From KKK to BLM — Is Vidor, Texas turning over a new leaf?
Thoughts from a native Vidorian on the recent rally for black lives in the former sundown town
Last weekend, more than a hundred people gathered at Gould Park in Vidor, Texas to speak out about the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Nearly three decades ago, that exact same spot played host to an altogether different kind of rally. Instead of black lives, they were talking about white power.
In the early 1990s, there was an attempt to desegregate Vidor’s all-white housing projects that prompted KKK organizations from around the state to descend on the tiny Texas town. Vidor was formerly a “sundown town” — a place where blacks weren’t allowed after dark — and it had a reputation as a local stronghold for the Klan.
The hate group resolved to force the newly relocated black residents out through terror. The handful of new black residents — a homeless laborer named Bill Simpson as well as a few single mothers and their children — faced death threats and intimidation by armed white men who would drive by the projects with guns peeking out of the windows.
The Klan reportedly offered a bounty to high school kids to beat up the black residents and claimed that they would level the entire complex with a bomb.
All of black residents would eventually leave — some only after having lived there for just a few weeks. Simpson would ultimately be killed in a robbery after moving back to the nearby city of Beaumont.
I Grew Up in the Most Hateful Town in America
Welcome to Vidor, a town most famous for its racism
Because of its past, a lot of people were leery when they heard Vidor would be holding a rally for George Floyd. The town looms large in the imagination of the relatively larger black populations of nearby cities like Beaumont, Orange and Port Arthur. It’s a figure in local black folklore — the elders tell black youth their stories about the time their car broke down or when they played an away game in Vidor’s football stadium in the 1970s and heard racial slurs shouted from the stands.
Posts circulated on social media with warnings in all-caps, calling it a “trap” and advising black people to stay away. But eventually news media made contact with the organizer, a 23-year-old woman named Maddy Malone, who was able to confirm that this wasn’t some Klan honeypot.
Beaumont’s NAACP chapter signed on and sent speakers, including Rev. Michael Cooper, who is running for US Senate against incumbent John Cornyn. Aside from a few counter-protesters with Confederate flags and signs reading “Vidor Kneels Only to God,” the event went off without a hitch.
After the rally there was much celebration of the event online and in the press — a lot of “If it can happen in Vidor” stories.
Not to be a wet blanket, but as a person who spent my formative years in the town, I take all this with a grain of salt. I would characterize my attitude as either cautious optimism or hopeful skepticism.
A caveat: I haven’t lived in Vidor since 2003, so I can’t say first-hand what it’s like these days. On top of that, defining the character of an entire town is a tricky proposition to begin with, which is precisely why I would caution against folks from the outside making simplistic pronouncements that the town has changed.
As Nancy Isenberg points out in her book White Trash, people in the North and on the coasts, i.e. the places where most of the major media is based, have a tendency to reduce the rural South to a monolithic Other: the hillbilly, the redneck, the mudsill, etc.
Liberal political elites demonize the “deplorables” while their conservative counterparts idealize the same groups as the “real America.”
The story of a Black Lives Matter rally in Vidor is so appealing because it fits a narrative of inexorable progress — the tale of the cracker redeemed. It conforms to the liberal notion that the force of history is so strong even the most reactionary elements of society have no choice but to reluctantly trudge out of their backwardness into the future.
While you can’t judge Vidor by the actions of a few Klu Klux Klanners, one can make the same case that a group of people organizing a Black Lives Matter rally doesn’t in and of itself signify change.
The town isn’t homogenous. It has what one might describe as an intellectual class made up of people who drink wine and read novels.
The largest employer in town is the school district, so this class is primarily made up of teachers and their kids.
There are liberals, progressives and even a few radicals. In the late 90s, around the time that James Byrd was dragged to death in Jasper 30 miles away and dozens of black folks got arrested on bogus drug charges in Tulia, a few friends and I were trying to form a socialist club in school.
I checked out Das Kapital by Karl Marx from the Vidor High School library — yes, they had it — and made a big show out of reading it in class, holding it open with the cover outward so everyone could see (I maybe got 40 pages in and gave up). I even gave a presentation on Eugene Debs in speech class with the condition imposed by my teacher that I didn’t “promote socialism.”
Now if someone had written a news story at the time about our little club with the angle “Socialism has come to Vidor” or some such nonsense, I would have laughed out loud.
I still doubt that the political center of gravity has budged much or that racist attitudes, be they overt or polite, are no longer pervasive. Even though I haven’t set foot in the town for more than a decade, there’s a certain dynamic at play that works against progress.
That legacy of racism is a powerful thing. It has a self-selecting effect. Vidor and the other white flight suburbs in the area, such as Lumberton, tend to attract a certain type of people who go there for the “safe neighborhoods” and “good schools.”
The younger people who do develop a progressive outlook have a tendency to flee the town for urban centers as soon as they turn 18, leaving behind the ones with more entrenched bigoted attitudes. When I told this guy from my church that I was moving to Austin after graduation, he said “But that’s where all the queers are.” He was a part of the “Confederate Air Force.”
Every single one of the members of our little socialist club left for the University of Texas — though one did go back after graduation and become a teacher.
While the mere existence of even a small Black Lives Matter in Vidor represents some kind of progress, the case shouldn’t be overstated. Vidor has a few black residents now, which is an improvement over 20 years ago, when there were none, but it’s a stretch to call it “integrated” in any meaningful sense. The town remains to this day 97 percent white, according to the most recent census.
A reporter for Texas Monthly covered the rally, which included a speech by a young man named Devon, who described himself as Vidor’s “resident gay black guy.” In his own words, he’s had a rough time of it: “I’ve had to deal with a lot. I’ve had bottles thrown at my head while walking through town. I’ve had people jump the curb to attempt to hit me with their vehicles. Still, I know Vidor is a very damn good place. I hate the fact that the media paints a picture of us from fifty years ago, but there are good people here.”
I don’t want to impugn the motives Ms. Malone and the other organizers of the event. I believe they are sincere, but there has always been a section of Vidor’s population that is self conscious about the town’s image, and engages in performances of non-racism or anti-racism for the purposes of public relations.
In the mid-2000s, the town put up a billboard along I-10 that said “Vidor: A Great Place to Live.” It had a stock photo of some kids, including one black girl.
During the desegregation fight in the 1990s, the town held a rally called “Thumbs Up, Vidor!” featuring homegrown country singer Tracy Byrd. Mayor Ruth Woods attempted to depict the Klan as an entirely outside force that didn’t have a local support, which wasn’t true. One of the Klan supporters who appeared on the Montel Williams Show was wearing a hat for Lone Star Feed, which was a five-minute walk from my house. I had a friend whose grandfather was in the Klan. I’ve seen their business cards at Gary’s Coffee Shop, where they were known to frequent (our little socialist club also hung out there).
My sense from growing up there was that a lot of people were not so much concerned with eradicating racism as a social evil as they were with avoiding the label “racist,” which is a marker of being white trash. It’s a characteristic of meth-mouthed hayseeds who wear wife-beaters and smell like cigarettes.
The best example of this was an incident that occurred on the football team. We were in a tough district that pitted us against several large majority-black schools, including some that had multiple state championships under their belts. We always scheduled our homecoming game to be against the other all-white school Lumberton because they were the only team we had a chance of beating.
That year was different. We had a new coach who everyone loved and we were having our first winning season in years — there was talk that we might even make the playoffs. But we lost a home game against Thomas Jefferson High, a mostly black school in Port Arthur.
A few calls didn’t go our way. My teammates were mad at the refs, who had to change in our locker room. One of them was black and my teammate called him the n-word.
Our principal Ms. Jordan lived in Wexford Park, the nice neighborhood in town, which was in fact the only neighborhood that had a proper name. She was part of the respectable refined class of Vidor, so she had us undergo “racial sensitivity training.”
They brought in a consultant, who was this cheerful black lady. She asked us how many of us ever touched a black person. No one raise their hands.
So she had a few of us come up one by one and hug her.
Can’t really say how effective any of that was. I can say that one of my teammates, Kenny Stanley, who underwent that sensitivity training is now doing a life sentence for a murder he committed at the behest of a white power gang.
These points I’m making aren’t meant to be cynical or dismissive. I salute what Ms. Malone and her companions did. Even a small step like that takes a lot of courage in a hostile environment.
I don’t mean to criticize. My only aim is to put this event in the proper context. There’s a difference between pessimism and realism — between optimism and delusion.
A Black Lives Matter rally in Vidor is powerful symbolically but too often symbolic victories are confused for material gains.
The mere appearance of progress is offered as a substitute for the real deal.
People can’t allow themselves to be bamboozled by little performances into thinking that justice has been achieved, ex. a cop chanting “Black Lives Matter,” Nancy Pelosi kneeling in a kente cloth. Here in Seattle, where I live now, black activists take no comfort in knowing that the person who oversaw their violent repression for the past 13 days is a black woman.
For much of white America, our hunger for justice is so slight that it can be satiated by a day of marching in the park — but millions of other black and brown people are starving for it right now.