Taylor Branch on Race in the South

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In the summer of 1969, Taylor Branch took a job registering rural black voters in his home state of Georgia. He kept a diary of his experiences, which he later turned into a Washington Monthly article detailing how the gains of the civil rights era were being systematically undermined by corrupt police in the rural South. The experience also sparked the idea for Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63, Branch’s Pulitzer Prize–winning narrative history of the civil rights movement.

All right, get the money off the table,” said Bubba-doo Wiggins, the proprietor of the Big Apple in Cuthbert, Georgia, as he jumped from his perch with a can of Colt 45 and a fistful of house-cut dollars. In what resembled the routine panic of a grammar school fire drill, he herded all the card players across the hall into a small closet on the mysterious side of the shack. The younger people scattered. The white man, a graduate student visiting the town, followed the pack, disoriented, and was the last to squeeze into the tiny room.

“What the hell is going on?” he whispered to his fellow loser.

“Beer truck,” he replied, obviously amused at the other’s perplexity.

Through a crack in the door, the stranger could see Bubba-doo behind the bar. He saw the proprietor put down his Colt 45 to greet two uniformed white men who ambled up and began some small talk.

“Who’s that, the sheriff?” whispered the white man to the loser.

“No, the police,” he said. “They go around with the beer truck every Friday.”

The screen door closed again, and a rotund white man soon came into view, wheeling a half-dozen cases of beer up to the bar. He was wearing a Schlitz uniform and smoking a cigar. He left for another load.

Bubba-doo soon rapped on the door with the all-clear sign, and the poker players tumbled out into the hallway. The white man ran to a window in time to watch the beer truck stir up the red dust, with the police car right behind.

Unfortunately, the poker game had evaporated. As the others filed past on their way home for supper,the stranger decided that their interest in him wasdirectly related to whether or not his pockets werefull.

“No more game here, man,” observed his fellow loser.

The two losers walked across the room, past the jukebox, and out onto the Big Apple’s front porch, where the strains of a twilight hymn from the revival floated on the summer air.

“Whatchew doing down here in niggertown?” came a voice from the police car, which had drifted back down the road, evidently having finished its beer run.

‘‘Sir?”

‘‘I said whatchew doing down here in niggertown?”

“I’m, you know, I’m doing a manpower survey for the university. Uh, I’m seeing about the kind of jobs these people have around here.”

“You what?” The stranger walked down the steps and over to the passenger side of the police car, experiencing all the physical symptoms of acute fear—shaking, sweating, burning skin, gulping, pounding heart, dry mouth, cold hands, wobbling knees, cloudy, swirling brain.

“You ain’t down here trying to stir up our niggers, are you?”

“No, sir.”

“We treat our niggers real good around here, so we ain’t had no riots or anything, and we aim to keep it that way. Do you know you could get knifed down here easy as that?”

“No, sir,” said the accused, looking surprised and hoping that the policeman would take him for a bumbling student, which seemed accurate enough.

***

From the white people’s point of view, the operation of the law is a distinctly informal business in southwest Georgia. Few local whites are ever arrested, other than a drunk or two, and the main concerns of the law are traffic tickets and the maintenance of calm among the black people. Neither task draws much attention from most white people, and keeping the lid on the black parts of town seems so easy that it produces boredom.

If policemen seem rather overlooked by the white people, the Negroes act in compensation, for black people see them as the symbol of white power. The policeman represents more than violence or the fact that whites inevitably win any interracial legal battle. The man who rose from the pool room to the police car symbolizes the unpredictability of law enforcement for blacks. Lacking the restraint and formality of schoolbook law, he uses his badge as he sees fit and is often governed by an ornery mood.

***

The farcical tragedy of law and order in the black belt lies in the exclusion of black people from even a sniff of fairness. Enforced lines of discrimination still separate balcony from ground floor in theaters and courtrooms, front from back in laundromats, and white from black in hospitals. The hospitals of small counties are bastions of segregation, and the towns are rife with tales of bed switching or employees’ jumping into beds when the inspectors come. One clinic has survived such inspections without indoor toilets for black patients, who must walk two hundred yards to the outhouse or have relatives there to handle bedpans. The sanitation facilities are generally indicative of the quality of care in that institution.

A black man may walk into the restaurant only to pass the waitress on her way to tell the police that he has “made advances” toward her; and sometimes he may sit down to wait futilely for service or to find that the prices are triple those on the menu and the portions microscopic. Faced with an infinite variety of such obstacles, local black people usually take their food through the ubiquitous side window.

Black subordination in the public realm has crucial ramifications in all areas of racial contact, for blacks have no avenue of recompense for wrongs against them—whether by a restaurant owner or an individual white man. Moreover, they have no means of seeking outside assistance even if they wish to brave its hazards. They find themselves in helpless equilibrium: the local predicament of black people incapacitates them from birth, and incapacitated people are rendered unable to seek outside help even if it is available.

Only 30 percent of the eligible black people in southwest Georgia are registered to vote—primarily because people are paralyzed with fear. This fear, in turn, depends upon the most devastating forms of personal discrimination. Acute fear is itself a measure of the absence of law and order, almost by definition.


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From Black Fear,” January 1970. Taylor Branch’s most recent book is The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President.

 
 
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