Tattling the Racist Laughter
of Alabama Leaders, 1950- 67

© 1988 by Maledicta. © 2004 by Louie Crew

First appeared in Maledicta 10 (1988-1989): 105-114.

By Louie Crew

The air-conditioners hummed noisily as Rotarians in Anniston, Alabama, fiddled with their desserts at the YMCA, in August 1961. Their guest speaker humored them, as they expected him to do:

A Negro dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter asks how things are on earth.

"Fine. Segregation gone; integration works."

"How is that?"

"I decided to go to the white Baptist church. The ushers were cordial and took me down to the front seat. Preacher directed the sermon to me, opened the doors of the church, and urged me to join. It passed unanimous. Then they asked if I was baptized. I said no and they showed me the pool right behind the pulpit. Me and the preacher in robes go down in the water."

The Negro paused and scratched his head.

St. Peter asked, "What is the matter?"

"You know, that is the last thing I remember."

Three months earlier, other Annistonians had physically attacked Freedom Riders and burned their bus. Anniston Rotarians would not have dared join these "rednecks," as they would have called them. Still, after the fact, the Rotarians happily fantasized that their Baptist preacher, archetypal spokesperson of values in Southern communities, could drown a black person who wanted to integrate the church.

"Have you heard about the Freedom-Rider Dolls? You wind them up and they head straight for the white rest room." That got a big laugh on November 16, 1961, at the Rooster Club, a breakfast group to promote progress for Anniston. In August 1961, Rotarians laughed at:

The son was scratching.

The father, a Negro, said, "What's the matter."

Son: "I have chiggers biting."

Father: "They not chiggers, son, but Chigroes."

While Freedom-Rider dolls and Chigroes aimed to trivialize the issues of social justice, ironically the second joke only faintly concealed another victory for the black victims. Ostensibly the Anniston leaders here were rankled that they now had to say Negro. Most had already avoided Nigger in polite company, but they had insisted on Nigra, as their own more polite term. In the joke, white Southerners acknowledged, grudgingly, that Black people had won the right to do their own naming.

Five years later, in August 1966, Anniston Rotarians laughed a joke in several ways the antithesis of the tale about the preacher who drowned the black integrationist:

Over breakfast coffee, Delta Airlines passengers for Flight No. 640 to Boston read in the Atlanta Constitution that theirs will be the first flight piloted by a black man.

Surely enough, after they are airborne, the voice comes over the p.a. system: "Dis is Joe Brown. We is flying at an altitude over 30,000 feet gwine nowth, nowtheast at 400 miles per hour. We due to arrive in Boston in 2 hours and a half. If you look out the window in about 10 minutes, you will see the Atlantic Ocean. Have a nice flight. Thank yall for flying Delta."

Fifteen minutes later, when the passengers are enjoying their coffee, the same voice comes back on again. "Folks, as I told you, now if you will look out the window you will see the ocean. Way down dere they is this big yaller dot. Does you see it?"

The right wing of the plane dipped sharply and everyone glared down at the yellow dot miles below.

"And in dat yaller dot dere bes a black dot. Does you see that 'en too?"

Most of the passengers nod. "Dat dere is yo pilot. Dis here is a recording."

The Rotarians laughed with a new twist: the joke was on them. In it, they drowned. Thereby the Rotarians quietly acknowledged that they had had lost, that segregation had indeed gone with the wind.

Whites' Laughter at Blacks of the 1950's

In contrast, the jokes Anniston leaders told about blacks in the 1950's showed no respect at all for blacks as a political force. Instead, whites portrayed blacks as simple, harmless illiterates on whom the whites could heap their own fantasies:
Two colored girls go to photographer. He sits them down and gets his head under the black cloth.

"What's he doin?"

"He goin focus now."

"Whut? Both us?"

Two colored girls meet.

"Hi, Liza."

"Hi, May."

"How is you."

"I'se, fine. I'se married now."

"Who to?"

"Sam Jones"

"Don't you know he drinks too much. Dat drinkin take the lead out of his pencil."

"Huh. Don't worry me. He don't do all my scribblin nohow."

Those gathered for the Alabama Hardware Convention in May 1950, laughed heartily.

In the more polite society of a noon meeting of Rotary, sexual stereotypes yielded to a demeaning innocence:

Coffee salesman to small colored boy: "Boy, do you drink coffee?"

"So does, bout 12 cups every day."

"Don't that much coffee keep you awake?"

The boy answers with a yawn, "It helps."

                           (October 17, 1950. Rotary Club.)

Adult blacks fared no better. The Anniston Chamber of Commerce, which promoted the town as "The Model City," easily laughed at black adults as stupid: "Policeman to colored driver: You did not have your dimmers on. Driver: Sho did. I have on all my ma put out for me" (January 15, 1951). People at the same meeting of the Chamber had little respect for black family:
Negro from Selma "does" Detroit. Reports drift back about a Cadillac and a white wife.

Truth gets told: Old Cadillac. High brown gal, with not a drop of white blood: one-half Negro and one-half Yankee.

Southern white jokers in the 1950's often affirmed the verbal cleverness and folk wisdom of selected blacks, namely those who stayed in their place:
A Negro named Joshua was up for illegal liquor. The judge said, "So you are Joshua who made the sun stand still?"

The Negro replied: "No suh, I'se the Joshua who made the moonshine."

                                 (Rotary Club. June 4, 1956)

The joker here managed the Anniston Coca-Cola Co, bottler of legal potions.

In 1954 the United States Supreme Court decided Brown vs. Board of Education and demanded "all possible speed" to end the segregation of schools. Notice how unready Anniston leaders were to affirm the intellectual worth of the black pupils, as evidenced by the tale Anniston Rotarians circulated in their official newsletter on April 12, 1954:

A Not Uncommon Failing

A Colored boy came to a white man's house in the country and said to the white man,

"Boss, I'se hongry."

The man said, "All right, go round to the kitchen."

The boy said, "Boss, if you gimme sumpin to eat, I'll split up that stove wood in your back yard."

The man said, "All right, all right, go and get your grub."

A couple of hours later the man went to the back yard and noticed the boy who was just sitting and asked him, "Have you chopped up that wood?"

The boy said, "Boss, if you let me rest around till dinner time, after dinner I'll chop that patch of cotton for you."

The man said, "All right, but don't fool me no more."

After the boy had eaten a big dinner he started to the cotton patch and he met a cooter (mud-turtle). The cooter said, "Nigger, you talks too much." T

he boy goes tearing back to the house and the man came out and said, "Nigger, have you chopped that cotton?" The boy said, "Lawd, Boss, I wuz on my way and I met a cooter and he started talkin' to me and here I am."

The white man said, "Take me to that cooter and if he don't start talkin, I'm going to give you a beating." So they started for the cotton patch and there in the middle of the road sat the cooter, but he never opened his mouth. So the man hopped on the boy and whipped him something scandalous and left for the house.

Well, the colored boy was just about through brushing himself off when the cooter poked his head out and looked at him and said, "Nigger, I tole you, you talk too much."

Notice too how faintly the joker criticizes the man's physical violence towards the young black person: "So the man hopped on the boy and whipped him something scandalous and left for the house."

In January 1960, at the beginning of the new decade, Judge Coley clearly specified the limits for any trust of black intelligence:

A lawyer appeared at a professional hearing with a large briefcase. An old friend kidded him saying:

"You know! When I first started out in life, my father gave me some good advice: `Don't trust too much a preacher without a church and a nigger with a briefcase.'"

                      (The Rooster Club)

Although whites' humor in the 1960's mirrored new political dimensions, many older notions persisted simultaneously. Even three years after the burning of the Freedom-Rider bus, President Wright of Samford University, a Baptist institution in Birmingham, felt it appropriate to tickle the Anniston Rotarians with these two:
Mandy to lawyer on Monday morning: "I wants to get a divorce."

Lawyer: "I didn't know you were married. When did you marry?"

Mandy: "Saturday."

Lawyer: "When did you meet the man?"

Mandy: Friday."

Lawyer: "Met Friday, married Saturday, divorced Monday. Why?"

Mandy: "Mister John, he's most over-introduced man I ever saw."

A Negro gets a lawyer to take his case to sue another. The lawyer says that he will take the case on a "contingency basis." On leaving the office, the Negro asks the elevator operator what "contingency basis" meant. "If he loses, you lose; he don't get no money. If'n he wins yo case, you don't get no money."

(Septemer 15, 1964)

Dr. Wright implies: "I refuse to acknowledge the issues that are shaking this community, and I trust that you can laugh with me in the Amos & Andy way we used before integration." Much other civic humor in Anniston during the 1960's shared Dr. Wright's quietism, as did the popular joke about a bridge party:
Yes'm, ah quit dat job. Dat were de mos' ridiculous place I'se ebber been in! Dey played a game called bridge, an' las' night dere was lots o'fellas an' gals dere. Jes' as ah was fixin' to serve 'freshmints ah heahs dis man say to a woman, "Take yo hands off mah trick!"

Ah jes neah drapped daid when, bless mah bones, ah heahs annudder man say, "You sure got a nice bust!"

Den annudder man say, "Lay down an' let 'me see what you got!"

Den ah heahs dis woman say, "You forced me an'ah had to take you out when ah'd already been down twice!"

Den dis udder woman say, "You jumped me twice when you didn't have stuff enuff fo' one good raise."

An 'den some woman say somep'n bout "coverin' her honor."

Well, ah jist ups 'an gits mah hat 'cause ah knowed dat ain't no fittin' place fo' me, an' just' as ah was leavin', ah hope to die ef dis woman didn't say, "Well, ah guess we'll stop now, as dis is mah las' rubber," an' den--doggone ef she didn't say, "Lay down yo dummy an' let me pay on it!"

No ma'amm, ah's a lady an' ah jes' couldn't stay there!

Compare this joke with a very different one about a domestic servant, as retold during a Rotary dinner conversation: "Leila Carrington's cook referred to the civil rights folks as `late model niggers.'" Possibly the whites enjoyed the cook's derogatory "niggers" so much that they missed her ironic affirmation of the new breed.

Black drama of the sixties often celebrated just such maids who spoke the truth as clearly as they dared, to whites who simply refused to hear. Segregation may not have finally ended in the white imagination, but it surely had in the imagination of Leila Carrington's maid.

One sample tellingly mixes old stereotypes with the new political reality:

Lyndon is my Shepherd. I shall not work.
He maketh me to lie down in front of theatres.
He leadeth me into White Universities.
He restoreth my welfare check.
He leadeth me in the path of 'sit-ins,'
for Communists's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the HEART OF DIXIE,
I shall fear no police, for Lyndon is with me.
He prepareth a table before me in the presence of WHITE FOLKS.
He annointed my head with anti-kink hair straightener.
My Cadillac tank runneth over.
Surely the Supreme Court will follow me all the days of my life.
And, I will dwell in the house of the Federal Housing
Project forever.   AMEN
The Cadillac and the laziness stereotypes arrive right out of the white humor of the fifties; but the spite is new. Witness "anti-kink hair straightener..." The laughers resent new black political clout--legislation, sit-ins, integration, government economic commitment. Nowhere does the parodist acknowledge common community even with the poorer whites, who comprised the vast majority those whom the federal money helped in Anniston. Then only about 10 percent of the 33,000 Annistonians were black.

Similar bitterness infests a joke circulated among employees who worked in local government in Anniston during the late sixties.

Subject: Decorating School for Christmas

We have been informed by the office of H.E.W. of Washington, D.C., that a white Christmas would be a violation of Title 11 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

These are the steps to be taken to comply:

  1. All Christmas Trees must have at least 26.4% colored bulbs and they must be placed throughout the tree and not segregated in the back of the tree.
  2. Christmas presents must not be wrapped in white paper unless colored ribbon is used to tie them.
  3. If the manger scene is used, 21% of the angels and one out of three Kings must be of minority race.
  4. If Christmas music is played, "We Shall Overcome" must be given equal time. Under no circumstances will "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" be played.
  5. Care should be taken in party planning. For example:
  6. A team from H.E.W. will visit us on December 25th to determine compliance with the act. If it snows on Christams Eve, we are all in trouble.
After 1967, my source recorded no more jokes about black people, though he continued to record many other jokes in civic clubs of Anniston until he retired, in 1977. Maybe blacks disappeared from civic-club humor. More likely, my source just lost interest in copying them.

In the fifties and sixties, my source served on the Anniston Board of Education. As chair for several years after the Little Rock decision, he told The Rev. Quentus Reynolds, an N.A.A.C.P. petitioner, that the Board would not integrate the Anniston schools. "I am sworn to uphold the Constitution of the State of Alabama," he insisted.

In 1965, President Johnson nationalized the Alabama Guard to abort George Wallace's stand against the integration of the University of Alabama. Federal law became Alabama law, and my source followed it. He went on to direct Johnson's poverty program in several northeast Alabama counties until he retired. At his funeral in 1982, The Rev. Quentus Reynolds--once his adversary, then his co- worker, finally his successor at the Community Improvement Board--eulogized him for important contributions to the economic well-being of poor people in the community, white and black alike.

I visited him as he was dying in 1982. He asked generously about my black spouse, whom he had grown to respect during his last decade. Then he turned his eye to the ceiling above his bed.

"Son," he said, "when you have to throw things away, you might too quickly chuck a file marked "jokes," but you must not. I wrote down and dated all that I heard through the years. Some of them will hurt you, but you must write about them. They are a part of what happened. I love you both." Rest in peace.


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