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America’s Political Roots Are in Eutaw, Alabama

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.

Folmar’s years in leadership were emblematic of a southern political legacy: drawing on white people’s fear that they had something to lose—money, jobs—if Black people were ever afforded equal rights. Such a strategy had worked in Alabama for more than a century; it had been effective north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well. In some ways, the legacy Folmar had inherited started in Eutaw, not far from where Granddaddy grew up.


Alabama hid aspects of its history for years, omitting them from textbooks and disregarding them in classrooms, which meant Black people learned their history from one another—perhaps while sitting at the feet of their elders, who would explain that it didn’t have to be this way.

Just after the Civil War, the nation went through a moment of radical political reimagination. Southern states were forced to introduce progressive measures to their constitutions in order to be readmitted to the union. In Alabama, that meant establishing free public schools and granting Black men the right to vote, among other things. But the progress was tenuous; in some ways, its undoing began when a mob murdered Alexander Boyd.

White people in Greene despised Boyd, a white Republican serving as county solicitor, and his politics. They disapproved of his associations with Black Republicans, and especially his investigation into the murder of Samuel Colvin, a Black man who was lynched by members of the Klan and shot 16 times. Boyd, they thought, was close to finding out who’d killed Colvin, and his mission to get justice for a Black man was upsetting the order of things.

Read entire article at The Atlantic