Alabama’s Taliban

Two “holier than thou” preachers, one back and one white, visited my office on different days last week but on the same mission. The men are riled up over words I wrote about Chief Justice Roy Moore running for Governor on a 5000-pound statute or monument promoting the Ten Commandments. The white preacher also was not pleased with some words I spoke about Condi Rice on this show. The two evangelical visitors are, to me, Alabamas equivalent of the intolerant Taliban in Afghanistan.

I said to both preachers that Californians are often No.1 in making fools of themselves but Moore seems to brook no competition in his making of Alabama appear the most backward state in the union. I also said Moore has a whole lot of help and mentioned an online Alabama news group that once put out a poster that read, “Increase Your Child’s IQ by up to Eight Points” and followed that with a poster calling for public execution of school children who commit violent acts.

The white preacher wanted me to know that regardless of what I thought, said and tried to make fun of, Judge Moore will be the next governor of Alabama. I said that would not surprise me in the least. In fact, that would be par-for-the-course. I also said that state government in Alabama is located on a hill in Montgomery called “Goat Hill” and that is a perfect name and Moore is the latest justification for the name. The white preacher didn’t seem to grasp that last point.

I explained that long before George “Schoolhouse Door” Wallace (and even before Jeff Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest) politicians in Alabama made public Asses of themselves on “Goat Hill”. They railed against niggers, high tariffs and Yankees and often in that order, while helping keep Alabama near last in every quality-of-life category. Believe it or not, the Alabama Legislature once passed a law making it a capital offense to put salt on a railroad track. That law was never repealed and remains the law in Alabama.

Before Moore burst on the state scene, Alabama Lt. Governor, Steve Windom, while actually presiding over a session of the state senate urinated in a water-cooler jug under the podium. He didn’t want to relinquish the presiding officer’s chair during a filibuster. The urine jug was later dubbed the “Confederate Battle Jug.” During another session of the legislature, Gov. “Fumbling Fob” James cursed on the floor of the House — while seeking support for, of all things, public school prayer. James also said, “No one has a greater appreciation for a classical education than I do,” then defiantly rejected a major tenet of a classical education –evolution — by defiantly adding, “I didn’t descend from an ape.”

James statement reminds me of an unlearned campaign promise by Lester “Ax Handle” Maddox of Georgia who said, “If elected [governor] I will disintegrate the schools.” This ignorant and racist nut invented a word–disintegrate–on the spot! There are many “Goat Hills” in Dixie. I think it goes with segregation, racism and self-righteousness.

The black preacher wanted me to know that Moore and Wallace are not comparable, politically or any other way. The preacher is only half right. Moore and Wallace are both similar and different. Each man qualified as an ambitious, self-styled states rights Alabama politician who defied federal law and led misguided populist revolts, but the similarities probably end there. Wallace founded a political party (the American Independent Party) and wanted to be president but Moore appears to aim no higher than the governors office and would turn Alabama into a quasi-Christian theocracy to get there.

Moores antics are hardly new in Alabama. Some years ago, poor white residents in a trailer camp (at Priceville) and a few homeowners all in a rural section of Madison County tried to carve a new town out of the trailer camp and rename it Brooksville. The only law would be the Ten Commandments. There would be a volunteer mayor but no other town official. Every adult citizen would have a gun or a pistol and they would protect each other. Of course that unconstitutional theocratic and religious idea never got off the ground. How could it?

There is really no distinction between a failed attempt to transform a trailer camp into a theocracy and Moore’s theocratic designs for the whole state of Alabama. Religious dogmatists have been trying for years to take over mainstream institutions and government. If you get a big belly laugh out of religious fundamentalists trying to transform an Alabama trailer camp into a theocratic religious township, please consider that such people control school boards, regularly defeat and elect politicians of all kinds, including George W. Bush who placates them with words about “being born again.” Being seen as standing up for the Ten Commandments is as politically potent in Alabama as hollering “nigger, nigger, nigger”!

The white preacher who visited with me accused me of having made up out of “thin air” that Condi Rice’s family opposed the 1960s civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham. He had no facts to refute my charge but the man just couldnâot believe that blacks as prominent as the Rice family would have opposed a black civil rights movement. I explained that upper class, educated blacks had the most to lose from opposing the white establishment and most of them regularly denounced the black marchers and protesters. I also suggested that the preacher read the book, Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908-1921, by Professor Brian Kelly of Belfast, Ireland.

This book reaches back to the turn of the century in Birmingham when black and white coal miners tried to gain better wages and working conditions in the face of stiff employer opposition and Klan violence. In chapter three, Professor Kelly discusses in great detail the role played by members of Birminghams extremely conservative black middle class and the lengths these people went to distance themselves from a struggling black working class. The Rice family comes from that conservative black upper class and members hadnt changed all that much in the 1960s or now.

I love preachers, but some of them seem to have so much trouble with me.

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