In the South of my youth, the rung next to the bottom of the social ladder was reserved exclusively for a class of folks that other white people called “poor white trash.” Just beneath them at the bottom and beyond any threshold of upward social mobility were we blacks. In some ways it mattered not if we were educated, ignorant or prosperous, all blacks were in the same boat and in it forever. Dirt poor ignorant white people could work hard, get lucky or even marry out of the poor white trash class. We could not move beyond this bottom color caste. We were black forever.
Even as early as the eighth grade, I almost instinctively understood that this curious arrangement had a lot to do with money and greed. Poor blacks were no poorer than poor whites, and a few blacks were even pretty well off but they too were members of the untouchable caste and at the bottom of the social ladder. Some whites, even those who were filthy and untamed creatures of animal instincts, described all black people as such and joined in the claim that it was the Christian duty of all white people to keep blacks in their assigned place. My paternal great grandfather was a white man (whom I never knew but despised) who ran a boarding house at Marion Junction. His son, my paternal grandfather was almost as white as his father, and I am told the relationship between the two was a maze of hypocritical, immoral Southern contradictions that even affected my own father all his life.
Two of my family members (who are not very bright) believe that this so-called “mixed” heritage explains why I have chosen to live a life of protest and struggle. These relatives are the type who would assume that any black person who stands up against racism or white people must have “white” blood in his veins. They can’t even explain what “white” blood is supposed to be since it all is red. The slave mentality manifests itself in many ways.
White callers tomy radio show often do not recognize the “white supremacy” inherent in their own words and they become really defensive when it is pointed out. They do not call back. Some black callers are so conditioned by generations of oppression that they go to ridiculous lengths to rationalize their subservience to all white people and white interests and when told as much they don’t call back.
Many young people listening to my voice cannot even imagine the racist circumstances of my youth here in Selma, Alabama. That is a blessing because I lived in a completely dehumanizing system of racial segregation that began to fill me with rage before I was ten years old. All blacks were regarded as cowardly, ignorant, thieving, lying, hypocritical and superstitious. We were considered guilty of all the deadly sins, except, interestingly, pride. We were viewed as comic, but mostly as threatening to white people and their really idealized image of themselves. Because of our “high skin color visibility” we were easily distinguishable, relatively easy to keep in line and kept politically powerless. In turn, our lack of political power was used to deny us even the dignity of our individuality and thus every black person became interchangeable with every other black person.
As far as many whites were concerned, not only were all blacks faceless but it really didn’t matter if some frightened black victim of a bloody mob was guilty or not, because all blacks were guilty or at least potentially guilty. That rationalized lie was used to exclude us from the ballot box and the jury box. I spent most of 1960 and 1970 trying to help change those two situations. I spent my high school years battling an ignorant, all-white, all-male Selma police department and against a depraved social order I despised. Naturally, that worried my parents constantly. The paths I chose to follow have nothing whatsoever to do with a racist white great grandfather whom I never saw and despised.
By the time I entered college, I had written several short papers about the political arrangement of pitting dirt poor, ignorant whites against dirt poor blacks, in order that upper-class whites could have everything and rule everybody. That technique allowed Dixiecrats to gain control of the congress through seniority, even after they had lost the Civil War. During the first half of my life, the Confederate States were a one-party (Democrat), and almost one issue region (racism), and whichever politician hollered “nigger” the loudest was elected to congress and elected virtually for life. Today, Dixiecrats are Republican but racism remains as much an issue as when I was a boy.
Thorough depression, wars and everything else, lower class whites have clung to the foolish opinion that they are superior to black people by the mere fact of race alone. These whites have not hesitated to use everything including violence, to uphold white supremacy. Anti-black stereotypes are the usual currency they prefer for keeping the myth of white supremacy alive, but their politics is one of violence, fear and thrives on the supposition that some black person, through Affirmative Action, could become their supervisor on the job and elsewhere. That keeps them voting for a Republican Party run by super rich white men who despise the lower class whites they scornfully call white trash.
It is difficult to turn on a television or radio today and not hear a speech from some long-winded politician about the evils of terrorism. We blacks know first-hand and more about terrorism than any long-winded white politician in Washington. We know more about terrorism than any group alive, and that includes both the Palestinians and Israel. We know up close that though discrimination and racial violence are often directed against specific individuals they are always aimed at the whole group. On a bright Sunday morning at the Sixteenth Baptist Church in Birmingham, the Ku Klux Klan detonated a bomb and aimed it not merely at members of that church, but at every African-American in the country.
We blacks know intimately that the coward’s bomb, his lynch ropes and his savagery are invariably aimed at the group, and the individual innocent victims are merely the hated symbols of the group.
We all know white Southerners who are fine people, but even that is a problem for African-Americans because we have to learn how to live simultaneously among both hostile and friendly whites while retaining our balance. That is not easy. We learn early on to preserve our humanity by tactically masking our motives and emotions. White folks don’t have to study us or worry about our reactions. They are on top. For we blacks, however, a misreading of a white person’s motive or concerns can get us into such deep trouble that we may not get out of in a life time. I have seen that happen more than once. Few blacks my age have not witnessed it many times.
Last, I want to say that from time-to-time I have been called upon even to protect some blacks from other blacks, including some neighbors that civil rights would have destroyed because they wouldn’t march. Hell, my neighbors and I weren’t from Atlanta and we were not professional civil rights workers but they were my people. I was born one of them, and I understood that we were living in different circumstances. A local black preacher secretly put up more bond money than any single person to get marchers out of jail and never once joined a march. Jim Stallings’ father-in-law was the AME Bishop and without his permission MLK and no one else would have held mass meetings at Brown Chapel.
Everyone didn’t need to be on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965–an event that became known as Bloody Sunday. We were demanding our voting rights on that fateful day but were met with stiff and violent resistance from George Wallace’s Alabama State Patrol. Nevertheless, we had enough people on the bridge, yet they couldn’t have been there without the solid support of thousands who were nowhere near the bridge. In 2005, I hear debates all the time and of some new book coming out every other month that allegedly details who did what in the 1960s. I am waiting on the book that details who did what in the 70s, 80s, 90s and since.
J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr. is a civil rights attorney in Selma, Alabama. He is the founder of Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders which is the largest black law firm in Alabama. Born in Selma and, after graduating from Howard University Law School, he began practicing law in Selma in 1958. He started as the only black lawyer in the town and has been challenging the establishment since then. His law firm now owns two radio stations in Selma and Mr. Chestnut hosts a radio talk show three days a week touted as the most popular radio show in south and central Alabama. He is the author of “Black in Selma” with Julia Cass (1989 Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and writes a weekly column called the “Hard Cold Truth”. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.