Georgia: These Are the Facts
THE State of Georgia, founded two hundred years ago as a social experiment, is today carrying on one of the most significant social experiments ever made in the United States. After trying the nostrums of local cut-rate statesmen, old-time religion, corn-whiskey sprees, and treatments in the emergency ward of the New Deal, Georgia is trying — truth. Two hundred and fifty thousand persons — sober, conservative, middleclass men and women — have banded together in the Citizens’ Fact Finding Movement of Georgia. They are applying the microscope, the fluoroscope, and the X-ray to their own state. There isn’t a demagogue, a silver-tongued orator, a professional politician, a missionary, or a reformer among them. These are serious folk seriously interested in the plight of their region. They work without preconceptions or prejudices. They are not out to demonstrate any thesis, to prove anything, or to get anybody. They have no axes to grind.
If one might apply so pretentious a term to so homespun a group, one might say that the citizens of Georgia are using the scientific apparatus of scientific fact finding upon themselves. But quite unpretentiously indeed they are going about their work of ruthless self-analysis; quite simply they are determined to know the truth about themselves, however much the truth may hurt. And in so doing they are giving the whole country a heartening example of the virility of the democratic process in action.
At first glance there seems nothing laudable in the desire of a people to know the truth about themselves. But how many individuals will face the truth about themselves? How many citizens know the whole truth about their communities or states? How much of the apparatus of the mind is constantly engaged in dodging truth? What does man not do to escape reality? And Georgians, of course, are like other men.
But this is not all. Tempers are hot in the South. (David Ramsay, the South Carolina historian, accounting for the rash of duels in old Charleston, attributed it to the warm weather ‘with its attendant increase of bile.') Pride is great. Georgia, in common with other Southern states, produces an annual oversupply of pride. This attitude is reduced for home consumption to such slogans as ‘It’s great to be a Georgian,’ and ‘The Empire State of the South.’ Naturally a people given to such aphorisms of understatement about themselves do not like any vulgar tamperings by outsiders with the bases on which these aphorisms rest. Certainly they do not like it when damyankees come sniffing around and produce figures showing that the Balkan peasant and the Georgia farmer are on the same level — that is, in the ditch looking up. They bristle even when President Roosevelt (almost a Cracker by now), out of excellent motives, calls the South the nation’s Economic Problem Number One.
Yet Georgians are no fools. They know that, while their state is potentially one of the richest states in the Union, it is actually among the poorest; it reeks with disease; much of its land is eroded and sterile; some of its housing would offend a self-respecting houn’-dawg; and many of its people paper the walls of their cabins with the magazines they cannot read. Southerners can (and do) say these things peacefully enough to one another over their highballs, but the outsider who would say them is well advised to make his remarks in a treeless pasture.
At the same time, thinking Southerners realize that merely to sit on their accumulated sloth and resent Yankee criticisms of their shortcomings is to get nowhere. Out of this realization has come the Citizens’ Fact Finding Movement. It has remained for Georgia — poor, proud, and prolific — to take the plunge toward truth, and in the name of truth to sit in a permanent family council — a council determined to know why, for example, so many of its children are blind; why Uncle Eph’s cotton crop didn’t yield him enough cash to buy a bottle of liniment for his sore back; why Aunt Susie didn’t learn how to spell out the Bible until she had become a grandmother; how so many of the family have degenerated from landowners to sharecroppers; and a host of other questions relating to the condition of near-bankruptcy in which the group finds itself after two hundred years of toil and hardship on the once fertile soil of Georgia.
How did the Movement come about? Casually and without premeditation, as so many things happen in the South, from matrimony to homicide. In the spring of 1937, a number of men and women in Georgia began discussing among themselves the paradox of their state — its natural wealth and its human poverty. One thing led to another: the fact that between three and four hundred thousand Georgians (prime and costly assets) had removed from the state in the preceding ten years because they couldn’t make a living at home; that Georgia’s industries are owned by almost everybody but Georgians; that in a state still largely given to the oldtime religion most rural preachers, white and Negro, are absentees, while many Georgia churches are open only once or twice a month for an hour of preaching. The talks continued during the spring. Late in the summer the participants in the discussions, heads of seventeen state-wide organizations, met around a dinner table in an Atlanta hotel. When the company arose, the Movement had been born.
It is one thing to order a movement. It is quite another thing to put it in motion and keep it alive. Americans are prone to solve ills by appointing a committee. Too often the committee dies a lingering death while the ills survive. This has not occurred in Georgia, but the founders of the Movement, facing a staggeringly complex situation, were immediately confronted by this question: Where to begin? One of the persons present at the organizing dinner says: ‘We recognized that the section was going yearly into the red. Any business house going into the red would take an inventory, would check up on its assets and liabilities, would review its policies.’ Beginning, then, with this common-sense basis, they selected twelve subjects on which concise factual reports should be obtained: Natural Resources, Agriculture, Industry and Commerce, Health, Education, Public Welfare, Penal System, Political System, Tax System, Federal Activity, Religious Forces, Civic and Social Forces.
It was agreed that the reports should be limited to fact, with no opinion included. It was further agreed that the facts gathered should be compiled in tabloid, easily understandable form, so that an average citizen could get a comprehensive knowledge of a given subject in a. few minutes’ reading time.
But who would do the spade work and organize the reports for the printer? Here Georgians wisely decided to rely upon Georgians. It was stipulated that the reports should be prepared by residents of the state thoroughly identified with its life. Many Georgians (like New Yorkers or Californians) know little about their state. Hence each person chosen to write a report must be a recognized authority on the subject assigned him; fortunately there is no lack of such persons in Georgia. And finally, the expert must be sufficiently independent of economic and social involvements to give unprejudiced information.
It is clear from this that, once Georgians had determined to know the truth about themselves, they wanted the whole truth. They first had prepared for them a series of reports setting out facts about the state — a state inventory. Later, when the report on economic conditions of the South was made to President Roosevelt, they annotated it for Georgia with the facts they had gathered; here Georgians could see how their conditions in any field compared with conditions in other Southern states. Next they asked the group of experts who had prepared the first reports to collaborate on suggesting possible solutions to the problems they had revealed.
The whole process of fact finding is marked by common sense and thoroughness. However expert the specialist, his report is not accepted as he writes it. The original draft of his study is submitted to each member of the committee of consultants (composed of all the experts) for criticism and suggestion. Sometimes many meetings are required before a general agreement is reached. Then and then only is the report ready to be made to the coordinating committee of the Movement, and to emerge in pamphlet form for distribution.
When Dean Chapman of the College of Agriculture at the University of Georgia was asked to prepare a report on possible solutions of the state’s farm problems, his first step was to call a meeting of fifty men competent in the field, who discussed what they considered Georgia’s major agricultural questions. These were then submitted to a select list of one thousand men who were asked to name what they considered the ten leading farm problems of the state and to give their comments on the subject. With this background of information from experts and dirt farmers, Dean Chapman then went to work on his report.
Similarly, when the report on education was being prepared, letters were sent to educators all over Georgia, asking this question: ‘What do you consider an educated community?’
The wastebaskets of America and the shelves of its libraries are filled with reports of all kinds gathered with much expense and effort, yet read by few. The Movement was determined that this should not be the fate of its reports, and since it is essentially a democratic organization of, by, and for the people, there has been no difficulty in having its reports circulated, read, discussed, and debated. Constituting the Movement are the following organizations, with five thousand local groups and a combined membership of two hundred and fifty thousand: the men’s civic clubs — Exchange, Lions, Kiwanis, Civitan, and Rotary; a woman’s civic club — Pilot; the Association of American University Women; the Congress of Parents and Teachers; the Federated Church Women; the Federated Women’s Clubs; also the Education Association, the Library Association, the Press Association, the Home Demonstration Council (composed of eleven hundred groups of rural women), the United Georgia Farmers, and the League of Women Voters. Through these organizations the Movement reaches residents of cities, towns, villages, and farms; it embraces bankers, preachers, lawyers, teachers, business men, and farmers; it touches every economic and social group in the state, and so gives reality to its slogan, ‘Approximately Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand Georgia Minds Thinking Together and Working Out Their Problems through the Democratic Process.’
What is the nature of the Movement’s reports? How closely do they cling to its professed object of reporting the whole truth? Let’s take as an example the report on Georgia’s penal system. This system has aroused widespread denunciations outside the state; many have condemned the alleged cruelties perpetrated upon Georgia’s convicts; some years ago it was the subject of a sensational moving picture, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Whatever the truth or the falsity of the charges made by outsiders against the Georgia penal system (and the outsiders might be astonished if they inspected their own jails), the Georgia insiders condemn their own penal system in language of the utmost severity. But they do far more. They attack its underlying philosophy. They show that so long as Georgia incarcerates men for revenge and not for rehabilitation, so long will the Georgia crime rate remain high and the cruelties endure. The report is bluntly headed: ‘IT WON’T WORK.’ It continues: —
We see the inherent weaknesses of the Georgia penal system are about to overwhelm it.
The thing bids fair to fall to pieces before our very eyes. Shall we put it together in the old pattern?
After pointing out specific and detailed defects of the Georgia penal system the report goes on to ask: ‘What’s a Prison For?’
Many persons who have inveighed against the real or fictional evils of the Georgia chain gang . . . seem to have missed the main point.
Emphasis has been put on the chains, on alleged brutal treatment, the physical torments and neglect. These, it is true, are parts of an endowment of human degradation. Those who impose them upon others are degraded, the society which permits them is degraded more or less perceptibly, as well as those who suffer them. . . .
It is when a system itself falls short in understanding of proper obligations and functions that the deeper evil occurs. This is the case in the Georgia penal system — the work-camp system.
The system, contemplating men in terms of work to be exacted, and exacting it from sunup to sunset with a rule of ‘lights out’ in the early evening so that the men shall be repaired by rest for tomorrow’s work, holds few influences or none for rehabilitation, regeneration, or individual treatment.
Then, remorselessly, the report shows how completely the revenge theory of the Georgia penal system has failed: —
The theory of the deterrent letter-of-thelaw punishment appears to fall flat when we see that Georgia, whose penal system lacks regenerative influences, has two or three times as many men and women in prison as the average of the forty-eight states. . . .
Department by department, item by item, the report carefully, factually, and non-politically examines the Georgia penal system, concludes that it must be completely overhauled and motivated by a new philosophy. Obviously such a report read and discussed by a quartermillion serious citizens, debated by them in private gatherings, in forums, and in churches, and made the subject of newspaper editorials, must exert a great influence.
Here, for example, is a high-school boy studying ‘government.’ However capable the teacher, this subject must remain rather vague to the student. But suddenly in his own state, in his own county, the student sees the workings of government on flesh and blood as those workings are reported by Georgians, discussed around the table by his family, and debated in his own school forums. Government is then no longer vague. It has been sharply brought home, and the influence must be immense.
Here, to take another example, is a small-town woman. She supports missionary work in Nyasaland, and knits sweaters for Britain. However beneficial these activities, it may never have occurred to her that conditions of wrong and cruelty prevail in the prison system of her own state. (How many women of a county seat — women interested in good works of all kinds — have ever visited the county jail?) Now for the first time, perhaps, she understands what is going on around her, and, understanding, not only takes a hand to repair the specific situation, but becomes a better citizen by taking a more active interest in all phases of state and local government.
The health of a people is a social asset or liability depending upon whether the people are healthy or diseased. The United States is perhaps first among the nations of the world in preventive medicine. Abroad we have cleaned up such one-time pestholes as Havana, Panama, and Manila. At home we have eradicated numbers of contagious diseases and have sharply raised the life expectancy of the individual. But look at conditions in Georgia as revealed by the Fact Finding program. How conscious was the state of these conditions until the facts were placed before the people by a nonpartisan agency? In its report we find that:—
1. One sixth of all deaths from malaria in the United States during the past ten years have occurred in Georgia. For years the state has held from first to third place in number of deaths from malaria.
2. One in every ten persons in Georgia’s insane asylums is there because of syphilis of the brain.
3. Only 170 out of 593 incorporated towns have public sewer systems. And in these 170 towns only 41 per cent of the homes are connected with available sewers.
4. About 72 per cent of Georgia’s school children need dental treatment.
5. Only one town in Georgia has a milk supply which is on the accredited list of the United States Public Health Service.
If this report had been made about a remote province in Bulgaria, we should have smiled complacently and said, ‘It can’t happen here.’ If, in addition, we had gone on reading and found that in the state of Georgia in the United States, in the years 1936—1939, there were nearly three thousand cases of endemic typhus fever (transmitted from rats to human beings by means of the rat flea), we should have said that this could only happen in the Balkans. But there is typhus in Georgia; Americans are dying of it right here at home.
Water is free for the taking. Dig almost anywhere in the lower South and you strike water. But Georgians aren’t digging. Nearly one half of the state’s incorporated towns have no public water supply. And even in the towns that do have it about one half of the people use water from pumps or cisterns. Here in the United States, in 1941, Rachel is going to the well as she did in the time of Abraham.
The report on health not only points out shortcomings, but also suggests remedies. At the bottom of it all are poverty and ignorance, which is the child of poverty. There are well-fed, weakkneed defeatists in this country who say that America’s future is in the past; who croak their inane convictions that the country has been built, and we must sink into the degeneracy of sloth or employ our unemployed energies in fighting one another. Let such spiritual eunuchs rend the Fact Finding Reports; let them remember that reports from other states would show similar conditions, and they will realize that the job of building America has just begun. Let them bear in mind, moreover, that the country can be made safe for democracy as well through sewer systems, public water supplies, and clean milk as through more grandiose projects and theatrically nobler aims.
As a country we are dedicated to the principle of giving every child the opportunity to acquire at least a common school education. This takes money. Let’s look at the average annual per capita income in the United States in 1935: —
U. S. Average, $425
Mississippi, $170 (poorest) New York, $700 (best) Georgia, $253
How about teachers’ salaries? In 19351936 they averaged as follows: —
U. S. Average, $1283
Arkansas, $504 (lowest) New York, $2414 (highest) Georgia, $587
Georgia’s Negro teachers did not get even these meagre salaries. In the elementary schools they received $251,74 per annum, or a monthly income of about $21; in the high schools they got $617.26, or about $51 a month.
What are the average annual expenditures per school child?
U. S. Average, $74.30
Arkansas, $24.55 New York, $134.14
When outsiders taunt Georgia (or the South) on its illiteracy and lack of education, let them recall these figures.
And let them remember too that Georgia, in common with other Southern states, spends between 40 and 50 per cent of its total annual revenues on education. The point is, however, that Georgia hasn’t much to spend.
How do poverty and illiteracy further express themselves? In the circulation of forty-seven magazines of various kinds, Georgia was forty-sixth, in newspaper circulation forty-fourth, in the number of radios per capita forty-fifth, among the forty-eight states. It is apparent that people who on the average have only one hundred dollars a year to spend on food cannot pay three dollars a year for a magazine, even if it be assumed that they could read it.
The very practice of religion is affected by poverty. The reports quote The South’s Landless Farmers to show that churchgoers require at least three things to be comfortable: some dress clothes — what the farmer calls ‘ Sunday clothes’; a little money for the collection plate; and the ability to entertain the preacher now and then at a meal. The typical Georgia farm tenant is not able to wear Sunday clothes, to put money in the collection plate, or to have the preacher come to his house for a meal.
One could go on endlessly quoting eye-opening, hair-raising facts and figures about the conditions of the people living in a two-hundred-year-old American state. Those people, moreover, are not a miscellaneous hodgepodge of immigrants just off the ship and bewildered by the customs and language of a new country. They are, with the exception of the Negroes and a smattering of whites, almost entirely native-born Anglo-Saxons. Yet vast masses of them, whites and blacks alike, live in conditions of poverty, ignorance, and disease which are a disgrace to a rich and socalled enlightened land.
Let no man, wherever he lives or whatever his status, regard conditions in the South with complacency. Let no one who loves democracy and his own liberties shrug his shoulders. Remember this: the South is the only great section of the country containing (with the exception of Negroes and a few non-AngloSaxon whites) a homogeneous population. That population, by and large, is desperately poor, far below the national level in education, emotional, and, when moved to action, extremely violent. It is only a step from a moribund democracy to a dead democracy, and a democracy is moribund when, in the presence of potential plenty, its citizens suffer a lack of elemental necessaries. A people long enduring under these conditions is ripe for the teachings and leadership of a new Huey Long, who — in the Senator’s words — may bring about an American Fascism in the name of Americanism.
For nearly three years the Fact Finding Movement has been in operation. Its immense work has been made possible through the labor and devotion of a large number of people throughout the state of Georgia. Only a few thousand dollars have been spent annually, while the budget for the whole period of the program’s existence has been about $16,000. This sum — microscopic in relation to the task assumed — has been derived from small contributions with the exception of four $1000 gifts from Georgians, a $5000 grant from the General Education Board, plus smaller grants from the Rosenwald Fund and the William C. Whitney Foundation.
But the work could not have been carried on with these small sums if dozens of men and women had not given their labors to the Movement without stint or payment. At the beginning, when reports were got out on a handcranked mimeograph machine, the crank was turned by boy friends of girls interested in the Movement, and a powerdriven machine was installed only when the girls began to run out of robust young men. It is heartening to note, moreover, that no one who was asked to work for the Movement ever refused; that of 228 Georgia newspapers all but ten have carried from one to one hundred or more stories and editorials about the program; that its equipment and office space have been donated. The Movement, too, is almost religiously anonymous. Nobody tries to achieve out of it personal publicity for himself; it is hitched to no politician’s wagon; and consequently petty jealousies among the workers are not created. So great, indeed, is the devotion of those who labor in the field that one woman resigned a lucrative business position to work for the Movement and is drawing on a small inheritance which enables her to carry on, while another, a woman with considerable business experience, threw energies into the venture shortly after the death of her husband and has given her time daily ever since.
In general, then, the Fact Finding Movement has found a hearty response in Georgia. But one saddening fact turned up by it is that but few wealthy Georgians — of which Atlanta alone has a great many — have backed it with cold cash as well as their warm wishes. Charity begins, or ought to begin, at home, but wealthy Georgians at this time seem unwilling to aid in turning the light on dark places. So far the work of the Movement has been shouldered by public-spirited men and women richer in patriotism than in money, but it is obviously unfair for them to carry the burden alone, while it is equally evident that the program cannot continue indefinitely on a shoestring. But, whether or not the wealthy of the state come forward with the pathetically small amount of money needed to keep the program going, those responsible for it have no idea of letting it lapse for shortage of funds. The Movement proposes, if necessary, to ask three million Georgians to contribute one cent a year to keep it alive.
If you motor through Georgia you may not be struck by its poverty. The car ahead of you bears on its license plate the legend ‘The Peach State,’ and on both sides of the road in summer there are magnificent orchards whose trees are heavy with luscious peaches. Elsewhere you pass endless fields of cotton; note the dark green of pine forests; hear the hum of textile mills; sniff the sharp aromas of turpentine distilleries. In Atlanta— ‘The Gone with the Wind City’ — you will observe the mansions of Coca-Cola millionaires; see well-dressed men and women on the streets; dine perhaps at one of the town’s luxurious country clubs. And since you don’t see any marked signs of dire poverty you may conclude there is none. But, after all, you are a tourist, not a sociologist on a busman’s holiday. You have seen the potentialities of plenty, but not the lack of it. Yet Georgia, which might be rich or comfortably well off, is desperately poor; large numbers of its people are weighed down by a poverty so dire as to be degrading; disease is a constant companion; death is often the release from hopelessness (’Goin’ to put on my robe, goin’ to shout all over God’s Heav’n’). But when all this is known — and the Movement is making it known — Georgia alone cannot rescue Georgia from the depths. There must be help from the rest of the United States that is, from the Federal Government. Georgia can no more liberate itself from poverty than Denmark unaided can liberate itself from Hitler.
The great object, however, of the Movement is to start Georgians on the road to their own salvation as far as their own will and their own resources will take them. A detailed examination of its reports reveals no whining; no tendency to blame Georgia’s ills on General Sherman, Wall Street, or the SmootHawley tariff; no attempt to substitute a new order for capitalist democracy. There is a serene confidence that the ills of Georgia can be healed through the medicaments of the American system. Far from seeking to tear down the country’s social structure and begin over in a new and different way, the Movement has actually gone back to one of the oldest and most characteristically American ways of meeting common problems — through common discussion. It has inaugurated what might be called a town meeting of the state in which all interested persons reason together about the questions that affect all the citizens. The program presupposes that, given the facts, the people have enough sense to act upon them, and it is immensely impressive that these people who have obtained so few benefits of democracy retain so profound a belief in its potential goodness.
The task of the Movement up to this point — and it. is one of large dimensions — has been to state the problems of Georgia to the people of Georgia. Its next task is to restate these problems in the light of the data gathered in the 1940 census. Thereafter the job will be to seek solutions of the questions in collaboration with all the people through the common-sense processes of an enlightened democracy.
Today in hundreds of Georgia communities such as Ball Ground, Dcepstep, Dewyrose, Flowery Branch, Social Circle, and Ty Ty, thousands of men and women are discussing and debating their plight, not in terms of economic or political prejudices and emotions, but in terms of facts gathered and placed before them by Georgians whom they respect. Never in the history of the United States has there been so broad a democratic movement based upon such obvious American horse sense. And the fact that it comes from one of the poorest and most illiterate states of the Union gives the lie to those who say that democracy is dead.