made the narrow margin for his victory.

However, some of us understood from the beginning that he is a thinking man. We also understood what that meant in terms of white bloc voting; the two white commissioners have yet to split their vote. Only one of the three black commissioners has been so blind; the other two have kept the faith.

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The Selma daily newspaper is unlikely to take editorial issue with white, bloc voting on the county school board, county commission, city council, or anywhere else. We can expect, however, a hypocritical editorial commending Erskine Minor for breaking up the only black majority in local government to favor a white majority. Thinking white people run the newspaper.

The local white establishment would, if they could, cower the new black county commissioners from doing anything for blacks out of fear of being called racist. No self-respecting black person should give a tinker’s damn about being called racist by such people.

Nevertheless, in response to the controversy about courthouse patronage following the recent election, two of the black commissioners said publicly that the replacement of two white employees with black employees was not racial. That is disappointing. I had hoped the race of the replacement employees’ was at least as important as their qualifications.

How else is equity to be done in a situation where blacks have been systematically discriminated against in terms of jobs for a century? Assigning two top-level jobs has nothing to do with “two wrongs making a right.” Rather it is a simple, direct attempt to reduce the discriminatory effects of long-standing white racism in the Dallas County courthouse.

Proposing a naked, “color blind” mentality to the black commissioners as the solution to centuries of white racism is contemptible, dishonest and morally bankrupt. It is the rough equivalent of confusing a method for preventing the spread of a disease with actual treatment of the festering effects of that disease.

I am told the black female replacement employee had helped train the now displaced white female who was her boss under an earlier (white) administration’s patronage. That is a familiar story all over Dixie. Racism is the primary reason more than a few whites became boss and their black counterparts didn’t. Qualifications are of course relevant but so is the fact that being black is often a permanent

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Whites have virtually all the top jobs at the courthouse and city hall. Both school boards are majority white and so is the city council. Most major jobs in both school systems are held by whites with one exception. The local court systems and support staff, with one exception, are white. Blacks are usually placed in second- and third-line positions. We became the assistant to the assistant who is somebody’s deputy.

But, in 1989 a black majority on the county commission replaces two top white employees with black people and that act is described as racist, contemptible and a few other names. That is white arrogance at its naked, disgusting worst.

The recent Selma newspaper editorial entitled “Appoint the Best” illustrates the point. The editor self-righteously pontificated that county commissioners should appoint the best” person to the office of county attorney regardless of race. Pompous and hypocritical issue was taken with a simple, realistic and truthful assessment by commissioner Perry Varner that most blacks expect the new majority black commission to appoint a black lawyer to that office.

Candor in matters of race is hardly the rule in Dallas County. Racist facts are systematically ignored or rationalized.

The white commission members who appointed the previous county attorney, a white, would not have even considered appointing this writer or any other black lawyer. No editorial appeared telling these white commissioners to be “color blind” and appoint “the best.” In vivid contrast to Varner’s candid assertion, the racist fog was so complete when the commission was all-white the appointment of the most competent black lawyer on the planet was unthinkable.

Lawyers for both local school boards are white. The lawyer for the City of Selma and every municipal board is white. The lawyer for the Craig Field Authority and everything else is white. These arrangements have nothing to do with these lawyers being “the best”; they are white and have connections. No editorial objection has or will be written in regard.

In like manner, the newspaper only belatedly objected to the fifteen-year litigation designed to keep blacks off the county commission, and the editor never really mustered the courage to flatly call that sordid legal effort racist. With the same jaundiced eye, the editor now sees danger if a black majority commission appoints a black county attorney.

It is hypocritically clear that when whites appoint whites, that it is simply seen as getting the best. When blacks pick blacks, that is racism. This crude double standard is a rather revealing example of white arrogance at its worst. Lord help us! A thinking man’s prejudice.

It is also clear that editorials on the importance of a color blind selection process are only written when blacks have the power to appoint. Whether dealing with a school principal, legal advisor or whatever, the admonition to “rise above color” is only heard when blacks have the power of appointment and white-e are on the receiving end. It is almost beyond hypocrisy when the Selma Times-Journal presumes to lecture Dallas County blacks on racism.

Little wonder my dear wife received four irate telephone calls about the editorial before breakfast. Rev. Charles P. Thrash came to the office to say he no longer wanted the newspaper in his home–not even the Sunday edition that carries my column. I will have to talk with him immediately. Believe me!

We are told we can’t move beyond the “dark past” (that phrase itself is unintentionally racist) if we become more polarized. The editorial writer was apparently too hypocritical to say racially polarized though that is what he obviously meant. It doesn’t matter because there is no way we can become more racially polarized.

Pregnancy, as they say, is not a matter of degree. Similarly, racial polarization is not a matter of degree. “You is or you ain’t, baby!”

Additional foolishness somewhat akin to the polarization nonsense is the claim that “. . . actions similar to those by the county commission will surely separate us further.” What a claim in the land of racially segregated churches, private schools and all that rest! My goodness. The separation is already complete.

Black people often say to each other how tired they are of phony discussions about racism and discrimination being ills of the past. Pick a black citizen at random and he or she can relate more than one contemporary racial horror story. Black Alabamians are filing as many complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as ever.

In any event, black people do not always share the non-questioning loyalty and blind respect some whites have for decisions made by white-dominated institutions. A century of unspeakable discrimination against blacks by these same institutions has imbued blacks with a necessary preference for realism over self-serving fantasy.


J. L. Chestnut is an Alabama trial lawyer and writer.