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Tag Archives: South

Dead End in the Red Zone – Why Red States Have Endless Poverty

Welcome to the South, boy!

Problems of the white wing Republican dominated.

Image result for Charlotte, NC

Charlotte’s Gleaming Downtown Hides a Secret

Why It’s So Hard to Get Ahead in the South

In Charlotte and other Southern cities, poor children have the lowest odds of making it to the top income bracket of kids anywhere in the country. Why?

Shamelle Jackson moved here from Philadelphia, hoping to find work opportunities and better schools for her four children, who range in age from two to 14. Instead, she found a city with expensive housing, few good jobs, and schools that can vary dramatically in quality. “I’ve never struggled as hard as I do here in Charlotte,” Jackson, 34, told me.

Jackson isn’t alone. Data suggests that Charlotte is a dead-end for people trying to escape poverty. That’s especially startling because the city is a leader in economic development in the South. Bank of America is headquartered here, and over the last two decades the city has become a hub for the financial services industry. In recent years, Charlotte and the surrounding area, Mecklenburg County, have ranked among the fastest-growing regions of the country. “Charlotte is a place of economic wonder in some ways, but it’s also a city that faces very stark disparities, and that increasingly includes worrisome pockets of real deprivation,” said Gene Nichol, a professor at the UNC School of Law who has completed an extensive report on local poverty. Some of these disparities bubbled to the surface in September, when protests erupted after a black man, Keith Lamont Scott, was shot and killed by police.

Charlotte ranked dead last in an analysis of economic mobility in America’s 50 largest cities by the Equality of Opportunity Project, a team of researchers out of Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley led by Stanford’s Raj Chetty. Children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution in Charlotte had just a 4.4 percent chance of making it to the top 20 percent of the income distribution. That’s compared to a 12.9 percent chance for children in San Jose, California, and 10.8 percent change for children in Salt Lake City. These statistics are troubling because mobility is essentially just a formal term for the American Dream—the ability to find a good job, provide for children, and do better than one’s parents did. Rather than making it into the middle class in Charlotte, poor children, who are majority black and Latino, are very likely to stay poor.

In some ways, Charlotte is indicative of a more widespread problem in the region. Map out the data from the Equality of Opportunity Project and you’ll find that much of the South has low mobility rates. The chance of a child moving from the bottom to top quartile in Atlanta is 4.5 percent, the chance of moving up in Raleigh is 5 percent, and the chance of moving up in New Orleans is 5.1 percent.

These are among the lowest odds of advancement in the country. “The South really does struggle,” said Erin Currier, who directed the financial security and mobility project at the Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew found that mobility lags in states including Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and North Carolina.

There’s no obvious reason why cities in the South would perform so poorly across the board. After all, economies like those in Charlotte are booming. In other places with significant economic growth, such as San Jose, this prosperity seems to be widely shared (or at least it was between 1980 and 2012, the time period over which children were tracked in Chetty’s data). In cities across the South though, economic success seems not to have trickled down to lower-income populations.

Chetty and colleagues say that there are a few key factors that play into where people struggle with economic mobility. These areas tend to be more racially segregated, have a higher share of poverty than the national average, more income inequality, a higher share of single mothers, and lower degrees of social capital, which means people interacting with others who can help them succeed, according to Nick Flamang, a predoctoral fellow with the Equality of Opportunity Project.

All of these indicators are present in Charlotte, and throughout much of the South. Segregation took root in the early 1900s, and was reinforced by Jim Crow laws and redlining in the later part of the century. It remains a problem today. The white, affluent population lives in a wedge south of the city. The census tracts north and west of the city are where the low-income people live, and those people are predominantly black and Latino.

The South also has among the highest poverty rates in the country. Mississippi ranks last, Louisiana is 49th, and North Carolina is 39th in the country when it comes to the percentage of people living below the poverty line. While Southern poverty has traditionally manifested itself in rural areas, cities are now home to some of the worst poverty in the region, according to Nichol. “If you look at census tracts, the deepest poverty in North Carolina is right in the middle of Charlotte, the middle of Greensboro, middle of Winston-Salem, the middle of Raleigh,” he said.

Indeed, concentrated poverty is becoming a pressing problem in Charlotte. The Brookings Institution data shows that in 2000, just 2 percent of poor families lived in a census tract with poverty rates of 40 percent or higher in Charlotte. That percentage had climbed to 10 percent by 2012. According to Nichol’s work, 17 census tracts in Mecklenburg County had poverty rates higher than 40 percent, a dramatic increase from 2000, when just four did. I visited neighborhoods like Lockwood, just north of downtown, where homeless people hung out at the gas stations and the small box homes had bars on their windows.

Concentrated poverty is related to another factor Chetty and his colleagues mention: social capital, which is essentially the mechanism that allows people to interact with others and become a part of broad networks that can lead to opportunity. It can help people get hooked up to first jobs, internships, and scholarships. Without these types of connections, children are more likely to take a similar path to their parents. For those who live in areas of concentrated poverty, this means they don’t learn about opportunities that might get them out of poverty, or about people in different income brackets.

Latasha Hunt, 36, is an example of what it means to lack social capital. She grew up in northern Charlotte, far from the wealth of the city’s south side. Her parents did ok, she told me—her mother worked in manufacturing and her father worked for the school system. But growing up, she didn’t know people who went to college or who worked in finance. Almost no one at her high school went to college—they all ended up getting a job right out of high school, or going to jail, she told me. Neither Hunt nor her two brothers went to college. Her brothers are both barbers, she now works in customer service at a local nonprofit. She doesn’t think she’s better off than her parents were.“My generation is struggling,” she told me. “We work every day, but it’s like we’re working just to pay for daycare.”

Hunt is a single mother, which creates its own unique challenges. She juggles taking care of her two children and working a full-time job. Many other women in Charlotte experience similar issues; in North Carolina, 65 percent of African-American children live in single parent families, according to the Kids Count Data Center from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Jackson, who moved from Philadelphia, told me she lost her job in Charlotte because of “single mom stuff.” She was frequently tardy to work because she had to drop kids off at school or pick them up when they were sick, attend parent-teacher conferences, and otherwise take care of her family….Read the Rest Here

 

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Slavery’s Legacy Remembered

It has been 150 years, but the legacy lives on…

How close we are to slavery: America’s horrible legacy still deeply runs through the nation’s veins

For Lula Williams, America’s worst period isn’t ancient history — her grandmother was a slave

How close we are to slavery: America's horrible legacy still deeply runs through the nation's veinsAs a child growing up in South Carolina, I was keenly aware of how close I was to the history of slavery. It was all around me — in the fact of my ancestors owning slaves and fighting for the Confederacy, in the presence of black people who shared my last name, and in the Confederate battle flag that flew on my state’s capitol.

In many ways, the war for white supremacy was not over. It was simply being fought by other means.

I’ve been trying to understand and account for this history and my own privilege as a white male by writing and teaching about the nexus of race and violence in America. I mostly encounter white people who are embarrassed and angered by the violence of slavery and lynching or white people who don’t think it has any relation to them or to the present.

When Dylann Roof murdered nine black people last June at Emmanuel A.M.E., a church with deep roots in the freedom struggle, the proximity of our present lives to our nation’s slaving past resonated once again especially as photos surfaced of Roof posing before the Confederate flag.

Then Nikki Haley, the governor of my home state, did something I never imagined happening in my lifetime—she signed the order to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s state house grounds.

The backlash from the pro-flag contingent was swift. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 346 pro-flag rallies in the months after South Carolina furled the flag.

Even in Ohio, where I live now, I noticed a spike in Confederate flags. Giant Confederate battle flags, fluttering in the wake of jacked-up trucks. Just two weeks ago, I saw one on a red GMC the very same day I interviewed a woman named Lula Williams who will turn 95 years old this month.

Lula’s grandmother, Eliza Jane Smiley, was a slave.

In a story that is in step with the terrifying realities of slavery, Eliza Jane’s father was also her master. As she grew up, Eliza Jane became the personal slave of her master/father’s young daughter. In fact, Eliza Jane slept on the floor next to her bed.

I repeated aloud what Lula said just be clear. “So she was a slave to her sister?”

Lula looked at me knowingly and said, “Weird. Sick minds.”

After Emancipation, Eliza Jane remained on the plantation, either because she lacked better opportunities or because she was coerced. Then she met a man named Charles Smiley who had been born a “free black.” Charles worked on a riverboat and the captain was friends with Eliza Jane’s father/master.

Charles took her away from the plantation and the two were married in 1873.  Charles, Lula’s grandfather, founded Hill Street Baptist Church in Louisville in 1895 and pastored there for over forty years. When Eliza Jane died, he came to live with Lula and her mother in Coshocton, Ohio.

Lula has fond memories of her childhood and her “loving close family,” but those memories are framed by stories of violence and barriers erected by both personal and institutional racism. She grew up knowing that the Klan was in her community, that a black man named Henry Howard was lynched on the courthouse square in 1885, and that a local jeweler kept one of Howard’s toes on display in his store.

There weren’t many black people, but the town, situated in the Appalachian foothills, was small enough that “most everybody knew everybody.” And yet some businesses still wouldn’t serve black people. Barbers wouldn’t cut their hair. Restaurants wouldn’t serve them. And some area towns were off limits to black people after sunset.

Lula said that some of her siblings had trouble in school because of their race. “They would call us names, and then we’d fight them,” she said. “But the others who were raised a little better, they ignored us, but at least they didn’t call us names.”

When her grandfather died, Lula traveled with her mother to Louisville for his burial. Once there her mother’s white aunt—Eliza Jane’s sister — contacted her and asked to see her. She was living in the Brown Hotel in Louisville.  Lula accompanied her mother to this meeting, but when she got there was told that she would have to sit in the hallway. Lula never did meet her.

“Is there any part of you that’s ever wanted to meet those people?” I asked.

“Not really. I was always kind of bitter about it. I can’t say that I hated them, but to me they just didn’t exist.”

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2016 in Black History

 

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Republicans and Kiddies

Think the States with the “Bathroom Bills” would be better off banning Republicans from being around small children. For real cases of molesation, it takes the right wing fanatics.

Former Georgia GOP county chairman arrested for molesting children as young as 4-years-old

Joseph Russell Dendy via Cobb County Sheriff's Dept.

The former chairman of the Cobb County Republican Party was taken into custody on Friday after being accused of molesting a several children, including one boy who was only 4-years-old at the time.

Joseph Russell Dendy, 71, was arrested at his home and charged with aggravated child molestation and child molestation, both felonies, for incidents dating back to 2007, reports AJC.com.

According to police, Dendy is also wanted by the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office in Michigan, as well as the Laurens Police Department in South Carolina based upon sexual abuse accusations in those states.

Police documents state that Dendy allegedly molested two boys, ages 4 and 12, in  separate incidents at his home. One of Dendy’s accusers, now 20, went to the authorities and stated that  he was molested in 2007 or 2008, when he was 12 or 13 years old. The second victim said Dendy molested him in December 2011.

Dendy served two, two-year terms as leader of the Cobb GOP before stepping down last year.

The former Republican leader is currently being held in the

Two Tennessee ministers caught seeking underage girls for sex in sting operation

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced that two of the men caught in a sting operation to catch people seeking underage prostitutes were ministers of local churches.

Knoxville’s Jason Kennedy, 46, was a minister at Grace Baptist Church in Karns, but he wasn’t fired until after the charges were revealed by the TBI, according to WBIR.

“Jason was a guy that talked so much about his wife and how much he loved her, and she talked about how she loved him and their three children. I mean, they were a great family,” Senior Pastor Ron Stewart said about the alleged child pedophile.

“The actions of the children’s pastor for which he has been arrested were part of his life outside the church,” the church said in a statement. “We have received no questions or concerns related to his conduct within the church or its ministries.”

Kennedy was one of 32 people arrested in a Knoxville human trafficking operation. He responded to ads soliciting sex for an hour with two prostitutes under the age of 18. One of the girls was 15-years-old.

“We are praying for his family and will continue to provide the services of our ministry to them,” the church said.

Zubin Parakh, 32, is the pastor at LifeHouse Church, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. The church lists him as the “creative pastor.” He was arrested along with Kennedy at the Best Western in Knoxville.

 

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Leaving Jim Crow – The Great Migration and The Chicago Defender

Great article! It talks about the role of the black press in initiating and sustaining the black migration from the south between 1915 and 1930 – and how the South’s Jim Crow Laws and Lynching fueled that migration.

‘Bound for the Promised Land’

African Americans devised a mass exodus from the Jim Crow South,largely at the urging of The Chicago Defender

In the spring of 1916, incumbent President Woodrow Wilson began a difficult presidential campaign. Wilson was facing a reunified Republican Party and an electorate skeptical of his pledge to keep the United States out of World War I—he was also facing obstacles from the African American electorate, which though small could be decisive in several key states. During his first run for office in 1912, leaders from the African American community had supported Wilson even though he was the son of a Confederate chaplain who, as a historian, had helped manufacture revisionist histories of the post–Civil War years. But black voters now felt betrayed by Wilson’s conduct as president: He segregated the federal government for the first time ever, and he screened the racist film Birth of a Nation in the White House.

Jacob Lawrence

The Chicago Defender, the nation’s leading African American newspaper at the time, was all too happy to heap on the criticism, declaring Wilson a “colossal failure” and challenging his foreign policy—both over the invasion of Haiti the previous year and for sending troops into Mexico to pursue revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. “If President Woodrow Wilson is so anxious to teach the world good morals,” read one editorial on the subject, “let him begin by placing the U.S. Army in the South; institute a chase of the lynchers as earnestly as the one he is now carrying on in Mexico.”

By most measures, the total number of lynchings was, in fact, down from prior years; it was the severity of the incidents that had increased. In May, The Defender printed a letter from a white resident of Waco, Texas, a witness to the horrific murder of a 17-year-old named Jesse Washington. The letter writer was outraged by what he had seen: A mob of “fifteen to twenty-thousand men and women intermingled with children and babies in their arms” gathered to torture Washington and then burn him at the stake. Accused of the murder of a white woman several miles from his home, Washington was convicted by a jury despite scant evidence. Then, as happened all too often, Washington was dragged from the courtroom, hung from a tree, and burned on a funeral pyre. “The crowd was made up of some of the supposed best citizens of the South,” the letter writer noted. “Doctors, lawyers, business men and Christians (posing as such, however). After the fire subsided, the mob was not satisfied: They hacked with pen knives the fingers, the toes, and pieces of flesh from the body, carrying them as souvenirs to their automobiles.” The correspondent went on to conclude that it was absurd to send soldiers to Mexico “when the troops are needed right here in the South.”

This from a collection of letters from the University of Chicago about the Great Migration

See the UC Collection Here

For several years, The Defender had demanded federal intervention as the only meaningful solution to the brutality of Southern whites. But that summer, as hundreds of African Americans arrived at Chicago’s train stations every week,The Defender’s position on the migration northward evolved. In August, under the headline “Southerners Plan to Stop Exodus,” the newspaper reported that recruiters for one of the Pennsylvania-based railroad lines had convinced all of the workers on one steamship line in Jacksonville, Florida, to quit and move to the North en masse, leaving the steamship owners suddenly without a crew. The Jacksonville City Council responded by passing a law requiring labor agents from Northern companies to pay $1,000 for a license.

Incidents like this convinced The Defender’s publisher, Robert Abbott, that migration was at once an effective tactic for hurting the white South and a real opportunity for African Americans to live in freedom. Abbott had experienced discrimination from labor unions himself when he first arrived in Chicago from Georgia less than 20 years earlier, and he had been reluctant to invite his fellows to the city if there were no real job opportunities.  He became positively enthusiastic about migration, however, when he saw the mounting evidence that the departure of African Americans was negatively affecting the Southern economy.

In November, as Woodrow Wilson won a narrow reelection victory, The Defender’s editorial page published “Bound for the Promised Land,” by M. Ward, a then-unknown poet whose portrait photo shows a nattily dressed young man with a satin bow tie. The poem reflects the experiences of those who had already migrated north, found jobs, and sent for their wives, as well as of the Southerners’ efforts to ban the work of Northern labor agents:

From Florida’s stormy banks I’ll go, I’ll bid the South goodbye; No longer will they treat me so, And knock me in the eye,

Hasten on my dark brother, Duck the Jim Crow law.

No Crackers North to slap your mother, or knock you on the jaw.

No Cracker there to seduce your sister, nor to hang you to a limb.

And you’re not obliged to call ’em “Mister,” nor skin ’em back at him.

The poem was so popular that the issue sold out, prompting The Defender to reprint it a few months later. “This poem caused more men to leave the Southland than any other effort,” the newspaper proudly noted….Read the Rest Here

Albert A. Smith “The Reason” Featured in The CRISIS in March 1920

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2016 in Black History

 

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The New Jim Crow – Unconstitutional and Illegal Bail Systems

Below is a map of “Economic Opportunity” broken into the MSAs in each state. Economic Opportunity is the measure of how likely it is for someone born in the lowest income and social class to be able to rise. Or to put it another way – the lower the Economic Opportunity, greater the chance that a poor person’s child will also be poor, and their children and their children.

Notice that isolated red spot right around ST. Louis, Mo – and including Ferguson?

Which areas have the highest populations on welfare and disability?

Just for fun, let’s look at the states with or without minimum wage laws…

Tell you Something?

Political Corruption Level in States – (Provided by London School of Economics)

State Incarceration Rates –

Which gets us the The New Jim Crow – Virtual Debtors Prisons and Bail Bond Extortion

How Civil Rights Groups Are Unraveling Illegal Bail Schemes That Fill Jails With Poor People

Like the majority of the nearly 750,000 people stuck in local jails across the United States, Rebecca Snow was not held in the Ascension Parish jail in central Louisiana because she had been convicted of a crime. The 33-year-old mother of three, who was charged with two nonviolent misdemeanors in late August, simply could not afford to post bail.

If Snow had the $289 set for each charge, she could have gone home to her family instead of sitting in jail. Many others arrested in the parish are able to post bail and go home, but Snow didn’t have the extra cash: She relies on public assistance and is indigent, according to a civil rights complaint filed against the parish’s sheriff and top judge.

The US Supreme Court and the Justice Department have both said that incarcerating someone solely because they can’t afford to post cash bail is unconstitutional, but that was the policy in Ascension Parish until just a few weeks ago.

Ascension sheriff deputies would set bail during booking using a court-issued “schedule” that matched the alleged offense with a generic bail amount, and some arrestees waited days before seeing a judge who could hear a motion to reduce it, according to the complaint. No individual factors such as prior record or employment were considered, and even those arrested for minor crimes like traffic violations were not released without posting bail.

In early September, civil rights attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the bail scheme, with Snow as the lead plaintiff. A settlement was reached within weeks. Now those arrested for misdemeanors in Ascension Parish are released on their own recognizance unless they are charged with assault, drunk driving or a list of other crimes that generally involve putting other people in danger. A judge must promptly set an individualized bail for those who are jailed.

“[The defendants] don’t really have any arguments,” said Alec Karakatsanis, a cofounder of Equal Justice Under Law, which worked with civil rights lawyers from southern Louisiana to challenge Ascension’s bail policy. “It’s a terrible policy in addition to being illegal. It’s expensive and it ruins people’s lives and it devastates them.”

Nationally, jails have twice the admission rate of state and federal prisons, and 62 percent of those locked up have not been convicted of any crime and are legally presumed innocent, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Three out of four people in jail are being held on nonviolent traffic, drug, property or public order charges. In most jurisdictions, poor people facing minor charges are forced to stay in jail or plead guilty to get out while those who have money on hand often go free.

Using the Constitution to Force Local Reforms

Since January, Karakatsanis and local partners have filed lawsuits challenging secured money bail programs in seven cities across the South, and so far defendants in six cities quickly settled and agreed to end the practice of requiring bail for nonviolent misdemeanors. The first lawsuit, filed against the City of Clanton, Alabama, attracted a statement of interest from the Justice Department declaring that jailing people solely because of their poverty violates the US Constitution’s equal protection clause and is simply “bad public policy.”

Suing individual officials and jurisdictions has proved to be an effective tactic for civil rights advocates who argue that many of the nation’s 3,000 jails have become modern-day debtors’ prisons. Attorneys like Karakatsanis are going from county to county to shut down illegal secured money bail and court fine collection schemesthat fill courthouse coffers and keep private collection companies and bail bondsmen in business while poor defendants, who often cannot afford child care or to miss even a day of work, are caged without being convicted.

“We are going from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and asking them to change, and if they don’t, we certainly sue them,” Karakatsanis told Truthout. He added that his group would be filing more lawsuits across the country.

By definition, bail is not a fine or a form of punishment. The purpose of bail is, in theory, to ensure that arrestees show up to court. If you are jailed and a bail is set, you may wait there for weeks, months or even years for your trial to start – or you can post bail, which will be refunded when you appear before a judge. In some parts of the country, if you don’t have the money, you can hire a bail bonds agent to post bail for a fee, usually at 10 percent of the bail amount. You don’t get that money back even if you are found not guilty. (In the few states that have outlawed for-profit bail bond agents, a secured bond may sometimes be paid at 10 percent of the set amount as well.)

Money bail tips the scales of justice in favor of those who have cash on hand. For arrestees who can’t afford to put money down on their own freedom, jail makes it much more difficult to escape the deep maze of the criminal legal system. The Vera Institute reports that even spending as few as two days in jail can reduce economic viability, promote future criminal behavior, degrade personal health and increase the chance that a defendant is incarcerated if found guilty.

Pretrial incarceration also increases the likelihood that people will take a plea deal, and some people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit just to go home and avoid losing their jobs and contact with friends and family. That’s one reason why activists in Massachusetts, New York City and Chicago have organized community bail funds to free low-income people from jail. Since bail money is generally returned once defendants appear in court, these grassroots bail funds can extend the benefits of a recyclable resource to many people who would otherwise be left to defend themselves from a position of incarceration….Read the Rest Here

Still wonder why it is so hard to get that Economic Opportunity in some places?

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2015 in The New Jim Crow

 

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Freedom Summer

For folks too young to be fully aware of what happened in the Civil Rights Movement, and grew up after the violent pernicious legalized Jim Crow racism of the 50’s and 60’s – this documentary chronicles Mississippi in 1964, through a period called Freedom Summer. One of the interesting aspects some young folks are unaware of, of this is what the segregationists did to their neighborhood white folks who in any way showed support for any of the Civil Rights groups, or even aiding people caught in the crossfire at the 1 hour mark.

The modern Republican Party in the South are the descendants of these very segregationist whites who bombed home, churches – beat and murdered Civil Rights proponents both black and white. And while their public vitriol is hidden now – they really have not changed. These are the folks who have assumed control of a large segment of the Party, and are the reason for the racial dog-whistle politics.

 

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Firing of Police Chief Splits Town

Pocomoke is a lovely town on the Maryland Eastern Shore. The Pocomoke River, which wanders across the peninsula is a scenic beauty. The River is crossed there by a scenic draw-bridge. The name “Pokomoke” literally means “Black Water”, and the water of the river is stained an almost black tea color by the northernmost Bald Cypress swamp at it’s headwaters.

At the head of the Pocomoke River is a Cypress Swamp. It is a beautiful areas for kayaking or canoeing.

 

Despite the natural beauty, and “Easy Living” of the DELMARVA Eastern Shore…Trouble has found paradise.

The Eastern Shore in reality remained part of the Confederacy during the Civil War. This – despite the existence of one of the largest, prosperous free black communities in the South in the two Virginia Counties just south of Pocomoke. The principal industry is farming. The Eastern Shore is sometimes referred to as the “Food Basket of he East Coast”, and near my own property further south, it is not uncommon to see signs on the fields from the major brands, including Campbell’s and DelMonte. The Chicken business is also huge, with major facilities and plants belonging to Perdue, Tyson’s, and Montaire, to name a few. Unemployment is very low – but average incomes in many of the towns hover around $20,000. People are polite and courteous, and most any Saturday when visiting the local hardware store is met by the question “been fishing?”

While there certainly are a few racist idiots there, I don’t have an opinion about this one – as to my personal experiences, most people get along reasonably well.

A Maryland Town Fires Its Black Police Chief, Exposing a Racial Rift

Kelvin Sewell figured he had landed his dream job in 2010, when he retired as a Baltimore police officer to help run the tiny 16-member force in this little riverfront city, which calls itself “the friendliest town on the Eastern Shore.” A year later he became its first African-American police chief.

Blacks and whites have coexisted, sometimes uneasily, in Pocomoke for centuries, but Chief Sewell, with his easygoing manner, quickly fit in. He prodded officers to patrol on foot, pleasing business owners. He helped poor students fill out college applications. Crime, everyone agrees, went down on his watch.

Former Chief Kelvin Sewell

But the chief’s abrupt dismissal in June, without explanation, by a white mayor and majority white City Council that voted along racial lines, has torn Pocomoke asunder, wrecking old friendships and exposing a deep racial rift in this community of roughly 4,100 people, split almost evenly between black and white.

The drama in Pocomoke is a tiny slice of America’s searing national conversation about race, playing out largely in big cities like Baltimore, St. Louis and most recently, Cincinnati, around police mistreatment of African-Americans. A recent New York Times/CBS News Poll found nearly six in 10 Americans, including majorities of blacks and whites, think race relations are generally bad, and nearly four in 10 think they are getting worse.

What makes Pocomoke unusual is the way that conversation is tearing apart a small town, forcing lifelong friends and neighbors to confront how differently they see the world. A black minister who went to high school with the white mayor — and worked to elect him — is pushing for his ouster. A white city councilman provoked gasps by addressing black citizens as “you people.”

“There is so much history here, with everybody being raised here — except the chief,” said Monna VanEss, 53, the former city finance director, who is white. “A lot of these people on both sides went to school together and have known each other all their lives. We’ve never been this divided.”

Mr. Sewell, 53, says his firing was “racially motivated” punishment for standing up for two black officers who experienced harassment. (Before his dismissal, his lawyer said, he had also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that he was paid less than his white predecessor.) Black residents, led by two prominent African-American ministers, have demanded the chief’s reinstatement — they say they have more than 500 signatures on a petition — and the resignation of Mayor Bruce Morrison.

Pocomoke City Mayor Bruce Morrison

Blacks are also organizing politically, accusing the city — with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland — of voting rights irregularities involving the cancellation of a municipal election, which cleared the way for a white city councilman to take office in April with no opposition in a majority black district. The situation is so tense that the Justice Department recently sent mediators to hear black residents’ concerns.

“This is political and racial,” said the Rev. James Jones, an associate pastor at the New Macedonia Baptist Church and the mayor’s former classmate. He says African-Americans were so furious about the chief’s firing he feared Pocomoke would break out into a riot. “The political structure of Pocomoke, they are not ready for a black chief. They don’t like us at the top.”

Not so, insists Mayor Morrison, who said the chief’s dismissal is a personnel matter, which he cannot discuss. He has no intention of quitting. “I’ve never been called a racist in my life,” he said during a brief interview at his desk in Pocomoke’s small, brick City Hall. “And I don’t appreciate it.”

While some whites are withholding judgment, at least one, Michael Dean, a funeral director and part-time forensic investigator with the state medical examiner’s office, has openly criticized the chief. He said he has “lost respect” for Mr. Sewell but would not say why. Others seem unable to fathom that race may have played a role.

“Nobody knows why he was let go, but there was a reason and it wasn’t racial,” said Marc Scher, who owns a bridal shop downtown. Mr. Scher says the wife of the Rev. Ronnie White, the other black minister pressing for the ouster of the mayor, does seamstress work for him, and the pastor’s grandmother was the Scher family’s housekeeper when Mr. Scher was a boy.

“They’re still my friends,” he said. “I don’t agree with them.”

Nestled between the Chesapeake and Chincoteague Bays, and surrounded by corn and soybean fields, Pocomoke City is part of Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore, a world away and much poorer than fancy shore communities like St. Michaels, where prominent Washingtonians keep summer homes. Its history of racial tensions runs deep.

Resistance to slavery was strong in Maryland, but the lower Eastern Shore, just across the border from Virginia, was home to Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War. The early 20th century brought lynch mobs. The region was slow to desegregate its schools and even slower to elect blacks to government, said Deborah Jeon, legal director for the A.C.L.U. of Maryland, which in the 1990s brought a voting rights case that forced changes in the way Pocomoke’s surrounding county, Worcester, held elections.

“It’s not like the rest of Maryland; it’s more like the Deep South,” Ms. Jeon said. “They fought us tooth and nail to prevent changes in the election system, even though the county had an all-white government for 250 years.”

Poverty is a concern. Pocomoke’s per capita income is $19,243, about half that of Maryland as a whole, and 27.1 percent of residents live below the poverty line. The rough side of town, known locally as “the back burner,” is overwhelmingly black, with run-down cinder block homes and a reputation for drugs and crime.

“Coming to Pocomoke from Baltimore City,” Mr. Sewell said, “it feels like you go back in time.”

Mr. Sewell’s troubles began, both he and his lawyer Andrew McBride said, when a black detective, Franklin L. Savage, complained of racial harassment while assigned to a regional police task force on combating the drug trade.

After a string of racially charged incidents — including receiving a text message addressing him with a racial epithet and being driven by fellow officers down a street they called “K.K.K. road” — Detective Savage asked to go back to his regular work in Pocomoke and complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said Mr. McBride of the law firm Wiley Rein.

But upon his return, Mr. McBride said, Detective Savage faced questions from city officials about his credibility, and wound up on night duty, which he construed as retaliation. Another black Pocomoke officer, Lt. Lynell Green, accompanied Detective Savage to a commission mediation session, and later complained of harassment as well. After that, Mr. McBride said, both officers were branded troublemakers, and city officials began pressuring Chief Sewell to fire them.

When he would not, said Mr. McBride — who is representing all three men with the nonprofit Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs — the chief was fired. The other two officers remain on the force.

William C. Hudson, the Pocomoke City solicitor, said that was not an accurate accounting of events, though like Mayor Morrison he would not offer specifics. “When all the facts are known,” he said, “it will be clear that the city is guilty of no improprieties and that the action taken to relieve Chief Sewell was in the best interest of the community.”

Perhaps, but ill will abounds. Diane Downing, the lone member of the City Council to oppose Chief Sewell’s removal, said the mayor pushed the council to fire him — in violation of the city charter, which does not give the mayor hiring or firing authority — and begged her to vote in favor.

“I am not stupid, and I was not born last night,” she said. “He wanted my vote because I am black.”

The firing has stirred a new spirit of African-American activism. Black residents — many wearing T-shirts bearing Mr. Sewell’s likeness — jammed the City Council chambers during a tense meeting after his dismissal. Pastor Jones and Pastor White have formed a coalition, Citizens for a Better Pocomoke, to prod blacks to get more involved in city government. Pastor Jones said they will not rest until the chief is back and the mayor is gone.

“They woke the sleeping giant,” said Gabe Purnell, an African-American activist from nearby Berlin, Md., who is advising the group.

Whites, too, are organizing. At the Salem United Methodist Church, a white congregation, more than 100 people signed a letter Thursday backing the mayor. Both blacks and whites are bracing for the next City Council meeting, Monday night. A Justice Department spokeswoman said its mediators, who have no authority to investigate, “remain available” to “facilitate any discussions” if needed.

Some wonder if Pocomoke will ever heal. Mayor Morrison insists everything will be fine: “It’s still the friendliest town on the Eastern Shore,” he said, “and I’ll stick by that.”

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2015 in The Post-Racial Life

 

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