It’s the middle of the month and the eviction notices are out. Walking past people’s doors, you see the attached white court papers, fluttering in the breeze like so many SOS flags of distress, signaling that the inhabitants are In It Deep. Alabama law is as relentlessly landlord-friendly as it is prostrate before business and capital in general. The Alabama State Constitution of 1901 is without doubt the longest in the world, stretching for hundreds of pages—by comparison, India’s Constitution is one-third as long—and was designed by the “Big Mules,” the magnates of mine, steel and agriculture, to enshrine white supremacy and forestall any populist rebellion of the “branch-heads,” the tenant-farmers and share-croppers.
The Constitution micromanages every possible aspect of daily life here in Alabama (including the setting of boll weevil taxes and how to dispose of dead farm animals) and can only be overturned by constitutional amendment, a convoluted process heavily weighted to maintain the status quo. It centralizes power in the state apparatus and controls most aspects of city and county politics as well. Only in 2000, for example, was the statute criminalizing inter-racial marriage finally taken out. Still remaining are provisions not guaranteeing a right to public education and permitting segregated schools (1).
My neighbor, “Ced,” a lanky middle-aged truck driver who reminds me of a slim Chuck Berry, pulled me aside and told me, “Hey man, I don’t put my business in the street but I got an eviction notice.” Time lost off the job because of an uncle’s funeral and his own illness left him short of rent. The landlords here, instead of tacking on late fees, instead send the case straight to lawyers after 10 days, which then adds hundreds of dollars in lawyer fees on top of owed rent, putting it outside most people on monthly checks and low-wage workers’ ability to pay. “Ced” says, “If people like you and me had that sort of money, we wouldn’t be staying here in the first place.” Yes.
It’s possible of course to forestall eviction if you know how to manipulate the system, which involves going to every court hearing and filing appeals and extensions. Someone I knew, a former jailhouse lawyer, who was savvy in manipulating the system to his benefit, managed to stay rent free in his house for eight months before the final day of reckoning came. But for most working-class people here, the paperwork and court involvement create a “deer in headlights” paralysis. The courts and lawyers are part of the “Surround” that Earl Shorris describes in “New American Blues,” comparing what low-income people experience in America to the well-documented surround in animal behavior, where a trapped animal, hemmed in by a predatory pack, simply gives up.
Fortunately, for my trucker neighbor, an uncle at the last moment lent him the money to avoid eviction. In other cases of dealing with life’s hard knocks, the church, like the family, becomes a “heart in a heartless world,” as Marx famously put it. Another neighbor, “W,” a tall string-bean of a man with the long sad face of a blues singer and crooked yellow-stained teeth who I often gave rides to the store and clinic appointments suddenly one day showed off to my surprise his new car, a used early 2000s Ford. “W” said a man in his church woke up one morning and said “the Lord” had told him in a dream to do something for someone less fortunate and so “W” ended up with the gift of a car.
In this way, the Southern church for all its undeniable backwardness becomes a defacto social services agency when the state withdraws as in Alabama, very similar to how political Islam in the Middle East steps in to provide essential services when Arab states refuse. Although the Black Southern church is generally more socially progressive than the white evangelicals, both fulfill this practical role and this is one under-appreciated reason for the strength of religious feeling in the South. Just labeling it “false consciousness” doesn’t capture the full and conflicting messiness of reality. It may be social solidarity erected on an illusion but is still solidarity.
- http://leftinalabama.com/is-there-a-right-to-a-public-education-in-al-constitution-commission-is-split/; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/03/10/fyi-alabamas-constitution-still-calls-for-separate-schools-for-white-and-colored-children/?utm_term=.383ee3aaf22a