Covid and the Legacy of Slavery


Pamela Rush

Clancy Calkins for Montgomery Advertiser

A few weeks ago, Pamela Rush died after being infected with Covid-19 in Lowndes County, Alabama. She was 49 years old and leaves behind a 12-year-old daughter who suffers from poor health and an 18-year-old son.

Ms. Rush had become an extraordinary advocate for racial and economic justice after giving powerful testimony to Congress in 2018 about the plight of the poor in Alabama’s Black Belt. She talked persuasively about the perils of predatory lending, Alabama’s wastewater crisis in rural communities, inadequate health care, and systemic neglect—as is evident in the video below. She was heralded by many as a contemporary Fannie Lou Hamer who used her voice to shine a light on Alabama’s poor.

Covid has hit the state of Alabama hard. Jefferson County—Alabama’s most populated county, which includes the city of Birmingham—has been devastated by the pandemic with over 10,000 cases and 200 deaths and an infection rate at a high 470 per 100,000 people. Lowndes County in the rural Black Belt has a rate of infection nearly 10 times higher at 4,349 per 100,000 people. Covid infection rates in Alabama’s Black Belt are the highest in the state and among the highest in the nation. Infections in Lowndes, Wilcox, Bullock, Dallas, and Butler counties have created unprecedented levels of illness and suffering.

The absence of health care, structural barriers to economic recovery, Alabama’s refusal to accept federal funding for Medicaid, and the closure of 10 hospitals in rural communities in the last several years has left poor people vulnerable to disease and distress. These hard-hit rural communities also have the highest percentage of Black residents in the state, a legacy of slavery.

Between 1820 and 1860, tens of thousands of enslaved Black people were trafficked to Alabama’s Black Belt. The population of Black people in Alabama increased from 40,000 in 1820 to over 400,000 by 1860. Black people were enslaved in rural counties like Lowndes, where they were abused, denigrated, and forced to labor for white landowners.

After emancipation, horrific violence and terrorism was used to disenfranchise and marginalize Black residents even though they were the majority in many of these communities. Convict leasing, lynching, exploitative sharecropping, and economic isolation and debt were tactics that white landowners used to burden Black residents. It would take 100 years until the Selma to Montgomery march came through Lowndes County and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act before many Black residents got the right to vote. This civil rights act is a law that many Alabama officials continue to resist enforcing.

It is impossible to mourn the death of Pamela Rush without also mourning our nation’s failure to deal honestly with the legacy of slavery, racial injustice, and economic exploitation of people whose foreparents were kidnapped, abused, and enslaved in this region. This history of injustice is now being painfully exposed by a pandemic and once again people of color and the poor are suffering.