Blacks have a complicated love affair with the South.
Their ancestors were enslaved in the region for generations, then Jim Crow laws pushed them to the back of the bus. From inner-city slums to old plantation counties, being Black too often still means a second-class existence.
Yet surveys show Blacks who live in the South are more likely than any other racial or ethnic group — even Whites — to identify themselves as Southerners. It’s a label millions claim with pride and affection, yet uneasiness.
“As an African-American Southerner, I enjoy our culture that includes our famous Southern charm and hospitality,” said Stephen Wicks of Savannah, Ga., co-owner of BlackBusinessList.com, a Web-based company that links minority businesses.
“On the other hand, it’s very hard to walk the streets and see constant reminders of slavery and White supremacy,” he said. “That Confederate statue may simply be a piece of history to my White brother or sister, but to me it represents a very dark period in American history.”
Bryan Stevenson, a Montgomery attorney who specializes in representing death-row inmates, has similar mixed feelings churning within him. A Delaware native educated at Harvard University, Stevenson has lived in Alabama since 1989 handling capital cases.
“I have a lot of happy and pleasant thoughts about living in the South,” said Stevenson. “However, I do think that being Black means you feel at risk. You frequently feel subordinate because of a lack of power.”
That impotence is economic in many ways.
According to Census statistics analyzed by the Center for Demographic Research at Auburn University Montgomery, 27.1 percent of the South’s 12 million Black residents lived below the federal poverty level in 1999, compared to 23.7 percent of Blacks in the rest of the United States. Researchers say at least some of the disparity is linked to higher overall poverty rates in the South, affecting Whites as well as Blacks.
Southern Blacks are also less likely than other U.S. Blacks to graduate from high school or college, the analysis showed, and almost half — 48 percent — lived in a household with an income of less than $25,000.
On their face, the numbers suggest a people who wouldn’t want any part of being called a Southerner. Yet a series of surveys found just the opposite.
Twice-yearly polls from 1991 through 2001 that were analyzed by the University of North Carolina found 78 percent of Blacks in the region claimed the label “Southerner,” compared to 75 percent of Whites. The results punched a hole in the long-held assumption that only Whites are proud to be from the South.
Charles Evers, 82, is part of a generation of Blacks who endured the worst of the South before desegregation. His brother, former NAACP leader Medgar Evers, was murdered by a White racist in Mississippi in 1963.
Still, he thinks of the South as a place of unending opportunity for Blacks, Whites and everyone in between.
“I’ve traveled all over the world, and I’ll tell you: There is no place as honest as the South about its racial feelings,” he said. “I think it can be the most wonderful place in the world if we can just keep making the progress we have.”
– Associated Press
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