Where Does the Rural South Fit in the Modern Movement for Black Lives?

by Ari C. Johnson

Partnering with photographer Michael Williamson, journalist Chico Harlan authored a four part series for The Washington Post named 'A Region Left Behind: Lost Opportunity in the Deep South.' Utilizing photographs of bleak subjects in deep tones, dismal economic statistics, and personal stories from Southerners of different ages, Harlan's inquiry into the rural and urban South was subtle yet powerful. Leading the nation in counties with the worst male life expectancy, median income, and upward mobility, the Deep South is also home to a region known as the Black Belt, an area stretching from Maryland to Louisiana known for its high percentage of African Americans. The Black Belt contains the poorest counties in the nation.

Though relatively unknown at first, the series gained steam and began to circulate among blacktivist Facebook and Twitter circles, fueling my hope that finally the rural Black experience would at last become a serious subject of conversation within the movement. It was a faint hope. The Black Lives Matter movement is a city phenomenon with a primarily urban lens: Chicago, New York, and Oakland are the major capitols, and there are several hubs such as D.C., St. Louis, and Baltimore among others. Southern cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, and New Orleans shows signs of life but are only fledglings so far.

Following up on Harlan's research piece, I looked into the 2010 census findings on the American Black population and found these statistics:
  • Of all Black respondents to the 2010 US Census, 55% lived in the South. (18% in the Midwest, 17% in the Northeast, and 10% in the West.) 
  • The South was the region where the Black population comprised the greatest proportion of the total population at 20%. (As opposed to 13% in the Northeast, 10% in the Midwest, and 6% in the West.) 
  • The Black population represented over 50 percent of the total population in the District of Columbia and over 25 percent of the total population in six states, all located in the South. 
  • Of the 106 counties in the nation where the Black population comprised 50 percent or more of the total county population, all but one were located in the South. 
So why this silence in regard to the South's Black Belt, though it faces poverty, education disparity, and environmental racism that rivals that of large cities? Is it, as my boyfriend posits, because the rural Black southerners "don't make enough noise"?

Or is it because the South poses a challenge to the Black Lives Matter movement's primary principles and organizing strategies?

After all, protest-based activism is no longer an effective approach in the Rural South. During the Civil Rights Movement there were sizable businesses and political landmarks to target; there were spaces to gather and organize (albeit churches). Those elements of Southern society have all substantially eroded since then. Southern towns are abandoned, local shops and restaurants are boarded up, and the significance of the county courthouse has materially diminished. What would BLM's main strategies--protests at central locations, blockades of busy intersection, and marches through crowded avenues--look like in South Carolina’s Barnwell County? And what would residents protest in the South? Not the movement's central issue of police brutality and criminal justice reform, which, though essential, is secondary in rural areas to the dire need for a job that doesn't require a two-hour commute (without public transit).

Perhaps an even greater dilemma is the fact that organizing in the rural South and acknowledging it as a target community would potentially require the movement to engage the traditionalism of Southern culture. The South outside of liberal cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, etc. is to an extent stuck in time and still deeply rooted in post-reconstruction and King era mindsets. The vast majority of Black southerners, young and old, are (1) patriarchal and homophobic, (2) still convinced of the value of respectability politics, and (3) tied to the Black church, which perpetuates the aforementioned mindsets. (There are, of course, many radical Black southerners, but I will admit that we do not constitute a majority.) The Black Lives Matter movement, on the other hand, is largely feminist and LGBTQ friendly, refutes Eurocentric notions of respectability, and usually prefers to leave the Black church be. The South celebrates and clings to the civil rights movement; Black Lives Matter appreciates its contributions and has resolved to move in a different direction.

These questions are usually ignored until necessity brings them to light again. Last year, that necessity came in the shape of the Emanuel massacre, which fully displayed the rift between the South and the movement and precipitated my own personal identity crisis.

To say that I am a member of the AME Church is to understate how essential it has been to my upbringing and identity. My mother pastors a church outside of Charleston and was a colleague of the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney. She was ordained into the ministry at Mother Emanuel with his help and guidance. The AME Church, though stubbornly patriarchal and now far removed from its socially active beginnings, is historically rich and was essential to the formation of my understanding of Black historical, musical, and religious traditions. But becoming 'conscious', relocating to Miami for my college career, and now serving as an active member of the Dream Defenders has led to my rejection of a number of theological and social ideas associated with the South and the Black church. I do not ideologically resemble the average Black southerner. And yet, I don't believe that the Black Lives Matter movement is the most holistic representation of me either. I've heard many radical young Black southerners say the same.

That became very clear after the Emanuel Massacre. All at once, my little corner of South Carolina became the focus of a national conversation on race and the movement. I drove from vigil to vigil, funeral service to funeral service, checking Twitter in between. The responses I witnessed from the movement and from the Black church were equally frustrating. My denomination's emphasis on forgiveness over accountability and the erasure of Black women by predominantly male church leadership incensed me. Instead of proving that it could be a resource to the modern movement, the church distanced itself even more. My feelings toward the movement's response were no less scathing. On the one hand, I was infuriated by the politicization of Mother Emanuel by many activists who previously showed little interest in the Black church or southern Black concerns. On the other, some activists continued to 'bash' the church for its homophobia, patriarchy, and handling of the tragedy. Though I understood the validity of those criticisms and often raised the issues myself, I resented the rejection of the South and the lack of nuanced analysis. Out of these ambivalent sentiments, two questions became clear and have plagued me ever since: (1) How does the southern Black population figure in the Black Lives Matter movement's agenda for liberation? and (2) What place does the radical Black southerner occupy in the movement?

In order for this movement to say that it is for the liberation of all Black people, these questions must be addressed, and they must be addressed with continuous conversation. We cannot jumpstart it whenever Southern Black churches are terrorized and abandon it again after the news gets old and the exchange becomes exasperating. (And the fact of the matter is that it may very well be exasperating.) Better incorporating the southern Black experience into the movement may require us to reimagine what it means to be Black, what it means to organize, and what it means to be diverse and intersectional. But that process can only strengthen the modern movement and its reach.

Photo: nisargmedia.com / Shutterstock.com

Ari C. Johnson is a student of Religion and International Studies at the University of Miami, a fledgling activist, and a walking contradiction. Her interests include Black feminism, British literature, unrevised history, abandoned buildings, nature, escapism, and Southern food.

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