One Alabama county measures King's legacy

ON a recent sun-pierced winter day, Annie Hrabowski, bundled in her wool hat and sweater, sat by her oil space heater with her two hunting dogs curled at her feet. As the United States prepared to celebrate the first federal observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20, here in a tin-roofed home in Alabama's ``black belt,'' this 92-year-old granddaughter of slaves recalled the impact of the Rev. Dr. King's civil rights movement in the deep South -- overcoming obstacles to black Americans' exercise of their right to vote. ``The first time I went, this [white] man asked me when I came out of the [voting] booth, `Annie, what did you go in there for?' '' she says with a laugh. ``I said, `I went in there to do something I've never done. You have voted all the time, but I didn't have the chance.' That's what I really meant, to put my name on things, too.''

After Dr. King's historic Selma-to-Montgomery march in the turbulent spring of 1965, Ms. Hrabowski became one of the first Alabama blacks to register for the vote. In the wake of the Voting Rights Act passed later that same year, the registration of nearly 2 million blacks signaled dramatic change throughout the South.

Today, two decades later, some political progress has been made: The South has nearly 6 million registered black voters and more than 3,000 elected black officials. But economic and, in some instances, social changes have been less immediate. Alabama's black-belt counties, historic territory during the civil rights struggle and still some of the poorest counties in the country, stand squarely at the juncture where the Old South meets the New.

``There's been a lot of shade in the Sunbelt, and Alabama is one of the shadier portions,'' says William Barnard, chairman of the University of Alabama's political science department. ``The problem of the black-belt counties today is not wholly a racial story, but rather one of [economic] development.''

The state's northern cities of Birmingham and Huntsville have experienced a recent boom in high-technology and service industries.

But Alabama's agricultural black belt, which stretches from Montgomery to Mississippi, has lagged economically. Here in Lowndes County, Ms. Hrabowski's hometown and one of the poorest of those counties, the situation is particularly severe.

Blacks, who are more than 84 percent of Lowndes County's 11,000 residents, now constitute 80 percent of the county's registered voters. But economically they remain among the state's most disadvantaged. With an average per capita income of barely $4,000 a year, roughly 45 percent of the families here have incomes below the poverty level.

Blacks are now the majority of the county's elected officials. But other positions, including several prominent judgeships and mayoral offices, are still filled by whites. Collectively they administer a financially ailing county.

``Most of our offices are filled by blacks, so we're pretty mixed in our political fiber,'' says Sheriff John Hulett, one of Lowndes County's first elected black officials. ``But as far as the economic part of it, the county is completely broke.''

According to Sheriff Hulett and other observers, the county's financial and educational problems have overshadowed earlier political inequalities, despite a recent federal probe into alleged vote fraud. The probe was seen by many blacks in the area as an attempt by the Reagan administration to undercut voting rights and intimidate black leaders.

The investigation resulted in the indictment of eight officials in five black-belt counties on charges of tampering with absentee ballots. Seven of the officials are black. One official pleaded guilty, another was convicted, and the trial of a third ended in a mistrial. The rest were acquitted.

Still, ``in a sense, the Voting Rights Act freed both whites and blacks to look at the issues free of race,'' says Dr. Barnard.

``It was just one step getting the right to vote,'' says the Rev. Fletcher Fountain, president of the county board of education and administrator of the local Community Development Block Grant Program. ``Basically people need a way to make a living here.''

``When people first started to vote, many thought this would solve most of the problems,'' Mr. Hulett adds. ``But you can vote all you want, and if you need to borrow money from a bank and have nothing for collateral, and if the school system needs to be brought up to a certain level but is controlled by people who have no interest in it, you're not going to get the kind of improvements you need.''

``The few people who are the major property holders call the shots,'' says Sheriff Hulett. ``I feel this county will never do what it needs to do until it controls the economic power.''

``Economics goes back to education,'' says William Bradley, chairman of the local Industrial Development Board. ``We know that industry will not come in without a better educational base here. Our educational system is now totally geared to a farm community. We have to adjust the curriculum and develop our people so at least they will be eligible for those jobs. We have to get away from a welfare mentality.''

If some observers speculate that many in the black populace need to widen their horizons, others equally insist that the small but influential white minority must also shake loose from past attitudes.

Says one longtime Hayneville matron, ``If whites have a party, they still like to ring a bell [for a servant]. Some of us like the old plantation life style. . . . There is a lot of pride, but a lot of it's false pride.''

The same woman's son, another Hayneville resident, counters: ``Older people are slow to change. [Many] think that just because they're black they can afford to live on $50 a week.''

What about the post-segregation generation?

As Ms. Hrabowski puts it in her living room, ``The older set is going out. Things have improved from what they were. . . . People know that they still have their rights and nobody can take their rights from them since we got them.''

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