Looking for America (A Series)
“I’ve gone to look for America.” Simon and Garfunkel
It was a long ride from Boston to Alma, Georgia, in the late spring of 1971, and to be honest, I don’t remember if the bus was integrated or not after we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. I do remember that Alma wasn’t.
I had come to this small city 30 miles north of the Okefenokee Swamp for a job interview with community organizers working there under a Ford Foundation grant. Ford was supporting community and voter registration work then in the rural South, which was often met with powerful resistance. Alighting from the bus, I stood out, if nothing else, for the length of my hair, which I had rarely bothered to cut since my discharge from the army eight months before – an unkempt omen of unwelcome change blowing in on a northeast wind.
One of the first people I visited was a local businessman, who asked me if I had come “to stir up our Negroes,” only he didn’t pronounce it quite like that. I said I had come to learn, that “I wanted to understand,” which was true, although it wasn’t the reason I said it. I said it because I was afraid.
Later that evening, eating dinner at the American Legion, a shrill wolf whistle came from the bar at the back of the room. I turned to see a short, heavyset man staring at me and chuckling with his friends, seemingly bent on confrontation. As I turned away, he whistled again, and a tangible unease overtook our table. It was clear that my presence was putting at risk a delicate balance the young organizers were trying to strike in the community.
At the end of the meal, a man came over and said he would pick me up at my motel at 5:30 the next morning and drive me to Atlanta, that I should be waiting outside with the lights off. His headlights pulled up to my cabin in the predawn darkness, and as we chatted amiably on the three-and-a-half-hour drive, neither of us mentioned why I was being ushered out of Alma in less than a day.
But the story of Alma – like that of America – is not as simple as it seemed to a young man with long hair. Consider this: a century ago a 13-year-old boy named Nathan Cohen set sail from Poland to America, alone and unable to speak English. After he was robbed at sea of what little money he had, the passengers took up a collection (and the captain added a silver dollar). By the time he was 17, he was peddling his wares across southeastern Georgia in a wagon pulled by a horse named “Babe,” and a few years later he opened Cohen’s department store in Alma, which his grandson now runs 93 years later.
In 1960, long before I spent my day in Alma, the city made Nathan Cohen the first Jewish mayor in the history of Georgia, giving him 90% of the vote. Under his leadership, Alma became one of the smallest places in the country to be designated a Model City. When he died in 1988, Nathan Cohen was called “the most revered citizen in Alma.”