We’ve just observed the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, AL, the horrible day that followed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and led to the Voting Rights act of 1965. That anniversary and the recent flawed film Selma caused me to reflect on the longest year of my life when I tried to teach history at a “college prep” school in southern Alabama. How far have we and Alabama come since that fateful day on March 7, 1965?
The movie-makers did a splendid job on Selma as long as the character of President Lyndon Baines Johnson was not on screen or mentioned. LBJ’s position on the Voting Rights Act was completely botched throughout the film. The screenplay indicated that what happened at Selma was needed to bring Johnson on board to support the Voting Rights Act.
In fact, President Johnson always thought that a Voting Rights Act would be his greatest achievement and encouraged Martin Luther King to keep the pressure on so that the American people could see the need of it as well. In a phone conversation on Jan. 15, 1965, LBJ asked MLK to find the worst possible place to expose how blacks were denied voting rights so that television viewers would be able to see. MLK and his staff concluded that Selma was the place.
Why the film’s director and screenwriter didn’t utilize this intriguing and fascinating relationship is impossible to imagine. We can only hope that parents and educators everywhere are making sure that today’s students are aware of the true story. Only then will the film be the valuable educational tool that it should have been.
As I said before, the anniversary and the film brought back bad memories of the year I still consider “a hundred years of my life.” It certainly seemed that long. It was 22 years after Selma. Specifically, it was from early August 1987 into June 1988 when I taught at what I will rename “Club Alabama” to protect the innocent – and there were several likeable and fine students and teachers there.
Although I had been teaching at a superb college prep school, Xavier Prep, in New Orleans for seven years, I needed a change. There were several nostalgic factors that appealed to me about “Club Alabama.” It too was reputedly a very good prep school. The open layout of the school reminded me of the American School of Quito, Ecuador, where I taught in the mid-seventies. It was also co-ed whereas Xavier Prep was all girls, so it was more natural to me.
The best thing about it was that it was near a beach that reminded me of my favorite beach at Atacames, Ecuador. I avoided “Redneck Riviera” at Gulf Shores and went a little to the west to the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge instead. It was a pristine, undeveloped beach of white sand and dunes. As it turned out, as long as I could get to that beach every Saturday and Sunday that weather allowed, I was able to keep my sanity.
The school year started out badly on day one and went downhill from there. (1) The headmaster allowed a hostile troublemaker to stay after he had broken his probation of promising to end his “unacceptable conduct” from the previous year. After that, the students knew he would never back me up on anything – and he never did. (2) The students resented my replacing a man who retired and whom they considered “a real sweetheart.” According to several students and another teacher, the man never actually taught anything: he wrote the test questions on the board one day, gave them the answers the next, and eventually gave them “the test.” No one would tell me what he did the rest of the time. (3) Meanwhile, somehow the students learned that I had taught at Xavier Prep, which was an all-black school. They perceived me a traitor and untrustworthy from then on.
One of the other teachers, who had been there a few years, privately asked me what my opinion of the school was. I looked her straight in the eyes and told her the truth: “It’s a rich kid’s social club-seggie academy, established to perpetuate the fascist mentality.” Do you know what her response was? “Some of us don’t want it to be like that.” I loved that “some of us.” I knew who some of them were, but they weren’t more than a handful of the staff.
One of them was a Baptist preacher who had signed on that year to teach math. He was a “floating” teacher who was not assigned his own classroom, so he taught a class in my room during my prep period. That gave me a few minutes each day to speak with him. I became his sounding board and mentor. He said, “This is a hate school! I was raised a country boy in Mississippi, and I was told that I was a racist. But I never hated anybody. The blacks I knew were friends and were like family. I’ve never seen such hatred as I’ve seen here.”
What made him so justifiably angry was that this was the twelfth year he had been wasting his money paying tuition to send his daughter to that school – the “best college prep school in the area.” She would graduate that year, and he had no idea what kind of school he had been sending her to until he started teaching there. One day he came in more furious than ever, slammed his huge briefcase on my desk, pointed his forefinger at me, and said: “I’ve got this place figured out. We’re going to make you the headmaster and let you do whatever it takes to fix this mess!”
My 10th grade world history class was the only one that I could teach as I normally would. During the second semester, the parents of one of those students invited me for dinner at their home. They confessed they invited me so as to persuade me to stay at least one more year. I thanked them but told them that, in November, I had made arrangements to return to Xavier Prep for the next school year. I was going to finish serving my sentence at “Club Alabama” and move on. By the way, at the end of the year I was not surprised to find that I was left out of the yearbook.
So where are we now? That school still exists 27 years after I escaped and hopefully has changed its spots. I don’t know. The five Republican jurists on the U.S. Supreme Court emasculated the Voting Rights Act two years ago for partisan reasons. They claimed that part of the law needed to be updated, knowing full-well that Republicans in the Congress would never allow that to happen. Alabama and many others immediately begin restricting voting rights again with voter ID laws under the ruse of preventing nonexistent fraudulent voting – the real intent is to prevent as many potential Democratic voters as possible from voting.
The Alabama Supreme Court overruled a federal court ruling and ordered that same-sex marriage licenses were not to be issued. Discrimination is still alive and well. Here in Arkansas, the state Supreme Court has wisely, so far, not ruled on whether to uphold the state’s repugnant constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. If the court supports the ban, it will support discrimination, be on the wrong side of history, and embarrass the state. If the court overrules the ban, those who vote to do so will face tough re-election campaigns. I suspect the court will wait for the U. S. Supreme Court to decide the issue this summer. The Alabama Supreme Court should have done the same thing.
Nevertheless, there is a recent sign of progress in the heart of old Dixie. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, very quietly ordered the removal of the Stars and Bars from the state Capitol grounds on June 24. He said, after the senseless murder in South Carolina of nine blacks by a white supremacist who was photographed with the rebel battle flag, “This is the right thing to do.”
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published June 30, 2015, in the El Dorado News-Times.