A line runs straight from the state capital to the riverboat dock on the Alabama River in downtown Montgomery. What happened in the former is connected to what happened in the latter.
Which is this: Over the weekend, a bunch of white men in Alabama beat up a black man. It happened on the riverfront in downtown Montgomery.
The black man was doing his job as a security guard, seeking to move a private boat from a docking station assigned to the commercial riverboat at the end of its cruise. Instead of complying with the request and removing their boat from where it was not supposed to be, the white men attack the black man.
A fight ensued, all of it now on video and viewed by millions of people around the world.
Scores of riverboat travelers watched the mayhem from the decks of their stationary boat. One sixteen-year-old boy leaped into the water, swam to shore, and went to the aid of the outnumbered security guard. He is being hailed as a hero.
When their cruise boat fully docked, scores of travelers spilled out, determined to even the score. As might be expected, that original band of white men came out on the short end of things; most were arrested. An investigation is underway.
What would posses a bunch of white men in Alabama to park where they shouldn’t and attack a security guard who asked them to relocate their boat? Alcohol, for sure, and lots of it; but also, an equal consumption of white privilege.
Alabama has a long history of this debilitating disease.
A recent example is the town of Newbern. For the first time in its 166-year history, it elected a black man as mayor. But the town council, all white men, pushed back and refused to let him assume the rights and responsibilities of the office. Now, there is a lawsuit.
But the best example of white privilege is even more recent.
Three weeks ago, the legislature, mostly white, discounted the directive of a three-person panel of federal judges and refused to comply as they redrew the congressional districts of the state. Black citizens make up more than a quarter of the state population, the judges said, and should therefore have opportunity for more than one (of seven) representatives in the U. S. House of Representatives.
But the state legislature said No.
Republicans control the Alabama state legislature because Republicans are the party of white while Democrats are the party of black. Why this is the case surely is no mystery—none other than a structural way of expressing the long-standing dominance of white privilege in the state. It may be this way in other states, as well, but it is surely this way in Alabama.
So, when the white boys of Alabama tied up their boat in a dock assigned to others and heard the appeals of a dock worker to move their boat, they refused. After all, they were white, and they had just heard on the news that their older, more sophisticated comrades had thumbed their collective nose at the rules of operation and stuck it, once again, to their black neighbors.
The good old boys of Alabama were perhaps too drunk, no doubt, to point to the state capital ten blocks away to make their argument of privilege. It might have been a compelling appeal: “Our boys in the capital showed us how it is done. Ignore the law. Assert our privilege. Beat up a black man or two along the way. Who cares?”
Some legislators will discount their impact on those half-drunk buddies on the mis-docked boat. Plus, in and around all these racist people (some holding high office and some just out for a boat ride) are thousands of white people sick and tired of their state reputation for racism. Some of them even joined with the black folk to settle the score with those white bullies.
When the mayor, himself a black man, took his turn at the microphone, he defended his city and contended this Brawl in Montgomery (as it is being called) is not characteristic of their city. I am sure that I am not the only one who listened in disbelief. There is too much evidence to the contrary.
And, I might add, most of this evidence is generated by white men and women who also hold high office in their respective churches: ministers, trustees, teachers, deacons, and such. Which has been the case before, during, and after the season of slavery in the South.
That straight line from the capital to the boat dock? It stretches only ten blocks but still manages to run down the center aisle of ten thousand churches.