The gradual greying of the Deep South divide

13th March 2009 at 00:00

Race and politics are never far apart in the United States. You could say the same for race and education. Put them together and it's a heady brew indeed.

This happened a week or so ago when Ty' Sheoma Bethea, a 14-year-old black girl from Dillon in South Carolina, found herself centre stage as President Obama made his pitch to Congress in support of his Pounds 500 billion stimulus Bill for education.

Disgusted by the near-derelict state of her high school, Ty' had written a letter to the legislators, urging them to back the Bill. She explained how her largely black school has holes in its ceilings and in winter is so cold that students have to keep their coats on all day. This led to her being whisked off to Washington to sit beside Michelle Obama as the President recounted her story to Congress.

I remember the time I found myself thrust into the middle of that same race-education-politics mix. I had applied for a teaching exchange post, thinking I would be spending a year in a college not too dissimilar to the one where I worked in suburban London, only in Chicago, New York or LA. Instead I found I had been twinned with an English instructor at George Corley Wallace State Community College in Selma, Alabama.

I knew something about Selma. It had been at the heart of the activities of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s. Martin Luther King had gone there to help black citizens register to vote and was met with batons, police dogs and fire hoses. The Pettus Bridge in the heart of town was turned into a battleground, and TV images of the mayhem were beamed around the world.

I arrived almost 20 years later with several suitcases, a young family and a lot of trepidation. It was a home swap as well as a job swap, and I found myself in a two-storey clapboard house in the old part of town.

From the front window I could see the well-appointed home of the owner of Selma's premier drugstore, a Cadillac and a Lincoln Continental parked in the driveway. From the back, the prospect was rather different. Here the view was dominated by a row of shacks once lived in by house slaves, now occupied by their descendants, some of whom still worked as servants to white families in the neighbourhood.

Despite this, a lot had changed since the mid-1960s. The students at Wallace Community College reflected the 50:50 black-white population mix of the town. In class, they were reasonably integrated, but there was little mixing outside. When a white girl started dating a black boy, it was the talk of the town and parents on both sides - so I was told - stepped in to end the relationship.

The college was probably the most liberal place around, but you tended to be on your guard when it came to race. I remember a conversation I had one afternoon with a black student. My colleagues had gone and we were alone in the office. It had a partitioned-off corridor down one side and whenever someone came along we stopped talking and looked to see who it was. The teaching staff was almost entirely white, and the principal - known in that rather grandiloquent American way as the president - was a good old boy and chum of the state governor, George Wallace.

When I went back on a visit in the 1990s, things had moved on a little. White men no longer dusted down their pointed hoods when a black man found himself a white girlfriend. Fast forward to the present and things have changed some more. In 2007, the then Senator Obama visited the college. He was welcomed by Dr James Mitchell, the president, and himself a black man.

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