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Fri Feb 26, 2021, 02:28 PM

America's Political Roots Are in Eutaw, Alabama

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adam harris
Black folks have often had to teach each other the history left out of textbooks; the stories America would prefer to forget about—the ones that make things the way they are.

My Granddaddy would have turned 90 this week. Here's what he taught me:

America’s Political Roots Are in Eutaw, Alabama
When I think about the 1870 riot, I remember how the country rejected the opportunity it had.
5:39 AM · Feb 26, 2021


Granddaddy’s voice was raspy; love laced his hello. His throne, a maroon recliner, filled the corner of the den in his ranch-style home. On a typical summer afternoon—during one of our weeklong sojourns back to Montgomery, Alabama, from wherever the Air Force took my dad—my cousins and I would be sprawled across the floor, keeping up a ruckus.

In the evening, Granddaddy would fumble with the remote, his hands worn from years working on the telephone lines for South Central Bell, and turn on the news. He would shush all of us; this was one of his favorite times of the day. Granddaddy always wanted to know what was going on, even if he could already tell you why it was happening. He was full of the wisdom of a man born into the sharecropping South of 1931.

People like him—folks from the Black Belt—have a long memory. They know how history can ripple through time; how politicians and private actors bend systems to maintain control; and how racism and white supremacy are at the root of it all. They know a naked power grab when they see one, because they have seen so many.

They know the towns—Eutaw, Eufaula, Mobile—where massacres and riots changed the course of history. Scholars call these events critical junctures; Granddaddy just knew them as the reasons things were the way they were.

Granddaddy’s knowledge of the way things were meant he was not fond of Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar, who led the city from 1977 to 1999. “He just tries to scare people,” he’d say with a tinge of disgust, his eyes locked on the TV screen. Folmar’s smirk creased at the edges, projecting an air of benign affability, but he ran the city like the military; police officers on the evening shift wore SWAT-style uniforms. His argument for aggressive policing hinged on the idea that the city was dangerous. For more than 20 years Folmar kept his seat as mayor by sowing division, stoking alarm, garnering significant support from white Montgomerians while showing little concern for his Black constituents.


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