Alabama Tax Program Grows Out Of A Grandfather's Lasting Legacy
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Alabama consistently ranks near the bottom in most social measures. And as a result, college graduates tend to flee the state for better opportunities elsewhere. Now, a college professor is trying to stop the migration. Stephen Black's inspiration is his grandfather, the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. NPR's Debbie Elliott has this profile.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Stephen Black sits at his grandfather's old desk, rifling through the drawers.
STEPHEN BLACK: His glasses are here.
ELLIOTT: He's in a small room at the University of Alabama law school library, where Justice Hugo Black's home study has been reassembled.
BLACK: It smells the way it smelled in that room, and it's really a special place.
ELLIOTT: A former U.S. senator from Alabama, Hugo Black served on the Supreme Court from 1937 until 1971. Appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Black was a staunch civil liberties advocate. A bust of Thomas Jefferson sits atop his desk, hundreds of books line the walls. Stephen Black is 43. He's a college professor and director of the University of Alabama Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility.
BLACK: I remember the first year I came back to Alabama to live, I used to just come in here and read. A lot of times, it was very emotional because I grew up away from the state, really wanting to be back where my family was rooted. And it meant a lot to sit here in this room and try to figure out a way I could make a difference someway similar to him. I could never fill his shoes, but...
ELLIOTT: Justice Black's thoughts and arguments are scribbled in the margins of these books, notes that reflect his evolution from Ku Klux Klansman to champion of equal rights on the U.S. Supreme Court.
BLACK: Humanity is messy. And my grandfather's life, I think, was indicative of that. And here's someone who started out through raw ambition, joining the Ku Klux Klan to get elected. And he literally educated himself out of racism.
ELLIOTT: And out of Alabama. Black's decision in the 1954 Brown versus the Board of Education case striking down school segregation drew such a violent reaction back home that Black's children fled his native state.
BLACK: Hateful, vitriolic letters from all corners, not just people in rural areas but business community and churches, and it became very hard for my family to make a living in this state.
ELLIOTT: So, Stephen Black, Hugo's youngest grandson, grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but after law school at Yale, found himself drawn to Alabama.
BLACK: I remember early on hearing my father say that it broke my grandfather's heart to know that his family wasn't welcome back in his state because he always loved Alabama until the day he died. But he said to them that he hoped by the time his grandchildren were grown that they would be welcomed home. And that stuck with me from an early age.
ELLIOTT: In 1997, Stephen Black fulfilled his grandfather's wishes and moved to Alabama. At first, he tried his hand at politics, working as a policy adviser to Democratic Governor Don Siegelman, then losing a bid for state treasurer in 2002. That's when he started rethinking how to live up to Justice Hugo Black's legacy.
BLACK: I don't necessarily have to be a great lawyer or a great judge or a great politician.
ELLIOTT: So he formed Impact Alabama, a nonprofit that puts college students and recent graduates to work in some of the state's poorest neighborhoods.
COREY BURRAGE: Hi, Miss Jones. How are you?
MARGUERITE JONES: Hey. All right.
ELLIOTT: School bus driver Marguerite Jones is the first customer of the day at this Impact Alabama tax preparation clinic, set up in a small room at a community center in Tuscaloosa.
BURRAGE: Can I see your ID and your Social Security card?
ELLIOTT: University of Alabama junior Corey Burrage goes through a checklist of questions to help Miss Jones calculate her deductions.
BURRAGE: Medical expenses?
JONES: Yes, I got a lot of those.
BURRAGE: All right.
ELLIOTT: This is the second year Jones has come to have her taxes prepared by student volunteers. She got a sizeable refund last year.
JONES: The young man did a great job. He was real nice, polite. I didn't have any problems with my return and I know she's going to do the same thing.
BURRAGE: Yes, ma'am.
ELLIOTT: Even better, Jones says, is that the service is free, when other tax preparers in the neighborhood charge three to $400 a return. In all, the SaveFirst initiative, as it's called, did free tax preparation for more than 7,200 Alabama families this year. Impact Alabama also does a statewide pre-school vision screening. Like the tax project, it's run by recent college graduates, many on a gap year endeavor, overseeing student volunteers.
Corey Burrage is one of 600 college students who prepared taxes this year. She grew up right here in Tuscaloosa but had never set foot in this mostly black working class neighborhood.
BURRAGE: It's cool to see the other side of, like, somewhere that you've lived your whole life and you didn't know that was going on right down the street.
ELLIOTT: She says hearing the stories of clients here got her thinking about how a tax refund can make a big difference for low-income families.
BURRAGE: You know, as a college student, you're on the go all the time. You think about yourself constantly. If you slow down and think about somebody else, it kind of changes your view on the world and you see the way other people have to live.
ELLIOTT: Stephen Black says that's his ultimate mission, to develop a new civic awareness.
BLACK: To me, the single biggest challenge to the future of an ethical country, of a moral country is not terrorism, it's not another banking crisis. It's a continuing civic disconnect. In other words, more and more Americans spending less and less personal time with people unlike themselves, aimed at goals and initiatives beyond their own self-interest. That's poisonous to a democracy.
ELLIOTT: Now, other states are interested in replicating Impact Alabama's work. Stephen Black says that's changing the equation for the state Justice Hugo Black held dear. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Birmingham.
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