Old-style politics lingers in rural Alabama county

They should post a sign at the edge of this small community reading: ''Welcome to Lowndes County (pop. 13,200) - where the Old South meets the New.'' There might well be another sign: ''Jesse Jackson country.''

Most of this small town's activities center around the county courthouse on the town square. A white, handsome building, it could pass for a church at first glance.

The county is about 75 percent black, but the top elected county official, County Probate Judge Harrel Hammonds, is white. And he has held the office, which is now just an administrative one, for 34 years.

A number of black leaders in the county are puzzled at how he manages to stay in office, but they grudgingly admit he is a ''good politician.'' They complain that black voters have not yet awakened to the fact that they can vote the man out of office. And they say the favors he does blacks - lending money, for example - cloud the fact that he does not manage the county very well, in their opinion.

The county is poor - very poor. About 45 percent of the families have incomes below the federal poverty level; about 40 percent get food stamps, and many are on welfare. There are few industries in the area. Most people commute long distances or have no jobs.

All but about 10 white children attend one of two local, white private schools. It was not until 1976 that the courts finally ordered immediate integration of the schools. Instead, the white families pulled their children out of the public schools, leaving them to the blacks.

These are the traces of the old South. But the new South is also much in evidence here.

Many of the other elected officials in the county are black. And some of them want change.

The elected black sheriff, John Hulet, whose office is across the road from the courthouse, charges that Judge Hammonds is not doing a good job. He says he may run against him next time.

Sheriff Hulet is currently leading a local revolt against a powerfully influential black political leader in Montgomery, Joe Reed. Mr. Reed and his black statewide political organization have endorsed Walter Mondale in the presidential election. Sheriff Hulet, and every other politically active black person (and other blacks) interviewed in this county, say they back Jesse Jackson.

Hulet's son, John Edward Hulet, is already running for office: He is challenging the incumbent county tax assessor, a black.

A few miles from here, in the even tinier black community of Mosses, federal grants are helping finance construction of enough homes to eventually provide some 90 percent of the population of 750 with a decent place to live. The Mayor of Mosses, Joe Bell, is a Jackson supporter.

How does a white official remain in the top elected position in a county where most of the voters are black?

Judge Hammonds, wearing khaki slacks and two sweaters over his blue dress shirt, sits back in his padded swivel chair in front of a cluttered desk in his corner office of the new annex of the courthouse and explains. He was one of the state officials in the first term of populist Alabama Gov. James ''Big Jim'' Folsom in the late '40s. Governor Folsom refused to use the race issue to his benefit, unlike many other Southern politicians of the time. He spoke instead of ''brotherly love.'' One result: Folsom and his associates were strongly opposed by those not yet ready to live on equal terms with blacks.

But Judge Hammonds managed to gain enough white support in the '50s to get elected time after time. Then when blacks got the vote, they remembered he had not been against them, he says.

''I treated them just like I treat a white,'' he explains. Being raised poor helped him gain ''a feeling for the underprivileged.''

In 1982 he ran in a four-way race (two whites and two blacks). He and the other white candidate made it into the runoff, where he won easily, he says. He knows the local black leaders do not like him. But, he says, ''I don't care about the chiefs; I care about the Indians - and there are a lot more of them.''

NEXT: growing black voter clout.

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