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

On this weekend when we’re beginning the work of marking the passing of John Lewis, civil rights icon and longtime Congressman, it may interest some readers to review this account of my last visit to Selma, Alabama This is only one of the cities where John Lewis nearly was killed. It was also where I played my bit part in the 1965 movement drama there.

Below is a news photo from late February, 1965. It turned up a few years back (hat tip to the sharp-eyed Lewis Lewis): it was taken on the steps of Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, when John Lewis (center-left, with a tie) announced the plan to march from Selma to Montgomery.

The goal of the march was winning voting rights for southern Blacks; but the plan was sparked by the police killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson. I’m at the far right, behind Andrew Young (who is also in a tie).

One sunny day in April 2018, 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 two books on Selma, and tracked me down, asking 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.

One of so many predatory payday loan shops in Selma. These financial parasites have been made more dangerous by their cheering section in the present Washington administration, which never saw a scam it didn’t like.

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, stood empty, literally falling down, like so many others on that, the “historic” side of town. If there’s any money in that heritage, 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 Robert E. 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 pro-Confederate 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.

Right to left, in front: Andrew Young, MLK, Ralph Abernathy, and John Lewis. The cemetery was a couple miles into the woods outside Marion, and a large crowd walked through the rain to it. As Dr. King got death threats almost daily, I was one of several junior staffers tasked to walk near him to block the aim of potential snipers hiding in the trees. A few years later, doing research for my book, Selma 1965,” I saw a chilling report that police and federal agents thought that in fact there had been such out there that day. But between us walking, and the many spread umbrellas, they didn’t get a clear chance.

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. The killer, an ex-state trooper, was 77 when he finally served five months in prison.

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.

Selma made civil rights history. But the bloody saga of the repression of Reconstruction by the Klan and others preceded that, and is still alive there as well.

I admit I soon mostly forgot about the project; several other such interviews have wound up on disks or as transcripts on some obscure library shelves, waiting to enlighten, or bore, a stray grad student or two. In my own work, other such living “relics” have been of much use to me, though.

And now, more than a year later, the “White Lies” 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. Andy and Chip 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.
A large crowd heads east from the Pettus Bridge in March 2005, with a message that John Lewis often repeated, and which is more urgent than ever today.

 

 

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