Black Belt must prove worth

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 11, 2005

I only had a short time to speak.

Even as I was called to the podium, I struggled.

I knew I was supposed to speak but I expected a different time and circumstance.

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The moment, however, was upon me.

The city was Cotonou, the country Benin and the continent Africa.

We had come from Alabama as two delegations but our purpose was one.

We had come to this tiny country of 6.5 million people about 1/5 the size of Alabama land wise for the Alabama-Benin Trade Forum.

We had come to forge trade ties.

We had come so each –

Alabama and Benin

could benefit, so each could better develop.

Our delegation was led by Ron Sparks, the best Agriculture and Industry Commissioner Alabama has ever had.

He has the vision to look beyond the usual places of trade.

He has the courage to act on his vision.

As a result, he had forged trade ties with Cuba that resulted in millions of dollars in sale of Alabama agricultural products.

Now he was leading, as far as I can determine, the first official Alabama economic delegation to West Africa.

The other delegation was led by John Smith, former mayor of Prichard, Alabama, and currently Secretary General of the World Council of Mayors.

Among the mayors participating were the following: Johnny Ford, Mayor of Tuskegee and co-founder of the World Conference of Mayors; and James Perkins, Jr. Mayor of Selma and second vice president of the World Conference of Mayors.

Perkins and Ford were aggressively pursuing opportunities to benefit the cities they lead.

Ron Sparks wanted to benefit all Alabama.

I focused on the Black Belt.

This is what I tried to tell those gathered

in the short time allowed.

I told them I co-chaired the Alabama Black Belt Action Commission.

The Black Belt is the poorest area of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina.

The Black Belt is named for its soil but most counties have majority black populations.

We in the Alabama Black Belt are also struggling to develop our areas.

The Black Belt Action Commission is an important vehicle in that effort.

I explained

the unique aspects of the Black Belt Action Commission: it is all volunteer; there is no budget; we cut across line which divide us; it involves many areas of development; and its mission is to take what we have and make what we need. There is no governmental bureaucracy in the Black Belt Action Commission. There is no state agency.

It exists by virtue of an executive order of the Governor

and is all volunteer.

As a result, there is a real passion which bears many good fruits.

No money is set aside for the Black Belt Action Commission.

This was deliberate.

When certain monies are set aside, we tend to develop solutions based upon the money available.

When there are no monies, we are less limited and therefore more creative in our approaches.

We cut across lines of differences.

I used the Black Belt Action Commission co-chairs as examples.

Kay Ivey is female and I am male.

I am black and Kay is white.

Kay is a Republican and I am a


I am tall and Kay is short.

I grew up away from the Black Belt and moved there 34 years ago while Kay grew up in the Black Belt and moved away many years ago.

And so forth and so on.

We have to cut across lines of race, gender, class, etc. to develop Benin and the Alabama Black Belt.

I did not have the time to tell the stone soup story but I emphasize that all development must be based upon taking what we have and making what we need. Any other development is built on a foundation of sand.

We refused to concentrate on one or two areas of development.

We have committees working in 13 areas such as education, health, agriculture, small business, transportation, infrastructure,

manufacturing, family, youth and culture, community development, etc.

We cannot successfully develop one aspect of our society without simultaneously developing other areas.

I did not have the time but I wanted them to know that any help that is not based upon mutual benefit is short lived.

We in the Black Belt have to show the rest of Alabama why it is in their best interest to develop the Black Belt.

Benin must show the same.

There was so much more to the economic sojourn.

Therefore, I will have to write another Sketches.

One effect on me was to appreciate how much we have to work with in developing the Black Belt when I observed how much less the people of Benin have to work with.