Bob Mants was only 21 when he traveled the dusty back roads of Lowndes County, Ala., seeking out black families and recruiting them to register to vote. Moving cautiously on the back of a mule, he knew that around any corner might be lurking those who would stop at nothing to halt his mission. On Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, he was one of the four leaders of the voting rights march and felt the full brunt of the violence as mounted troopers drove the marchers back across Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Although the right to vote eventually was won, Mants says the battle produced little change for the masses. As one who stayed behind in Lowndes County and continued to struggle to bring justice and equality to the poor in Alabama, he is bitterly disappointed. His remarks are damning: "Many of those in government and politics, universities and think tanks have pimped the poor. They have used our demographics to win large grants and contracts. State elected officials, both black and white, continue to use our demographics of poverty to qualify for federal and state grants. But the resources have not devolved to the people most in need. They have a vested interest in the problem -- no interest in the solution. Many would not solve the problem if they had the solution in their hands. They are our color, but not our kind."
The implicit and explicit premise of the civil rights movement was that poor blacks were suffering because they did not have representation in government. The assumption was that if people of color were in positions of authority, then conditions would change. Voting rights did make it possible to put blacks in office and management positions. But as Catherine Coleman Flowers, another who was a youthful activist, says, "although we have black faces in high places, the conditions of the poor have gotten worse."
After the voting rights battle was won, the funds for rebuilding devastated southern communities never got to the people who were suffering. While $7.9 billion was spent in the War on Poverty, the people who fought on the front lines for the most part did not benefit. Too often money allocated to help these communities was diverted into the pockets of those who profited from the misery of these people.
In Lowndes County -- site of 43 of the 54 miles of the trail from Selma to Montgomery -- little has changed in the almost four decades since the march. The 10 public schools in Lowndes County are heated with dust-spewing coal stoves more than 40 years old. The ancient wiring will not support computers and Internet access. Children and adults are not prepared to compete in today's technological world. The unemployment rate is more than 11 percent and the poverty rate more than 30 percent. At least 1,200 families have no septic systems, and an additional 2,000 or more have failing systems.
The rural poor -- in Lowndes and the rest of the Black Belt of the South -- have become almost invisible in America. They don't reside next to the downtown offices and restaurants. They are not posing a threat or rioting. They don't represent a significant voting bloc, so politicians ignore them.
When local leaders in Lowndes appealed to elected officials, they were ignored. Out of frustration, they turned to my organization, the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. What we did was mobilize volunteers to assist them -- experts who are addressing the specific problems of wastewater management, economic development, high utility bills and human services. They are donating their time and resources to help find solutions to the problems of Lowndes County.
There are positive signs. There are strong local leaders such as Catherine Flowers and Bob Mants. The people of Lowndes have a tremendous will to better their conditions. Eighty-six percent of the families own their own land. Forty-seven percent are married and in two-parent homes. More than 1,200 have volunteered their time to work on solutions to the county's problems. The location of a Hyundai auto plant just six miles from the Lowndes border presents opportunities for economic development and employment. But outside help is needed, and there is a long way to go.
There are tremendous needs, such as for a technology training and workforce development center so residents can acquire the skills to take advantage of any development that comes to the area. The schools need new heating plants, new wiring and satellite receivers so students can have access to the Internet. At the very basic level, the 5,000 households in Lowndes must be given a solution to the septic problem, whether it is individual or centralized systems.
Lowndes County has enormous symbolic significance for the nation. Its residents were on the front lines in the battle for civil rights, and their spirit was the catalyst for other counties to become involved and heard. They deserve the same kind of national mobilization of public and private resources to address their problems. But instead of picket signs and bullhorns, we need people with shovels and hammers.
The real test of effective redress is not how well we hold up the wrongs of the past, but how effectively we act today to help those who are struggling against poverty and despair. And if we can solve the problems of Lowndes County, we will find solutions to the problems of poverty throughout the Black Belt and the rest of rural America.
The writer is founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.