The first time I met Zac Henson, in April of 2022, he made me soup. I had just driven up to his place in Montgomery, Alabama, and saw him sitting on his porch. He waved me inside. It was a small house on a quiet street. Banjos and big automotive tools littered the living room. On the stove sat a heavily boiling pot full of green tomatoes, onions, corn, and cabbage. Pork patties in a cast-iron pan next to the pot smoked and sizzled. He pulled the patties out of the pan and hacked them unmethodically into chunks, then grabbed a handful of rice noodles and dropped them in the pot. He started telling me about his dad, a violent, competitive man who’d died recently. Another handful of noodles. When Henson was 6, he tested off the charts on an IQ test, and his dad and teachers mostly saw it as a way for him to get a job, to be successful, to become a brilliant businessman or stockbroker. To win in life. He was on a track.
But after high school, Henson got a job as an auto mechanic, a deviation from his father’s ambitions for him. When he ran into one of his middle school teachers, the teacher told him he was wasting his life. But he found the work intellectually stimulating, and his coworkers, while not rich, were good people. “I sincerely felt I’d been lied to, both by my family and my teachers,” he told me. His raw intelligence was not a virtue, or even that valuable, and earning more money would not make him happy. His life would be about something else.
Later, he enrolled at Auburn and got interested in sociology and geography, and wound up at Berkeley pursuing a doctorate, studying social organizations in Birmingham. He is a self-identified redneck (as in the original reference: communist-sympathizing miners in West Virginia), and once his Ph.D. was done, he dove into an anti-racist strain of Marxist political organizing in Birmingham, working on developing cooperative businesses, community land trusts, popular education, and community farming projects. But after eight years, Henson felt he had done little to tilt the balance of power towards working people. One of the great disappointments of his life was when he and fellow organizers endorsed a mayoral candidate who later betrayed their ideals. The candidate spoke the words of liberation but ultimately, Henson feels, was an agent of gentrification and business interests. Part of me was surprised that he was surprised. But other people describe Henson as a person who looks at the world through rose-colored glasses, and even he will admit to a little naivete and optimism. His attempt at left-wing political organizing in Alabama felt like a complete failure, and, profoundly disillusioned, he wondered if such a thing was even possible. Maybe the isolating, patriarchal culture that he grew up in had won. He dropped out of any sort of organizing and sank into a deep mental health crisis that lasted many years. His hope disappeared.
While finishing the soup, Henson told me, kind of plainly, that his dad was a “bad man.” “At this point in my life,” he said, “the highest compliment someone can say about me is that I’m a ‘good man.’ That’s all that matters to me.” He was getting back into activism and felt that this time, he was learning ways to care for others while trying to change the system. And though it was clear to me that Henson’s manner in the kitchen was that of someone who had come late to cooking, he was making food for a hungry traveler. And as I scooped my third bowl of soup, I had to admit: It was good soup.
In 2020, Henson went to the Bayard Rustin Community Center in Montgomery to talk to Montgomery Pride United, an LGBTQ activist group, about a mutual-aid car repair project he was working on. Henson had recently quit his job as an auto mechanic at a Toyota dealership, after the owner refused to take Covid seriously. In his unemployment, he decided to dedicate his time to repairing cars on a sliding scale for poor people and other community members. He had recently moved from Birmingham to Montgomery and, after his struggles there, felt ready to get back to political work. “I just wanted to make some friends, too,” he told me.
While talking with Montgomery Pride United, Henson mentioned his one true automotive love: Toyotas. The group’s director, Meta Ellis, noted that she and her wife had a Toyota Hilux pickup that had been sitting dead at their house for years and wondered if Henson could come take a look. Ellis explained that she had taken it to two different mechanics who had charged her for work but hadn’t fixed the problem. There seemed to be clutch issues, but that was all Ellis knew. Ellis and her wife were left sharing a single car — a challenging arrangement in a city like Montgomery.
Cars are essential infrastructure in Alabama. There is virtually no public transportation, and the cities are not walkable. This is deliberate. When the state passed its first gas tax in 1950, politicians stipulated that the proceeds could fund only roads and bridges, not public transit. The racism and classism of that decision, in the state that would see the Montgomery bus boycott just a few years later, is no coincidence. Public transit is a powerful tool to redistribute wealth and power. One 60-year-old Selma resident I spoke with remembers when there was still a bus system in Montgomery, which she called the “bloodline” of the city. Budget cuts in the 1980s — blowback from the boycott — starved the system completely. “They gave us the bus seat,” she said, “but they took the damn bus!”
“Cars just should not be so important,” Henson said to me. “Cars should be a hobby.” Automobile culture is a system in which individuals privately shoulder the cost of public economic life. If your car fails in Alabama — and you cannot get to work, the grocery store, or school — your life begins to fail. It’s a system that perpetuates poverty.
So one day, Henson — long Rasputin beard, skinny as hell, trucker hat, shaky hands — drove to Ellis’s house. He diagnosed the problems in under 30 minutes: the gas tank was rusted out; the fuel pump was destroyed; the clutch’s master cylinder, the timing belt, and the water pump were all trashed. Henson couldn’t understand why the other mechanics hadn’t figured this out. But Ellis told me that in an automotive shop it is hard to get good service as a woman, not to mention as a lesbian. She worries about getting scammed, looked at funny, insulted, or worse: “You have to watch your back, guard your purse, and just be mindful of the space at all times.” Indeed, researchers at Northwestern University have found that women are likely to be charged more than men at repair shops, and other surveys have found that mechanics are more likely to sell women on unnecessary repairs. Henson was different. For reasons Ellis couldn’t quite describe, she trusted him. It was a different experience of automotive repair.
Before he started work on their car, Henson sat the Ellises down in their kitchen and made it clear what he was all about. He was a communist, he said, and his repair work was in service of that. If this fazed the Ellises, they didn’t show it. Henson, it has to be noted, is much further left than just about everyone in Montgomery, but the Ellises respected anyone who was showing up and helping the community.
Henson towed the truck to his house, fixed it up, and got it running. Months later, when Henson and others decided to get a permanent location to fix cars, dubbing it the Automotive Free Clinic, the Ellises sold the Toyota to the AFC, and the project then flipped it on Facebook Marketplace to help cover the bills.
Today, the Automotive Free Clinic is a pay-what-you-can auto repair shop in Prattville, just outside Montgomery. The shop has one certified technician — Henson — and an army of volunteers who work in the shop, fix their own cars, create content for the shop’s newsletter, fundraise, and do any number of other things. The shop’s customers are primarily community members and relations, who generally pay at-cost for parts and on a sliding scale for labor. Most donate the full cost of the repairs, Henson says. To date, the shop has repaired over 100 cars. Its success is beyond what Henson imagined.
There’s another dimension to the AFC for the people who volunteer there. Car culture in Alabama, as in most places, is deeply tied to traditional masculinity and reactionary politics. So the AFC is a place to confront toxic masculinity and change the nature of work. Because of the culture of Alabama, the project is not explicit about its leftist politics and doesn’t do much in the way of conventional political organizing, allowing it to engage with and retain volunteers from a wide spectrum of ideologies, including unrepentant Trump supporters. But, quietly, for some of its volunteers, the AFC is a chance to turn theory into reality. When people ask Henson about his communist ideas, he just points to the shop. “We’re living communism,” he says with a shrug.
On a clear hot day in April, I drove out to Prattville to visit the AFC. Henson told me it’d be hard to find — off a rural highway, tucked behind a massive RV dealership. I found the parking lot, zigzagged through a maze of rigs, and spotted the shop, a blue-and-white aluminum three-bay shed. Uninsulated and without proper lifts, it is a bare-bones establishment. All the work is done on jacks. The RV dealer plays ultra-conservative talk radio all day, but doesn’t seem to mind the leftists in his backyard.
When I pulled up, three guys seated on the garage apron were hanging out: Henson, Reggie Bolton, and a man I’ll call Hollis (who didn’t want his real name used, lest his employer find out he’s a leftist). The sunshine, already brutal at about 10 a.m., crept across the unshaded parking lot and onto the apron. One bay sat empty except for a Weber grill, some tires, a box of doughnuts, and an industrial fan, so we moved a few camp chairs and red plastic Adirondacks into the shop, drank Gatorade, and talked about the AFC and where it came from.
Bolton, in his 70s, was probably the eldest member. Tall and bearded like Marx, he carried a wooden cane with a deer antler glued to the top for extra height. After growing up in Alabama, he went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts, but he returned to the South and took over his family business, remaining an interested leftist. Bolton met Henson in Birmingham, and when the pandemic hit, Henson, Bolton, and others they knew on Facebook started a reading group, with members all over the world, from Berlin to San Francisco. The group read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, watched over 20 hours of Marxist scholar David Harvey’s lectures online, and dug into Frantz Fanon and Antonio Gramsci. They were trying to prepare themselves for the end of capitalism.
The Alabama contingent was also tapping into a long history of communism in the South, which started, Bolton pointed out, among yeoman farmers, for whom an ad hoc communism was a way of life centered on the harvest, with everyone pitching in to bring in the season’s produce. Officially, communist organizers came south from Chicago in the 1920s, inspired by the writing of Harry Haywood, a Black communist who had lived in the USSR and believed that the model of autonomous republics could be replicated in places like Alabama, and that workers in the South could organize and self-determine. If they wouldn’t have an outright communist government, Haywood argued, Black people should have civil rights, a voice in the democratic process, and, at the very least, unions. The organizers who arrived in Birmingham found a receptive audience, not among steelworkers, as they expected, but among sharecroppers. And so the communists helped form a sharecroppers’ union, which fought for things like the farmers’ right to sell their own crops to customers and to deal directly with banks, instead of having to go through their landlord-owners.
The Communist Party changed tactics to meet its constituency. Sharecroppers and other workers, the party realized, didn’t want to exit the American system — they wanted to be given the chance to participate in it. In addition to helping create the sharecroppers’ union, the party fought evictions and aided in legal defense. Famously, it backed the defense of the wrongfully accused Scottsboro Boys and turned the trial of five innocent Black men accused of raping a white woman into an international story about the workings of the Jim Crow South. Culturally, the Alabama communists were not hard-line; grace was often performed before meetings. Their numbers were small but their influence large. Civil rights icons like Rosa Parks attended meetings. And while their official numbers were never higher than 700, there were, at one point, 12,000 members of the sharecroppers’ union.
The reading group, which is now called the AFC Brain Trust, wasn’t thinking explicitly of these long-gone Alabamian communists, but in a similar way, their theoretical readings spurred action. They started a newsletter and published “Internal Orientalism of the American South,” a quasi-manifesto written by “rednecks from Alabama to Paraguay.” The essay laid out what they saw as the main misconceptions of the South and highlighted the political realities of places like Alabama: that most people don’t vote and are quite poor, that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny group of people. The South has been exoticized by movies like Deliverance, and when a liberal journalist drops into Alabama to, say, interview someone about Barack Obama, the writer always seems to choose a racist roofer in a Walmart parking lot. It works to confirm an outsider’s perspective that the working class in the South is not worth the effort. The Brain Trust concluded that while there was some organizing occurring among poor Black people in the South, few, if any, groups on the left engaged with what the Brain Trust called “fascist deprogramming” of the white working class.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to talk about leftist ideas with white rednecks, since high-grade Fox News propaganda has become so deeply embedded in the identity of many Alabamians, while mainstream liberal media writes them off as deplorables. But the organizers of the AFC believe that people in the South, conservatives especially, just need to be given the chance to operate in institutions that harness their most altruistic, communal, and caring tendencies — or, as Henson describes it, “positive reinforcement to not be fascist.”
This soon became the core of the group’s efforts. The goal was, very simply, to create a successful mutual aid organization in the heart of reactionary America.
They had no trouble finding people to help. They held an oil change event at Henson’s church, the First Christian Church of Montgomery, to promote their work. Once they got the shop, they began to operate two and a half days a week. They avoided putting more than $500 of work into any vehicle and taking jobs over four hours long. The ideal AFC customer, Henson told me, is someone who shows up, does their own work, and gets their car to run for 300,000 miles.
I was struck by how often Henson and others stressed that AFC was a “business model” that “worked.” I would have figured that such assessments were the furthest thing from their minds. Then again, they do have costs — labor, parts, rent — and the project would not continue if they just hemorrhaged money. They don’t have much funding, and everyone involved is either middle class or financially stressed. The project, to date, has run for over a year, fixed more than 100 cars, and netted $1,000 in profits. Given how financially risky, labor intensive, and technically complex automotive repair is, the AFC is a feat.
But, of course, it’s still not really about money. “It’s my way to care for the community,” Hollis said. Echoing something Henson had told me, Hollis said that as a man in the South, he felt he was often prevented from caring for other people. Hollis — tall, clean-cut, martial — grew up poor in Montgomery, raised by a single mother who, he says, taught him to be sensitive. But going to chaotic public schools amid a crack epidemic and then an opioid epidemic buried his sensitive side under a pile of toughness. Violence became second nature. At 16, he dropped out of school and moved into a house with 14 other people. They sold drugs and robbed to provide for everyone in the house. It was, he realized later, his first experience with communism.
Addicted to dope and charged with theft, he was in and out of prison for nearly a decade, but eventually he got out for good and got clean. The therapy he received at his half-way house taught him how to confront his rage and violence and reconnect with his inner child. As with Henson, the AFC is now the place where Hollis continues to confront the structures that push working-class white men to develop and perpetuate toxic traits, and where he practices diminishing his own authority and re-embedding himself in the community. And while it is hard to gauge the success of this aspect of the project, a site where people are even having conversations about toxic masculinity is, in a place like Alabama, quite novel.
The AFC is also Hollis’s best segue into conversations about politics with other rednecks, people he knows from prison and rehab, and other men. When anyone asks him why he works on cars for free, he can explain changing the community through direct action. While he doesn’t call the work communism or mutual aid, he often gets others to donate their time to better their community and realize that a different way of organizing society is possible. Some volunteers at the shop are even conservatives; they’re not necessarily aware of the politics of the place. But they, and others, continue to show up. I started to see the approach like a wholesome prank: to do left-wing organizing in Alabama is to conveniently forget to mention you are doing left-wing organizing. Gotcha!
The Brain Trust’s attempt to live its communism had turned into a spiritually necessary task, which to me seemed to be the crucial link between Henson’s Christianity and his Marxism, a seeming contradiction he really never bothered to explain to me. But it functions, too, as an organizing strategy. “Being respected for what we do is important,” Henson said.
“The example we set by actually fixing that car,” Henson said as he pointed to a red Suzuki four-door hatchback on jacks, “for people who need these vehicles, that gives us the respect in the community that, if we are asked what our politics are, we could talk about them and be taken seriously.”
By the end of my stay, I had been driving five to six hours a day, and my ass felt numb from sitting so much. When I got back to Henson’s place, I told him I needed to go for a walk. We weren’t really sure where to go: Most people drive their cars even two blocks to the corner store. But Henson mentioned that Hank Williams’ grave was just up the road and that he’d never been. So we walked on crumbling, then nonexistent, sidewalks through his sleepy, low-slung neighborhood, full of small houses and giant pin oaks. Henson talked about the impact of AFC — how other groups had reached out to him and were replicating the model in carpentry and other trades. If things went well, AFC members could consult and help others set up mutual aid organizations in any number of trades.
To get to the grave, we darted across a four-lane road with no crosswalks in sight. As we came up a hill, the sun was setting just behind the grave, and in the twilight we talked about the labor radio shows we both loved where people call in and complain about their jobs. We talked about his love of basketball, a team sport through and through. But then we stopped talking for a little bit. He was exhausted, he said. We had been talking about the project continuously for four days. “I feel like I haven’t talked about myself this much since I was in grad school,” he said, as we looked to run back across the street.
Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein is a journalist who writes about American culture for numerous outlets including the New York Times, the New Republic, and The Baffler.