Bonnie Moton, baby in lap, wheeled her '72 Buick across rural Wilcox County, picking up black voters as they flagged her down, moving along a revolution started 17 years ago by the Voting Rights Act.
Legislation has not been enough to deliver the vote to blacks, who make up 70 percent of Wilcox County. It has taken countless voter registration drives, students who take days off from high school to read ballots to illiterate voters, volunteer taxi drivers like Moton, and the Justice Department.
Not one black voter was on the books here when the act was passed in 1965. Now the sheriff is black, along with two of four county commissioners, two of five school board members and the tax collector. When the ballots were counted some officials were predicting that blacks would defeat the white probate judge and hold the majority on all the boards and commissions.
Willie Nickerson, 75, a disabled logger, climbed painfully out of Moton's car at the National Guard Armory, the town's largest polling place. Approaching a table jammed with poll workers, he nodded for a ballot and indicated that he would need someone to help him fill it out.
"Can't write, can't read," he said.
"You got someone to help you, Willie?" asked white poll worker Mack Powe, a $42,000-a-year pulpwood processing plant supervisor. Nickerson nodded. At his elbow was a black high school student with the day off to help voters who couldn't read.
The student leaned over the ballot, reading out the choices under the watchful eyes of one of 461 federal observers dispatched by the Justice Department to monitor the primary elections in nine counties in Alabama. The number of observers, all employes of the Office of Personnel Management deputized under the Voting Rights Act from as far away as California, is the largest ever assigned to the state.
"The more they send the better," said a white retired banker who declined to give his name. "We need protection now. We're the minority."
Several white officials said they begged the Justice Department to come down in the wake of charges of misuse of absentee ballots by blacks. "Some blacks who will be elected this time don't have enough sense to pour water out of a boot," said Hollis Curl, 46, publisher of the weekly newspaper. "Fella running for coroner can't even spell 'heart attack,' much less figure out if somone had one."
Curl's son, Mark, 21, holds the office now. He's never been to medical school, blacks point out. But he faithfully photographs the bodies he tends. Many shots wind up on the front page of his father's newspaper.
From his command post 40 miles away in Selma, Jerry Jones, chief of the voting section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, arbitrated disputes. Observers jotted irregularities in government notebooks. By mid-afternoon "things seem to be going fine," he said. "Our presence may be having a salutary effect."
In Wilcox County, candidates like Felix (Reg) Albritton, 61, the white probate judge, were trying to hang onto their seats against the odds of demographics. His opponent was Larry Threadgill, son of a popular black minister, who had dispatched box lunches of pork chops and cornbread for his volunteers at the polls.
"I figure if I help get him elected, he'll help get me a job," said volunteer Victor Barber, 17, a senior at Wilcox County High School.
"I'm working to keep people from going back to slavery times," said Diane Nelson, 16. "Plus, Larry said he'd try to pay us $15."
"Blacks have finally learned how to get elected," said county commissioner Bobby (Jo-Jo) Johnson, 33, a black Vietnam veteran who lost a leg in the war.