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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.
The mid-1960s Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act shattered this edifice. The price for the institutional expression of racism increased dramatically. Blacks registered to vote and became a constituency that Democrats couldn’t ignore. The region developed two-party competition, with the Republicans rising partly on the civil-rights backlash, but mostly on the strength of broader social changes.
People left the stunted rural areas, and there was an explosive growth in colleges and universities. “By the 1980s,” the political scientists Earl and Merle Black write in their book Divided America, “majorities of Southern voters had gone to college (even if they had not graduated) and now lived in metropolitan areas.”
A growing urban, college-educated middle class valued economic aspiration and was doing well enough to pay taxes (giving anti-high-tax Republicans an enduring appeal). “By virtue of their wealth, status, and power, they exerted political, social, and economic influence well beyond their numbers,” the Blacks write. “From this group, especially among those who lived in large cities, suburbs and exurbs, came the new model of success.”
Amid all this change, racial attitudes softened and personal barriers came down. It’s why the story Shirley Sherrod told at the NAACP conference was a heartening one, contrary to the distorted impression created after conservative activist Andrew Breitbart released a videotape without crucial context. Working at a rural nonprofit, Sherrod initially turned away a desperate white farmer on racial grounds before realizing that was wrong.
It was a tiny morality tale that could stand for an epoch of racial progress in the South. Despite all our charges and countercharges of racism, we live in a country that L. Warren Johnson wouldn’t recognize.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.