An email exchange last week between black state Rep. Joe Mitchell, D-Mobile, and white gun advocate Eddie Maxwell was a painful look into Alabama history.
Mitchell was out of line. Answering Maxwell’s claim that any form of gun control violated state law, the state representative went on a rant.
“Your folk never used all this sheit (sic) to protect my folk from your slave-holding, murdering, adulterous, baby-raping, incestuous, snaggle-toothed, backward-a**ed, inbreed, imported criminal-minded folk.”
It was an ugly diatribe, all the more so because Mitchell apparently knew nothing about Maxwell or his ancestors.
A disturbing aspect of Mitchell’s response was that he agrees with Maxwell on gun control. Had Alabama slaves had access to guns, Mitchell seems to suggest, an evil institution would have ended sooner. Maybe so, but it’s a reminder that military-style guns are a violent shortcut to political reform. Whether or not Mitchell was right about how that would have played out in the 1800s, it raises frightening possibilities in 2013.
White Alabamians would do well to acknowledge Mitchell’s raw frustration. We doubt he represents many black Alabamians in his views, and his angry comments may sink his political future. His email, though, is a reminder of how recently blacks were openly oppressed.
Alabamians of both races try to treat the horrors of slavery, segregation and voter suppression as anachronisms. We try to see them as signs of how far we have come.
Indeed we have come far, but the progress has been recent and tumultuous. Fifty years ago former Gov. George Wallace vowed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” He followed the promise, of course, with his iconic stand blocking Vivian Malone and James Hood from the University of Alabama.
And against this backdrop, a state law will take effect next year that adds hurdles to voting rights that will disproportionately affect Alabama blacks, a disturbing echo of poll taxes and literacy tests.
Five generations ago, many blacks in Alabama were slaves. They had no ability to accumulate wealth or, of course, to pass it on to their children. Many came to the state not knowing English. Education — the key to income mobility for white males — was not an option for many blacks.
The last slave ship to the United States — filled with 160 West Africans kidnaped from their homes — entered Mobile Bay illegally in 1859. Many of their ancestors live in or near Mitchell’s district.
The oppression did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Just over a generation ago, blacks were relegated to segregated and poorly funded schools, blacks-only water fountains and the back of the bus. Literacy tests that few of any race could pass today blocked many blacks from voting. Higher education was not an option.
Mitchell’s comments were harmful to Alabamians who are seeking to overcome a racially divided past. They also, however, were a reminder that the oppression of past generations remains relevant.
Deprived for generations of the financial, educational and cultural capital that provide income mobility in the United States, many Alabama blacks struggle to attain the American Dream.