Roy S. Johnson
This is an opinion column.
This is how badly they want to keep it. Want to keep what they didn’t rightfully earn, yet what they truly believe in their bless-their-heart hearts is theirs. Because, well, they’re white.
They want to hold onto the position of mayor and four city council seats in tiny Newbern, Alabama even though they were never duly elected to hold them. Never. Instead, the titles were handed down through generations like family trinkets. White family trinkets.
Handed down in a city whose Black citizens, comprising about 80 percent of the residents in the 1.5-square-mile Hale County town, were never given a chance to vote. Never. Not for or against them.
The previous two “mayors” each had the last name Stokes—Haywood Stokes, Jr. handed the gavel to Haywood Stokes III. Before them, the title was passed around among the good-ole folks for safekeeping, as were the they-appointed councilors. And for as long as folks’ memories go back, all went about their way.
Until Patrick Braxton, a Black volunteer firefighter, decided to run. He filled out all the necessary paperwork to qualify for the race (navigating a gauntlet comprising Stokes and the town clerk.) Turns out he was the only one who did so and was thus dubbed the mayor.
Except they’re not having it. (Read leading coverage from my colleague, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Kyle Whitmire.)
Of course, I’m talking about the proverbial they.
They who cower in darkness, too cowardly to stand in the light.
They who won’t use their God-given name while professing to glorify His name.
They who can’t spell the racial epithet they spew as easily as they breathe—or misspell it intentionally thinking it’ll stop those dang FBI folks from finding them. Finding them in whatever cave of hate they dwell.
They want to keep it so badly this happened: LeQueena Lewis, born in Greensboro, Ala., is a feisty and giving sort who founded and runs a non-profit—Love Is What Love Does—that fills the many needs of low-income citizens in Hale County and other areas of the Black Belt.
She, her husband Bryan, and their four children returned from the movies last fall and found their home in Selma on fire. They watched the second floor crumble into the first floor and lost almost everything they possessed. (Local fire and insurance investigators did not ascertain the fire’s cause.)
It may only be coincidence—though likely not—that Lewis was aligned front-and-center with Braxton since 2021 when she first heard what they were doing to him. Or trying to do. Trying to wrest from him what he’d rightfully and legally earned. Unlike them.
When she learned Newbern’s Black residents couldn’t recall ever voting. Ever.
“It bothered me to know rights have been violated,” she says. “Our blood runs through that soil yet we’ve never exercised the right to vote.”
For Braxton, Lewis was the fire. She persuaded the mayor to change the locks to city hall each time they changed the locks to keep him out, to hire legal counsel, and ultimately to file a federal lawsuit against them.
“The community was operating in fear,” she says. “People were used to a certain ‘structure’ and never challenged it. It was time for us to do something. I picked up that cross and am walking with it.”
They did something, too. Something not wholly unexpected in places such as this, places where racism has kneeled on the necks of Black people so long, they forget they’re no longer breathing.
They began writing letters. Awful, heinous letters doused generations of racist droppings. Letters address to her nonprofit.
One she shared contained swastikas, myriad uses of the familiar racial epithet and a derogatory term for women (usually the former as an adjective for the latter) and labeled depictions of her and Braxton hanging from gallows.
“I’ve been watching you (sic) 4 kids right and your nice new home. If you don’t get out of my town you and that … non-mayor gona (sic) die. I’ll see you at your next food donation.”
This is how badly they want to keep it. Want to keep what they didn’t rightfully earn. What their predecessors never earned. What they fear losing so badly they lamely and desperately invoke fear—just like whites in the South generations ago, and Republicans today so pitifully fearful of the Black vote.
Alas, just like those before them who stoked racial flames of fear, they just don’t know.
“Fear don’t move me,” says Lewis, who turned the letters over to local police and the FBI (No word yet on the authors). “I don’t believe in fear. They can burn my home and send letters all they want, but they can’t take my voice.”
No, they can’t.