It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
Lyndon White doesn't remember the Voting Rights March coming through White Hall (he was born in 1965), but he does remember the Klan's response ten years later.
"The Ku Klux came through here saying they were erasing King's march and all that kind of stuff," he said. "That was kinda scary and exciting too at the same time. You know, to actually see the people on TV with the Ku Klux hoods on and then watch them come and walk right in front of your house and you done heard all kind of things about how they do people and how they acted. And you know Black people, they turned around and re-marched."
In 1975, Lowndes County was in transition. The massive mobilization of the Black electorate and Black political leadership by the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights (LCCMHR) and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the late 60s culminated in the formation of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO)—the original Black Panther Party—and the momentous election of 1966. Those efforts, however, were severely hampered by White supremacist forces throughout the county.
Black residents paid dearly for pursuing Black Power—an idea popularized in 1966 by SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael and vilified by Black and White leaders alike. White landowners routinely fired, evicted, and terrorized Black tenant farmers for the slightest suspicion that the latter were involved in voter registration efforts, much less intending to vote for a Black candidate for county government. Those who lost their homes relocated to tents set up on six acres of landpurchased by LCCHMR along Hwy 80, a place they called Freedom City.
Black volunteers, like 22-year-old Sam Younge (a freshman at then Tuskegee Institute in Alabama) and White volunteers, like 26-year-old Jonathan Daniels (a student at Episcopal Theological Seminary in Massachusetts) were killed by White residents for their support of Black voters in Lowndes County. Other Black residents and volunteers were beaten and threatened. Some Black residents simply disappeared from their homes, schools, or from working the fields; their families never knew whether they were murdered or simply left.
The LCFO formed as a rebuke to the Democratic Party; Black residents had witnessed the failure of the Mississippi Democratic Party to admit delegates from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention of 1964, and had little hope of success in pursuing freedom rights—which included a decent standard of living, social autonomy, basic literacy, political power, and protection from White violence(1)—within the White-run Alabama Democratic Party.
But despite its efforts to put forth viable Black candidates for county positions in the 1966 and 1968 elections, the LCFO was ultimately defeated by White economic and violent coercion of Black voters and by the perception by Black elite voters that the party was too militant. By 1975, the LCFO had erased its black panther symbol and folded into the National Democratic Party of Alabama (NDPA), a mostly Black affiliate to the Alabama Democratic Party.
The new party was successful in electing a number of Black county officials—including many participants in the movement; however, their efforts led to a series of political compromises that made structural changes to the livelihoods of Black residents nearly impossible.
Freedom to vote, freedom to hold office, freedom to make policy produced only marginal economic and political improvements in the lives of Black residents in Lowndes County because there was no meaningful change in the larger political structures under which Black voters and Black political officials operated. A system built on White supremacy tended to co-opt Black participants, rather than be fundamentally changed by them.
This fact only emboldened Lowndes County native and freedom rights organizer John Jackson. In 1979 he, along with other organizers petitioned the state to incorporate White Hall into an independent municipality in hopes of creating a system of local Black control over the town. Municipal incorporation meant eligibility for state and federal funding, which meant that the town could offer ambulance services to the hospitals, which were 30 mins away in either direction, housing improvements, and basic water and sewer infrastructure. County government simply would not—and in some cases could not—provide such basic public services.
White, who is Ruby Rudolph's nephew, grew up in White Hall just as it was transitioning from the community of White Hall to the Town of White Hall. His great-great grandmother was Rosie Steele, who offered her land as a resting spot for participants in the Voting Rights March of 1965. His great grandfather was Roosevelt Steele, a prominent farmer and owner of the Low Store, where people could buy food, household items, and fill their gas tanks. His aunt is Ruby Rudolph, one of the current councilwomen for White Hall.
He recalls that the first town hall was set on the same land that evicted tenant farmers called Freedom City in 1966.
"They had a trailer that was up there…my grandmama was the first clerk and that's where she was working at," he said.
Jackson built a town premised on the idea of freedom rights and Black autonomy. His community-minded political ethic carried over from his role as community organizer to his role as mayor.
"One thing SNCC taught me is that time does not change things, men change things," Jackson said in a 1988 interview. "They challenged us to dream of a community, a city, and a county full of love instead of hate…to dream of the coming elected officials who would become public servants and not politicians."
Rudolph recalls Jackson as a mayor who championed people, and helped to meet their needs, however large.
"A lot of times Mayor John Jackson…would get on the phones…'cause a lot of people at the time didn't have phones…[and] helped save a lot of people's homes," she said. "People were losing their homes and stuff. He even helped me with a couple of things. He helps me now, if I need him."
In his first years as mayor, Jackson made tremendous accomplishments for White Hall, including a new water system—which freed the community from reliance on the county's high water fees—ambulance, fire, and police services, a day care program, and an emergency medical technician training program.(2) Under his guidance, the National Park Service invested millions to build the Lowndes County Interpretive Center on the site of Freedom City—an interactive museum dedicated to telling the story of the fight for freedom rights in Lowndes County.
However, with a small, and mostly poor tax base, a federal funding pool that was downsized under the Reagan administration, and the persistence of White supremacist politics played at the county and state level by officials who were the descendants of the White residents and officials who terrorized Black people in the '60s, Jackson struggled with many of the same structural challenges that his predecessors had as county officials. His efforts to bring the bingo gaming industry into the town initially generated many jobs for local residents, but also drew the ire of state officials, who wanted greater control over the lucrative industry.
Ongoing fiscal challenges meant that Jackson sometimes used his personal expenses to grow White Hall, including an alleged down payment on 40 acres of land to build a bingo operation in 1999. When the town finally secured a loan to cover the full costs of the land, Jackson was reimbursed for the down payment—ultimately leading to theft and ethics charges from the Attorney General of Alabama and a forced resignation in 2009. He was later convicted of filing false tax returns.
Rocked by the resignation, the town has grappled for the past eight years to reclaim the spirit of Black Power and freedom rights on which it was founded. Rudolph stepped up to join the town council in the midst of a contentious power struggle with Mayor James Walker—who was voted out of office in 2016. One of the key issues that the town now faces is the fate of its wastewater sanitation system. Though a $1.4M new wastewater sanitation system was funded in 2015 through the US Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Fund and by the Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant Fund, the loan award process took over 15 years (beginning with efforts by Jackson), and the repayment process will be onerous for the residents.
"We're working on getting a sanitation system, and…we need to do some further investigating…to see if we're doing that right, if that's the right thing to do," Rudolph said. "And even with that system coming, I hear not everybody's going to be on it. And that's not good. That's not good at all. So we still got some mountains and some hills to climb, but guess what—we're going to climb them," she said.
Like many Black towns and communities who struggled through the freedom rights movements of the 1950s and '60s, White Hall has been both progressed and undermined by changes in the legal, social, and political climate at the local, state, and national levels. While Black residents are now eligible to vote and hold office the system that they vote in and candidates they vote for are far more limited in their ability to enact the real lasting change in their lives that was once believed possible. Though they have more opportunities for employment and improved living conditions, the gains necessary to build sustained wealth and power for generations are afforded to very few, and often require leaving the communities where their ancestors once sought autonomy and uplift through landownership and community-sustained institutions. Many of those institutions—from the juke joint to the benevolent society to the church-sponsored baseball team to the church itself—are gradually disappearing from living memory, as Black residents seek community in other, more integrated and less secular spaces.
Black Power is nostalgic t-shirt symbolism—but perhaps not for everyone, and maybe not for long.
In the next dispatch, we'll discuss the future of White Hall, and the people of all ages who choose to stay.
(1) Hasan Jeffries: Bloody Lowndes: civil rights and Black power in Alabama's Black belt. NYU Press, 2010, p. 8.
(2) Jeffries (p. 241).