How did the legal support provided by Georgia Legal Services Program empower the black leaders of McIntosh County? Without access to the power of the law and the authority of the courts, what different turn might events have taken? Have any of us participated in programs that combined professional expertise and volunteerism with grass-roots leadership?
The nonfiction story Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene revolves around the oppressed black Americans of McIntosh County. In McIntosh County, an impoverished black majority community, residents come to rely on stealing sheetrock off wrecked trucks on the highway. Hence the title, Praying for Sheetrock. This has become their main source of survival within the county. This is because of the infamous Sheriff Tom Poppel, a bigoted "master" of the people. Sheriff Poppel ruled over McIntosh County as a feudal lord might rule over his lands. The sheriff basically lorded over the land, putting poor blacks and whites in destitution, all by simply ruling in a traditionally white political system, and using those unfair privileges to abuse the rights of the community. Despite this unfair and blatantly racist situation, the town comes off as a peaceful, dreamy, typical Southern town. The only way this was even possible was because the sheriff and his minions used their political clout to make certain that the races were divided, armed to the hilt; they used the small-town premise of everybody knows everybody else in order to ensure community peace. If that shrouded sense of peace were to be unveiled, all hell would certainly break lose, something no citizen really desired.
As with all subjugated societies, sometimes it only takes a single event of great proportion to shake up the political stronghold. Such was the case in McIntosh County one fateful night, as a white deputy shot a drunken black man in the mouth. He then carelessly threw the injured man in jail, refusing him medical treatment. This, quite rightly, set off a major upset within the black community of McIntosh County. This was not going to be a situation for Sheriff Poppel to sweep under the proverbial rug. A man named Thurnell Alston stepped up as a leader in this terrible situation. With the help of a retired police officer and an old preacher, Alston rose to the forefront of the dispute, leading very angry members of the black community to rise up. This injustice was too much to bear for a system already beleaguered by hate and prejudice, and good ol' boy nepotism. Alston, along with his co-leaders, contacted the Georgia Legal Services Program, whereby they finally received legal guidance, eventually winning several major legal suits for the county. The Georgia Legal Services paved the road for protests such as boycotts, fairer elections, more black registered voters, and a more even distribution of political figures elected to office.
Without the help of the Georgia Legal Services team, the injustices that pervaded this small Georgian town were unlikely to come to a peaceful resolution, and the conflict would definitely not have resulted in getting blacks elected into pivotal political positions. The situation may likely have flared up into violence, with tragic outcomes for both sides, but more so for the blacks. After all, control still would have been held by the white officials and the likes of Sheriff Poppel. For instance, Alston was eventually elected to the county commission of McIntosh County, a position previously never held by a black citizen.
With Thurnell Alston in power, many positive changes began to occur in McIntosh County, such as the establishment of a mental facility for the county, plumbing systems for poor cabin owners, a community center, and much needed hospital services and medical care for its members, too long ignored by the white establishment. Alston worked diligently to empower his community and better the quality of life for his fellow citizens. The importance of grassroots movements such as the one led by Thurnell Alston proves that the will of the common man can succeed despite a huge political machine. This posits an important question when the obligation of participation in grassroots advocacy programs presents itself to our current society. There are many opportunities within our own communities to herald social and political change at the grassroots level. With the help of legal experts, as with the Georgia Legal Services Program, many positive changes can occur. This is not to say that it is an easy battle, but participation in these kinds of movements, provided they are under positive leadership models, can be one of the most critical law-changing mechanisms in our democratic society. It is important to recognize our civil responsibilities, especially in these current trying times in which we live. Although much has been accomplished in the Civil Rights Movement, there are still weighty issues to tackle, such as the question of police brutality, continued racism, and political disenfranchisement in the black community as well as other minority communities. Participation in these vital movements can make a major difference in the lives of others and for ourselves.