In Scalawag's third installment of our Southerners Combating White Supremacy Profile Series, Esther Calhoun, President of The Black Belt Citizens, discusses how collective organizing has led to key wins against environmental racism in rural Alabama.
Uniontown, Alabama sits as a signpost for civil rights activism. It’s a small city tucked between Selma and Montgomery. With a population that is 88 percent African American, Uniontown makes up one of the 18 or so towns in Alabama's Black Belt.
Esther Calhoun, a 2017 Human Rights Movement Builder award honoree and a 2016 USHRN FIHRE Fellow, is a woman with a gift and calling for servant leadership. Calhoun is the first female president of the Black Belt Citizens for Health and Justice (BBC), a grassroots community-led organization that confronts environmental and economic injustice. Affectionately called “Mama Esther” by her neighbors, Calhoun tackles how these issues have unraveled in her town. I sat down with Mama Esther to discuss how she and the BBC are fighting for justice in her small town.
Note that minor edits to the responses have been made for clarity and flow.
The Black Belt Citizens of rural Uniontown, Alabama currently face environmental injustice in a town they love.
Salaam Green: How you do you define white supremacy?
Esther Calhoun: I see white supremacy as an instrument of control, how white people in America respond to you, treating Black people like they are their property.
Many of us here in the Black Belt live with white supremacy. Sometimes it's in your face, and other times it's on the outskirts where white people come in with their ideas, businesses, and underhanded regimens that ultimately cause Black people and others less fortunate to feel like they don't matter.
SG: How does white supremacy and anti-Blackness show up in your community?
EC: White supremacy shows up through the propaganda of money, classism, and the system of Black people in political power being used by white people to fulfill their agendas. I sat outside of my home and watched coming across the railroad tracks in my community white supremacists or big business, which is all white men mostly, bringing in the landfill and toxic substances to our town.
Many politicians who are Black are highly influenced by white big business leaders, I believe. This has set up political fights between the people who are fighting against big business—nothing good in Uniontown has come from this. We still have boarded up businesses and many of our people who live here every day have to travel out of town for a decent paying job.
The businesses came into Uniontown with the community’s assumption that they were going to help the people and add to our economy, but they have caused more strife. The fish plant, cheese plant, and landfill have all caused pollution, causing many of our residents to have health issues, I believe.
To me, this is white supremacy. It shows how big business says at first they [are] for Black people and all people, but in the end, they are not.
SG: Working for social change isn’t an individual effort—who do you roll with?
EC: The Black Belt Citizens are my everyday team. The healing program that BBC puts on for citizens and trusted media activists that visit regularly serve as an extended family where I can laugh and cry and maybe just be me.
However, I don’t have anyone I can necessarily roll with every day. This work is lonely at times.
I wish I had more people who would come out to our Black Belt Citizens meetings. I think people need to find their “why” and stand up until they see the change they know their families deserve. If they only knew the good we are trying to do for everyone, then I believe I would have more support—or at least have an opportunity to build a system of support larger than my BBC family.
SG: What are y’all working on right now to fight white supremacy?
EC: Truthfully, everyday's a fight so that we can breathe fresh, clean air.
The Black Belt Citizens are fighting against environmental injustice and political corruption in Uniontown as a united front...The fight is for our rights for equal treatment, but also to help others in the area to begin to fight for themselves and become leaders inside of BBC and other areas of politics in the community.
We are [also] working on voting rights. We want more people to know their rights so they can vote and get back to work so [that] we can build our town’s economy—but most of all so that families can be reunited.
We desperately need young people to step up as we assist with training. The youth are our future but also are much smarter than many of us, and their energy does not need to go to waste.
The BBC is also looking for ways to support the schools and parents, in particular single mothers, by building a women's network to facilitate workshops, entrepreneurship, and advocate for hope in the schools and their homes.
SG: What are some of the wins that you have celebrated and how did it happen?
EC: We are happy to celebrate that the 4.8 million dollar lawsuit filed against the BBC is history after lawyers with Green Group Holdings decided to stop the lawsuit and defamation claim. Until this day, I don't know why the company let it go. We know, and the community I hope knows, that we did nothing to potentially harm them and stop them from making money or hiring more people. We only wanted and continued to want the pollution to stop in Uniontown.
The BBC team formed a group that speaks out, and we solicited Project South and other grassroots organizations to support us and help us...I knew nothing about this kind of work. The only way we have experience wins was by working together and doing grassroots work without much money sometimes.
Mostly we had local people doing documentation that kept our stories in front of the people. Having other rural people in the south who have experienced some of the same things stand by us and give us a push lets me know we aren't alone.
Earlier this summer Senator Cory Booker came and toured our area; this happened as a result of him going across the rural south touring comminutes like ours that had water issues and environmental and health injustices. As a result, Senator Booker took our concerns back to Congress. Having local, national, and legislative support to celebrate is something we didn’t know would happen. But as a result of tenacity and tough accountability, we have gotten it.
SG: What do you think it’s going to take in the long-term to eliminate anti-Blackness and white supremacy?
EC: It's not going anywhere. However, if I could say one thing, it would be more Black folks recognizing their political power, more youth getting involved in politics to recognize their political power and run for offices in small towns such as Uniontown where we need strong leadership and a better understanding of how government works for the good of the people.
SG: What advice do you have for folks who want to get involved? How can they support what you’re doing?
EC: Get out of your comfort zone, stand up alongside one another. When [white supremacists] try to intimidate me, it gives me more power.
The BBC has monthly sessions where we have people doing writing, health and healing workshops, workshops on sexual violence, and voting rights, and even how to grow healthy food...We ask the community to attend city council meetings and get on the agenda and get your voice out there.
We need others to come and document more of what is happening. And we need people who lived here before who have land to come back and fight alongside their parents and elderly citizens so [that] we don't lose any more of our property. Many great people who are already doing the work live in the community and love the land and the people. Powerful advocates [and] activists live here already and are doing the work,making change happen.
Whatever happened to love of all people and land?
Mama Esther boldly continues to rally her family, friends, and her community to get involved, to tell their stories ,and to fight for their rights to clean water, air, and land as a legacy for the next generation in the South.
To find out more and to contribute, please visit Black Belt Citizens.org