In 1941 Walker Evans, a photographer, and James Agee, a journalist for Time and Fortune magazines, published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, their idiosyncratic Depression-era volume of photographs and reporting about a 1936 trip to Alabama’s so-called Black Belt, a region that was, as Booker T. Washington had pronounced, “distinguished by the colour of the soil.” The book would eventually become one of the most famous nonfiction accounts of poverty in American history, comparable in influence to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. In it, Agee yearned to forswear words entirely in favor of the essential stuff of life:
If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth…phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement…. A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.
The book was devoted almost entirely to the lives of white sharecropping families. Evans’s unsparing images closely scrutinized every hollow stubbled cheek and watering eye, lingering on the slack, filthy folds of feed-sack dresses, half-naked children, and a woman’s bare bandaged foot. Agee, too, left nothing out, noticing a woman’s “manure-stained feet and legs,” saying the odors were “hard to get used to…hard to bear.” He rifled a family’s bureau drawers when they weren’t home, and his traumatized prose probed the calamitous housing, room by room: the broken windows stuffed with rags, the verminous bedding, the “privies” outfitted with “farmer’s toilet paper”—newspaper, pages from catalogs, or “corncobs, twigs, or leaves.”
Yet for all that scrutiny, a whole part of the region’s population went unobserved in Famous Men. Then as now, those rural counties of Alabama were also inhabited by Black farmers or sharecroppers who made up more than half of the people who lived there. Of dozens of photos in Famous Men, only a single one shows them: four Black men sitting in front of a barbershop. One Sunday morning, Agee, accompanied by a white landowner, was driven out to see the man’s Black foreman and tenants. Agee, who was from Tennessee, was anguished about the encounter, admitting that the landlord’s tenants “were negroes and no use to me”: Fortune magazine, which had originally assigned Evans and Agee to the story (and never published it), had requested that the article cover whites, not Blacks, whose “plight,” according to a later account, the magazine did not consider “newsworthy.”
Agee nonetheless recorded a menacing scene of the white landlord crudely commanding a group of Black men, dressed in Sunday clothes, to approach and sing for them, “to show us what nigger music is like.” Chagrined, Agee was “sick in the knowledge that they felt they were here at our demand.” Later, he approached a young Black couple on the road to ask about photographing a nearby church. Petrified by his intentions, the woman clenched her body like “a suddenly terrified wild animal.” Seeing her fearing for her life, he “wished to God I was dead.”
Fifty years later, Dale Maharidge, a journalist with The Sacramento Bee, returned to Agee’s families. Some of their descendants had prospered, yet many were still afflicted by poverty and illness, living in mobile homes. His 1989 volume, And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”: James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South, accompanied by a new series of photos by Michael Williamson, won a Pulitzer Prize, sticking fairly close to the three white families Agee had written about. Among the grimmest living conditions Maharidge found were those of the widow of a man who had been one of the naked boys in Evans’s photographs. Her home was a shack she rented for $10 a month, with no running water or electricity. He commented:
In thousands of miles of travel across the rural South, blacks were often found occupying such dwellings; it’s rare to find whites in such “little country homes,” the preferred euphemism when whites occupy them.
Maharidge did locate the Black community of Parson’s Cove, “at a point on the map that seems as far from anywhere as any visitor to Alabama should be,” and spent time with Frank Gaines and his family. They were “landlocked by white landowners on all sides” who were still refusing to sell land to Blacks. Maharidge, who is white, alluded in broad strokes to the Gaineses’ housing—a few hot rooms illuminated by bare bulbs, walls insulated “with cardboard and newspaper.” Water was piped from a spring; nothing was said about sanitation. The writer admitted that he found it hard to penetrate the deep mistrust, or even to start conversations in Parson’s Cove, “one of the blackest places in Alabama.”
Now, decades after Agee and Maharidge, a Black writer is telling the story of the Black Belt. Catherine Coleman Flowers grew up there, and her new book, Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret, contains no photographs, but it doesn’t need any. It deals directly in images as redolent as Agee’s clods of earth and phials of odors. The “dirty secret” Flowers urges readers to confront is the racial and economic injustice of rural American subsistence, including but not limited to the South, and the degradation it entails. She chronicles the lives of friends and neighbors coping with criminally deficient housing and a lack of sanitation so horrific that raw sewage bubbles up in sinks and toilets, floods the floors of run-down and collapsing trailers, and lies reeking in backyards and lagoons. She widens her gaze to take in similar crises from California to Florida and beyond, but she begins in her own backyard.
The Black Belt accreted during the Cretaceous, 145–166 million years ago, when billions of minute marine plants and animals died. This matter drifted to the bottom of seas at the center of North America in an enormous interior waterway covering what is now Florida, Texas, and the Great Plains and dividing the continent into two truncated landmasses: the West Coast and a chunk of the Midwest. Much of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana were underwater, but when the seas receded, they left behind black soil enriched by mineralized fossil sediments. It was perfect for growing cotton.
In his 1901 autobiography, Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington touched on the fate of that fertile land:
The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently they were taken there in the largest numbers. Later, and especially since the war, the term [“Black Belt”] seems to be used wholly in a political sense—that is, to designate the counties where the black people outnumber the white.
Life in those counties was so barbarous that the Black Belt’s unhealed and unrecompensed history of exploitation and segregation remains visible everywhere, economically and politically: 50 percent of its people are Black and mostly poor, among the poorest in the country. During the recent presidential election, experts pointed to maps showing the bright blue Democratic swath lighting up the Black Belt, sweeping through an otherwise reliably Republican South, a swath that still traces the ancient Cretaceous shoreline. Defying the predominance of white supremacy, it traces as well the twentieth century’s civil rights era and Flowers’s singular role in furthering it.
Geographically, the Black Belt stretches from Delaware to Texas, but the name specifically refers to a band of seventeen counties in the lower half of Alabama. It includes Lowndes County, known as “Bloody Lowndes” for its harrowing history of floggings, beatings, burnings, and lynchings, and the shooting of two voting rights activists in 1965. W.E.B. Du Bois lived in Lowndes for a time, from 1905 to 1907, doing field research for a book commissioned by the US Department of Labor. With impressive understatement, he wrote, “I do not think it would be easy to find a place where conditions were on the whole more unfavorable to the rise of the Negro.” A century later, Taylor Branch, the biographer of Martin Luther King Jr., concurred, calling it a place of “unspoiled beauty and feudal cruelty” and its history of lynchings “nearly unmatched.” Historian Hasan Kwame Jeffries vividly chronicled that brutality in his Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (2009). After Emancipation, white landowners kept Black laborers landless and “handcuffed by debt” for decade after decade by withholding wages, charging for goods and services never provided, and terrorizing Black communities with random attacks and night visitations by the Klan and the similarly vicious Knights of the White Camellia.
Little had changed by the time Agee and Evans arrived in the 1930s. During the Depression, while handing out relief payments and loans to poor whites, Roosevelt’s New Deal offered little to Blacks in Lowndes; Jeffries notes that the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act gave county control over federal relief funds to landed white gentry, who determined that Black farmers would be ineligible for cash or loans. Whites also reduced the acreage Black tenant farmers could plant, eliminating competition and deepening abject poverty. To get New Deal legislation passed, in the face of rigid opposition from southern Democrats, FDR refused to support the federal anti-lynching bill his wife had lobbied for.
By early 1965 some five thousand Black adults of voting age lived in Lowndes. After years of Jim Crow and poll tax intimidation, not a single one was registered to vote: most, Jeffries says, were “too scared even to try.” Nonetheless, within a year or so, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had chosen as its symbol a “snarling black panther” (later adopted by the party of the same name), had rallied several thousand and gotten their names on the rolls, led in part by a twenty-three-year-old Stokely Carmichael.
Such progress came at a cost. In August 1965, days after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) led a protest of segregated businesses in the Lowndes County town of Fort Deposit. He was arrested along with other demonstrators, including a white Episcopal seminarian, Jonathan Daniels, and a white Catholic priest, Reverend Richard Morrisroe. On their release, Daniels and Morrisroe entered a store to buy cold drinks. They were confronted by Thomas Coleman, a volunteer with the sheriff’s department, who leveled his shotgun at Ruby Sales, a teenage protester who had come in with them. Daniels pushed her aside and took the brunt of the blast, dying instantly. Coleman then shot the priest, too, severely wounding him. King called Daniels’s action “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry,” and the murder brought fresh outrage and attention to the voting rights struggle. Charged with manslaughter, Thomas Coleman claimed self-defense, and an all-white jury acquitted him. Some shook his hand.
This was the Lowndes where Catherine Coleman Flowers grew up. Born in 1958 in Birmingham, she was the eldest of five; the family had first lived in Montgomery. In 1968 they moved to a rural Lowndes community called Blackbelt, where they lived in “a concrete block house with a big yard in a neighborhood full of poor families.” Few had the luxury of indoor plumbing, and Flowers recalls using “an outhouse and a slop jar.” For fresh water, most children had to walk “to Miss Nell’s house with buckets to use her hand-operated pump.” Her own family possessed an electric pump—“I guess there were degrees of poverty,” she says—but she still enjoyed the taste of Miss Nell’s water.
The community was a close one: kids fashioned a miniature pool table from a Nehi soft-drink crate, using marbles for balls. Folks sat on porches in the heat, and Flowers remembers listening to her parents, long active in the civil rights movement, functioning as “jailhouse lawyers” by writing letters for neighbors, and talking about their leaders: Carmichael, Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and Kwame Nkrumah. Her parents’ lives were marked by prejudice: after Coleman’s youngest brother was born, her mother was sterilized at the Tuskegee hospital, one of the few in the South that accepted Black patients. Her father, after serving in the military, carried a gun, vowing that “he was not going to be denied freedom when he returned.”
Flowers became an activist as a teenager, regularly appearing on a Montgomery public affairs television show when she was in the tenth grade. That yielded an opportunity to write about the substandard education she was receiving at her high school, the Lowndes County Training School. Its name, she learned, dated to the days of segregation, when Blacks attended “training schools” while whites went to “academies.” For the past forty years, its Black principal had curried favor with whites, in part by opposing civil rights. Largely unsupervised by the district, he was accused of pimping out Black teenage girls to white men in Montgomery and holding dance parties during afternoon classes, once charging admission to an R-rated “blaxploitation” movie during school hours. Catherine’s report prompted threats against her and other students, a physical confrontation between the principal and her father, and charges of sexual abuse against the principal made by another girl. Ultimately, the principal was suspended and Catherine was invited to Washington, D.C., to become a Robert F. Kennedy youth fellow.
It was a heady time: Flowers stayed with friends of the Kennedys, attended Bethesda–Chevy Chase High, met “Uncle Ted” and other luminaries, went swimming in Ethel Kennedy’s pool, and considered going to a private boarding school to prepare for college, hoping to attend law school. Her parents, however, wanted her home, and she returned to Lowndes for her senior year, determined to change the school’s name and remove its superintendent—Hulda Coleman, sister of the man who shot the pastors in 1965—from office. Buoyed by newfound confidence, sporting an Afro, she succeeded in both. Hulda Coleman was replaced by the first Black superintendent in the county.
Throughout Flowers’s career, both at college and later as a teacher, civil rights was her primary focus. At Alabama State and Howard Universities, she became embroiled in an affirmative action case that threatened the existence of historically Black colleges and universities. Before completing a degree, “feeling burned out from the fight against injustice,” she joined the Air National Guard and then the air force, where she was sexually harassed by a superior. “When I complained,” she writes, “I was not believed.” She left the military but in 1985 married an army man, moving to his base in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Two months later he suffered a serious head injury on the job that caused temporary amnesia and lasting headaches. Believing him to be “malingering,” his superiors denied necessary leave and medical treatment. Warned against speaking out, Flowers instead documented everything, demanding a reappraisal. “My life’s experiences,” she wrote, “had taught me that looking the other way often led to more injustice.”
Later that year the couple moved to Washington, D.C., and Flowers embarked on a distinguished if fraught career as a middle and high school teacher, at first assigned to work with students with poor grades. To stimulate them, she invited inspirational guests, such as General Colin Powell, to speak and mounted ambitious field trips. In 1990 she arranged for students to participate in the twenty-fifth anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, part of which led through Lowndes County. In 1993, paying for it with “car washes and fish fries,” she took “a busload of students and chaperones” to Clinton’s first inauguration. Despite these triumphs, she found herself having to fight for students’ rights, repeatedly and in the face of determined opposition. In the Nineties, she became the “first teacher in the history of the US Department of Education to file a federal civil rights complaint on behalf of students,” charging, among other things, that discipline and suspensions in her school were “clearly race-based,” something the department’s Office of Civil Rights subsequently found to be true.
In 2000, on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Selma march, making the journey once again with students, Flowers found herself drawn back to Lowndes. Her father died that spring, and she took a temporary NAACP position rallying voter turnout, encouraged by the fact that Black officials were now serving as mayors and county commissioners. Yet political power remained with wealthy white landowners. She saw rural Black families in and around the Lowndes towns of Hayneville and Fort Deposit living in dilapidated trailers with no septic systems, their sewage “straight-piped” to backyards, where children’s toys lay moored in pools of raw waste dotted with toilet paper. Eventually she learned that no state law required that a home buyer be informed about the lack or failure of a septic system.
Whites in these rigidly segregated towns, living on the best streets and the higher ground, benefited from functional city sewage systems. But Blacks in the same towns, relegated to the outskirts near effluent ponds yet paying for the same services, struggled with systemic failures. The only fix for them involved city workers sent to pump their sewage into those ponds or lagoons that, in turn, often flooded their properties. For rural residents, it was worse. As in many states, it remains a criminal misdemeanor in Alabama to straight-pipe sewage or fail to maintain a functional septic system. While there are environmental and public health reasons to hold homeowners accountable for maintaining their systems, the effect of these laws in places like the Black Belt is to criminalize poverty, with residents unable to pay thousands of dollars for repairs or replacement. Some were cited and taken to court, threatened with eviction and jail.
The state, along with the federal government, was turning a blind eye to its own toxic failures. In Lowndes County alone, 40 to 90 percent of homes had no functioning septic system. That matched an astonishing national statistic: in the US, more than half of septic systems routinely fail. To break this cycle, in the early 2000s Flowers reached out to well-placed conservatives, including Robert Woodson, a Black activist and founder of the Woodson Center, an early proponent of neighborhood-based projects to revitalize low-income communities, and Jeff Sessions, then Alabama’s junior senator.
These strange bedfellows helped her launch an effort to publicize and address conditions in the Black Belt. In 2002 Flowers introduced Woodson to its beleaguered residents, walking him through trailers, pausing by a pool of open sewage behind a small country church. Shocked, he called a Washington Post columnist, William Raspberry, telling him, “It just blew my mind…. People living without sewers or septic tanks, with waste running off into an open ditch.” Woodson quickly founded the nonprofit Alabama Rural Initiative, placing Flowers in charge. Introducing Sessions to Black business leaders, she wrote a government grant application to bring industrial parks to the county, sparking new infrastructure investment.
Flowers was the first to survey the county’s failing septic systems. Outside one home, she suffered mosquito bites and developed a mysterious rash that doctors failed to diagnose. Wondering “if third-world conditions might be bringing third-world diseases to our region,” she contacted a specialist whose peer-reviewed study found that, out of a sample of fifty-five adults and children in Lowndes County, 34.5 percent tested positive for hookworm, a parasite thought to have been eradicated in the American South by the mid-twentieth century. While hookworm infestations are not fatal, they can delay mental and physical growth in children and cause lingering intestinal disease. E. coli and other intestinal diseases have also been found in Lowndes.
Armed with this data, Flowers began urging officials to treat sewage as a public health issue, not a moral failing. She found sewage pooling in Appalachian towns and behind trailers in California’s Central and San Joaquin Valleys; she went to international conferences, including the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, to argue that inadequate sewage treatment contaminates water sources and encourages the proliferation of tropical diseases. Launching her own organization, the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, she has pressed governments to recognize their responsibility to maintain infrastructure and provide essential services to rural poor and city dwellers alike. Urban areas are not immune: in 2012 Hurricane Sandy damaged more than two hundred waste treatment plants and dumped more than 10 billion gallons of raw sewage into the local waterways, shores, and streets of New York and New Jersey.
The media coverage of Flowers’s work began attracting the attention of celebrities, politicians, and billionaires. Over the years, she has led Karenna Gore, Jane Fonda, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, and Tom Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, on sewage tours, letting the olfactory encounters speak for themselves. The narrative of Waste builds to a final scene exposing the human cost of conditions deemed inhumane by the UN, whose rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston, visited Lowndes in 2017 and declared the lack of sanitation a violation of human rights, saying, “The government has an obligation to provide people with the essentials of life.”
In 2018, driving deep into the woods on Lowndes’s Collirene Cutoff Road, once known as “the Nigger Foot Road,” Flowers led the Reverend William J. Barber, head of a new “Poor People’s Campaign”—modeled on the one originated by King in 1968—to a trailer belonging to Pamela Rush, a middle-aged mother of two. Rush showed them to the rear, where the sewage was straight-piped into the yard:
It remained on the ground near her back door. A child’s guitar lay close by. Pam described living in fear of being arrested. There was no way she could afford a septic system on her income. The high water table in the area required a specially engineered system. Just getting the [percolation] test and design done was way out of her reach.
Rush’s income was less than $1,000 a month; the cost of a new septic system, over $20,000. One of Rush’s sisters had been arrested for not having a septic tank, another arrested and fined for not paying a garbage bill. Rush’s young daughter was so severely afflicted with asthma, directly caused by the foul air of the property, she needed a CPAP breathing machine to sleep through the night.
Mold covered the bedroom walls. The refrigerator was rusting in the damp, kitchen cabinets were coming off the walls. Rush still owed $13,000 on the trailer, bought in the mid-1990s for $113,000. It was unsellable and beyond repair.
The fate of Pam Rush becomes a parable of the waste of life caused by septic poverty. After Flowers’s organization discovered that a functional waste system on Rush’s small property would be prohibitively expensive to install and maintain, the organization, with a donation from Taylor, worked to buy an adjoining half-acre and a new double-wide trailer, determining that the additional property could handle a working septic tank.
But Rush never got to move into her new home. In June 2020 she contracted Covid-19 and ended up on a ventilator in a hospital in Birmingham. She died on July 3. By the time Waste was published, Lowndes County, it turned out, had Alabama’s highest per capita death rate from Covid.
Throughout her plainspoken account, Flowers exhibits a prodigious forbearance. The effect is wrenching, as if she had succeeded in Agee’s plan to tear out a piece of the very body of the Black Belt. In Waste she proffers, with humility and without rancor, the plate of excrement that has been served to those like Pam Rush all their lives. The reader must decide what to do with it.