All posts by Chuck Fager

“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.

 

 

Church Sex Scandals, and the Buried Lead

The Southern Baptists, you ask me, buried the lead (or lede if you’re old school) about their 2019 national convention as deep as possible:
 
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in Birmingham, Alabama last week was driven by recent, sensational news reports of hundreds of unaddressed sexual abuse cases involving SBC pastors and other church staff. There were impassioned speeches, apologies to recovering victims, fancy big-screen graphics, fervent pledges and new programs, etc.
 
This year, with the U.S. Catholic bishops meeting on a similar topic in Washington the same week, and major media buzzing like dragonflies around both events, it’s a thing.

Continue reading Church Sex Scandals, and the Buried Lead

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

An Active Shooter in Friends Meeting. Now what?

If you blog about Quakers long enough, you get asked a lot of questions — including some surprises.

An emergency instruction folder kept in a slot on the back of dorm room doors at a midwestern college, where a Quaker conference gathered a few years ago. The document seemed very out of place in the quiet, bucolic setting of the school. But then, similar Quaker conferences had been held successfully at Virginia Tech, also in a “quiet rural village.” Then in April 2007 a shooter killed 32 Virginia Tech students and staff and wounded 17 more.

Like the one that came in a few days ago, from the Clerk of a meeting located east of the Mississippi. The Clerk wrote that in an after-meeting discussion, a Friend asked what the Meeting would do if an active shooter appeared there. Did I have any ideas?

Ideas? No.

Paranoia? Plenty.

Five days a week, my grandson who lives nearby walks down the street to the school bus. Our town has homicides, too many. But mass shootings? Not in my six-plus years here.

Not yet, deo gratias.

(They could say something like that in Virginia Beach, Virginia, until last week.)

So I’m no expert on this subject, and hope never to become one. But such is the sick society we live in, that any of us could become a personal “expert” in it, or a victim, any day. So after pondering the inquiry, I figured I’d do what I could.

I couldn’t find any information about the artist.

The Clerk did have one idea. He vaguely remembered a painting seen in childhood, of a meetinghouse in the woods, in colonial times, filled with plain dress Quakers, sitting quietly as a group of armed Indians came through the door.

Supposedly there was a story that went with it, that the Indians had meant to slaughter whites, and had done so in other similar places. But the warriors were so moved by their pious placidity, and disarmingly Friendly demeanor, that they dropped their murderous plans and let them be.

Was there anything to that? Could this be an example of Quaker “Active shooter training”? Continue reading An Active Shooter in Friends Meeting. Now what?

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

Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?

May 24 was (Authentic) Religious Liberty Day (at least it was here), but the Administration has some strange ideas about how to mark it. Like: turn it upside down & inside out.

Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, HHS.

That day it released  a proposed federal rule that would deny transgender persons many of the medical benefits and legal protections they gained in the Obama years. The proposal is one more chapter in the continuing drive to roll back just about everything the previous administration achieved or initiated. (Full text of the proposed rule is here. )

As the New York Times put it , the new rule Continue reading Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?

A Delightful Sketch of John Woolman

“JOHN WOOLMAN, THE QUAKER”

G. M. Trevelyan, from Clio & Other Essays, 1913

[NOTE: G.M. Trevelyan was perhaps the most famous British historian in the first part of the 20th century.  He was celebrated for his style, and was not reluctant to include his own opinions and values visibly and wittily in his narratives. By family and personal preference, he was a British Whig and then Liberal. Wikipedia notes, that 

G. M. Trevelyan

“Whigs and Liberals believed the common people had a more positive effect on history than did royalty and that democratic government would bring about steady social progress. . . .Trevelyan’s history is engaged and partisan. Of his  famous Garibaldi trilogy, “reeking with bias”, he remarked in his essay “Bias in History”–“Without bias, I should never have written them at all. For I was moved to write them by a poetical sympathy with the passions of the Italian patriots of the period, which I retrospectively shared.”

This outlook shines through his short essay, “John Woolman, the Quaker,” published in 1913. I started to collect the most sparkling excerpts; but no. It is short enough to take in expeditiously, yet substantive enough to chew on long afterward. It follows, in full.]

Continue reading A Delightful Sketch of John Woolman

Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update

In 1988 I wrote a substantial essay laying out my views about abortion, and describing how they had evolved over time. The piece also considered the increasing parallels, both rhetorical and political,  between this struggle and the Civil War.

Thirty-plus years later, despite some continuing evolution and updates, much of the piece still seems relevant, not least the potential for civil  strife.

(Author’s note from 1998 reprint: Many of the policy issues described in this essay still seem timely more than a decade later. Further, the personal journey it describes was an important part of my life, one not to be denied or concealed. It is also necessary background to the civil war scenarios that will also surface. . . . A much shortened version of the piece was published in The New Republic.)

INTRODUCTION: My Abortion Pilgrimage

Continue reading Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update

Emily Dickinson: An Epitaph for Today

305

The difference between Despair
And Fear – Is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck
And when the Wreck has been –

The Mind is smooth – no Motion
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see-

Biographers note that Emily Dickinson, who died on this date in 1886, was most productive in the first half of the 1860s. Secluded within the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts (except when tending the flower garden), she turned out hundreds of poems, mostly short, striking, often astonishing — but unnoticed by the outside world; her fame came after her death, which was likely okay with her. Continue reading Emily Dickinson: An Epitaph for Today

Spy Story of the Day, Maybe

A friend was on the line, demanding “WTF?? (What’s This, Friend?), about your senior North Carolina US Senator, Richard Burr, and his subpoena for DJ Junior??” (Normally Burr is a reliable rightwing Republican vote.)

Sen. Richard Burr, in seasonal costume.
Good question. So I consulted my (maybe) reliable intel speculator and here’s an excerpt from what came back, tied to the leg of a carrier pigeon, from he who will be dubbed 007:
 
From Politico’s report:
“Burr has been a complex figure in the long-running investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. He’s skipped events with Trump to maintain the appearance of neutrality, yet also was cited in the Mueller report for apparently briefing White House officials on the FBI’s Russia probe. Burr reportedly helped the administration knock down stories about links between the Trump campaign and Russia, yet also maintained unity on his committee while the House Intelligence panel self-destructed amid partisan acrimony.”

OO7’s take: Continue reading Spy Story of the Day, Maybe