Category Archives: Black & White & Other Colors

“White Lies,” Selma, Two Murders, & A Cameo

One sunny day in April last year, I woke up in Selma Alabama, prepared to go to jail.

It was just for a friendly visit, though, with two new acquaintances: Andy Grace and Chip Brantley. I met up with them first, for a generous southern breakfast at Mr. Waffle, on Highland Avenue, with my pants cinched up tight: It’s The Law.

Mr Waffle, keeping up standards.

Andy and Chip teach journalism at the University of Alabama. They were working on a big podcast project about Selma intended for NPR. It’s about two civil rights murders there, and is now online, at their website, as “White Lies.”

In their research they found my books on Selma, and tracked me down, about an interview. Turns out, I was planning to visit Alabama before long, to be on a panel in Montgomery marking the 50th anniversary of Dr, King’s murder.

As a certified living fossil on the shelf of artifacts from a genuine piece of “history,”  I’ve done a few such events. So I offered to make a side trip to Selma, and give them my personal guided tour with the interview.

The Reeb Memorial, on the corner where the Silver Moon Cafe stood, outside which he and two other ministers were attacked. The others survived.

That starts with the Selma jail. On the way we passed the compact corner memorial to James Reeb, a Boston Unitarian minister, who was attacked with two others in the heat of the movement, and died of a fractured skull the next day. Three men were tried for his murder, acquitted by an all-white jury; all are now dead.

But there was talk of a fourth man there, who evaded prosecution, and could be still alive. Chip and Andy were still in search of him.

Wilson Baker.

I had no leads about that, so we moved on to the jail. It’s still where it was, though in 1965 it was part of City Hall. That’s moved, and the Police now have the whole building. High on the wall of the downstairs hallway is a photo of Wilson Baker, who arrested me. Later he became Sheriff, and word is he was a good one. Up on the second floor, the small cellblock remains.

Those yellow bars even now look solid enough to withstand the collapse of the whole block. Which may not be far off, the collapse that is; most of the buildings close by look empty, boarded up or just abandoned.

As a landmark of black liberation, I told Andy and Chip, Selma fifty-plus years later is a hot mess. The poverty rate is as high as it was then. More than a dozen payday loan shops, their vampiric essence camouflaged by bright colors, crouched along Broad and Highland, the two main business streets. The house where I rented a room in ‘65, a solid Black middle class dwelling then, stands empty, literally falling down, like so many others on that, the “historic” side of town. If there’s any money in that history, it looks like payday usury vacuumed it all up.

The Boynton House, where I lived in 1965, empty in 2015. The museum project fizzled, and by 2018 the house was in even more dilapidated condition.

History is still plentiful in Selma, if ramshackle, but there’s only one spot of beauty I remember, and I discovered that late: less than a mile west of the Pettus Bridge stands the Live Oak Cemetery, often called the New Live Oak, though it goes back to the 1820s.

Old live oaks, in New Live Oak.

The big moss-draped trees, the greyed, crumbling, mostly Confederate headstones and slabs, the multi-colored lichen splotches on almost everything, all are classic, archetypal, undead Old South: Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, only in color.

The grave of General Edmund Pettus. After the Civil War, he was later elected a U.S, Senator, and reputedly once was head of the Alabama KKK.

New Live Oak has recently been made newer by construction of an elaborate memorial in honor of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

This is the work of a local Neo-confederate group, which won a long, acrimonious court fight with the Black-controlled city administration for control of an acre of land there.

Neo-Confederate activists Todd Kiscaden, left and Pat Godwin, being interviewed, March 2015. Godwin was the spearhead of the Nathan Bedford Forest memorial in the New Live Oak Cemetery.

Forrest had only a brief connection to Selma: he attempted to defend the city from surging Union forces shortly before Lee’s surrender in April 1865.

Even so, for true Neo-Confederates, Forrest is an immortal, an icon: a brilliant tactician, a relentless, fearsome  fighter (biographers say he personally killed thirty Union soldiers in hand to hand combat) and a founder (and first Grand Wizard) of the original Ku Klux Klan.

The new Forrest monument, looking toward the Pettus bridge.

There could hardly be a visage more discordant – or revealing — than that of Forrest, glowering east over General Pettus’s grave and toward the eponymous bridge which the courage of local blacks, and tagalongs like me, turned into a civil rights landmark. The local devotees of Forrest’s flock have struck back with billboards, and more solidly, with this shrine.

Radio guys Andy Grace (left, with hair) and Chip Brantley (right, with headphones), getting familiar with the Forrest monument at New Live Oak.

But I can turn my back on Forrest; then it’s no wonder I linger there. Andy and Chip did too; pictures of them at New Live Oak are on NPR’s publicity webpage for “White Lies.”

From there we headed for another burial ground, about 25 miles northwest near Marion.

The Heard Cemetery, near Marion, Alabama. Jimmie Lee Jackson’s marker is next to the red wreath.

This one, the Heard Cemetery, lacked the allure of Live Oak: no venerable trees, only secondary growth; no stone wall, no fence, no sign; it lay exposed, within gunshot range but easy to miss, along Alabama Highway 14. It was much smaller, with only a scattering of markers, and a single sizable headstone.

Jimmie Lee’s headstone. The orange spots and notch at the top are among the bullet damage. There are several more, visible from closer up.

That marker was our goal; and despite lacking the amenities of the genteel Dixie death cult, the Heard graveyard enclosed what Chip and Andy most wanted to visit, the resting place of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Here I knew a little something. I had been part of the funeral cortege which carried his coffin here from the church in town, behind his family and Dr. King, through the rain.

I knew about how his killer also got away with killing another young black man a year later, then walked free for more than four decades. And how Jackson’s family finally caught a brief glimpse of justice; heard a rumor of it, topped a thin, crumbled slice of it with the curdled margarine of old grief.

Jimmie Lee Jackson, left. His killer, James Fowler, right.

I had also visited the cemetery a year or two earlier, and could point out the dozen or so places where the granite had been nicked and gouged by bullets. It still stands, but within gunshot range is not hyperbole. (An earlier blog post on the shooting of Jackson is here.)

From there we soon wrapped up the interview, and I headed off to Montgomery.

I admit I soon mostly forgot about the project; several such interviews have wound up on disks or as transcripts on some obscure library shelf, waiting to enlighten, or bore, a stray grad student or two. Other such relics have been of use to me, though, and I do not despise them.

But now, more than a year later, the podcast is done and out. And amid all the recorded palaver, I turn up for a cameo in Episode Five, describing — well, that’s enough of a spoiler. They uncovered history I knew nothing about in solving their cold case; let them tell you that part of the story. . . .

An abandoned house, one of many, near the Brown Chapel AME Church, which was the gathering place for the Selma voting rights movement.
A collage of bumperstickers from a van belonging to one of the Neo-Confederate activists.

 

 

Colorism & Daylilies: A Confession

For seventeen years, I lived in the Washington DC area; in fact, inside the Beltway by a few miles.

Some misinformed persons think this area is glamorous. I didn’t much care for it. Congress and all that didn’t impress me: they were necessary, but burdensome, pretentious, and viewed up close, mostly boring.  Likewise for the weather: winters were cold. And summers were particularly tough: long, hot, heavy, humid.

In the early years, my access to air conditioning was spotty; many nights were sweaty and oppressive, with box fans rattling ineffectually by open windows.

Worse, in 1985 I delivered mail from my car on a long rural route, from winter to fall. I don’t recall much of those bookend seasons. But in between, there were six-day work weeks, pushing through the midday highs, as waves of engine heat radiated punishingly across the front seat of my weathered Chevy wagon. Open windows were part of the deal, neutralizing an already tepid a/c.

"Ditch lilies." Unlovely to me.
Ditch lilies. So hardy, so ugly.

That seemingly endless summer deepened the dread of those months, and cemented my hatred of the most visible  harbinger of their arrival: stands of orange daylilies.

They popped up seemingly all over. Turned out they were wild, commonly called “ditch lilies,” because they took root in all sorts of hard-to-grow-stuff places. Hot weather only seemed to encourage them. Continue reading Colorism & Daylilies: A Confession

Harriet Tubman: Beyond the Underground Railroad

This Memorial Day, I’m setting aside my Quaker pacifism (briefly), to remember one of the most unique and valiant war veterans I know of.

Yeah, I’m talking about U.S. Army veteran Harriet Tubman.

Besides all her amazing exploits in the antebellum Underground Railroad (working very frequently with purportedly nonviolent Quakers), Tubman was no pacifist. And when the war broke out, she was eager to help the Union forces win it. After working with wounded soldiers, she also served as a scout and a spy behind enemy lines.

But she got her big chance after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863.

Continue reading Harriet Tubman: Beyond the Underground Railroad

Liberal Quakers Need More “Theological Diversity.” What could possibly go wrong?

The First Month 2019 issue of Friends Journal includes an article by Friend Adria Gulizia, Greater Racial Diversity Requires Greater Theological Diversity.”

At one level, I very much empathize with Adria Gulizia’s concern for what I would call “theological inclusiveness.” The widespread ignorance, apathy & avoidance of theology/Bible in “liberal” meetings I have known have become personally very burdensome.

Yet there is another side to this story, one not easy to see from the Philadelphia orbit. But if one actually steps out of that enclosed space, some very different aspects appear.

To summarize: outside the “Phillysphere” and the Northeast, five U.S. yearly meetings have split apart in the last 20 years, with one of the five, 320 years old, blowing up/melting down & disappearing completely. Where I live, in the Pretty Deep South, the fallout, like debris from a plane that exploded in midair, is still falling around us.

And what was the cause of this fivefold schism? Well, one could point the finger in several directions, but in the foreground of all five was that which Gulizia’s piece calls for, namely: “theological diversity.”

I know some of this from direct experience. Many were the interrogations such “diversity” produced, not of me but my whole meeting:
Start with the Bible: Did we have the right view of it? And the true notion of its authority?
Next, were we “Christ-centered”? No, they meant, not that way, but this way, really, truly?  Or enough? And with the authentic formulation? Oh, and had we adopted (& enforced) the correct church authority structure?

And lots more. (In our area, the ordeal went on for three-plus years. And truly, there’s nothing quite like being called a tool of the Anti-Christ by someone who really means it.)

Continue reading Liberal Quakers Need More “Theological Diversity.” What could possibly go wrong?

Trauma & Triggers: Coping With Campaign Overload

I don’t know about you, but late last week I hit the wall about the midterm election: the swirl of attack ads, the endless urgent fund appeal emails, the feverish palaver about polls. Not to mention the shocks of the Khashoggi assassination, the mail bombs, and the massacre in Pittsburgh. When the funerals there were basically crashed by the uninvited  ghoul, my internal needle bounced into the red “zone marked “Overload.”

I’m not dropping out: already voted (first day of early voting); urged all & sundry to do likewise; sent several hundred dollars to a list of pleading, promising candidates. And I’ve been reading & listening to the nonstop chatter & prognosticating. 

Then finally it became too much. It was driving me nuts. Had to get away.

Continue reading Trauma & Triggers: Coping With Campaign Overload

Pow Wow Chow-Gate: Therapy for The Feverish Media

As far as the midterm elections go, for the media and the talking heads it’s basically all over now, except the voting and the counting (and recounting).

Early voting has started.

Some reporters are still criss-crossing the country, and sending back breathless dispatches, which, if you look close, are mostly interchangeable: campaigns are all in high-gear, GOTV is everyone’s goal, voter suppression is widespread, attack ads are nonstop, the polls are inching up and down, early voting is underway, — and crazy presidential tweets keep flying.

Which is to say, there’s not much real news here. After all, unless there’s some shocking  October Surprise about to drop (no sign of such yet), this frenzy is exactly what you would expect.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m past burned out on watching or listening to talking heads yammer back and forth about, “Will the Dems take the House?” “Oh, maybe yes, maybe no.” “What about the Senate?” “Well, maybe no, but possibly yes.” After this long, it’s like  asking, “Will the market go up or down tomorrow?”

Surely many among the scribes must be fed up with this pointless speculation, and in the absence of actual new political news, many journalists and pundits — way too many, in my view — have gone rogue this week, and have decided to gnaw on the ankle of Senator Elizabeth Warren, over the six-minute video she released on October 15, about the matter of her Native American ancestry.  Continue reading Pow Wow Chow-Gate: Therapy for The Feverish Media

Post-Confirmation: Our World Won’t End Right Now. (But you can see the clouds gathering.)

The confirmation vote is is done.

I won’t hold it against anyone who feels stunned and numbed by the travesty in the Senate, and needs to take some time to scream, cry & regroup. (Just don’t forget the midterms!)

Yet soon enough, those on the progressive side will need to look beyond the next election to the long work of coping with other aspects of what Kavanaugh’s arrival on the court portends.

And yes, the outlook is mostly bad; terrible, in fact. And it was a terrible prospect even before any of us knew who Christine Blasey Ford or Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick were.

The upside down flag signals an emergency. I rest my case.

Further, it’s about what we knew, or could have known, before the explosion, that I want to deal with here. Continue reading Post-Confirmation: Our World Won’t End Right Now. (But you can see the clouds gathering.)

Notes on a Terrible Day In Our History

I listened to and watched almost all the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing Thursday; 9 hours I’ll never get back. Can  any sense be made of the ordeal? Here are a few observations

One, Ford was very credible. She was credible in two ways: one, her stories, even if incomplete and not thoroughly investigated, hung together.

Second, she was personally credible: Beyond the impact of the assault, her story of struggling with anxiety, her fear of public humiliation (and then death threats) are all too plausible. Even Utah Republican Orrin Hatch grudgingly admitted afterward that Ford was a “very attractive” witness.

Her willingness to talk openly about needing and doing therapy with her husband and then on her own was impressive. Even her fear of flying (which she manages by force of will for work and important family trips) sounded like many people (me for instance), and explained much about why she kept quiet about her story so long. And her naiveté about politics, her vain hope that she could leave her story to have whatever impact it would in the Senate behind the scenes.

Three, her courage, to face the Committee and the country and speak her truth even as her voice shook, was undeniable.

Well, no– “undeniable” is not appropriate here.

In the snake pit of our current politics, her testimony was eminently “deniable” — by the Republican majority, many of whom are skilled professionals in denial and discounting anything that gets in the way of their agenda.

Continue reading Notes on a Terrible Day In Our History

Blue Wave? Red Wave? How about the Carolina Brown Wave (aka Big Poop)??

Have any news media mentioned in your hearing that southeast  North Carolina, in the wake of Florence, is due not only for “major hurricane flooding” post-Flo, but along with it will face a Great Brown Wave of toxic, stinking liquid Pig Poop (&  Pee).

Down here, they have mentioned it. Like yesterday.

And today.

And probably tomorrow.)  . . . .

Yes, that region of NC is the second largest center of industrial hog raising in the country (looking at YOU, Iowa). The NC industry is 8 million hogs strong, and it features, in Smithfield Packing,  the biggest hog slaughterhouse in the world.

And Big Poop also dumps many millions of gallons of the brown stuff into thousands of NON-industrial strength open air lagoons. (Which stink a lot, even if the wind & rain are in abeyance.) Continue reading Blue Wave? Red Wave? How about the Carolina Brown Wave (aka Big Poop)??

Kavanaugh Wrap-Up: The Wheat from the Chaff

Too many media people around this past week’s supreme Court hearings wasted their energy doing horse race and atmosphere coverage. Political sportscasters, I call them; and pretty bush league at that.

Their frame was: the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh (hereafter “K“) is a done deal, so all that matters is the hullabaloo, that and the shadow horse race preview of the 2020 Democratic presidential contest. Which meant excessive attention to whether aspirants Kamala Harris or Cory Booker managed to draw some blood and get a boost from a bombshell revelation.

Senators Cory Booker,left, and Kamala Harris, right, peering over the parapet.

But the pair, it was reported, didn’t bring any real ordnance, and neither came out with a 2020 home run. That’s true enough, and for the media political sportscasters, this was all that mattered. And that’s utterly mistaken. Continue reading Kavanaugh Wrap-Up: The Wheat from the Chaff