[This blog post was written directly after Willie and I visited to Bayou La Batre, AL where they met Ernest Montgomery. He passed away suddenly on April 2, 2013, less than two weeks after we met. Willie and I were deeply moved by the brief time spent with him. Ernest put Jesus on our minds with the love he showed for his community and the righteousness he embodied.]
Is Jesus on Your Mind?
[Quote from a billboard in Bayou La Batre, AL]
by John Wessel-McCoy
Wednesday, February 20, 2013 – Bayou La Batre, Alabama
On our fourth day of the Pedagogy of the Poor tour of the South (Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, & Tennessee), Willie and I started our day at the Bayou La Batre Waffle House meeting with Ernest Montgomery. The night before, Barbara Robbins and Zack Carter from Alabama Fisheries Cooperative organized a meeting at Greater New Hope Baptist Church in Snow’s Corners, Bayou La Batre. The meeting had the dual purpose of a Pedagogy of the Poor event and a gathering for the tenants of Safe Harbor facing rent hikes and evictions (more on that below). Mr. Montgomery attended the meeting, and we were so impressed with him as a leader, we asked him to have breakfast the next day.
The most important work we’ve been doing on these book tours is finding and developing relationships with the unsung saints out there, the people fighting and organizing in poor and struggling communities. At the hand of major media, their work is deliberately kept missing and mis-told. We were honored and humbled to have met Ernest Montgomery. Ernest is a real unsung saint living and working in the U.S. South – the Bible Belt – living his life in a truly Christian way. He represents the true qualities of leadership and poverty scholarship.
Bayou La Batre, AL, a town on the Gulf of Mexico, is an impoverished and struggling community despite the wealth of the oil and fishing industries. Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill have dealt crippling blows to what was already an economically struggling area. Bayou La Batre is a town made up mostly of poor and dispossessed whites, poor blacks, poor Asians, and poor Latinos.
Ernest Montgomery was born and raised in Bayou La Batre and will be turning 80 years old this year. Ernest’s life has been one dedicated to his family and his community, and at nearly 80 years old, he is tireless in his work. His life as a laborer has run the gambit from chopping cotton to working for the telephone company. He helped organize and lead the local volunteer firefighters for decades. At Christmas time, he and his son decorated the main street every year without pay. He leads the choir and serves as deacon at his church. He works with local farmers to provide fresh produce to neighbors in need. Recognizing the needs of the youth were not being met, he founded and continues to run the local Boys and Girls Club. He works closely with Alabama Fisheries Cooperative, especially around their work with residents at Safe Harbor – a post-Katrina government funded housing development now in the process of doubling and tripling rents beyond the ability of most tenants to pay. Several tenants have already been evicted. Ernest was a co-founder of the fisher and seafood worker coop , and he had been putting fishers in touch with customers, free of charge, who came to the boats and paid fairly (as opposed to the oppressive price given by the big boy processors). Ernest initiated the coop’s grass roots organizing at Safe Harbor. He hosted the initial Safe Harbor housing coop organizing committee meetings at his Boys & Girls last June. Over time, Ernest has won the love and respect of most of the town, notably across the color line. However, his engagement has proved threatening to local officials.
For several years, Ernest has been in a longstanding struggle with Stan Wright, the mayor of Bayou La Batre for the past four terms. Wright has an alleged history of Klan involvement. Wright’s tenure as mayor has been one filled with corruption. The Safe Harbors housing management is just one example. Wright has repeatedly blocked Ernest’s attempts at setting up the youth center. Over time, there have been members of the local Klan from whom Ernest has won trust and respect. In the words of Ernest, “There have been some of these men who have taken off the hood. They have come to me to tell me that what Mayor Wright has been doing (in attacking me) is not right – that they don’t agree. One former Klansmen’s told me that the understanding of his Bible has now made him realize that the same God who made him white has made me black, and that I am his brother.”
Ernest Montgomery embodies the principles of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign and points to the possibility and necessity of reigniting that campaign today. He is an example of what it means to truly “love thy neighbor.”