Originally created 02/21/99

Race, politics still intertwined



Alvin Blount Jr. was born into segregation, drawing his first breaths in the all-black Lamar Wing of the old University Hospital.

He grew up on the clay streets of the Bethlehem community and watched as paving and lighting followed the election of a black county commissioner. He saw Richmond County schools being integrated as he began his fifth-grade year and marveled at the new textbooks that flooded C.T. Walker Elementary School after years of castoffs from Monte Sano Elementary.

He attended college classes filled with white faces.

And he returned to Augusta to make his home in a community that slowly was coming to grips with integration and equality, in the hopes that the steady progress would continue with his own help building bridges.

"I must be realistic, and I think race is going to be a factor in the community," said the musical director of St. Mary on the Hill Catholic Church, who once sang in all-black choirs and now directs groups with a majority of white faces. "Things have changed, but we still have a long way to go. We have to take time to know each other's culture. Elected officials can't do their job if they don't take time to know the thinking process of others.

"How can I trust you if I don't know you? In any courtship -- whether platonic or romantic -- we've got to get to know each other."

The dividing line in Augusta may skirt neighborhoods and meander along the edges of voting precincts, but it cuts straight through the city's heart, arraying residents on either side of a vast divide -- whites on one side, blacks on the other. Race and politics -- particularly in the South -- have remained inextricably intertwined for decades and likely will remain so.

"Race is the mainspring of Southern politics," said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens. "The motivation for people's behavior comes from their attitude about race."

Augusta is no exception, with political boards such as the city commission that can be seen as racially balanced or racially polarized, depending on the issue, and a recent mayoral election in which race was a primary factor.

In a runoff between former Mayor Ed McIntyre and former television anchorman Bob Young, Mr. McIntyre -- Augusta's first black mayor in the 1980s -- won every majority black precinct except one. Mr. Young won every majority-white precinct except one.

Race sways vote

With more white residents registered to vote than black residents -- 49,555 white votes to 41,507 black votes -- the result was a simple mathematical equation. An informal survey by The Augusta Chronicle before the November election found that a majority of registered voters interviewed planned to vote for the candidate of their own race.

Mr. Young won the election.

"Race was obviously very, very important in that election," said Ralph Walker, a political scientist at Augusta State University. "It was not 100 percent down racial lines, but Ed had the majority of the black vote and Bob had the majority of the white vote."

Racial division in Richmond County elections is hardly unprecedented: the 1987 mayoral race between Charles DeVaney, a white candidate who won, and Willie Mays split along racial lines. Likewise, the 1990 Georgia Senate competition for District 22 between black state Rep. Charles Walker and unsuccessful challenger John Bell ended in a racial division of votes.

"You still have blacks and whites who do not trust each other," said the Rev. Larry Fryer, a community activist. "People are still fearful that one will deceive the other.

"And if I want to stay in power, and I can keep you divided, those of you over here will assuredly vote for me."

Situation is typical

That mind-set is characteristic of both races, he added.

It doesn't have to be, said Mr. McIntyre, who achieved a sizable crossover vote and praise from colleagues for his "color-blindness" as Augusta's first black mayor in the 1980s.

"Sometimes, I think that we had a more open mind about the realities of life at that time, about the fact that everybody should be a player on the team and that whites who didn't want a black in office should still tolerate it," Mr. McIntyre said. "I think there was greater receptivity to minorities at that time. You hear the cliches, that there is no need for affirmative action any longer. People think things are fine now. But in reality, we know they're not."

The road to political equality in Richmond County always has been a corkscrew path -- sometimes up and sometimes down, even as it moves forward. Many people forget there was a time after the Civil War when blacks were elected to the Legislature, when they rode in streetcars with their white neighbors, when black votes were sought and bought as eagerly as white votes in Augusta.

Under the Reconstruction Act of 1867, Union forces oversaw the registration of black voters who would remain a factor in elections until the turn of the century, when the white primary was introduced.

The Legislature later expelled black members but was forced to readmit them in 1870, when federal troops returned to Georgia. Back home, Democrats courted black votes -- most black voters were members of the Republican Party, the party of President Abraham Lincoln and freedom.

"Although there was de facto segregation before 1900, it was not rigid and embedded in law -- or nearly so extensive as it became after 1900," said historian Ed Cashin, who traced black political participation in his book The Story of Augusta. "People who had been very optimistic about race relations -- Bishop Lucius Holsey, one of the founders of Paine College, James Harper, William J. White, other community leaders -- became very disillusioned about the way things were going after 1900."

Racial tensions rise

The turn of the century brought increasing racial tensions and subsequent segregation. Black voters slowly were disenfranchised as first the Populist, then Cracker parties gained power in Augusta, Dr. Cashin noted.

After 1900, a new breed of politician, many from poor agrarian backgrounds and advocates of the failed Populist party, blamed blacks for the failure of the Populists and began advocating reforms -- including the disenfranchisement of black voters -- to "clean up" politics. Workers at mills set up in Augusta saw blacks as competitors and formed the Cracker party.

The white primary, adopted in 1900, forced blacks out of the political process and led to graft and corruption. It would stay in place until it was outlawed in 1944 and returning GIs from World War II rebelled against the dictatorship inherent in the system.

It was the beginning of the end for segregation.

The dying struggles of segregation brought little organized or mob violence to Richmond County, but there were hundreds of everyday instances of discrimination. Poll taxes and literacy tests snuffed out many black votes.

"People suffered a lot of abuse on an individual level at the hands of the police," said Ike Washington, a former Augusta city councilman. "Black men could be arrested for anything. There was abuse of authority, and it was done on a large scale."

Blacks made small strides, such as the election of W.C. Ervin, the first black member of the Richmond County Board of Education, in 1951. But Augusta remained quiet as the civil rights movement grew in the 1950s and a young black minister named Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of civil disobedience -- exemplified by the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1956 and 1957.

"C.S. Hamilton, who was the head of the NAACP at the time, said that when he came to Augusta, the mood of many black leaders was, `Don't rock the boat,"' Dr. Cashin said. "Action originated with the young people, mainly at Paine College. They held sit-ins at lunch counters and on buses."

Act helped blacks

The U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 reopened the political scene to black Augustans, who responded by sending R.A. Dent to the Georgia Legislature -- the first black man elected as a legislator since Reconstruction. Two years earlier, his brother B.L. Dent had become the first black member of the Augusta City Council.

The road to the polls still was filled with stumbling blocks. Mr. Washington remembers standing in line for hours in the pouring rain, waiting to register as poll workers dragged through the process. A group of white women provided refreshments for people in line, and he was convinced the example they set helped speed poll workers in their reluctant duties, he said.

"There were a lot of whites who helped, but they could not afford to openly assist," Mr. Washington said.

Throughout desegregation in the early 1960s and the growing presence of black elected officials, racial tension never disappeared. It exploded in the riot of 1970 -- the same year Mr. McIntyre was elected as the first black member of the Richmond County Commission -- after Charles Oatman, a retarded 16-year-old, was beaten to death at the Richmond County jail.

Decade saw changes

It was the 1980s when the civil rights struggle came to fruition as blacks turned to the courts and political office to achieve representation. A sweep of federal lawsuits forced districting and reapportionment in the area, leading to racially balanced commissions and black representation where there had been none. As counties turned to district elections rather than at-large elections, it became easier for black candidates to be elected.

In 1993, Colis Ivey's election to the majority-black but historically white 1st Ward seat created the first majority-black Augusta City Council.

While acknowledging the strides that have been made, some community leaders are open about the fact that race still plays a role in area politics.

"I can't say we don't still have problems," Mr. McIntyre said. "If we plan to move the community forward with half black people and half white people, we have to ask ourselves, `How can we do this?' And we have to come up with a plan for progress and have players from every walk of life knowing what the game plan is."

Mr. McIntyre had hoped to initiate such a joint effort with Augustans Together, an interracial group set up to allow networking among community leaders of different races. He's been disappointed that business leaders have drifted away, leaving the burden squarely on the shoulders of area ministers, he said.

Leadership will have to come not only from the church, but from the economic sector as well in coming years, agreed the Rev. Fryer, who remains with Augustans Together.

But there's concern that many young people are leaving the Augusta area, taking a new generation of leadership with them, both men said. Mr. Blount, who saw many of his peers leave for other opportunities in new places, agreed.

"It does concern me, who's going to be the next generation," he said. "To me, there was no problem coming back. I'm not saying everybody should move back to the neighborhood where they were birthed -- I live on Walton Way now. But I'm still concerned about the place where I grew up."

Alisa DeMao can be reached at (706) 823-3223 or ademao@augustachronicle.com.



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