Built forty or so years ago and refurbished in the past decade, it consists of 74 small brick duplexes shaded by a grove of pines. The residents for the most part keep their tiny lawns neat and decorate their cement porches with rose bushes or hanging baskets; there is a playground for the children.
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For the longest time, people here got along: Many of the tenants had grown up in or near Vidor, and they had become even closer as they endured the contempt the rest of the population harbored toward people in the project. Here, everyone was in the same boat. But then federal judge William Wayne Justice shattered the peace of the project and, not at all coincidentally, of the town of Vidor itself. For more than five decades, Vidor had been all white, and the government had decided it was time for a change.
At risk was future federal funding of public housing in those regions. The decree seemed to come out of another era, when blacks were forbidden equal access to everything from the lunch counter to the voting booth and the job site, but then, life in Vidor also appeared frozen in time. Not only were there no blacks in Vidor, but there was no trace of black culture. There were no black beauty products in the drugstores; no copies of Ebony or Jet ; no black churches; no black civic officials, lawyers, doctors, or garbagemen; no black high school students, teachers, waitresses, cashiers, or shoppers.
Most days, the only black people in town were on television. Blacks had been permanently driven out of Vidor seventy years ago, and for that effort the town had earned an enduring label as a bastion of white supremacy. It was a simple story of good versus evil; the government would use its might to break the back of racism in an ignorant, hateful place. Racism would lose; America would win.
But that is not what happened. What should have been another success story became instead a chronicle of failure, having as much to do with good intentions as bad ones.
In its simplest form, the narrative went like this: Early this year the Orange County Public Housing Authority, which is funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, attempted to desegregate the Vidor site, as it was ordered to do. The result of the relocation of two single black women with five children between them and two single black men was several months of terror at the hands of various white supremacist groups, unrelenting negative news coverage of the town, and as of last September, the restoration of Vidor to its monochromatic state.
The black people who had been relocated to Vidor had relocated themselves right back out again, and one of them, a restless idealist by the name of Bill Simpson, was murdered in the process. What went largely unrecognized throughout this battle was that the events in Vidor might reveal less about who we were than who we are becoming—that it might say more about our balkanized future than our segregated past.
As a great many Vidorians pointed out, their town is surrounded by places where the absence of blacks has not been a cause celebre. Cities like Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange—the points of the so-called Golden Triangle—have hefty black populations, but many smaller towns in the region do not. Nederland, with 16, people, has 88 blacks; Bridge City, with 8, people, has 19 blacks; Mauriceville, with 2, people, has 12 blacks; and Lumberton, with a population of 6, has only 2 blacks.
Once, integration was regarded as the supreme goal of the civil rights movement.
But almost forty years after the civil rights movement began with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, and after no small amount of progress has been made, profound racial divisions remain, mired in arguments over everything from class to crime, from education to birthrates. A once indomitable government seems paralyzed in a policy bog of its own, unable to grasp the scope of the problem, much less propose solutions.
Hate had a beautiful day when the white supremacist Nationalist Movement came to host their Victory in Vidor celebration.
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A little more than a month had passed since the last black person had been driven out of the housing project. The weather was still warm for mid-October, the sky a dauntless blue. The event was the culmination of months of legal wrangling—attorneys for the Nationalists had threatened to sue if their clients were not allowed to demonstrate, and then they threatened to sue if their clients were not afforded proper security. In fact, in the weeks preceding the march, the 12, or so residents of Vidor seemed to have unified against all outsiders. To many in Vidor, the good name of their town had been soiled by an inaccurate press and an overzealous government.
The fallout from the integration effort was costing them, and they wanted it all to go away. Interstate 10 travelers now bought gas in Beaumont or Orange rather than stop in Vidor, and anxious business associates called from as far away as Singapore to ask about the situation. Vidor High School students left their letter jackets at home when they competed against other schools—they were afraid of reprisals.
At a city council meeting in late September, citizens poured into city hall to demand that local government refuse to grant the Nationalists a parade permit. One by one, speakers rose to the microphone, many more closely resembling yuppies than the racist crackers portrayed by the national media.
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His statement was inspiring but, unfortunately, a bit optimistic. Civic leaders frequently refer to Vidor as a bedroom community, and indeed, Vidor has over the years made the transition from small town to Beaumont suburb. It boasts some large comfortable homes that would not be out of place in Houston or Dallas, but they are the exception, not the rule. It has none of the charming historic structures that link this part of Texas more closely to the South than to the West; the battered shacks and rusting trailers ringing the outskirts of town are small monuments to failure and disappointment.
Main Street is comprised largely of fast-food chains and gas stations that serve I traffic; the Wal-Mart, Weiners, and Price Lo Foods are there for the locals. In this atmosphere of poverty and isolation, the old Vidor has continued to thrive. Just as Vidor became a symbol to the federal government, it also became a symbol to the white supremacists.
It was not surprising, then, that the Nationalists fought so hard to stage the Victory in Vidor march, nor that most of their marchers were from out of town. The majority were from Houston, the Pasadena and Greenspoint areas.
What was surprising was the youth of the marchers. The Nationalist Movement turned out to be one middle-aged man named Richard Barrett and a handful of kids with skinhead hairstyles. The oldest was nineteen, the youngest thirteen.
As they assembled at the city park, easily outed by the press, they dragged on cigarettes and posed for pictures eagerly but self-consciously. Barrett had all the charm and verve of a high school bandleader. God bless America!
God bless the working man! As the small crew marched down Bolivar Street to Main, people watched them from their cars, porches, and picnic tables. Some were supportive, but most were derisive. One woman held her daughter in her arms; the child clutched a black Cabbage Patch doll. All three were soon swarmed by photographers. On Main Street, however, the marchers were greeted by a swelling crowd of about three hundred.
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No one appeared to like each other much. Pro-integration types screamed at those who were opposed, everyday racists hated nazi types, merchants hated reporters, a group representing the National Organization for Women inexplicably shouted down almost everyone.
Many people seemed to be from somewhere else, mainly Houston. It was easy to lose track of the point. Across town at the junior high school, the good people of Vidor had staged a prayer rally, their standard response to the pressures of the past year. Twelve ministers in shirtsleeves dispensed religious homilies from atop a huge flatbed to several hundred people seated on the grass.
But even with their s, this crowd lacked the passion of the assembly on Main Street. No one shouted; even the hymns were reserved. The concluding prayer was innocuous. The audience bowed their he.
They were silent, polite, and alone. The little boy danced across the muddy yards of the housing project like a sprite, barefoot on one of the first cool days of fall. Even though it was after lunchtime, he was still dressed in his pajamas, and everything, head to toe except for his golden curls, was soiled with grime. He did not talk as much as peep, even though he looked to be between three and four.
Bored with keeping up a charming front, he turned on his heel and spit. Then he laughed. Such is the conventional picture of Vidor: poor, dumb, and mean. Born as a logging town, it was named after C. Vidor, a prominent lumber mill owner and the father of renowned movie director King Vidor.
It was, prior toaccessible to Beaumont only by ferry across the Neches River. The place was hot and soggy, filled with bugs, snakes, and the long shadows of the pines.
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After work, there was not much for a man to do but drink. Bar fights were part of the culture, earning the town its moniker, Bloody Vidor; like so many outposts where men were spared the civilizing influence of family and community, violence was a recreational sport. The woods that provided Vidor with industry also afforded another opportunity.