Glass half empty? Half full? Somewhere in between? I was confronted with those questions last week when a flood of civil rights-era memories was unleashed in my head from the least likely of sources.
It all began on Wednesday night, as I was watching a college basketball game. During one of the commercial breaks, an ad was broadcast that jerked me to attention with the phrase “black belt.” Anyone alive and alert to the news during the 1960s, or schooled in its history, should link these words with a stretch of counties in Alabama originally named for its unusually rich ebony soil, but later known for large African-American populations. (Geologically, the Belt stretches through the entire south, from Texas to Maryland.)
The Alabama portion in particular was the site of landmark civil rights movement events. Some were peaceful and inspiring, like the Montgomery bus boycott resulting from Rosa Parks’ refusal to submit to segregationist seating laws in public transit. Others, like the police suppression of the Selma voting rights march, were shamefully violent.
Wednesday night’s TV commercial mentioned none of this. Instead, it touted the region as a great place for hunting and fishing. My first reaction was pleasant surprise, given the Belt’s tumultuous history. Initially, it looked like another example of the South putting its tragic past behind it. A little further investigation, though, revealed a more complicated reality.
According to at least one scholar, like much of the majority black South today, the Alabama Black Belt is marked by “low taxes on property, high rates of poverty and unemployment, low-achieving schools, and high rates of out-migration” along with “a high number of single-parent households, high teen birth rates, and poor access to health-care services.”
Nor has the region become entirely free of discrimination, or at least charges thereof. Last fall, for example, in what it described as a budget-cutting move, Alabama’s Republican controlled state government closed 31 driver’s license offices. According to critics, an outsized share of these closings came in the Black Belt, and they looked suspiciously like an effort to create new obstacles to voting in this predominantly Democratic area.
It seems beyond legitimate dispute that times have changed dramatically for the better in the Belt. How, for example, can anyone not take as a small encouraging sign the Wednesday night ad, sponsored by a “public-private partnership committed to promoting and enhancing outdoor and tourism opportunities” and “sustainable economic development” in the region? I can personally remember days when this would have been inconceivable.
At the same time, as signs of racial tensions resurface throughout the country, the Black Belt’s continuing economic and political struggles raise questions more and more Americans are asking: Should the nation mainly be proud of how much has been accomplished in this sphere? Or troubled that, more than half a century after official segregation began ending, so much more needs to be done?