Anna Fifield: Shelby right?

by Anna Fifield / 28 February, 2013
The American South really is another country.
Cartoon by Michael Maslin/The New Yorker Collection
Cartoon by Michael Maslin/The New Yorker Collection

My favourite thing about Washington is getting out of it. It’s not that I don’t like the US capital, but that it often seems as if there are no “real” people here. With all the political posturing, focus-grouping and perfectly blow-dried hair (congressmen and women alike), it often seems this city is an island adrift from the rest of the US.

So I was excited to put on my amateur-anthropologist hat and make my first trip to Alabama this month. Confederate flags could still be seen flying from some houses and men in white suits and bow ties wandered the halls of the state senate like something out of Gone with the Wind.

It would be easy to see such things as throwbacks – one alarming, one charming – to a bygone era. But almost 50 years after the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights for African-Americans, it turns out race relations still leave a lot to be desired.

This week the almost entirely white Alabama county of Shelby took the Federal Government to the Supreme Court, challenging the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the law President Lyndon Johnson signed a few months after the marches. The Act singles out states with a history of discrimination – most of them parts of the old Confederacy – that must get approval from the Federal Government before changing their voting laws.

The law was put to use during last year’s election campaign when the Government blocked Republican legislatures’ efforts to bring in new voter identification rules that critics said were designed to make it harder for black, Hispanic and poor people – all people more likely to vote Democrat – to cast ballots.

But Shelby County is arguing the law is unconstitutional because it treats some states
differently, and although it was perhaps necessary during segregationist times, is no longer relevant. A decision is due in June.

  • Alabama is one of the most religious states in the US, which is no mean feat. According to a recent Gallup poll, 56% of Alabamians describe themselves as “very religious”, tying with Mormon-dominated Utah and just two points behind neighbouring Mississippi. The evidence was everywhere to see. It was impossible to drive more than a mile before passing yet another church, often with signs declaring the likes of “Marriage requires a man and a woman” and “Go to church or the devil will get ya!” But my favourite was outside a gun shop. It read: “Anti-gun is not a solution. Anti-God is a problem. Pray in schools.”

  • There’s no going to the South without eating southern cooking, the comfort food with an unparalleled ability to conceal a pound of butter in a half-pound of vegetables. While in the state capital of Montgomery, my colleague and I went to Isaiah’s Restaurant, which had five stars on my favourite review website. We were not disappointed.We struck up conversation with some locals, whose heads turned when they heard my Kiwi accent. Isaiah, the African-American owner, told us about his hopes for Obama’s second term, and Gibraille, a customer, advised us to order double so we could take some with us. Out came lunch: a huge piece of fried catfish with four side dishes for my colleague, and for vegetarian me, big mounds of mashed potato, macaroni cheese and fried corn in a creamy sauce. Gibraille looked over and said: “Oh, you’s eating light today.” Only in the South could carbs, carbs and carbs be considered light.

Anna Fifield is a New Zealander who reports for the Financial Times from Washington DC.
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