The story of Macon County, Alabama is “a warning from history.” It has a moral lesson that is applicable to Whites who live anywhere in the world.
In Reaping The Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee, Robert J. Norrell tells the story of the rise of Black Run America (BRA) in Macon County.
The primary responsibility for the destruction of Macon County lies with Southern Whites who, in their greed and shortsightedness, built their entire society on top of the racial equivalent of Mount Vesuvius, and then fooled themselves into believing that Tuskegee wouldn’t become a racial version of Pompeii.
In the 1970s, Whites in Macon County “reaped the whirlwind” of social revolution which had been sown by their slaveowning ancestors. Later, African-Americans “reaped the whirlwind” of economic collapse when Whites abandoned Macon County.
In the 1830s, slaveowners rushed into Macon County after the Creek Cession of 1832 opened up some of the richest agricultural land in Alabama to White settlement. This region of Alabama is known as the Black Belt for its dark soil.
Slaveowners were allowed to gobble up virtually all of the county and imported their “workforce” of African-Americans from states like Virginia and North Carolina. They turned Macon County into one big cotton plantation with a small minority of Whites lording over a large black majority of field negroes.
Tuskegee emerged as an important trading center that served the plantation economy in the eastern end of the Alabama Black Belt. The planters lived out in the countryside with their slaves and used their fortunes to build fancy residences in town.
The White non-slaveholders lived in Tuskegee or in villages like Notasulga on the more marginal lands. As a rule, the poorer Whites in Alabama ended up scratching out a living in the pine barrens, the mountains, or the hill country, and the planters and their black workers lived almost exclusively on the best soil in the state which was unaffordable to ordinary people.
It was the unfettered operation of the “free market” that created Macon County:
(1) Land speculators inflated the price of the rich agricultural land which effectively closed Macon County to settlement to anyone but cotton planters and their “workforce.”
(2) Slaveowners moved into the area and “developed” Macon County with their negro slaves.
(3) White non-slaveholders, merchants and workers, opened up businesses in Tuskegee which catered to the needs of the planter class.
(4) Yeoman farmers moved into the marginal areas that slaveowners didn’t want and grew food for themselves and traded their surplus to support the local economy.
In so many words, it was the free market and the profit motive interacting with geography that created the social foundation of Macon County, which because of the inherent shortsightedness of free market capitalism, created a racial world that was only suited to a nineteenth century economy of labor intensive cotton agriculture.
Within thirty years, the planters had virtually exhausted the thinner soil in the northern half of Macon County, and the opening of new lands to the west began to draw away that same class of transient planters who had left behind similar counties in Virginia and North Carolina to move to Alabama.
In this way, East Alabama had created a smaller version of Haiti in Macon County, which like Haiti, was a racial stick of dynamite just waiting to explode in the right conditions.
War and Reconstruction
From the beginning, Southerners were beset with problems by living under the same government as Yankees, who were not slaveowners, who didn’t live among black people, who practiced a different form of Christianity, and who therefore didn’t understand our “institutions.”
There is no point in dwelling on the War Between the States here. It will suffice to say that the Confederacy lost the war and its independence, Alabama was occupied by the Union Army, the Thirteenth Amendment freed the slaves, and the Freedman’s Bureau unleashed social revolution in Macon County.
Black Republicans seized power and represented Macon County in the Alabama state legislature.
Disenfranchised Whites, who were led by General Cullen Battle, commander of the Tuskegee Light Infantry for the Confederacy, then waged a terrorist campaign to overthrow Reconstruction in Macon County, which culminated in 1874 when Whites reclaimed all the public offices through voter intimidation and voter fraud, thereby “redeeming” the area.
By the 1880s, Yankees had lost interest in Reconstruction and had turned their full attention to the problems absorbing the North caused by industrialization.
Jim Crow and Tuskegee Institute: The Creation of the “Model Community”
Jim Crow didn’t blossom in Macon County overnight.
Like other parts of Alabama, it grew in small imperceptible degrees over the next 25 years, but accelerated after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 legitimized segregation, and especially after its culmination in the 1901 Alabama state constitution, which “purified” Macon County of the thorny problem of the black vote.
After Whites reestablished political control over Macon County in 1874, they turned their attention to their agriculture based economic system, which by that time was evolving into sharecropping, but which was facing a major problem.
Blacks, who had grown accustomed to ruling Macon County during Reconstruction, were entertaining the idea of a mass exodus to Kansas or the Northern states. If the black people left Macon County, who would pick the cotton? What would the planters do then?
Heaven’s no, they must not be allowed to leave!
Thus, the White ruling class had to find some way to keep their subservient labor force in Macon County, but safely away from White social institutions and removed from positions of power.
Macon County had an abundance of black people. Why not create a school for blacks, which would pacify the labor force with false hopes of equality, promote good race relations, and simultaneously attract outside investment and state education spending, which would stimulate the local economy?
Out of this concept, Tuskegee Institute and the idea of Tuskegee as a “model community” was born, and it found its perfect spokesman for the Macon County racial consensus, which evolved into the Jim Crow racial consensus, in Booker T. Washington, a former mulatto slave from West Virginia.
In 1881, Booker T. Washington came to Tuskegee and founded the “Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers,” which was modeled on the Hampton Institute in Virginia and Washington’s conservative philosophy of self reliance and economic empowerment.
By 1890, Washington had become a national leader of African-Americans, and remained their most prominent spokesman until his death in 1915 from congestive heart failure. He was buried in Tuskegee.
With the financial assistance of the Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and other wealthy Northern patrons, Washington built thousands of rural schools for blacks all across the South. He attracted heavyweights like George Washington Carver to Tuskegee Institute who taught there until his death in 1943.
Like Washington, George Washington Carver was a Christian conservative who died with a life savings of $60,000, a tidy sum in those times, and taught a Bible class in moral philosophy in addition to his scientific work in agriculture, which although exaggerated, was entirely praiseworthy. Also like Washington, Carver was buried in Tuskegee.
By all accounts, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver were admirable men, and their work so impressed the White community that Tuskegee began to call itself a “model community” where racial conflict was unknown.
White people in Macon County grew comfortable and complacent and allowed themselves to forget that they living in the shadow of a racial volcano. That volcano laid dormant for forty years.
Then it exploded.
Charles Gomillion, The Tuskegee Airmen, and Outside Agitators
All good things come to an end. This was especially true of racial harmony and economic prosperity in Macon County.
White people have always had a fatal weakness. They instinctively prefer to judge people as individuals, and judge groups on the basis of individuals that they happen to like, who are usually their friends.
Thus, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver were very impressive to White people, and because White people liked Washington and Carver and admired their accomplishments, they began to adopt a favorable and misleading view of the black community at large.
Individuals though are only like the leaves on a tree. Eventually, individuals grow old and wither and die, and they are replaced by new individuals from the same racial stock, in much the same way that trees shed their leaves in the fall, and sprout new leaves in the spring.
Booker T. Washington died in 1915. George Washington Carver died in 1943. By the 1940s, the generation of African-Americans and Whites that had built the “model community” in Tuskegee were being carried off to their graves, and a new generation had come of age and was rising to power.
This is where Charles Gomillion enters the picture.
A native of South Carolina, Gomillion was an uppity negro more in the mold of W.E.B. DuBois than Booker T. Washington, who subordinated economics to political agitation for “civil rights.” Gomillion arrived in Tuskegee in 1928 as a sociologist and eventually became the recognized leader of the black community.
In the 1920s, Tuskegee gained a VA hospital that became a brief source of racial conflict. Like Tuskegee Institute, the VA hospital was a magnet that attracted African-Americans from outside Macon County, who were not as familiar with or supportive of the local racial customs.
Now, Tuskegee had two major black institutions in a sea of blacks in Macon County, both of which were attracting the wrong sort of African-Americans. In the 1940s, the federal government chose Tuskegee to become the site of its famous airfield because the U.S. military was segregated at that time.
The Tuskegee Airfield brought African-Americans from the Northern states who had no experience with Jim Crow. Their presence in Tuskegee introduced a third source of racial conflict.
Around this time, Hitler launched his war in Europe, and eventually America was dragged into the Second World War, which played a huge role in changing White racial attitudes in the Northern states, and set the stage for the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which would ultimately lead to the demise of Jim Crow in Macon County.
That was the match that lit the fire.
The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee
Like every other community in Alabama, Tuskegee was soon consumed by the “Civil Rights Movement,” especially after the Supreme Court struck down the white primary in 1944.
The local civil right agitators led by Charles Gomillion began a campaign to register black voters in Macon County. The NAACP lawsuits which were crippling Jim Crow at the national level and later the agitation led by Martin Luther King in Montgomery and Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham inspired their black counterparts in Tuskegee, namely, Gomillion and his TCA supporters.
Who could blame them?
President Harry Truman integrated the military in the Korean War. The U.S. Supreme Court had struck down Plessy in Brown vs. Board of Education. President Eisenhower had used the 101st Airborne Division to force integration onto Central High School in Little Rock.
In 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began which eventually led to the integration of public transportation in Montgomery after Judge Frank Johnson, who held sway over Montgomery and Tuskegee in the Central District of Alabama, ruled from his bench that segregation on public buses had to go.
Booker T. Washington was discredited and reinterpreted by student radicals like Ralph Ellison as an Uncle Tom. W.E.B. DuBois and the NAACP were vindicated … or so it seemed at the time.
It must have seemed like a “now or never” opportunity to Tuskegee blacks who lived through those turbulent years.
The final battles of the Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee were waged in the early 1960s.
The landmark Supreme Court decision Gomillion v. Lightfoot (Charles Gomillion sued the Mayor of Tuskegee), written by Justice Felix Frankfurter, struck down the attempt by Whites to gerrymander the Tuskegee city limits to preserve the White majority in town.
In 1963, Judge Frank Johnson ordered the integration of Tuskegee High School in Lee vs. Macon. The ruling was extended to all public high schools in Macon County. Finally, Lee vs. Macon was expanded to cover all public schools in Alabama, which were forced to participate in the “progressive” desegregation experiment in social engineering.
Inspired by their counterparts in Montgomery, the blacks of Tuskegee started a boycott of the downtown business district in Tuskegee, which forced several businesses to close down or hire black workers.
SNCC came to Macon County and stirred up a wave of radical student political activism at Tuskegee University. The students had the bright idea of “integrating” the White churches, boycotting the downtown stores, invading the public swimming pool, etc.
Essentially, African-Americans in Tuskegee were stirred up by Charles Gomillion and Martin Luther King, and invaded every White institution in Tuskegee from the public swimming pool to the high schools to local restaurants and businesses and finally the White churches.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed and accomplished three major things in Macon County:
(1) Every business in Tuskegee and Macon County was integrated.
(2) A black majority was created in Tuskegee and Macon County. By 1972, blacks were in total control of the city government and county commission, the sheriff’s department and both seats in the Alabama House of Representatives.
Tuskegee elected the first two black legislators in Alabama since Reconstruction. As we shall see, they later went on to lead interesting careers in state politics.
(3) The U.S. Supreme Court and Judge Frank Johnson forced every public high school in Macon County to integrate. In other words, the federal government told Whites parents in Macon County that their children would have to go to a public school where they were guaranteed to be a small minority.
How did this all work out in the end? What happened then? Shouldn’t we ask those questions?
The story of the Civil Rights Movement always ends there, but what followed in Tuskegee and Macon County, as a result of coercive integration by civil rights agitators and the federal government, is far more interesting and revealing than the process by which Charles Gomillion, Martin Luther King, and Judge Frank Johnson got their way.
In the next post, I will tell you the “hate truth” about what happened in Macon County and Tuskegee after African-Americans seized power in 1972.