By Danielle Purifoy, Ph.D student at the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Sanford School of Public Policy

King Cotton, born from Black Belt soil and forced black labor, built white wealth across the world—sixty percent of U.S. exports by 1860.  Confederates claimed it would win the Civil War for the South “without firing a gun, without drawing a sword.” They lost that bet, and their power. Union states kept centuries of human-plundered profits, the cotton spoils, and a false sense of moral superiority.

The Black Belt signifies the height of Confederate power and the shame of its defeat. Free blacks coping with trauma and loss across the region faced retaliation for Southern defeat and national reassertion of white supremacy. Those who didn’t (or couldn’t) flee Southern white terrorism reinvented home on that same black soil. Some found ways to make the land work for them, but the price was steep.[i] Black success is black power. And black power is white threat.

alabama blackbeltI’ve been in Lowndes County for three weeks, in the Alabama Black Belt. It’s been 150 years since emancipation, and 50 years since black residents risked their homes, jobs, and lives for power. Not one black resident had registered to vote in Lowndes County when the Voting Rights March traveled 50 miles across its territory in 1965.[ii] Today, mayors of nearly all seven towns are black, as are three of five county commissioners. Photos of President Obama are plastered in public offices.

And black power is still white threat.

Community disinvestment is one reaction to that threat. Lowndes County, like all counties, depends on state and federal funding to build reliable infrastructure, which is essential for public health, stable property values, and sustainable economies. Black power cannot thrive without it. Over half of county residents lack adequate sewer infrastructure. Black belt soil was good for King Cotton, but not for septic drainage. Customized septic systems are too expensive for most people, but public funders choose not to fill that gap.

Raw sewage in Lowndes County

Raw sewage in Lowndes County

I say “choose” because these officials are neither ignorant of the problem nor of its solution. The U.S. has near universal water and sewer infrastructure—public and private systems. The conditions residents face here–raw sewage in front yards, wastewater lagoons abutting backyards, contaminated drinking water, hookworm—are conditions we as a nation point to across the world as signs of “underdevelopment”.  But who points at us? We pass regulations for public health and sustainable environments, and then create funding programs and enforcement policies that prioritize creditworthiness over clean water, punishment over disease prevention, and short-term efficiency over the longevity of communities, ecosystems, and economies.

We do this knowing that the rules do not apply equally to everyone. It’s no coincidence that the two white towns in Lowndes County (total pop: 164) have better infrastructure and better access to public funding than the five black towns (total pop: 4,489). White privilege is the child of white supremacy. And white supremacy relies on black disempowerment, since long before King Cotton.

We should clean our own house first.


[i] Jeffries, H. K. (2009). Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt. NYU Press.

[ii] Id.


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