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by Daniel Levitas November/December 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

If anyone needs convincing about the permanent nature of racism, I recommend a visit to Blakely, Georgia. Located a 3 1/2-hour drive south of Atlanta, this small, rural community distinguished itself by allowing its fire department to be run by the Ku Klux Klan. The fire chief told coworkers that fires in the black community "beautify the neighborhood."

Until recently, Blakely's African American community-which comprises fully half the town's population-had been completely disenfranchised by decades of segregation and at-large voting. It took a federal voting rights lawsuit to force the city council to create single-member districts. Further courageous organizing by a handful of black activists helped ensure an end to more than 100 years of all-white government.

Blakely's school board is still chosen in secret by an anonymous grand jury, a practice that continues in 19 Georgia counties. The result is that although the school system is majority-black, only one person on the five-member board is African American.

Cross burnings were frequent in the town and surrounding county. The targets were usually white families who socialized with blacks. The local police chief refused to investigate.

In 1990 and 1991, I made that 3 1 / 2-hour trip more times than I care to remember. On one of those visits, I interviewed Charles Weatherford, the regional Klan organizer. Dissatisfied with the administration of the local Klavern, he was eager to spill the beans on the fire chief. Weatheford's disclosures-and those of other Klansmen who were similarly coaxed and cajoled into talking-laid the groundwork for yet another federal civil rights lawsuit.

After the town spent nearly $50,000 in legal fees to defend itself and its racist fire chief, the suit was settled and all three Klan firefighters were dismissed. The lawsuit sparked an FBI investigation, indictments followed, and Weatherford and several of his compatriots earned felony convictions.

I had the luxury of leaving Blakely before sundown, but for millions of people of color who must endure racism's debilitating and oftentimes deadly effects, there is no escape. And, unlike Blakely, their struggles usually do not reach the federal courts, the pages of the New York Times, or network television.

While white social scientists, conservatives, politicians and media pundits debate to what extent-and sometimes even whether-racism exists, more than half their fellow citizens remain convinced that blacks breed crime, prefer welfare to hard work and are less patriotic than whites, according to the National Opinion Research Center. Numerous other objective indicators of racism exist, measuring everything from discrimina-tion in housing and employment to car purchases and bank loans.

Racism must be fought because it -like anti-Semitism, homophobia and sexism-is inherently unjust and destroys both human potential and lives. These evils must also be challenged to preserve what humanity remains in all of us. The soul of a nation-and those of its citizens-is as much defined by the permanence of racism as by the struggle against it.

Daniel Levitas a PRRAC grantee, was until recently Executive Director of the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta.

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