In poor Black Belt, both fears, prayers over Trump

By Jay Reeves, AP

MARION, Alabama — Here, in what’s left of the Old South’s plantation region, the descendants of slaves who picked cotton and worked the dark soil are praying differently since Donald Trump moved into the White House.

During Barack Obama’s eight years in office, folks who gathered for Bible studies or Sunday worship worried that someone would try to kill the nation’s first black president, and they asked God to protect him. Today, those worshippers are asking the Almighty to instill Trump with a kind heart and give him understanding for people far outside the world of Manhattan real estate or reality TV.

“We’re asking for him to be compassionate,” said Frances Ford, 60, a nurse who leads a nonprofit program that works with needy people in Marion, the seat of Perry County, one of the poorest places in the impoverished 11-state region known as the Black Belt — originally for the dark color of its soil and later for its high percentage of African-American residents.

Largest Contiguous Pocket of Poverty With more than 600 counties stretching from southern Virginia to east Texas, the Black Belt was wealthy when cotton was king. However, as a study from the University of Georgia and North Carolina State University found, it eventually became the nation’s largest contiguous pocket of poverty. High unemployment, poor education, declining population and persistent health problems are the norm.

Black residents here were energized by hope when Obama was elected — Perry County went so far as to declare an annual holiday in his honor — but the start of Trump’s term has been marked by skepticism, anxiety and fear, feelings that are growing for many black Americans nationwide as they struggle to connect with the president.

Trump promised his policies would benefit African-Americans and predicted he’d win the black vote. He didn’t: About 8 percent of black voters nationwide supported him.

And Trump hasn’t done anything since to make blacks feel more comfortable about his time in the White House, said Camille Charles, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Trump tangled on Twitter with civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. He later threatened to “send in the feds” to address Chicago’s gun violence — a nod to his classification of “inner cities” that many blasted as racist during the campaign. On the first day of February, Black History Month, Trump was slammed for praising abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, as someone “who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” Two weeks later, he asked a black journalist to help arrange a meeting with black lawmakers, and many balked at his suggestion that the parties must know each other because of their shared race.

Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions for attorney general created waves especially in Alabama. Opponents attacked Sessions, the state’s junior senator and once its top prosecutor, over allegations that he’d joked about the Ku Klux Klan and addressed a black U.S. attorney as “boy,” and they railed against his record on civil rights and policing. But Sessions was confirmed.