Category Archives: Stories – From Life & Elsewhere

Dog Days & Frank McCourt: “Threaten Them with the Quakers!”

Today (August 19) is Frank McCourt’s birthday. McCourt was the great memoirist best known for his book, Angela’s Ashes, which won just about every prize it could get, sold boatloads, and kicked off the rush to write memoirs, which I confess I have even joined in myself a couple of times.

I was reminded of the date by Garrison Keillor, in his Writer’s Almanac, which I get by email.  But Garrison did not remind me of my favorite passage from McCourt’s masterwork; I found that myself some while ago, and have kept it handy for just such an occasion as this. Continue reading Dog Days & Frank McCourt: “Threaten Them with the Quakers!”

“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.

 

 

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

Happy Birthday, Quaker Novelist Jan de Hartog

Here’s an important Quaker writer’s birthday: Jan de Hartog, 1914-2002. Born April 22 in Holland, he became famous there as a popular novelist, dealing with the impact of World War Two on the Dutch, especially its sailors. He later emigrated to the U.S., and settled in Houston, Texas, joining  Live Oak Meeting there.

Jan de Hartog, in 1984.

De Hartog also wrote several novels about Quakers. The best-known is The Peaceable Kingdom, published in 1971. The first half of this sprawling work is set in and around Swarthmoor Hall and Lancashire, and stars none other than George Fox and Margaret Fell.

I loved this book, it’s still a great read, and I accept de Hartog’s careful opening caveat invoking “the novelist’s prerogative of being inspired by historical facts rather than governed by them.” Continue reading Happy Birthday, Quaker Novelist Jan de Hartog

LaRouche & Me, Part II

< For Part I, Click here.

But FBI Director Webster’s reply came pretty quickly.

It was brief: the FBI had reviewed their files and had found nothing that implicated me in any of the “dossier” allegations. McCloskey gave me a copy, which I framed, and hung on my man cave wall. (After all, how many other people do you know who have a letter personally signed by the FBI Director saying the Bureau has no evidence they’re a KGB mole? But after my several moves, it’s now somewhere in a box of other personally important documents. I should hunt it down; after all, you never know . . .)

But McCloskey was not done. Working from the FBI letter and my notes on the “dossier,” he reserved time on the floor and made a hard-hitting speech to the House, (okay, the chamber  was nearly empty) denouncing LaRouche and defending my integrity (and, by extension, his own). I had copies of that speech, too, but they are also lost in my paper shuffle, and the 1980 Congressional Record is not yet online. So for now you’ll just have to take my word for all this. Continue reading LaRouche & Me, Part II

Lyndon La Rouche and me — Part I

Prelude

Lyndon La Rouche has died. The stories about him and his uber-weird political career are legion. This is a summary version of mine; it has a lot to do with Quakers. It wasn’t meant to, but that’s how it turned out.

I

First, though, I need to make what will seem like a pointless digression, though it isn’t; then we’ll get back to LaRouche:

In 1965, I worked in the civil rights movement Selma, Alabama. Dr. King was leading a campaign to break through the exclusion of people of color from voting. Out of that campaign emerged a great victory: passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Dr. King traveled a lot; his day-to-day second in command in Selma was James Bevel. Bevel was a fine organizer, a brilliant preacher,  and a very charismatic figure.

I still remember him bursting into my bedroom at the home of Mrs.  Amelia Boynton, Selma’s most respected local black woman activist. It was after midnight, but he woke up my wife and me to tell us about his brilliant idea — for a march from Selma to Montgomery– which had just come to him in the cold late February moonlight. I was still half-asleep, but I could see that it was a brilliant idea.

James Bevel, left, with Dr. Martin Luther King, circa 1965.

It wasn’t his only one.    In these years, many prominent black leaders were going along with support for the Vietnam War, at least as a way of staying in the good graces of President Lyndon Johnson, who had been the political champion of voting and civil rights. But Bevel soon saw through this, sensed the plagues domestic and foreign which the war was loosing on the world, and took his case to Dr. King. At heart, King agreed; but he was also worried bout the politics. Bevel kept up his work of persuasion, along with some others, and by the beginning of 1967 Dr. King overcame his reluctance and opposed the war openly and eloquently.

On the other hand, in off-hours, Bevel was renowned as a seducer. This habit was periodically disruptive among the field staff, as his eye wandered among the wives of colleagues as well as the younger groupies who were drawn to the movement. Yet he was hardly alone in this habit among the highly patriarchal leading circles of the movement. The richly sardonic song, “Go Limp,” by the legendary singer Nina Simone describes this phenomenon with trenchant artistry. Continue reading Lyndon La Rouche and me — Part I

99 Years, No Carolina Justice: John Jeffress Remembrance Day, August 25, 1920

We don’t have a picture of John Jeffress, at least I haven’t found one.  Same for personal background: where he was from, when he was born. We only have a report about his end, which came on this date, August 25,  99 years ago.

This report was published in several papers on August 26, 1920:

Sheriff Storey and Jeffress were in Graham NC, the seat of Alamance County. When they turned toward the courthouse, they passed near this Confederate memorial, 30 feet high including the statue on the top, which had already been standing for six years. Continue reading 99 Years, No Carolina Justice: John Jeffress Remembrance Day, August 25, 1920

Dog Days True Tales: Vietnam & the Secret Life of Pizza

In the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary, there’s an episode which is called “Things Fall Apart.” It appears to center on an incident of violence during the January, 1968 Tet Offensive that produced one of the most unforgettable images of the war. This image still produces intense reactions.  Indeed, this photo was back on the front pages after that Ken Burns episode.

And I have something to say about that.

Not commentary, exactly, or film criticism. More of a footnote. A real-life footnote. It’s not in Burns’s documentary, and I’ve changed a name or two. But what follows is as true as when I lived it. I’ve called it “The Secret Life of Pizza,” and the connection to Vietnam will be clear enough in short order.

Continue reading Dog Days True Tales: Vietnam & the Secret Life of Pizza

Dog Days Tale: Honesty Is the Best Policy – Mostly

An Almost Entirely True Story . . .

My brother Mike picked up the ringing phone: Nonantum Times,” he said, listened a moment, then handed me the receiver.

I put my hand over it and raised an eyebrow at Mike. “Ted Epstein,” he whispered.

Ted Epstein was a lawyer in downtown Boston. He was also a board member for the Nonantum Times. It was a new low-budget suburban weekly newspaper; I was the founding editor. That is to say, he was one of my bosses.

Nonantum-Map

“Ted!” I said into the phone. “Got any good news for me?”

There was an awkward pause on the other end. Then, ”l’m afraid not, Chuck,” he said.

“Oh no,” I said, “don’t tell me our first big investigative scoop isn’t gonna happen.”

Continue reading Dog Days Tale: Honesty Is the Best Policy – Mostly

Dog Days Meditation: Bartram Faces a Murderer

Friend William Bartram traveled, mainly alone, through much of the American southeast, between 1773 and 1777, looking for collecting, and drawing plants, wildlife, and the occasional Indian. His book based on these journeys was published in 1791. Here is another excerpt:

IT may be proper to observe, that I had now passed the utmost frontier of the white settlements on that border.

It was drawing on towards the close of day, the skies serene and calm, the air temperately cool, and gentle zephyrs breathing through the fragrant pines; the prospect around enchantingly varied and beautiful; endless green savannas, checquered with coppices of fragrant shrubs, filled the air with the richest perfume.

The gaily attired plants which enamelled the green had begun to imbibe the pearly dew of evening; nature seemed silent, and nothing appeared to ruffle the happy moments of evening contemplation: when, on a sudden, an Indian appeared crossing the path, at a considerable distance before me. Continue reading Dog Days Meditation: Bartram Faces a Murderer