Friday, September 6, 2013

The Progressives of Yancy County, Georgia

Sweet Southern Boys 
Legacy of Fortitude - Book Two

by Connie Chastain

In the fluorescent brightness of the Howe Street Cafe, Maureen stirred her coffee and purposely averted her eyes from the pair seated across from her. For a fleeting moment, she feared she would burst out laughing if she looked at them again. Thank goodness, sheer force of will dissipated the impulse and she glanced up.

 Her booth companions looked even more bizarre than they had at the One Community meeting earlier, when they had invited her for coffee to become better acquainted.

In her mid-fifties, Clara Lawson was barrel-shaped and red-faced but her most striking feature was her short, impossibly black hair, so black it thoroughly absorbed the light and gave off not a hint of reflection or highlight, not even the light from the neon sign glowing through the plate glass window that bathed their booth in an aura of pink.

Clara was progressivism's propagandist in Yancey County. She wrote columns for various free tabloids in south Georgia both promoting progressive viewpoints and pooh-poohing as hysteria the arguments of critics. Owner and publisher of The Verona Progressive, she owned the building, once a convenience store, that housed the newspaper offices and donated space for One Community.

Next to her sat Nora Weir. Her tall, thin frame worked with her pale eyes and ash blond hair to project a delicate, almost colorless appearance, distinctly at odds with her implacable personality. Earlier, during the meeting, by way of introduction, she had told Maureen, "For the past three years, I've been the head of a severely needed anti-racist initiative in Yancey county."

Now, stirring her coffee heavily laden with cream and sugar, Nora expanded.

"When I first arrived in Verona, I was astounded. It was like this place never knew there was a civil rights movement twenty, thirty years ago, never heard of Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior, or Brown versus the Board of Education, never heard of Selma or Freedom Summer or all the other civil rights efforts--or the massive and bloody resistance from Southern whites.”

Clara nodded. "Ditto feminism, despite a very savvy and active group at the university that's been working hard on women's issues almost twenty years. Bianca can tell you more at our next meeting. She's gone to a women's issues conference in Saint Louis this week."

"I'll be glad when I can meet her," Maureen said. "I'll admit, I was a bit disappointed tonight by the attendance. I don't know why, but I was expecting more than six or seven people, even in such a small town."

Clara looked pensive a moment. "You might as well be told about this now. We're ... sort of ... rebuilding. One Community was founded two and a half years ago by Ruth Adamsky from the Twin Cities in Minnesota. She is sponsored by several people in Minneapolis, who sent her South to organize progressive groups. She's a genius at initial organization, but not at all interested in administration. Eight months after One Community was launched, it was going great -- member organizations were networking, helping each other, keeping each other informed, and welcoming a couple of newly founded groups. Happy with that success, Ruth relocated to start the same process in Dothan, Alabama."

Nora appeared to tune out most of what Clara said -- she'd probably heard it all before -- and her eyes glanced at the other patrons of the cafe. The faint look of disdain on her pale countenance intrigued Maureen, and she had to force her attention back to Clara's narrative.

"Roughly a year after One Community started, Jessica Grant, the director of the Women's Assistance Group at the time, helped a woman in a local business with a sexual harassment complaint. Jessica aggressively pursued this guy, and it got out of hand. What was supposed to be a confidential, in-house investigation and resolution was broadcast all over town. The man's reputation was ruined, at least temporarily, and his family harassed, including his elementary school children."

Faint lines appeared between her brows and she shook her head in regret.

"Turned out that he had ironclad proof not only of his innocence, but that the woman accusing him had hit on him. Tried to seduce him in his office after work. Rumor had it that she was somewhat emotionally unstable, a factor Jessica ignored.”

Clara paused for a sip of coffee, interrupting an absorbing narrative, and Maureen resisted the urge to snap, Well? What happened?

“She was eager to spotlight a sexual harassment case because it really was a big problem in corporate Verona. Still is. But some people thought Jessica went too far. The WAG lost some members over that, and it even set One Community back quite a bit. We're starting to recover now, though. Bianca's done a great job rebuilding WAG."

Nora examined the wadded paper napkin she'd been toying with and glanced to her companions. "If he didn't do it to that girl, he did it to some other one. Probably more than one."

Somewhat taken aback by Nora's demeanor -- there was something a little creepy about her -- Maureen suppressed the thought that Nora would never have to worry about being sexually harassed.

"Jessica said he was a typical privileged Southern white man," Nora continued, her pale eyes fastened on Maureen. "We're not like these Southerners, you know. Clara here's from Baltimore, I'm from Binghamton, New York and you're from -- Chicago, you said?"

"Yes. My family's been there generations."

Nora nodded. "These hicks and rednecks," she said, echoing Maureen's son, "they're not like regular people. They've been racists and haters so long, I think it altered their DNA. I honestly do. They can't recognize their own evil and don't even know what they are." Nora paused and lifted a corner of her mouth in a lopsided grin. "Excuse me, I need to go to the women's room."

She threaded her way through the tables in the dining room to the back of the building.

"Our Nora," Clara gave an embarrassed laugh. "She's a bit odd in her thinking, but she's as dedicated to eradicating racism as anybody you'd care to meet.”

She pulled a small notepad and pen from her purse, jotted a note, and handed it to Maureen. “This is Maxine Teasley's number. She'll be back in town day after tomorrow. She can help you get a volunteer position on the city events committee. That's where you've got to start if you want to tackle the Christmas Festival.”

“All right. Thanks.” Maureen folded the slip of paper. dropped it in her purse and felt the slight stirring of challenge warm her veins, anticipating the satisfaction of bringing cultural enlightenment to this benighted religious backwater.... 

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