More than 40 long years ago, in April of 1959 to be exact, I became the first African-American foolish enough to open a law office in the backwards and dangerous little town of Selma, Alabama. If you were black, Selma, at that time, was an insufferable little place but more than ten thousand blacks called it home. Strangely, some blacks were even happy there; I damn sure was not one of them, but came back anyway.
Only 50 blacks were registered to vote, and each prospective black voter had to be vouched for by another voter even to attempt voter registration. Not one black person in Alabama had served on a jury in 100 years. No blacks had jobs downtown except as janitors, barbers and delivery people. Black women couldn’t try on a hat or dress in a cheap department store. Even worse, black Selmians had no legal rights white people were bound to respect; the U.S. and Alabama constitutions notwithstanding.
That is why I came back to Selma and opened a law office.
White leaders often engaged in outlandish racist, stereotypical rationalizations trying to justify the unjustifiable. The town was one continuing racist spectacle. Several black men were killed for not saying “sir” or yielding the sidewalk to an ignorant white man who complained to white authorities. After 1965, the town began to inch slowly away from its own despicable Southern holocaust.
And, last week in Selma, on October 2, 2000, James Perkins, Jr., 47 years young, became the first African-American sworn in as mayor in bustling little Selma. I never dreamed I would live to see a black man elected mayor of the deeply troubled and Southern little town in which I was born. I am an activist lawyer, not a dreamer. Hours after the black mayor took the oath of office; I delivered a speech to a stunned upper class white audience in a rather sedate Washington, D.C. university setting.
At the end of the speech there was an interesting silence as if the audience were occupied with its own thoughts, then came a thundering spontaneous applause, not for me, but for truth. About half of the speech is reproduced below.
Mayor Perkins’ father and I were schoolmates many years ago at old Knox Academy in Selma. Our school was housed in an old, dangerous and dilapidated building condemned 25 years earlier when our parents were students. The third floor was roped off because it was too dangerous for occupancy. Hunks of plaster sometimes fell on students from the ceiling while we sat in the classroom. Our black teachers were paid half the salary of similarly situated white teachers, but they were devoted to us. Each year the dishonest white superintendent (whom I despised) came to our school to “explain” why there was no money to repair the building, much less build a new one. White high school students in Selma attended school in a relatively new and state-of-the-art building situated proudly on the town’s main street.
That, my dear friends, was what you and white Southerners labeled separate-but-equal and kept in place half my life. We suffered until an all-white, all-male U.S. Supreme Court finally outlawed that racist nonsense on May 17, 1954.
Selma has come a long, long way since then but has just as far to go.
Well, the all-important means of production, the flow of money and control of the city-county economy reside almost exclusively in white hands. The ancient and fundamental race-based problems of poverty, in health, in education and in crime clutter the local landscape and will not be resolved in a decade. We should now make a sound beginning, as opposed to doing only the minimum necessary to qualify for federal funds and avoid lawsuits. The greatest black progress achieved to date in Selma and elsewhere has been in the easiest area, racial politics and civil rights. I will limit my remarks to those two important concerns.
Generally, white people still take a single dishonest act by one black official and ascribe it to the entire black race. In truth, of the many African-Americans elected or appointed to public office only a very few were brought down because of misdeeds, corruption, or crimes. But, in virtually every case the black offender was not seen as a person but as a black person.
Whites, on the other hand, place their own flawed politicians in a much broader perspective. For example, you routinely ignore the racism of Jesse Helms, Ernest Hollings, Jeff Sessions and others sitting high in congress, sitting on the judicial bench, sitting in statehouses, city halls and elsewhere. You revived and reclaimed a disgraced Richard Nixon, and accepted a degenerate Oliver North, whom even Nancy Reagan called a SOB. At no time were these people viewed by you as representative of you or the white race.
Along the same line, even before the new Selma mayor was sworn in, the outgoing white city attorney asked me, “How long before you blacks bankrupt the city?” This is the man who gave legal advice to a city administration in which corrupt white officials were convicted for stealing millions of public dollars and others who are under federal investigation for similar crimes as I speak to you. The former city attorney’s attitude is white racism personified. As you undoubtedly know, racism is something to behold!
Moreover, the real truth about white racism is rarely spoken or written about in Washington, Selma or anywhere else. In little Selma, white media people, led by the local newspaper, were more apologetic than objective in dealing with and reporting on the sometimes vindictive white mayor. He intimidated some and charmed others. After all, they were all white together. Even after the mayor left office, a young editor of the local newspaper continued dreaming up shallow excuses to avoid publishing negative truths about the former mayor.
Last Sunday, black preacher after black preacher warned his congregation not to expect the new black mayor to be treated fairly, much less be accorded the leeway and deference showered on his white predecessor. One minister predicted that the new mayor’s every flaw would be magnified by the white media and innumerable white investigations will follow each other in a manner reminiscent of the outrageous political persecution of Bill Clinton. Loud “amens” filled the hall.
If you wonder why such a negative state of mind prevails after the joyous election of Selma’s first black mayor, just look about you here in Washington, the nation’s capital city, a black city with mostly black officials and one which is often treated with racist contempt by a contemptible, racist congress and others. As you look, please ask yourself this direct question and answer it honestly. .
If this city were mostly white instead of mostly black and most of the officials were white instead of black, wouldn’t the so-called conservative Republican congress have long since granted statehood or some other form of self-determination to you white people and liberated you from all the racist congressional crap woven around your city?
The same Republican congressional leadership that clamors ad nasuem for transferring power from the federal level to states and local government continues to hold you and your predominantly black city hostage.
My friends, the question answers itself.
And, blacks in Selma have known the answer for 400 years.
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.