It is the kind of construction favored by some fiction writers. H. Rap Brown, who launched his storied civil rights career in poverty-racked Lowndes County, Ala., 38 years ago, ended it there with his capture on a murder charge. Maybe a writer some day will use the Lowndes connection to bracket the life of Brown, the firebrand of SNCC and the Black Panthers who became Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin and, last week, a convicted murderer.
But Robert L. Woodson Sr. sees another, more depressing story line. Lowndes County is the place where nothing's changed.
The president of the Washington-based National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise hadn't seen Lowndes until last month, when an Alabama activist, Brenda Flowers, invited him down for a look.
"It just blew my mind," he told me. "People living without sewers or septic tanks, with waste running off into an open ditch. A third of the residents living in trailers, which start losing value the day they buy them, because they can get loans for trailers but not for houses on land they own. Kids attending ramshackle schools with coal-fired furnaces and as many as a third of them spending time out of school with respiratory illnesses.
"Lowndes is a metaphor for what I've been saying for decades -- that the civil rights-poverty-political complex has failed the least of God's children: the poor, especially poor blacks."
Which is not entirely fair. No one approach can solve everything. Rap Brown (who still insists he is innocent of murdering a sheriff's deputy who was trying to serve a warrant) came to Lowndes initially to lead a voter registration campaign. Voting is no longer a problem there, with blacks holding a majority of the political offices in the black-majority county. But enfranchisement has not significantly improved the lives of the people.
Woodson sees it as a general indictment of the civil rights movement, which, since its early successes in delivering basic rights, has, in his view, used the plight of poor blacks to enhance the status of the nonpoor.
"It's a classic bait-and-switch, but it's more difficult to see in a city, where everyone has hot and cold running water, and all you have to do to look middle class is dress up. But it's impossible to miss in a place like Lowndes County. I mean, the leadership is obsessed with symbols of racial intolerance -- racial profiling, Confederate flags and all that -- and ignoring the real life-and-death problems of real people. I've just talked to a man whose 90-something-year-old father is about to be evicted from a place he owns because he doesn't have a septic tank. It will cost the county more to take care of him after his eviction than it would cost to put in a septic tank for him. And yet the re-creations of the Selma-to-Montgomery march pass within a few miles of this man, and nobody pays him any attention, or the hundreds like him."
And what would Woodson do? For starters, he hopes to get an injunction to stop the eviction and then: "You need to go in with a very simple and pedestrian agenda. We need to declare what is happening in Lowndes County a 'virtual hurricane.' You know what would happen if a real hurricane struck the area and wiped everything out. We would go in with engineers, builders, truckloads of septic tanks. The government, volunteers and the private sector would all come together and do what needed to be done.
"Lowndes is a perfect laboratory for trying out some of the things President Bush has been talking about, including the enlistment of faith-based organizations. If the civil rights leadership was concerned about the poor, they would try to join forces with the people in power to do something about their plight instead of just protesting and opposing. They might see that, in the 21st century, there can be more value in a build-in than in a sit-in."
To repeat: No one approach -- including Woodson's -- can solve everything. Neither voting rights nor "virtual hurricanes" create jobs, which may be what Lowndes needs as much as anything.
But as Al-Amin told a TV interviewer a while back, the mistake he made in his youth was to think that you could make America do everything at once. He'd now agree with Woodson on at least one thing: You've got to start somewhere.