Systemic racism and its deadly heritage
Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on December 28, 2023)
Author: Dr. RL Booker
Editor: Veronica Mobley
A lot of us have spent weeks preparing for Christmas. As adults, this may be a stressful time as we work to plan everything from travel schedules, gift purchases and who is bringing which food dish to the family gathering.
As a child, I remember the joy of waking up on Christmas morning to open my gifts. I also remember learning about values, like spending time with your inner circle of loved ones and remembering the reason for the season. This yearly holiday season is a time to acknowledge our gratefulness and shared humanity through love. Over the past few years, I have worked to be intentional about exploring people in our nation's history whose families' lives changed forever during this season of joy and reflection. This year, it is essential to remember the life and legacy of Elmore Bolling and his family.
Elmore Bolling was born to Belle Peterson and Braxton Bolling in Lowndes County, Ala., on May 10, 1908. Growing up as a Black child in the segregated Jim Crow South was no yellow brick road. Long before Bolling was born, intentional barriers were established and kept in place to stop Black people from economic opportunity, much less success.On Feb. 3, 1870, Congress ratified the 15th Amendment, which prohibited the federal government or any state from denying or abridging a citizen's right to vote based on race, color or previous condition of servitude. By 1900, more than 180,000 eligible Black men in Alabama were registered voters. By 1903, fewer than 3,000 were registered to vote in the state. Why? Despite the 15th Amendment, many states, mostly Southern states, passed laws with arbitrary rules designed to disenfranchise Black and poor voters. Over the years, research studies, documentaries, movies, TV shows and books have outlined these realities. Even during these challenging times, many people like the Bollings refused to allow their circumstances to impact their resilience or determination to overcome.
In the 1930s, Elmore Bolling and his wife, Bertha Mae, started a livestock business with a mule and a wagon. Through hard work and perseverance, they eventually purchased a fleet of trucks. These trucks allowed the Bollings to grow their business by hauling bone, scrap iron and tin. They also used one of their trucks to deliver milk to residents in Lowndes County. Eventually, the Bollings opened a general store. Because some community members lacked transportation, the Bollings converted a truck to carry passengers, giving residents who didn't live in town a way to get there and shop. At the height of their business, the Bollings employed more than 40 people in the Black community in which they lived. They had accumulated about $40,000 in net worth, about $500,000 today.
The Bollings were philanthropic in their community. If you needed help, they would help you. While the Bollings primarily served the Black community, word spread about their excellent and reliable work. Eventually, white people in Lowndes County asked the Bollings to haul their livestock and other items.
My heart wants to go on describing the Bollings' success, handing down a thriving business to their seven children who are keeping it going today. But that is not their story.
As December 1947 articles in the Montgomery Advisor and the Chicago Defender outlined, some white men became enraged that some white employers allowed a Black business to haul for them. On Dec. 7, 1947, a group of white men drove onto the Bollings' land and shot Elmore dead just 150 yards from his general store. His then-5-year-old daughter, Josephine Bolling McCall, shared her account of her father's murder in her book "The Penalty for Success."
Mrs. Bolling McCall stated, "We heard the gunfire. Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, boom! Hearing gunshots isn't typical on a Thursday evening in Lowndesboro. When we reached [daddy] ... what we saw collectively took our breath away. Daddy was lying in the ditch with his eyes open. It was like I knew I was standing there looking at my dead father, but my 5-year-old mind couldn't make sense of it all. To this day, Christmas of 1947 is a vague memory as I apparently shut out all prior recollections of that disastrous month in my life."
Elmore Bolling, just 39 years old, was shot six times in the chest with a pistol and once in the back with a shotgun by racist segregationists who felt that Bolling had become too successful for a negro.
No one was ever indicted or convicted for his murder. On March 2, 2021, Mrs. McCall Bolling told ABC News' Nightline that, shortly after her father's murder, "white debt collectors fraudulently claimed they were owed and took everything," plunging her family into poverty. Elmore Bolling's murder was yet another manifestation of systemic racism that has persisted in our nation for centuries.
As I celebrate this Christmas, I choose to lift the Bolling family as a clear example of how systemic racism can impact families.
Even after generations, the Bollings never claimed victimhood. Instead, they work to preserve the legacy of Elmore Bolling by telling the full history of Lowndes County, Ala, and empowering the region's citizens today via the Elmore Bolling Initiative.
Imagine a world in which people could progress towards their goals based solely on hard work, determination and merit. Imagine a world in which people could pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Imagine a world where we love our neighbors as ourselves. Imagine a world where we truly cared about freedom and justice for each person equally.
Elmore Bolling was one of more than 4,400 Black adults and children lynched between the years of 1880 to 1940. We must remember. In the wake of our Christmas celebrations, hold your loved ones near.
I ask that you take a moment to visit the Elmore Bolling Initiative website to learn more about the Bolling family and the impact they continue to have.
Thank you Mrs. Bolling McCall!
Bolling McCall, Josephine. The Penalty for Success. Montgomery, AL. McQuick Printing Company, 2015.
Jimmy Emerson Flckr, DVM. http://tinyurl.com/ym4yor4v.