RACIST HISTORY: With a burlap-wrapped cross burning in the background, a chaplain of the Ku Klux Klan, identified only as a Baptist minister from Atlanta, addresses a large crowd, on June 9, 1963, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He announced support for Gov. George Wallace, who promised to stop two black American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama (PA)
I WAS speaking to US Republican senator Arthur Orr the other day about whether the south had really changed as much as people say it has from the bad old days of racism.
Let’s face it, no American state had as bad a reputation for institutionalised racism - apart from ‘Mississippi goddamn’ – than Alabama.
While the Ku Klux Klan crosses were burning in Mississippi, Alabama had long been known as the state where a black guy couldn’t get a fair trial - particularly if a white woman accused him of rape. This goes all the way back to the case of the Scottsboro boys back in 1931 when a group of young black boys were sentenced and jailed in one of the most outrageous cases of rough justice known to man anywhere on the planet.
Anyway, all that is history – perhaps - because last week the last three Scottsboro boys awaiting a pardon were granted it posthumously. They died with the shame of being found guilty for a crime they never committed and never knowing whether one day America would know the truth.
We now know the truth. The two white women who accused them were prostitutes trying to avoid being jailed for soliciting. And in those days, which jury wouldn’t take the word of a white woman against a black man.
Those of you who have read To Kill A Mockingbird will know that it was the Scottsboro boys’ case and the case of many hundreds like it which inspired Harper Lee to write that novel.
The Scottsboro boys case itself is now the subject of a musical on the West End stage. But the question still remains, would a jury in the state of Alabama believe a black man over a white woman?
I’m not convinced.
But the good senator is the finest advocate for his state that I have come across. He says a racist conviction like that of the Scottsboro boys could not happen in his state today.
He gave a long list of the positive measures towards racial harmony that Alabama is leading the way on and extended a personal invite to me and every single one of you lot to visit his part of the world.
The truth of course is that his state has suffered the consequence of being so tainted by the stigma of racism. It has suffered in terms of migration and tourism and still finds itself at the bottom or close to the bottom of the poorest states in the union, as does Mississippi. Whereas states like California and Florida which ‘embraced’ racial tolerance have reaped the dividends.
California and Florida (as we know from the Trayvon Martin case, which has suspiciously gone quiet) are no beacons to racial harmony but their governors did not stand in the doorway of a segregated school surrounded by police with shotguns to stop black children enrolling, as did George Wallace in Birmingham, Alabama 50 years ago.
No wonder Chuck Berry is rejoicing in his 1964 hit Promised Land about catching a Greyhound bus OUT of Birmingham.
Like I say, racism does not pay.