Local journalist details problems of living in poor Black Belt of Alabama


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John Allan Clark wouldn’t cuss as long as the recorder was on. That is, until the 30-year old Marion, Ala., native couldn’t explain the problems Alabama’s impoverished Black Belt region faces with anything less than a four-letter word.

“We just happen to be the poorest part of a fucked up state, so we get the worst. It’s hard to be eloquent about it,” Clark said.

Clark is something of an expert in those subjects – both what he calls the “fucked-upness” that plagues Perry County and the rest of the 18 counties that lie across Alabama’s midsection, and being eloquent. Clark, a lifelong resident of the Black Belt, “stumbled into” journalism in the region and started his own newspaper, the Perry County Herald, based in Marion, Ala., the county seat of Perry County, 57 miles south of Tuscaloosa.

Today, he pops open a craft beer with his Bic lighter in Jim’s Little Store on the town square in Marion as he gets ready to talk about the problems he knows so well – widespread government corruption, failing institutions, racism and xenophobia, to name a few. Jim’s is situated on the west side of Marion’s archetypal “town square,” with storefronts lining the streets, facing inward toward a regal white courthouse, and has the spirit to match it. Clark already talked to three people, including the mayor, between the sidewalk and the Little Store’s front door. In the Black Belt, people “mosey” like that, or walk around to a slower tempo as if they never have anywhere to be. With the setting sun glinting off the courthouse across the street and a ceiling fan whirring above, we’ve done our moseying, and Clark gets straight to business in our interview.

The Parable of the Black Belt

After we sit down inside, Clark knows what I want to ask about – it’s the same thing I wanted to ask him about as a University of Alabama Fellow participating in the program’s annual Black Belt Experience three years ago. He knows I want to hear the landfill story.

“It was the first news story I ever wrote for the Marengo County paper,” he says, speaking about the efforts of the people of Uniontown, a small Black Belt community just to the south of Marion, to stop the construction of a landfill to take in toxic “coal ash,” or the fine, dried and dusty runoff from a massive coal mining waste spill up in Tennessee.

“That was something that I approached thinking, ‘hey, look how fucked up local government is,’” Clark says. “These people in Uniontown don’t want this landfill in their backyard, and the county commission’s not listening to them. Then an election happened, while the landfill was still an issue that the commission could have voted on, and the county commission changed makeup. Uniontown voted out both of their county commissioners, put two new guys in…who turned around and voted for the landfill just like the guys they got rid of. And you realize that it’s much larger…there are much larger forces here that keep Perry County, that keep the Black Belt the way it is.

“It’s just that institutions at every level fail this place,” he says.

Clark has told this story to several UA Fellows during their three-week ventures into the Black Belt in May to conduct service projects. He’s also written about it on his blog, on which the whole story turns into a kind of parable.

The rural people of the Black Belt get screwed over by outside money and interests, the story goes, and no one outside the region seems to care – not the EPA, not environmental lawyers. They fight back, maybe even win a few small battles and delay the big interests, only to get beaten again.

The heroes of the story, Clark and his partner Travis Vaughan wrote in January 2010, are the ones on the outside who hear the story, then commit to help.

“Fortunately for us, someone looked at Perry County and saw something besides a poor, ignorant little county no one’s heard of, with cheap land and cheaper politicians for the taking,” they wrote in a post about two outsiders who stood up to the landfill company on behalf of the people of Uniontown. “Someone looked down here and saw, of all things, people.”

And after four years of The University of Alabama Fellows’ Black Belt Experience, a program always hailed as a foundational tradition of the Fellows Experience, several Fellows have seen enough, and are ready to start an institution that won’t fail the Black Belt.

57 Miles

For UA Fellow Jason Arturburn, three weeks in May simply isn’t enough.

As a sophomore, Arterburn participated in his class’s Black Belt Experience in May 2012 to round out his freshman year at Alabama.

When the Fellows plan for their three-week community service projects in May, Arterburn says, directors continually remind the Fellows that they’re not meant to be “white saviors” for the impoverished region; they’re meant to work in partnership. But that word, he felt, was thrown around a bit too loosely last May.

“Everyone was talking about how it’s a ‘partnership’ – that was kind of like lip-service, to quell us while we were there,” he says. “Three weeks out of the year is not a partnership. If it’s a true partnership, we’re there throughout the year.”

That’s exactly what the Honors College now wants, Arterburn explains. Through a program he’s directing with Fellow Chris Joiner called 57 Miles – named after the distance between Tuscaloosa and Marion – he and the Honors College want to open up the Black Belt Experience to Honors students at large and extend the relationship between the Honors College and Marion beyond its current three-week lifespan.

“I would say, if there’s one word that we remind ourselves of constantly as we move forward, it’s ‘partnering.’ We’re partnering with anyone in the community to combat whatever issues they see through the ways they see as most appropriate,” Arterburn says. This partnership, he says, is an alternative to creating student initiatives and “blazing through the community with them” in three weeks.

57 Miles is still in its early phases, but currently up and running is a weekly ACT preparation class for the students at Francis Marion High School, a recurring and successful program started by Fellows during a Black Belt experience several years ago. Students in the Honors College hope to add more initiatives that will require Honors voluneers to visit Marion regularly.

“The way we plan to combat Black Belt problems is just by listening to community members and educating students that work with them,” he said.

That won’t be difficult, as long as people like John Allan Clark live in Marion and remain willing to talk. And Clark, Arterburn said, isn’t alone.

“Marion was selected because it has grassroots momentum challenging these widespread, systemic, tangled problems,” he said.

Grassroots Momentum

John Allan Clark loves the idea of 57 Miles, he says, because the Black Belt is nothing if not an education in what it means to be part of a community.

“Half of any victory is showing up. And just by being here, coming here, experiencing what the Black Belt is like, I would hope does a lot,” he says, definitely no longer moseying in the conversation and speaking on a topic about which he’s visibly passionate. “You know, I couldn’t name a project that has come out of the Black Belt Experience except the ones that I was directly involved in. You know, people would come by and talk to me about the landfill and shit like that. I know that there were interns at the library, I know this and that…but to me, that’s not really the point. The point is, like I said before, is actually being here…understanding that a place like the Black Belt is fifty-seven miles away from the vaunted ivory tower, and that it’s not that much different. People here aren’t any different.”

That’s not to say 57 Miles and a year-round partnership between the UA Honors College and Perry County won’t experience obstacles. But Clark maintains that there are reasons to stay idealistic in the face of the Black Belt’s poverty.

“A lot of the townspeople, especially older people obviously, are like, ‘Eh, look at these kids. They’re not going to change anything. What the fuck are these do-gooders doing, trying to come in here and tell us what to do?’ But maybe it’s not for you, you know what I mean? The important thing is that outside perspective that no small community is used to.

“I hear so many people that come in here and say, ‘oh, well, this is the problem, if you just did this, this and this, it’d fix everything.’ And they’re right,” Clark almost laughs. “They’re right. You arrive at solutions, but at the same time, you realize just how hard it is to implement any of those.”

This education is part of the parable Clark and his partners at the Perry County Herald, which closed its doors and stopped printing in 2010, have developed. It’s the part where people look at the Black Belt and see more than a string of poor, ignorant little counties.

“I feel like on one level or another, y’all are kind of paying attention to the Black Belt in a way that you wouldn’t have at all if you’d have just gone through your four years at UA and never shown up down here. That’s what’s important to me. ‘Cause shit, maybe one of you’ll come back here for longer than a week, you know what I mean?” Clark finishes his beer, letting that sink in.

“I’ll go get another beer. You want one?”

He’s not going anywhere any time soon, and with 57 Miles, he may be about to get his wish for a few Honors students to stay for more than a week.

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