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What do you call it when a woman who grew up under a system of American apartheid comes to be caught up five decades later in an utterly ridiculous racial controversy? Progress.
In her now-famous speech to the Georgia NAACP conference, Shirley Sherrod dredged up the memory of one L. Warren “Gator” Johnson. A drinker with a fifth-grade education, he was the sheriff in Baker County, Ga., where Sherrod grew up. Or “bad Baker County,” as it was known.
In his epic biography of Martin Luther King Jr., historian Taylor Branch notes of this plantation area of southern Georgia, “High finance in Baker County was dominated by an illiterate multimillionaire cattle breeder, who wrote checks on scraps of grocery bags and signed them with an ‘X.’”
In the summer of 1961, a black field hand named Charles Ware flirted with the black mistress of a white overseer. Gator Johnson proceeded to Ware’s house and beat his wife until the offender returned. Then he beat Ware, handcuffed him, drove him to just outside the county jail, made a bogus radio call for help, shot Ware twice in the neck, and, after another call, shot him again.
Ware somehow survived — to see Johnson cleared of civil liability in his shooting by an all-white jury in less than 90 minutes. This was the Baker County of Sherrod’s youth. It’s the place where her family says her father was shot in the back by a white man who was never indicted.
The argument over racism in America once involved elemental matters of justice. Now, it usually involves offensive statements, shadowy questions of motive, and frankly cynical allegations made for political reasons (witness the NAACP’s anti-tea-party resolution). If these are the alternatives, who would have it any other way?
Back in the day, Gator Johnson was a demographically typical southerner. In 1950, only about a quarter of the population had a high-school diploma or higher. Only a third of the population lived in metropolitan areas. For the first half of the 20th century, most southerners were so poor they didn’t pay federal income taxes. And the region was a one-party state controlled by a segregationist Democratic party.
White supremacy trumped all else, especially in rural areas. Outside industry was feared for the challenge it might represent to the reigning social order.