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In Deep South, race matters less in politics

There are questions about what Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy might mean in the Deep South — ground zero in the Civil Rights Movement —and the quick answer, perhaps, is not that much.
/ Source: The New York Times

The racial breakthroughs have come gingerly in Alabama over the years: a black mayor there, an old Klansman put on trial here, a civil rights memorial there.

And a few weeks ago, voters in a county that is more than 96 percent white chose a genial black man, James Fields, to represent them in the State House of Representatives. It is a historic first, but the remarks of many white voters reveal an unconscious condescension.

“Really, I never realize he’s black,” said a woman in a restaurant, smiling.

“He’s black?” asked Lou Bradford, a Cullman police officer, jokingly.

“You know, I don’t even see him as black,” said another of Mr. Fields’s new constituents, Perry Ray, the mayor of one of the county’s villages, Dodge City.

A woman congratulates Mr. Fields as he stops in traffic, and afterward, he shakes his head ruefully: “Sometimes, I have to pinch myself: ‘Am I really black?’ ”

Yet in a state once synonymous with racial strife, there is no denying this milestone, for all its tentativeness. Everyone — the voter in Cullman, the Alabama politician, the local historian — is rubbing his or her eyes, a little.

“It strikes me as a real watershed event,” said Samuel L. Webb, a historian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Last fall, another black man, Eric Powell, was elected to the Mississippi state senate from a district that is more than 92 percent white, and no one could find a modern precedent for that, either. Mr. Fields and Mr. Powell are Democrats who decisively beat white candidates in districts that traditionally support Republican presidential candidates.

Inevitably, there are questions about what this might mean for Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy in the Deep South, and the quick answer, perhaps, is not that much, at least in Cullman County at this moment. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton beat Mr. Obama here, 4-to-1, in the Democratic primary this month, as many here readily point out.

Blacks can win down here
Yet there are parallels. The very quality that voters here highlight, in so many words, as one of Mr. Fields’s more attractive attributes — that they are at ease with him — is one of Mr. Obama’s most important selling points. The implications are not lost on State Senator Zeb Little, the majority leader in the Alabama senate and one of the Democratic power brokers in Cullman: black politicians can win in unlikely districts, transcending both history and partisan politics, if voters can see them as one of their own.

“James is comfortable around white people, and white people are comfortable around James, and you see the same thing with Obama,” Mr. Little said. (He asked Mr. Fields not to run, he recalls, because he did not think a black candidate could win.)

Granted, the peculiar local circumstances at play in these elections are not readily duplicated in a national election. Mr. Fields and Mr. Powell are deeply enmeshed in their communities — hometown heroes, well before their elections. Mr. Powell, 41, was a football coach in the local schools in Corinth, Miss., and played at the University of Mississippi; Mr. Fields, 53, is a former marine and part-time Methodist minister who worked in the unemployment office here for years, helping many find jobs. He served on the board of the local electrical cooperative, was active in the Boy Scouts and was a high school basketball star.

“He’s a dadgum good fellow,” said W. F. Davis, a retired boilermaker, at Jack’s, a roadside restaurant here, as Mr. Fields basked in congratulations nearby. “He’s always been one of us.”

A personal bond
The distinction between “one of us” and something else, of course, is always present in a county where Mr. Fields still sees Confederate flags dotting the landscape.

“There’s two different races, in that race,” explained James Rice, a white resident describing black people, as Mr. Fields affably worked voters at Jack’s. “You got some that don’t want to be nothing, and you got some that want to help. You don’t find too many like James Fields.”

Still, with many voters here, Mr. Fields has a personal bond dating to the days before new factories brought a measure of prosperity. Voters — rural white Alabama voters — smilingly approach the big, open-faced man; they hug him and joke with him.

“When their sons and daughters needed jobs, they said, ‘You go see James Fields. You go see that black man down there,’ ” Mr. Fields recalled. “When I returned from college, my whole life was centered around helping people. I was a public servant,” he says — a description readily echoed by many he encounters here.

A complex racial legacy
For unsavory historical reasons, it could easily have turned out differently in a county that is almost entirely white. Mr. Fields inherited a bitter racial legacy, one he is conscious of though unsoured by. If you drove into Cullman 70-odd years ago, you might have happened on “a neatly-painted sign” by the roadside, as the New York writer Carl Carmer described it in his book, “Stars Fell on Alabama,” one bearing a chilling and crude inscription telling blacks: “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You in this Town.”

It had always been a place of few blacks because there were few plantations, and the whites wanted to keep it that way. The sign has long since passed into half-remembered folk memory. But the sentiments behind it lingered; the Ku Klux Klan and Citizens Councils were strong in these hills, and blacks in Cullman were effectively confined to a forlorn hillside hamlet known as The Colony, which is where Mr. Fields grew up.

Still, the racial legacy is complicated, as it is everywhere in Alabama: Cullman was also the home base of Gov. James E. (Big Jim) Folsom, whose moderation on race helped damage his career in the 1950s.

Matter-of-factly, Mr. Fields recounts an early history hemmed in at every turn by racism, at least until high school years.

In town, on Saturdays, “you didn’t try anything on.”

“You’d look at stuff,” he said. “We literally had nothing going to the cotton fields, picking cotton, beans.”

Obstacles confronted, overcome
His father worked the night clean-up crew at a poultry-processing plant. And “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” he said, blacks knew they were unwelcome in the white, white town of Cullman.

When integration came to the schools in the mid-1960s, no one was eager to embrace the black students. “We were up for auction: who wants the colored people,” Mr. Fields said, recalling that only a school in another town would accept them. His parents made him travel a back road to avoid trouble; he vividly recalls driving up on a Klan rally as a young man.

But then, in high school, things changed. His athletic prowess earned him friendship among white peers; when rival football teams yelled racial epithets at him, his own classmates protectively retaliated.

All his life, Mr. Fields says calmly, he has had to deal with white people, in the fields, at school, and at work. Mr. Powell had a similar experience.

“I spent more time, as a kid, growing up with my white friends in their homes,” Mr. Powell said. In a county that is 98 percent white, “we were always around each other,” he said.

People in Cullman talk about Mr. Fields’s excellent connections in the state capital, Montgomery — he once served as assistant director of the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations — but they also speak, hesitantly, about sloughing off an age-old burden.

As Rob Werner, the owner of an outdoor-goods store here, put it: “People said, ‘Of course, James is black. This is great, this will get this off our back.’ ”