Anatomy of a Lynching (Teaching Civil Rights, 6 )

john-quincy-adams-pictureA Review of:

Karen Branan.  The Family Tree:  A Lynching in Georgia, A Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth.  New York and other cities:  Atria Books, 2016.

[NOTE:  Here we are again, at yet another review of a book on life in the South during the Age of Jim Crow.  As I’ve said before, trying to reconstruct a picture of what it was like to live in the Jim Crow South is a puzzlement:  one needs to read as many accounts by individual witnesses as possible, then try to combine those first-hand accounts with information from secondary sources, so here we go. . . . ]

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family-tree

Karen Branan, talking to her ninety year-old grandmother, asked what her “most unforgettable memory” was, and the old lady replied, “The hanging.  They hanged a woman and some men right downtown in Hamilton when I was young.” (2)  It was this admission by her grandmother that set Branan on a twenty-year odyssey to unearth “the truth” of the events that led to that lynching in 1912 Georgia, especially the role of her great-grandfather, “Buddy” Hadley, Harris County’s newly-elected sheriff, in the affair. Sheriff Hadley was a man Branan had been taught to revere, because family lore had it that he had tried to prevent the lynching but had been unsuccessful.

Branan’s decision to entitle her work The Family Tree, was an inspired one.  The murder victim, Norman Hadley, a local white “playboy” with a fondness for black women, was Sheriff Hadley’s nephew, and therefore a cousin of the author.  Moreover, as she continued her research, Branan also discovered that one of the lynching victims allegedly involved in the murder of Norman Hadley, a mulatto named Johnie Moore, was also related to her.

* * * * *

In highlighting the underlying causes of Norman Hadley’s murder, and of the tense race relations in Harris County, Georgia, and its seat of Hamilton, Branan emphasizes the intricate web of relationships woven by interracial sex (the fathering of mixed-race children by local white men and their black consorts) and one of the county’s major sources of income, the production and sale of moonshine liquor, an endeavor that attracted both blacks and whites, usually working together.

Branan furnishes a map of the Harris County area, as well as a fairly detailed, two-page family tree that she hopes will aid the reader in wending his or her way through the intricacies of the lynching itself, its historical context, and the short- and long-term consequences of the events she describes. The resulting monograph, filtered through her career as a professional journalist, is an engrossing, sometimes confusing tale of race, lust, crime, and violence in a single county (and its environs) in Jim Crow Georgia. It marries “true crime” with a healthy dose of William Faulkner, a study of ties that bind in a small rural area, but can also kill.

In sketching the history of Harris County, Karen Branan begins with her life in the town of Hamilton.  As her narrative unfolds, Branan clearly is surprised again and again at how naïve her view had been of Hamilton during her girlhood.  She soon realizes that if life there, and in the surrounding county, had been as idyllic as she remembered—and as she’d been told over and over again by her parents and grandparents—then there is no room for the grim “truth” she is gradually uncovering, not only about the 1912 lynching but also about its ramifications over the next two decades.  Admittedly, a lot of the “ramifications” she traces depend upon what, to this reviewer, sometimes seems like shaky evidence, but, if the reader accepts the author’s premises, then the whole thing begins to make a sort of sense.

* * * * *

One of the strengths of this work is the Branan’s research in primary sources, especially local newspapers and county and state court records.  Moreover, she began her research in the 1990s, when she still had access to a group she calls the “Ancient Mariners,” elderly Harris County residents, black and white, who, like the character in Coleridge’s famous poem, “unflinchingly shared stories that had haunted them for years.” (262)

Although setting the scene in 1912, Branan also does a nice job briefly reviewing earlier “big issues” like slavery, Reconstruction, the creation of the Myth of the Lost Cause, and the establishment of “legal” segregation in the Jim Crow Era, showing how they actually unfolded in the microcosmic southern world of Hamilton and Harris County.

Branan came to her “search for the truth” many years after the event and, by then, her own life had taken her through college at the University of Georgia (during the tumultuous period when Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes were helping to desegregate that institution); made her a racial liberal; and sent her out of the South to explore journalism on the West Coast and in the Northeast.

The research project she decided to pursue upon her return to the South forced Branan to confront uncomfortable truths, and, more significantly, try to convince her family and others in Harris County that those truths were worth unearthing—and publicizing.  It cannot have been a comfortable position for her, and that might help explain why it took  two decades to complete her work.

* * * * *

And what did Branan discover through her research?

Her great-grandfather was far from the stern county sheriff who faced down a mob in a futile effort to protect the prisoners. In fact, the newly-elected Sheriff Hadley had been told by some of the leaders of the lynch mob that it would be better for his future career, not to mention his health, if he were somewhere else on the day they’d chosen for their revenge, and he’d taken the hint. Subsequently, Hadley “just happened” to be in nearby Columbus on “official business” the day the “Hamilton Avengers” raided the jail; took four prisoners from their cells; marched them across the town square; hanged them from an old oak tree on the grounds of a black church; and fired bullets into the corpses.

Dusty Crutchfield, the only woman among the prisoners, had been given the chance to save her life (because she was a woman, though a black one, and the “Hamilton Avengers” were of course all about protecting “womanhood” from defilement).  All Crutchfield had to do was to identify which of her fellow prisoners had killed Norman Hadley.  Instead of taking the deal, Dusty supposedly told her inquisitor to “Pull the rope, white man!” Yet, this anecdote does not appear in contemporary accounts of the lynching; Branan learned it while interviewing elderly black residents of Harris County who claimed to remember the events.

Nothing was done legally to punish any of the “Hamilton Avengers.”  Rather, the inquest ruled that the four prisoners had been killed “by person or persons unknown.”  Branan’s research suggests, however, that the proper response to that verdict should have been a sarcastic “sure they were!”, because her interviews revealed the identities of many, if not most, members of the white mob.

* * * * *

Despite constant efforts by groups like the NAACP to secure passage of an anti-lynching law in Congress, nothing was done, and for the most mundane of reasons—the Democratic Party, even under “the South’s friend” during the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, relied on southern white votes to maintain its hold on power in the South, and the President’s backing of an anti-lynching bill would have weakened that support.

Georgia was the number one state in lynching for much of the early twentieth century.  Then, in the 1920s, lynchings in Georgia decreased, and from 1927 through 1929 no one died in the state at the end of a rope, with justice administered by a group of local “avengers.”

To help explain this apparent anomaly, Branan, relying on an otherwise unconfirmed bit of information from a local black farmer, argues that a local white woman, Miss Lula Mobley (yes, another of Branan’s relatives!), the head of the women’s Methodist Missionary Society, had convinced local white ladies that the time had come for them to wield their “ultimate weapon,” threatening to leave their husbands and move to Columbus if lynching didn’t stop in Harris County. (Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, anyone?)

And, speaking of local lore, Branan also ran across evidence that, within a year of the lynching, African Americans in Harris County believed that none of those killed in 1912 had been guilty.  As a result, according to this view, there occurred “divine retribution”—one after another of the men suspected of being members of the “Hamilton Avengers” met untimely, violent ends.  As one of Branan’s sources put it, they “died with their boots on. . . Unnatural deaths, you understand.” (194)

* * * * *     

Karen Branan

Karen Branan

Karen Branan’s study of life–and death–in Hamilton, Georgia, in 1912 provides interesting information about events leading to the lynching; tries, with mixed success, to reveal various “secrets” about underlying causes of the lynching; and follows the author’s “search for the truth” without at times revealing said “truth” all that clearly.  As is sometimes the case, modern books about the Jim Crow South that claim to offer the “truth” about that shameful era promise a bit more than they can deliver.

And yet—it is hard to beat Branan’s measured summary of that ugly episode in Georgia during the Age of Jim Crow:

I now understand that the lynch mob was not made up of monsters (perhaps with the exception of one or two), but of ordinary men who had little or no awareness of the history they carried within themselves and who did a monstrous thing.  Unable to deal with their own demons, they took everything out on those hapless four people who represented everything they hated in themselves. They had convinced themselves that the Negro was not fully human and, therefore, that killing him or her was not of great import.  I realize the fact that they lived in a time and a place that reinforced and even encouraged these delusions made it much easier for those men to carry out the lynching. (256)

* * * * * *

 For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

  

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Age of Jim Crow, American History, Books, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

BETTS: A MOTHER’S MEMOIR, 1923-1964, Part II: Grandparents, Parents, and Siblings

john-quincy-adams[Note:  This is the second in a series of posts based on a family history and a memoir  written by my mother, Betts Lamplugh. (For Part I, go here.) This installment is taken mostly from her “Dobson-Knighton Family History,” supplemented with some material from the first section of  the memoir, whimsically titled “Slub of Slife.”]

* * * * *

Josiah Dobson, my great-grandfather, was born on December 5, 1834, in Halton, England, the son of Thomas and Mary Dobson.  He emigrated to the United States about 1859, settling near Philadelphia.  At the opening of the Civil War, his ardent military spirit prompted him to enlist, on July 1, 1861.  He became a member of Company G, 7th Regiment, Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteers, the famous “Pennsylvania Bucktails,” so-called because of the buck tail worn on their campaign hats.  The Bucktails saw action at Bull Run, Antietam, the Wilderness Campaign, the Seven Days fighting, and Gettysburg, and they were present at Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  In all, they had an active part in thirty-seven engagements, and Josiah Dobson saw his share of the fighting.

Josiah was promoted to sergeant for meritorious service, and when his initial enlistment expired, in 1862, he volunteered to serve for the remainder of the war.  Josiah was relieved from combat duty in 1863 because of a disease contracted in the service and was assigned to the Hospital Corps.  He received an honorable discharge in July 1865.  After the end of the war, Josiah made his home in Philadelphia and then in Wilmington, Delaware.  In May 1869, he married Mattie Dean, and they had nine children.  The second oldest, George Thomas Dobson, who became my grandfather, was born October 12, 1872, in Stanton, Delaware.

* * * * *

George T. Dobson

George T. Dobson

George Dobson had very little schooling as a child and went to work at about age ten, in Newark, Delaware.  There was not much industry in Newark at that time, and I don’t know where he worked.  He served in the Spanish-American War, enlisting on May 7, 1898, and serving in Company L, First Delaware Regiment.  George was mustered out on November 16, 1898.  After the war, he served in the Delaware National Guard’s Company E, 1st Infantry Regiment, from May 4, 1903, until he was discharged on July 25, 1906.

On his discharge form, George Dobson was listed as a papermaker.  I remember that he worked at Curtis Paper Company [in Newark] when I was very young, and I assume he remained there until around 1940.  George married Reba Murray on September 20, 1901, and they had one child, Gertrude Isabelle Dobson (called Isabelle), who was born on May 15, 1904.  Things didn’t go well in the marriage, and the Dobsons were divorced on March 4, 1912.  Reba Murray Dobson left Newark and later married Will Austin, with whom she had three children, Lillian, Dorothy, and David.

Isabelle and George T. Dobson

George Dobson married Anna Ring around 1919.  Anna had a son, Roger, by a first marriage, and Dobson legally adopted him shortly after marrying Anna.  The new Dobson family bought a house at 50 Choate Street in Newark in 1923.  Evidently, young Gertrude Isabelle did not get along very well with her stepmother. She met Isaac Livesey Knighton, known as “Ike,” around 1918, when he moved to Newark to work for his cousin’s husband, William Delaplane Dean, a plumber.  Mr. Dean’s wife’s mother and Ike’s mother were sisters.

* * * * *

Ike had been born on February 22, 1898, in Frankford, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb.  His mother, Jemima Lydia Gallagher Knighton, died when he was about two years old, and he was raised mostly by an aunt, Emma Livesey.  His father, William H. Knighton, married a woman with two sons, George and Wilbur Frost.

William H. Knighton

William H. Knighton

Jemima Knighton

Jemima Knighton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ike worked for Mr. Dean for a while, then went to work in the American Stores market (later called Acme Markets), which at that time was located on Main Street in Newark in the vicinity of where the National 5 & 10 is now located.  Ike and Isabelle were married in Old Swede’s Church in Wilmington on September 26, 1920.  They went to Wilmington from Newark on the B & O train to be married, but they had difficulties getting back to Newark, because the train they took on their return trip did not stop there, so they wound up in Elkton, Maryland.

Isaac L. “Ike” Knighton

Ike and Isabelle lived in Philadelphia for a while, where Dad was interim manager of an American Stores market, at 58th and Chester Avenue, until a new manager came to take over, at which point he was transferred to Milton, Delaware, a place he had difficulty locating initially.  While Ike worked for American Stores, the Knightons lived in several small towns in lower Delaware.  My sister Gertrude (“Gertie”) was born on September 16, 1921, in Lewes, Delaware; I was born on January 8, 1923, also in Lewes; and Anna Margaret (“Peg”) was born June 28, 1924, in Milton, Delaware.

Gertie Knighton

Gertie Knighton

Dad always said he quit American Stores Company because they wanted to transfer him out of Delaware, and he didn’t want to go.  When we moved back to the Newark area, Dad worked for Mom’s uncle, Jacob Zimmerman, who was married to George Dobson’s sister, Elizabeth (affectionately known as “Aunt Lizzie”).  Mr. Zimmerman had a tavern in Wilmington, and I think Dad worked for him for a short time.

* * * * *

My earliest recollections are the things that happened when I was about six years old, and we were living in Wilmington, Delaware.  I can remember my Mom and Dad speaking of having lived in “Hamilton Park,” which is in New Castle, Delaware, but I have no memory of that place.  My brother George was born in New Castle on July 9, 1926.

George W. Knighton and George T. Dobson

George W. Knighton and George T. Dobson

We later lived at #1 New Street in Wilmington—an old row house located behind the huge brick Seeburg & Blackwell Building, which is on Vandever Avenue.  Fraim’s Dairy was located near us at one end of the street.  This was certainly not “Nob Hill,” but this was about 1930, and times were tough for everyone [during the Great Depression].  Guess we were lucky to have a place to live, under the circumstances.

During this time, Dad was driving a “near-beer” truck [during Prohibition] for a man named Guy Bell.  Dad enjoyed driving the truck and always had stories to tell after each trip.  He did have to go to Baltimore and Washington, and he used to say in later years that he hated Washington because of the way the streets were arranged.  It seemed it was easy to get lost in that city.

One time, Dad brought home a little brown and white fox terrier which he named Trixie.  The dog had been left at a gas station, and the owner couldn’t keep it, so Dad brought it home.  (We had Trixie for about a year or so, and, when we were moving to Philadelphia, Granddad Dobson took Trixie to his home in Newark, Delaware.)

My Mom worked in the kitchen at the Memorial Hospital in Wilmington, located across Brandywine Creek, and we used to walk through the park to meet her in nice weather.  On Sunday we used to play in Brandywine Park and look at the animals.  We always enjoyed that park.  Gertie and I attended George Gray School on Vandever Avenue.  Guess life was not really exciting in those days—only thing I can remember clearly is playing on the sidewalk at the dairy and watching bottles moving along on a belt—sounds like fun to you, doesn’t it?

Our house was one of six or eight row houses—small rooms about the size of the one in this house [50 Choate St., Newark, Delaware], though they may have been smaller.  I remember that all of us children slept in the same room—only two bedrooms upstairs.  We used to get into trouble once in a while for not going to sleep once we were in bed.  Dad was a patient man, to a point, and we quickly learned at what point we should be quiet or suffer the consequences.  Good thing he was not a mean Dad—guess we learned respect early in life.

End of Part II

Next:  Part III:  A Depression Era Childhood

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For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the Trail of Blind Willie McTell (Blues Stories, 24)

A Review of:  john-quincy-adams-picture                   

Michael Gray, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes:  In Search of Blind Willie McTell.  Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2009.  

amazon.com

amazon.com

[NOTE:  For a  new project, I’ve decided to revisit a number of works on the Blues and the men and women who played and sang them, books I had read but not reported on in this blog.  Here’s the first, and it’s a beauty!]

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Even the “Introduction” to Michael Gray’s biography is worth pondering, because it presents a cogent explanation of the musical journey Blind Willie McTell—and his reputation—took, from late in his life, when few people still remembered him, to the present, when he occupies a special place in the history and legacy of the Blues.

In the summer of 1956, a young white record store owner in Atlanta, Ed Rhodes, learned that Blind Willie was still playing the Blues, only now in the parking lot of an Atlanta music club. (Like the Reverend “Blind” Gary Davis, McTell found himself “singing for his supper” after his reputation faded.)  Rhodes talked Blind Willie into letting him set up a recording session, at the end of which McTell told Rhodes he didn’t want the music released while he was still alive, because, if that happened, “I would just drink myself to death.” (3)

In November 1959, about three months after McTell’s death, Samuel Charters published his classic work, The Country Blues, which, in Gray’s opinion, sparked a revival of interest in the Blues.  Included on the compilation album accompanying Charters’ book was McTell’s 1928 recording of “Statesboro Blues.”  In 1961, a Blues fan connected Charters with Ed Rhodes, and Rhodes gave the Blues scholar a copy of McTell’s 1956 Atlanta performance, which Charters shortly released as Blind Willie McTell: Last Sessions.  Five years later, in 1966, the next full McTell album appeared, Blind Willie McTell: 1940, which had been recorded by traveling musicologist John Lomax and his wife Ruby, for the Library of Congress.

So, while Blind Willie had missed the Blues revival of the 1960s, it finally caught up with him posthumously.  And, although McTell was not available to accompany one of the “British Invasion” bands on stage and be hailed as a hero, as had longer-lived elderly Blues performers, his music lived on in performances by the likes of the Allman Brothers and Taj Mahal.  Finally, in 1991, Bob Dylan released a song he’d written in 1983 and used in his concerts thereafter, “Blind Willie McTell,” perhaps the best Dylan song some of his fans had never heard. (16)  In short, like Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell was relatively unknown during his recording career but became something of a Blues super star following his demise.

robert-johnson

* * * * *

Willie McTell was born William Samuel McTier c. May 5, 1903, in Happy Valley, McDuffie County, Georgia, just south of the small town of Thomson.  He was of mixed ancestry—his grandfather, Elbert McTyeir, was the son of white man, Reddick McTyeir, and his slave Essey.  McTell was probably blind from birth, although the full extent of his disability is still uncertain. His mother, Minnie, was about 15 when he was born; his father, Ed McTier, perhaps 20.  It is possible that Willie’s parents never actually lived together; at any rate, his father, “a gambler and a drifter,” (74) was not in the picture during McTell’s childhood.

Minnie Dorsey took her son Willie to Jefferson County, Georgia, and then, around 1910-11, to Statesboro, in Bulloch County near the Georgia coast, a place McTell always considered home.  Michael Gray describes Statesboro as “progressive,” in the early twentieth-century sense of believing in modernity and progress.  Statesboro was relatively “progressive” in a number of ways, including the establishment of the City Colored School by a dedicated African American named William James.  Of course, the presence of a school for Black children had little impact on the blind McTell.  Willie eventually learned to read Braille at the Georgia Academy for the Blind, where his tuition was paid by a white Statesboro benefactor.  Gray also believes that later in his life McTell attended other schools for the blind in Atlanta, New York City, and Michigan. (173)

Gray also speculates about the effects of blindness on McTell’s personality and on his career as a Blues musician.  He never wore dark glasses, and his stage name, “Blind Willie,” was bluntly descriptive (but, the use of labels like “Blind” and “Blind Boy” was fairly common among visually impaired Blues and Gospel performers).  McTell carried a pistol and knew how to use it.  He also was a snazzy dresser for much of his career (check out the picture on the dust jacket).  Most surprisingly to his contemporaries, and to his biographer, Blind Willie displayed an uncanny ability to navigate the streets of any city he lived in, from Statesboro, to Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and back again.  In short, “everyone is agreed upon Willie’s lifelong transcendence of his handicap.” (175)

* * * * *

Much of McTell’s early musical training was probably informal:  several family members evidently played the guitar, and, in Statesboro, his mother Minnie and a man named Stapleton both helped mentor the boy’s training. The wife of a white physician even gave young Willie a guitar.  McTell must have been talented, because while still a teenager he briefly ran away and joined a traveling circus as a musical performer. Evidently, he did not receive his first formal musical training until after his mother’s death (1920), when he was sent to the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon (1922-1925).  Following the end of his time there, McTell moved to Atlanta, where he “settled for the relative liberty he enjoyed, inclined by personality and quick-wittedness to live his life adroitly and with optimism.” (193)

Ralph S. Peer, a “talent scout” for Victor Records and a pioneer in the development of the “race record [i.e., Black music] industry,” was the first to record Willie McTell, in Atlanta in October 1927. Willie recorded songs between 1927 and 1929, earning “respectable” sales but charting no big hits.  The Stock Market Crash of 1929 dealt a fatal blow to “race records,” and forced Blues performers to look for other ways to continue their careers.  McTell was luckier than most, because he was able to record, either as a solo performer or back-up musician, from 1930 to 1933 and in 1935.

In 1933, Willie McTell married Ruth Kate Williams, a Georgia “preacher’s kid,” who worked as a nurse at Atlanta’s Grady Hospital.  Kate also ran numbers and joined her husband in a bootlegging venture, with Willie singing and Kate selling the hooch.  Willie and Kate moved to Chicago in 1935, and McTell continued to perform whenever and wherever he could, but his career was drying up.  In 1940, he recorded several tunes in Atlanta for John and Ruby Lomax, on behalf of the Library of Congress, playing his twelve-string guitar for two hours, in return for the munificent fee of $1 and cab fare!

McTell’s marriage to Kate disintegrated in 1941, and Kate left for New York City.  Without divorcing Kate, the Blues man established a more solid relationship with Helen Edwards, with whom he lived until her death.  In the 1940s, Willie briefly moved away from the Blues to gospel, a musical genre that had survived the Great Depression, but by the end of that decade he was playing Blues once more, on the streets in Atlanta.  Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, heard McTell sing and convinced him to record  for the new label in 1949.  The following year, McTell recorded his final Blues album, for Regal, also in Atlanta.

central-state-hospital-and-veterans-home-milledgeville-georgia

Willie was going downhill physically by the 1950s, and Helen’s death in 1958 dealt him a blow from which he never recovered.  In the spring of 1959, he suffered a series of strokes;  three of his relatives, concerned about his mental health, committed him to the state  hospital in Milledgeville, where he died on August 19, 1959.

* * * * *

Michael Gray (stevenhartsite--WordPress.com)

Michael Gray (stevenhartsite–WordPress.com)

Michael Gray’s closing chapter is a fine one.  He examines the aftermath of Willie McTell’s passing, including what happened to some of his possessions; the fate of his royalties (one of the boons coming to old performers—or, as in Willie’s case, their survivors—as a result of the 1960s “Blues Revival”); and, finally, the “the spoils of Willie’s ‘heritage.’” (351)  For instance, Atlantans know “Blind Willie’s,” a Blues tavern, and there is an annual  McTell blues festival in Thomson, where he was born and buried and a state historical commemorates his career.  Statesboro, where Willie grew up and where he returned throughout his life, opened a “Willie McTell Trail” and was supposed to receive the “Georgy” award made on the occasion of McTell’s induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, but that never happened–the award mysteriously “disappeared.”

Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell, is a rich book:  a biography of one of the greatest of the early Blues men; a travelogue, recording Michael Gray’s pursuit of the sometimes elusive but always fascinating McTell; and a “journey in time” that takes the reader, through Gray’s research and that of his wife (who explored resources on the Worldwide Web from a computer in Britain) back to the South of the 1920s and 1930s.  Gray also does a wonderful (if at times overly detailed) job of sketching the larger context within which Willie McTell lived, moved, and recorded his unforgettable songs.

In sum, there is a lot to like in this book, for the Blues fan; the student of the Jim Crow South; the scholar interested in picking up tips for researching a figure who left little or no paper trail; and the aficionado of travel writing.

Moreover, Gray’s concluding sentence wonderfully captures the pleasure of studying history:  “The past, as we know, is a foreign country we cannot reach, but we can stare across at it, appalled and in wonderment, from the shores we stand on now.” (357)

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

 

 

Posted in Age of Jim Crow, American History, Blind Willie McTell, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History of Rock and Roll, Piedmont Blues, Popular Culture, Research, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, The Blues, Uncategorized, Urban Blues, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

BETTS: A MOTHER’S MEMOIR, 1923-1964, Part I: Late-Blooming Historian

 

john-quincy-adams[NOTE:  This is the first in a series of posts drawing on a family history and a memoir compiled by my mother, Elsie Elizabeth Knighton Lamplugh (1923-2013).

Mom, known as “Betts,” lavished upon her kids what we would later describe as “unconditional love.”  As we grew up, she steadily supported us in whatever we wished to do with our lives.  For example, Betts thought that her oldest child would end up teaching history, and so did he; but, in her mind, history teachers worked in high school, while his goal was a college teaching position, as a history professor.  But, as readers of this blog know, although I did study to become a professor, I spent my career teaching history on the secondary  level.  So, Betts could chalk up yet another win for “mother’s intuition.”

What neither of us realized at the time, though, was that Betts herself would one day become a family historian and a memoirist.]

* * * * *

Betts at 18

Betts in High School

The first of Betts’ contributions to family lore was the “Dobson-Knighton Family History,” which she completed in 1987 and distributed to family members in Xeroxed form.  My siblings and I, impressed by what she had done, kept urging her to continue trying to make sense of her life as a wife and mother, and she finally capitulated.  The result, a memoir whimsically entitled “Slub of Slife” (i.e, “Love of Life,” the derivation of which will be revealed in Part V), was actually written in reverse chronological order:  the first section of “Slub of Slife” Betts completed began near the end of World War II and carried her story forward to the Fall of 1964, when “changes which affected all of our family” occurred. When she sent me a draft of that installment in March 1995, Betts described it as “far from perfect. . . . Kind of started in the middle—but maybe if I can think back a lot further I may be able to do something about my (our) early years. . . . Kind of feel like a lot of things are best forgotten.”

The second section of “Slub of Slife” that Betts wrote (completing it in July 1995) covered the earlier part of her life, overlapping with the final pages of the “Dobson-Knighton Family History.”  In a note accompanying this part of her memoir, Betts predicted that it would “no doubt bore you to tears, but guess this is the way my childhood was.  Good thing my Mom and Dad and doctor took such good care of me, look how long I have lived.”

One of the ways I tried to encourage Mom to finish telling us her “story” was by promising that, once I retired, I would “try to do something with it.”  That seemed to satisfy her; at any rate, she did not add to the memoir between 1995 and her death almost twenty years later.  For now, though, I am submitting it via the Internet, in installments, an initial effort to keep that promise.

As editor, I’ve tried to blend important family information from the “Dobson-Knighton Family History” with the earlier chronological installment of “Slub of Slife,”  eliminating repetitions.  I also “fill in the blanks” in two places:  between the conclusion of the earlier chronological part of her memoir and the beginning of the later one; and, in the final post,  her life between 1964 and 2013.

* * * * *

Over the course of the research into her family’s history, and in her memoir, Betts availed herself of numerous primary sources:  photos; public records like deeds and birth, baptismal, marriage, and death certificates; military records; and clippings from newspapers in Newark and Wilmington, Delaware, and the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland. The work also benefited from information furnished by friends and family members in “interviews,” either in person or over the telephone; and in letters. Useful secondary sources included two published histories of Newark, Delaware, and a pamphlet history of Middle River, Maryland.

It is important to note that Betts began her work on the Dobson and Knighton families sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, before the “computer revolution” that would  bring desktop and laptop computers and Internet access to anyone who desired them.  Although Betts was an experienced typist, she never liked computers.  In fact, their increasing presence in Christiana Hospital, her last employer, was one reason she retired when she did.  Nevertheless, the drafts she prepared of her family history/memoir, work that continued into the mid-1990s, were produced in her home on an early “word processor” (a gift from a friend), but without Internet access.

Betts was extremely fortunate when it came to locating genealogical information, thanks to her brother, George W. Knighton, who lived in Virginia.  Betts’ project dovetailed both with George’s own interest in their family’s history and, especially, with his computer skills.

Betts called or wrote her brother with questions and mailed him drafts of her work for comment.  In turn, George sent printouts of genealogical information to Betts so she might include it in her manuscript.  Betts shipped the finished project to George, who entered it into his computer, added pictures and a few maps, and returned this expanded version to Betts in Newark, where she made copies and distributed them to family members.

Today, this “research model” might seem very time-consuming, but Betts was learning as she went.  She did not drive, so “research trips” in the traditional sense were out.  Mostly, Betts relied on the U.S. Postal Service, the telephone, and the Xerox machine, along with a few books and newspaper articles, to provide information she needed to supplement primary documents, her capacious memory, and the stories she learned from family members, an informal example of what is now known as “oral history.”

* * * * *

The story Betts tells is an interesting one.  She traces her Dobson-Knighton family back to the 1830s and carries her own part in that story through the “changes” that befell her Lamplugh family in 1964.  In her inimitable fashion, Betts remembers living in a crowded house with five siblings and her parents, in the small city of Newark, Delaware.  Through her eyes, we see what a girl’s growing up years were like in that environment, including her family’s experiences during the Great Depression and World War II. Once she became a wife and mother, Betts had other stories to tell, especially about life for a working-class family trying to achieve some version of the “American Dream” after World War II.

* * * * *

Between the 1980s and 1990s, then, Betts Lamplugh produced a record of her own life and that of her families: the one she’d been born into in 1923; and her second family, which she and her husband, Ben Lamplugh, had created with their three children. In a sense, the tale she tells is a microcosm of the broader saga of how Americans survived the Depression, found themselves caught up in the Second World War, and wrestled with the often painful, frustrating task of trying to get ahead in a far from peaceful postwar world.

Betts in her early 80s

Betts: Keepin’ on keepin’ on

NEXT:  Part II: Grandparents, Parents, and Siblings

* * * * * *

For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

 

Posted in American History, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

A Doomed Fight for Justice in the Jim Crow South (Teaching Civil Rights, 7)

john-quincy-adams-picture

A Review of

Joseph Madison Beck, My Father & Atticus Finch:  A Lawyer’s Fight for Justice in 1930s Alabama.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

my ajc.com

my ajc.com

As the title suggests, this book begins with the notion that the story of the author’s father could have inspired Harper Lee’s portrait of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. However, Miss Lee, through her agent, told Joseph Madison Beck that she had never known about either the case of Charles White or Foster Campbell Beck’s role in it.

Sources for this work include Beck’s conversations with his parents; his father’s handwritten family history, which ended, however, at a point before Foster Beck could describe the White case in much detail; newspaper articles; an incomplete trial transcript; and the Alabama Supreme Court’s opinion on Foster Beck’s appeal of the local court’s decision.  The author, Joseph Beck, a member of the Law faculty at Emory University in Atlanta, wasn’t born until five years after the trial, so he had to “surmise, from knowledge of my family and the times, what may have been said, what surely was said.” (viii-ix)

* * * * *

Judge W. L. Parks telephoned young Enterprise, Alabama, lawyer Foster Beck in 1938 and asked (told) him to act as the defense attorney for a 6’5”, 250 pound black man, Charles White, accused of raping a local white girl in Troy, 37 miles from Enterprise.  No member of the Troy bar was willing to take the case, and Judge Parks wanted to make sure a local attorney was appointed to defend White, lest the case attract outsiders like the American Civil Liberties Union.

Foster Beck was not eager to accept the assignment, but Judge Parks pressed, even telling him that his father, Madison Lewis (“Mr. M.L.”) Beck, would be proud of him.  Mr. M.L. was known as a “progressive” on race, at least in Alabama terms.  An entrepreneur with a lumber mill and a general store, Mr. M.L. also overindulged in alcohol and drugs.  Foster was uncomfortable with the idea that Judge Parks might be appointing him because he was his father’s son, rather than on his merits as an attorney.  

At the time, Beck was in his thirties, single, and, as a lawyer, had already earned a reputation for his work in civil cases, where he had protected poorer citizens, regardless of  color, from banks during the Great Depression.  So, in a sense, Foster, too, was a racial “progressive,” but this case would be very different from his usual work.

Beck assumed that he was expected to convince Charles White to plead guilty to raping a white woman, for which he would receive life imprisonment, probably with no chance of parole.  If White insisted on going to trial, however, the death penalty would be on the table, and the prosecution would also be able to present information about White’s criminal history. (White told Beck he’d not been in trouble with the law, but Beck doubted the truth of that statement; as it turned out, his suspicions were justified.)  Foster Beck was a great believer in the majesty of the law, but in Charles White he met a defendant who was not, and who, moreover, refused to plead guilty to a crime he claimed he hadn’t committed, even if that plea might save his life.

* * * * *

Foster Beck did his best for Charles White, but it was no use, as the attorney had probably known from the first.  The “victim,” Elizabeth Liger, was a 20 year-old white woman who acted as if she were mentally challenged (although the author believes she more closely resembled what we would call today an “airhead”).  The local doctor testified that Liger was “still a virgin,” yet claimed that White had raped her.

Charles White was a traveling fortune-teller, and Elizabeth was eager to have her fortune told because she wanted to marry, have children, and get the heck out of Enterprise, Alabama. Three local physicians, none of whom had specialized in diagnosing or treating mental disorders, agreed that Elizabeth had a mental age of 10-12, which meant that she could not have legally “consented” to whatever White did to her, even though he said she had done so.

At first, Beck tried to persuade White to plead guilty, avoid a trial, and thus save his life, but White refused to bend.  Consequently, when the trial rolled around, what Judge Parks had assumed would be a quick and easy process that would not even require him to impanel a jury, became something quite different—a public spectacle, much like the one portrayed in Mockingbird. The result was no surprise: White was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Nevertheless, lawyer Beck could not let it go—he asked White to plead for mercy, hoping that Judge Parks might buck the jury if White did so.  White supposedly asked for mercy (or so author Joseph Beck says he was told), although there is no record of such a plea.  So, Foster Beck appealed the verdict to the Alabama Supreme Court and suddenly found himself shunned by the white citizens of Enterprise.  Lower-class whites vandalized Beck’s office and attacked him when they found him fishing by himself (because none of his former friends would join him).  So much for Foster’s—and for a while, the author’s—belief that Southern whites were not unified in their acceptance of the idea of the depravity of African Americans!

While his appeal was before the state Supreme Court, Foster Beck did what he could to buck up Charles White, even visiting him in Montgomery’s Kilby prison on Thanksgiving Day, 1938.  White seemed vaguely hopeful, but then the ruling came down—both the lower court’s verdict and the death sentence were upheld.  White was electrocuted on June 9, 1939.

* * * * *

 And this is where, if Beck were Atticus Finch, perhaps the book would have ended, but. . . .

Another main character in the book, Bertha Stewart, was introduced to Foster by his sister Frances, Bertha’s classmate at the Women’s College of Alabama in Montgomery (today’s Huntingdon College), where both studied to be teachers.  Upon graduation, Frances and Bertha moved to Enterprise, where Bertha taught high school English.

During their ensuing courtship, Bertha supported Foster’s legal career, including his role in the White case, but Beck was very cautious when it came to making a commitment to Bertha about their future.  Perhaps for good reason:  once lawyer Beck appealed the death penalty verdict against his client to the Alabama Supreme Court, Enterprise locals  ostracized him.  Consequently, Beck’s law practice suffered; his income fell; and he could no longer imagine supporting a wife and family, let alone an elderly, ailing father.

Foster Beck’s law practice in Enterprise did not recover.  He did marry Bertha Stewart, in 1942; their son Joseph was born in February 1943.  Though Beck had been born blind in one eye, his local draft board apparently neither forgot nor forgave him for his role in the Charles White case; at any rate, he was drafted in May 1943.  During WWII, Beck worked for the War Department as a real estate attorney and as project manager for the program that established  Alabama’s Fort Rucker. After the war, with nothing much left of his law practice or of his father’s business interests, Foster moved to Montgomery, where he worked for the Veterans Administration. He died in 1973, still believing, according to his son, “that Charles White had not received justice.” (196)

In the final chapter, author Joseph Beck returns to his comparison of Foster Beck and Atticus Finch, but with little resolution, concluding that, “as men of courage and conviction, the two men were ‘birds of a feather.’  Alabamians should take pride not only in native daughter Harper Lee, creator of the fictional lawyer who inspired so many, but also in native son Foster Campbell Beck, a real Alabama lawyer.” (201)

* * * * *

my ajc.com

(my ajc.com)

Joseph Madison Beck’s paean of praise to his father presents some problems.  First, there is his effort to hold up Foster Beck as the real-life inspiration of Harper Lee’s beloved fictional character, Atticus Finch, despite Ms. Lee’s gentle rebuff of this notion. If Beck continues to cling to this idea, the rest of us don’t necessarily have to agree.

Secondly, there is the way Beck uses his supporting evidence, and the supporting evidence he uses.  As mentioned above, he draws on some primary sources, but even Beck admits that there are gaping holes in that evidence.  Beck does his best to overcome these limitations, for instance by creating conversations that “may have” or “surely” occurred, even though there is little documentary evidence to support them.  On the whole, Beck’s approach is persuasive, but one is still tempted to label the book as  “fictionalized,” or, perhaps better, as “creative non-fiction.”

This work is quite readable. Even someone who knows, or can deduce early on, how the White case will turn out, given the geography and the era in which events transpired, is drawn by Joseph Madison Beck’s skillful effort to re-create life in small town Alabama in the late 1930s (e.g., fairs, hunting, fishing, hog killing) and to show how Foster Beck and the Charles White trial fit into that milieu.

It must also be admitted that Joseph Beck treats his father more even-handedly than one might expect.  He seems more interested in recognizing Foster Beck’s efforts to secure justice for Charles White than he is show that White was innocent as the driven snow, or that his defense counsel was a regular Sir Galahad—Enterprise, Alabama, edition.

In short, while I would not recommend that you toss out your copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, Joseph Madison Beck’s My Father & Atticus Finch might fit well in a History course focused on the “Age of Jim Crow.”  It is quite accessible, and, come to think of it, might even work in conjunction with an English course featuring To Kill a Mockingbird.  Oh, my, I’ve just recommended an interdisciplinary approach!

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in Age of Jim Crow, American History, Books, Civil Rights Movement, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Unflattering Views of the Georgia Legislature, 2017 and 1817

[Note:  Four years ago, just in time for the adjournment of the Georgia legislature, I came across a lovely description of the state’s solons from 1817.  Re-reading that post today, as the 2017 session of the legislature convenes, I realized that the earlier description is now a nice, round 200 years old.  So, I decided to revise the 2012 mini-screed and re-post it, in honor of the opening of yet another meeting of Georgia’s finest.

Since that earlier post, our state legislature has distinguished itself in too many ways to list here, but let me just mention a couple that have garnered Georgia national press.  There was the “guns [almost] everywhere bill,” for example; perhaps we can look forward this year to our legislators earning their props from the NRA by closing the remaining, um, “loopholes.”  (Pistol-packin’ in pre-k, anyone?)  Last year, our representatives and senators strove mightily and produced a so-called “religious liberty” bill that our Governor, always aware of the screams from the state’s business community, summoned up the gumption to veto.  Guess what’s being bruited about this year–c’mon now, you can do it!  That’s right:  the “religious liberty” bill–the sequel. . . .  And a new study reveals that elections in Georgia are among the least competitive in the nation:  in a sense our system has evolved to the point that all that matters is incumbency–and the various PACs that shovel money in the direction of the incumbents.]

* * * * *

Dread is palpable all round the greater Atlanta area; wives and daughters are only allowed  to leave their homes under heavily armed escort; the family silver has been taken out of the dining room display cabinet and moved to a secure location.  Yes, friends, the duly-elected members of the Georgia General Assembly have arrived in town, with their usual plans to do as much “good” for (to?) the state, its citizens, and its economy as is humanly possible, unless prevented by cooler heads, a catastrophic “weather event,” or plain, dumb luck.

Now, in fairness, not everyone is unhappy to see our solons roll into to town:  the National Rifle Association, Georgia Right to Life, some elements of our many-sided “tea party” movement, the state chapter of the Donald Trump Fan Club, and more lobbyists than you can shake a stick at can hardly wait for the session to begin.

So, as a public service; to help inspire our dedicated solons as they go about their appointed tasks; and to confirm yet again the adage that “the more things change, the more they remain the same,” here’s a glimpse of a group of their predecessors, offered by a traveler in Georgia 200 years ago.  Peter A. Remsen, a New Yorker on his way to Alabama, visited Milledgeville, which was then the state capital, on December 20-21, 1817, just as the legislative session was winding down, and recorded his impressions:

The Legislature of this State closed its sitting on the morning of the 20th inst.  I did not visit the state house. Some 20 boarders [who were members of the legislature] put up at the house we stoped [sic] at.  But alas!  What would New Yorkers say to see them [?]  I certainly do not hesitate to say that their conduct was beneath that of any crew of sailors that was ever seen.  Cursing, quarrelling, hollowing [sic], drinking, getting drunk.  Disputing landlords [sic] bill.  Drunken men hugging sober ones.  Illiterate, mean appearances, readiness for rasseling [sic] etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc..  On the night of the 18th inst. (a thing at the close of all their meetings) the Governor [William Rabun] at the head, with a horse visited all boarding houses of members [of the legislature].  Draged [sic] them out of bed.  Marched the square and streets, and from report the noise excelled that of wild beasts.  Its [sic] well the North knows not what the South does.  Vice Versa.  [SOURCE:  William B. Hesseltine and Larry Gara, eds., “Across Georgia and Into Alabama, 1817-1818,” GHQ 37 (1953), 332]

* * * * * *

For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in "Business-Speak", American History, Current Events, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, Popular Culture, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

A Post for Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, 2017

john-quincy-adams-pictureThe Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has long been one of my  heroes, beginning when I was a youngster growing up in an industrial suburb of Baltimore in the 1950s.  In the 1960s, when I decided that I wanted to teach American History, I wondered where Dr. King and his legacy would fit in.  He and the movement he represented seemed, at least at that time, part of “current events” rather than “history.”  Fortunately for me, I didn’t yet have to answer that question, either in college (because the American History survey course I took did not make it past World War II); or, after two-years in the U.S. Army,  graduate school (because, even as a teaching assistant, I–that’s right–never took my American History survey course much past the end of the Second World War).

Once I signed on at The Westminster Schools, an Atlanta “prep school,” in 1973 and learned that I would be teaching United States History, the need to fit Dr. King into the American story became more pressing.  Given the pace of the typical academic year at my school, however, I discovered that, by the time I reached the 1950s and 1960s, there was little time left before I had to begin prepping my Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) students for their end-of-the-year, comprehensive, standardized exam.

So many important postwar trends to cover and so little time available!  Eventually, I decided to focus on a few “big themes” for the post-1945 period:  the Presidency; the War in Vietnam; and–wait for it–the modern Civil Rights Movement.  I developed a brief unit on the Civil Rights Movement for APUSH, but I still felt as if I were giving a crucial topic short shrift.

I did eventually get the chance to focus on King and the Movement, but it took me quite a while (look here, here, and here for initial steps along that road).  At last, a few years before the end of my time in the classroom, I inherited a one-semester, junior/senior-level elective course on the Modern American Civil Rights Movement that I taught for several years.

During that same period, I also had the opportunity to assume the editorship of the History Department Newsletter.  In that post, I naturally felt compelled to opine from time to time on issues in the study of American History that I felt were important and should not be ignored at Westminster.  And–surprise!–chief among them was the Civil Rights Movement in general and Dr. King’s role in particular.

Following my retirement, and the launching of this blog (as a sort of replacement for my editorial duties at the History Department Newsletter), I continued to believe that students must understand both the background of the Civil Rights Movement (i.e., the so-called “Age of Jim Crow”) and the Movement itself if they were to understand the modern history of this nation and their own place in it.  And, perhaps inevitably, in January 2012 I decided to offer a post centered on my personal reflections about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, the main sources for which were several editorials I had written for the History Department Newsletter.

nps.gov

nps.gov

That 2012 post soon became one of the most popular at “Retired But Not Shy,” and it remains a personal favorite among the more than one hundred thirty posts on this site.  I revised the King reflection–and re-posted it–in January 2015.  If you haven’t yet read this essay, or if you’re simply in the mood to meditate on Dr. King’s role in the American story as part of your observation of the King Holiday, I’m attaching a link to the more recent version:

https://georgelamplugh.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/civil-rights-and-wrongs-reflections-on-the-rev-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-and-his-legacy/

I hope you enjoy it.

* * * * * *

For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in Age of Jim Crow, American History, Civil Rights Movement, Current Events, Dr. Martin Luther King, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, Popular Culture, Prep School, Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

“Massive Resistance” at Ground Level: The Case of Prince Edward County, Virginia (Teaching Civil Rights, 5)

john-quincy-adams-picture
A Review of

Kristen Green, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle (Harper, 2015)

[NOTE:  One of the great joys of my last few years in the classroom was the opportunity to teach an elective course  for juniors and seniors on the History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Preparing for—and teaching—that course led me to read many works on the  Movement, as well as to discover several videos to supplement my course.  Since my May 2010 retirement, I have continued to read books on Civil Rights and have reviewed some of them on this site (see here, here, here, here).

Recently, I discovered another volume that might help high school (and college) students understand the impact of the so-called “long civil rights movement,” which, as the label suggests, began well before the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.]

* * * * *

amazon.com

amazon.co

Kristen Green was born in Farmville, Va., in 1973, the daughter of white, middle class parents.  She and her siblings attended the same high school her parents had, Prince Edward Academy (PEA), which had been built as the white private school in the county when Prince Edward’s white leadership, including Green’s grandfather, shuttered the county’s public schools, black and white, to avoid having to integrate them in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Green left Farmville for college; became a journalist; and moved to the West Coast, where she met–and subsequently married–a man who was part Native American. Eventually, Green’s family included two mixed-race daughters. The Green family moved to Richmond, Virginia, where Kristen took a job on the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

As an offshoot of her work at the Richmond newspaper, Green decided to revisit the Prince Edward County school closings, in order to understand how they came about and what role her family, especially her adored–and adoring–grandparents, had played in those events. So, this book is part memoir, because her family’s presence in Prince Edward County over several generations put them at the epicenter of the school-closings controversy.

The book also is part history; Green includes information garnered from published primary sources, as well as from interviews with whites and blacks affected by the school closings.  Interviewees included some of the African Americans who had been barred from the county’s black schools in the post-Brown era, who spoke about what the lockout cost them and their families, at the time and since (on the other hand, some blacks and more than a few whites were reluctant to discuss those events).

* * * * *

I’m always struck by how slow integration was in the wake of Brown–there’s a statistic, in this book as well as in many others, to the effect that, a decade later, less than 10% of southern public school children were in a classroom with a child of another race.  I’ve always wondered why this was so, and Green’s book helps to answer that question, at least for one community.

Green carefully charts the decision by the county’s white leadership to defy the Supreme Court’s Brown ruling by closing all of Prince Edward’s public schools in 1959 rather than  integrate them. But, of course, education remained important to the children of the county’s white elite, so PEA was founded, one of the South’s first “segregation academies.”

Poor white children couldn’t afford to go to PEA because, although it was tuition free the first year, payment of tuition was required thereafter.  Prince Edward County became the “poster child” for Virginia U.S. Senator—and state political boss—Harry Byrd’s concept of “massive resistance,” but took it further than any other school system in Virginia or elsewhere, by both shutting African American kids out of the county’s previously segregated black schools and pretty much ignoring the plight of the county’s poor white school children, whose families couldn’t afford to send them to PEA.

* * ** *

Green is interested in what happened; why it happened; and, especially, how what happened affected black students excluded from Prince Edward County’s public schools for half a decade.

African American parents had options for their children, but none were attractive:

1)      First, black parents could do nothing, the path followed by many. This meant that, for five years, the bulk of Prince Edward’s black children had no real access to education, except for locally-sponsored efforts using black church facilities.  The purpose of this approach was to allow students who had already begun school perhaps to maintain basic skills, and perhaps to introduce beginning students to the alphabet and to very rudimentary arithmetic.

2)      Since Prince Edward was the only Virginia county to close its public schools for half a decade, a few of Farmville’s black families tried to place their children in neighboring school systems, until those venues discovered that the new arrivals were from Prince Edward and so should not be educated at their neighbors’ expense and, of course, in defiance of Senator Byrd’s concept of “massive resistance.”

3)      Two local black Farmville ministers, L. Francis Griffin and Alexander Dunlap, arranged for more than sixty upper-level students from the closed Robert Russa Moton High School to finish their educations as boarders at historically black Kittrell College in North Carolina, about twenty miles from the Virginia line. Those students received a break on tuition, and a black Christian organization in Farmville, chaired by The Reverend Griffin, helped pay their bills.

4)      And then there were the heartbreaking decisions made by some Farmville African American families to send children out of Virginia, as the only way for them to continue their schooling.  (A different source notes that only thirty-five black students were able to avail themselves of this option. [Anderson, “Burning Brown to the Ground,” 45])  One such student, the daughter of the Green family’s long-time housekeeper, moved to Massachusetts.  Gwen Lancaster adapted so well to life in her aunt’s home in the Boston area that she did not return to Farmville, even after public schools reopened there.  Gwen’s decision not to come home devastated her mother Elsie, and highlights one of the major points made by Kristen Green, the lack of empathy among Prince Edward’s white community, including Green’s own family, for the damage their decision to close the county’s schools in 1959 had dealt to black families—and to poor white families as well.

* * * * *

Ultimately, the court system forced Prince Edward County to reopen its public schools, though the process took longer than it might have otherwise, because Harry Byrd, the godfather of “massive resistance” controlled Virginia; President Eisenhower apparently was not interested in what had happened there; and the Kennedy Administration tried to talk tough while keeping in mind the strength of southern whites in the Democratic coalition.

Green also traces in some detail what has happened to the Prince Edward County schools since they reopened in 1964.  At the time of her writing (2015), the private “academy,” now renamed the Fuqua School, thanks to a hefty donation by Atlanta entrepreneur J.B. Fuqua, still existed, though its enrollment had dropped.  (There is irony here:  Mr. Fuqua responded to a request from an old friend in Prince Edward, who also happened to have been the prime mover in the effort to close the county’s schools in the first place rather than integrate.  Green’s chilling interview with this local leader opens the book, and it soon becomes clear that the man, elderly and ailing, would take his racist views to the grave.)

The story of the county’s public schools after they were reopened reveals some successes, but it also underlines the importance of a few dedicated leaders who believed in integration and were determined to do what they could to further it.  Unfortunately, neither the successes of a white county superintendent nor those of an African American  principal at the local high school towards integration were deeply-rooted enough to last,  because their successors evidently lacked the commitment of their predecessors.

One turning point in the story was a conversation Green had in a local McDonald’s with a black man, who told her that his family had moved to New Jersey after the Prince Edward schools were closed, and that he had only returned to Farmville seven years earlier.  Although he believed the town had changed, he also felt that Farmville’s leaders, most of whom still were white, were “just waiting for all of us [who had lived through the school closings] to die so they can pretend it never happened.” (260)  As this anecdote suggests, the Prince Edward story is depressing, deeply affecting, and far from over.

* * * * *

kristengreen.net

kristengreen.net

Kristen Green is an interesting character in her own right.  She arrived in Richmond as a racial “liberal,” dedicated to the cause of public education and convinced that consistent engagement by parents in their kids’ public schools was the sine qua non for long-term progress.  But that was in Richmond’s “Fan” district, which was filled with lots of liberal white and black parents like herself.

Green admittedly was, at the start of her Farmville project, woefully ignorant of what had happened in Prince Edward County in the wake of Brown v. Board, but nevertheless determined to “get to the truth.”  She wore her heart on her sleeve as she interviewed whites and blacks, stubbornly stirring up memories of Prince Edward’s ignominious past that most whites—and some blacks—wished to keep buried.

Green looked for signs of “empathy” from local whites, but she also searched for evidence of “redemption,” not least from her parents, who had attended Prince Edward Academy themselves, placed her and her siblings there without any real discussion, and where her mother spent twenty years as a guidance counselor.

Finally, while preparing lunch for her daughter and hearing, yet again, Kristen’s frustration over the refusal of local whites to reconsider the county’s actions in the late 1950s, Green’s mother said quietly, “we all wish it hadn’t happened. I wish it hadn’t happened.” (242) And that, for Green, was enough.

* * * * *

I’m happy that her mother’s words helped free Green from her funk over the question of race relations in Prince Edward County’s schools.  I’m not sure, though, that the rest of us, especially those who lived through the period she studied, should let the county off that easily.  Most obviously, African Americans–and poor whites–who were prevented from continuing their education because of what happened in Prince Edward may be excused if they seem unwilling to echo that frequently heard sentiment, “Can’t we just move on?”

A recent, more statistical, and less anecdotal study of white attitudes in Prince Edward County towards segregation argues that, as of 2013, “despite a knowledge-based, technology-driven global economy, the number one occupation in the county seat of Farmville was ‘cook and food preparation worker.'”  Moreover, 9.9% of the white households in Prince Edward had annual incomes of less than $10,000, while 32.9% of black households were below that figure.  This was “‘the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession,’ for wide swaths of the” people in Prince Edward County. (Anderson, “Burning Brown to the Ground,” p.45)

Not to put too fine a point on it, then, the answer to that clichéd inquiry is—or should be— “No, we can’t just move on.”

* * * * *

SOURCES:

Kristen Green, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County:  A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle (Harper, 2015)

Carol Anderson, “Burning Brown to the Ground,” Teaching Tolerance, Issue 54 (Fall, 2015), 42-45.

* * * * * *

For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

 

 

 

Posted in "The Race Beat", Age of Jim Crow, American History, Books, Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Education, Elective History Course for 9th and 10th Graders, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, Martin Luther King, Popular Culture, Prep School, Prince Edward County Virginia, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Willie “61” Blackwell, A Blues Performer Without a Wikipedia Entry, 1905-c.1972 (Blues Stories, 23)

john-quincy-adams-picture[NOTE:  I suppose “obscurity” is a relative concept.  Before the modern era, one would actually have had to “research” a person in various “hard copy” sources, before lamenting his or her “obscurity.” In more recent years, however, with the Internet in general, and “Google” and “Wikipedia” in particular, it has become harder to label someone as “obscure.”

And yet–imagine my surprise when, as I was using the Internet to find information about a  lesser-known Blues performer, Willie “61” Blackwell, I ran across the following:  On December 13, 2012, on “The Evening Blues,” one “Joe Shikspack” mentioned that Blackwell was “apparently too obscure to have a Wikipedia entry.”

And I thought, holy cow!  You mean that there’s a Blues performer about whom there is either so little known or about whom there is so little interest that he/she doesn’t even rate a fan-driven entry in “Wikipedia”? That hardly seems fair!

So, I began to search for more information on Mr. Blackwell.  Obviously, the results below, as the “Sources” reveal, are the product of research by other Blues fans, not by yours truly; for the most part, I’m only the compiler.  But now, the story of Willie “61” Blackwell has a home, even if it’s not on Wikipedia!]

* * * * *

Willie “61” Blackwell ” was born in LaGrange, Tennessee, on Dec. 25, 1905, and died sometime in 1972.  He was introduced to the guitar by his father and by neighbors, but until the 1930s, Blackwell apparently considered the piano his main musical instrument.  He didn’t concentrate on guitar until the late  1930s, after, in his telling, his left arm was severely injured by friends of a pianist he’d defeated in a talent contest.  (We Blues historians have a word for such a story–“Ouch!”)  A 1937 Memphis city directory listed Willie Blackwell as living at 207 Keel Ave., working as a “Musician.”

Detroit Blues musician Robert “Baby Boy” Warren claimed that his elder brother, Jack, helped Willie learn to play guitar after his “accident,” but Blackwell told one interviewer that none other than Blues legend Robert Johnson taught him the guitar.  So, I guess, as Boss Plunkett of New York’s Tammany Hall Democratic organization once said, you pays your money and takes your choice.

Blackwell, Memphis 1970-Mike Rowe

Blackwell, Memphis 1970-Mike Rowe

An online “Willie ‘61’ Blackwell Discography” includes a picture of an elderly Blues performer, supposedly Willie Blackwell, taken by Mike Rowe and labeled “Beale Street, Memphis, 1970.”  It also lists Blackwell’s eight recorded songs for the Bluebird label, all of which can be found most conveniently on a four-cd compilation album, When the Levee Breaks.  The songs are as follows:

Disc 1, selection 12–“Four O’clock Flower Blues”; selection 22–“Noiseless Motor Blues”

Disc 2, selection 7–“Bald Eagle Blues”; selection 21–“She’s Young And Wild”

Disc 3, selection 3–“Machine Gun Blues”; selection 20–“Don’t Misuse Me, Baby”

Disc 4, selection 11–“Chalk My Toy”; selection 21–“Rampaw [sic, probably ‘Rampart’] Street Blues.” 

* * * * *

In the summer of 1942, Alan Lomax, traveling through the South to collect songs for the Library of Congress, met Blackwell and his friend William Brown on Beale Street in Memphis [See Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began, pp.5-12.]  Harassed by white Memphis policemen for consorting with the black performers, Lomax, along with Blackwell and Brown, headed across the Mississippi into Arkansas, where they visited a juke joint, Hamp’s Place, out in the middle of the cotton fields.

Lomax admits that he was more interested in recording Brown than Blackwell.  He describes Blackwell as not particularly talented, already given over to drink, and unable to stay awake very long in the juke joint because of his consumption of moonshine.  Lomax even writes that Blackwell, “although he was in his twenties,” had “eyes streaked with brown and his face had that muddy, blurred look, typical of alcoholic blacks.” (8)  Which is interesting, because the only date for Blackwell’s birth that I’ve encountered in my research, 1905, would have made him not “in his twenties” but 37 in 1942.  Still, there seems no question that, by the time Lomax encountered him, Willie Blackwell was pretty well in the grip of alcohol.

Whatever Blackwell’s age that night at Hamp’s Place, and however deep in his cups he was, Alan Lomax was able to coax from him both another version of his 1941 Bluebird release, “Four O’ Clock Flower Blues,”and one of the strangest Blues songs ever recorded, “A Jap Girl for Next Christmas from Santy Claus.”

When Alan Lomax asked Willie “How long have you been making up songs, Willie?” Blackwell responded, “Well, I’ve been just jivin’ on with verses all my life but I never had no opportunity and never was very interested in ’em and therefore was quite natural, come natural. . . .”  Willie also explained that he had adopted his nickname, “61 because I rambles 61 Highway from Chicago clean down to New Orleans with my guitar for my buddy. . . .” (10)

Blackwell’s human Blues buddy, William Brown, told Lomax at Hamp’s Place that Willie “used to be good once.  But whiskey gittin him.  He worry too much.  He always mad. . . . That poor boy never goin nowhere.  I’m leavin before I get to be like him.” (12)  Sounds like an epitaph, but there was more to Blackwell’s career

* * * * *

Blackwell, 1971

Blackwell, 1971

After his two Library of Congress recordings with Alan Lomax, Willie Blackwell dropped “off the grid” for nearly two decades, not an unusual move for Blues performers whose careers had been decimated by the Great Depression. Sometime after 1942, perhaps as the explanation of his nickname “61” in his interview with Lomax suggested, Blackwell followed Highway 61 out of the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, part of the Great Migration, and from there to Flint, Michigan, where he worked at General Motors until his retirement.

Like a number of his contemporaries, Blackwell eventually was “rediscovered” during the 1960s “Blues Revival,” by Ron Harwood and Sam Stark.  According to a 2007 online sketch from a writer calling himself “Bunker Hill,” Ron Harwood discussed Blackwell’s “rediscovery” in a Jazz Journal article, June 1967 (pp.6-7):

Finding someone named ’61’ in a city the size of Flint was not a pleasant thought. But after a few trips to Flint (80 minutes out of Detroit) and a fair share of blind alleys, we finally located Willie ’61’ Blackwell living about a mile from the Buick automotive plant. The nickname ’61’ was derived from a Bluebird recording that Willie made in 1942 called “Highway 61 Blues”. . . . The Northwest Folklore Society held a concert in which Willie appeared along with Little Sonny, Washboard Willie, Dr. Ross and Sippie Wallace. Prior to the concert, we had obtained very few complete songs by Willie. He was approaching senility and he constantly repeated the fact that he would soon be leaving for Chicago to record with ‘Big Bill [Broonzy, who had died in 1958].’  But in the concert, the applause of the audience snapped him out of his dream world and brought him round to singing all of his songs completely. . . . After he had finished playing guitar and singing we ran across the stage and seated him at the piano. Then, as if the past was clouding his eyes with memories, he began to play and sing as he had thirty-five years ago. Months of hard work melted into mere triviality as the piano banged out 1920’s Chicago style blues. It was a moment I shall never forget. . . .

* * * * *

[Epilogue:  A review of the cd compilationWhen the Levee Breaks includes the following about Blackwell, which can serve as a conclusion to this modest attempt to fill the gap left by the absence of an entry for Willie “61” Blackwell in “Wikipedia” :

As late as 1941, it was still possible for a highly individual performer to emerge, as Willie ’61’ Blackwell did. Blackwell had no great instrumental talent but his lyrics took an original line on otherwise mundane events and emotions.]

Sources:

“Joe Shikspak” on Blackwell:

(http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/12/14/1169371/-The-Evening-Blues-12-13-12)

Blackwell discography:

http://www.wirz.de/music/bla61frm.htm

Brief Blackwell biography:

http://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=3435.0

Blackwell song lyrics:

http://weeniecampbell.com/wiki/index.php?title=Category:Willie_%2261%22_Blackwell_Lyrics

“When the Levee Breaks” compilation:

https://www.amazon.com/Mississippi-Blues-Rare-Cuts-1926-41/dp/B000MTOLNG

Review of “When the Levee Breaks” compilation:

(http://www.venerablemusic.com/catalog/TitleDetails.asp?TitleID=12313),

Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (New York:  Pantheon, 1993), pp. 5-12.

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

 

 

 

Posted in American History, Delta Blues, Historical Reflection, History, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Southern History, The Blues, Uncategorized, Willie '61' Blackwell | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Long Arm of Jim Crow Justice (Teaching Civil Rights, 4)

john-quincy-adams-picture A Review of

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014.

just-mercy

 

[NOTE:   As I’ve mentioned before, when I took over a course on the Modern American Civil Rights Movement a number of years ago at Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS), I found myself mired in the Age of Jim Crow.  It seemed to me important to show my students the context within which the Civil Rights Movement grew, if they were to grasp the significance of the efforts by The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. And then I retired.

Several years later, in 2016, my church adopted Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, for our mid-week Lenten program.  The idea was that, by wrestling with Stevenson’s book, we would get an up-close and personal view of the need for “redemption” in our criminal justice system.  The problem was that, for our participants, there was no consensus.  Still, reading and discussing Stevenson’s work was an interesting, stimulating exercise.]

* * * * *

Bryan Stevenson (eji.org)

Bryan Stevenson (eji.org)

More than thirty years ago, in 1983, Bryan Stevenson, a twenty-three year-old student at Harvard Law School, met his first condemned man at a prison near Jackson, Georgia, as an intern with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee (SPDC) in Atlanta.  This initial meeting, Stevenson recalled, forced him to recognize that he had “been struggling [his] whole life with the question of how and why people [caught up in the throes of the law] are treated unfairly.” (13)  Moreover, wrestling with this issue, Stevenson concluded that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” which became his mantra over the rest of his career, but proved to be a stumbling block for perhaps half of the people in my study group.

Stevenson had grown up in the segregated society on the eastern shore of the Delmarva Peninsula, in southern Delaware. (Full disclosure:  I too am a native of Delaware, although the northern part.)  Stevenson always remembered his grandmother’s advice that, if he were to understand something important, “You have to get close.”  And that’s what he did, during a period when the prison population in the United States exploded from 300,000 to 2.3 million people, and when the United States was “the only country in the world that condemned children to life imprisonment without parole.” (15)

Early in his career, Stevenson had been hassled by the Atlanta Police Department, essentially for parking outside of his own apartment “while black.”  Stevenson fought the charge, and, in the end, he received a sort of half-hearted apology from a deputy Atlanta police chief.

This incident convinced Stevenson that the time had come for him to open his own office in an effort to help prisoners on death row.  Thus, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), in Montgomery, Alabama, was born; its star client was Walter McMillian.

* * * * *

Walter McMillian (eji.org)

Walter McMillian (eji.org)

Walter McMillian grew up near Monroeville, Alabama, the home of Harper Lee and the setting for her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Among McMillian’s “lady friends” was a white woman, Karen Kelly, who secured an ugly divorce from a white man by testifying that the African American McMillian had been her “friend.”

Thereafter, two white women, Ronda Morrison and Vicki Pittman, were murdered in Monroeville.  Karen Kelly, along with her new white boyfriend, Ralph Myers, were implicated in the murders.  Myers, whose best defense was his white skin, suddenly finding himself in jeopardy of being convicted of murder, “ratted out” Walter McMillian, who was tried, found guilty, and sent to death row.

It is Bryan Stevenson’s ultimately successful effort to free Walter McMillian from death row—and the in some ways depressing sequel to that accomplishment–that forms the unifying thread of this work.  Moreover, by looking at numerous other cases in which he and the EJI were involved , Stevenson shows, in grim detail, that the system of “criminal justice” in the South, even as late as the 1990s, featured practices that were themselves little short of “criminal.”

* * * * *

McMillian’s family produced witnesses who claimed that he had been at a fish fry at the time of Ronda Morrison’s murder, but no one (white) believed them. In fact, one of the witnesses whose testimony furnished Walter with an alibi was arrested for “perjury.”

Walter’s appeal was denied, much to Bryan Stevenson’s chagrin. Next, he turned to convincing the Alabama courts that local police officials had paid a witness to implicate McMillian, and he uncovered other evidence supporting Walter’s innocence, but to no avail.

With his back to the wall, Stevenson threw a judicial “Hail Mary” pass, filing a “Rule 32 petition,” which allowed him “to present new evidence and obtain discovery, including access to the State’s files.” (143)  This strategy gave him Ralph Myers’ recantation of his previous confession implicating McMillian, but Stevenson’s petition was rejected. Nevertheless, Stevenson pressed the ruling in the Alabama Court of Appeals; in the end, all charges were dropped, and Walter was freed.

* * * * *

Walter McMillian was released from prison in 1993.  The publicity accompanying his release, and the circumstances of his arrest and incarceration in the first place, made him and his attorney, Bryan Stevenson, celebrities, and led to the Equal Justice Initiative being awarded the Olaf Palme International Human Rights Award by Sweden.  (Stevenson subsequently received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” for his work with the EJI.)

McMillian was diagnosed with dementia after his release and began to go downhill, which raised questions about who would be responsible for his care.  McMillian died on September 11, 2013.  Speaking at Walter’s funeral, Bryan Stevenson argued that “the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question . . . is, Do we deserve to kill?” (313)

* * * * *

During the years Bryan Stevenson was fighting for Walter McMillian’s freedom and, then, trying to help him adjust to life outside of prison, lots of other cases were examined by the EJI, many of which sentenced children to life in prison, either for non-violent or violent crimes.  Stevenson treats these cases in this book, though in less detail than his focus on  McMillian.

In 2005, Stevenson and the EJI launched a campaign against the constitutionality of certain drugs used in executions in Alabama.  These drugs had become hard to obtain legally, and state prisons had begun to acquire them illegally, which led to state drug raids on Alabama prisons!

Ultimately, between 2010 and 2012, Stevenson and the EJI won from the United States Supreme Court bans on sentences of life without parole for children convicted of both non-homicide and homicide crimes. In addition, the EJI established a program to help newly-freed clients who had been in prisons for decades re-enter society.  Not surprisingly, Walter McMillian served as a role model here.  More recently, the EJI has embarked on efforts to mark sites involved in both slave-trading and lynching throughout the South, once more focusing on recognizing those whose travails in the system of “Jim Crow Justice” formerly had been easiest to overlook.

* * * * *

Bryan Stevenson’s title, Just Mercy, puzzled me from the beginning.  Did “just” mean “merely,” that is, the minimum that incarcerated prisoners should expect?  Or did “Just Mercy” mean “mercy” that somehow was fair, as opposed to the usual punishments meted out in the name of mercy?  In the end, Stevenson himself answered that question, arguing that, among other things, Walter McMillian had taught him that “mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given.  Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving.” (314)

[EPILOGUE:  Interestingly, during our Lenten study of Stevenson’s book, we also learned that his argument was still relevant to Georgia in 2016.

First, we read an article by R. Robin McDonald, “Personal Reflections Mark Ex-Justice and Prosecutor’s Death Penalty Debate,” Daily Report, February 29, 2016.  In this piece, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court Norman Fletcher debated the death penalty with  Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter at the annual “Bar, Media, and Judiciary Conference” in Atlanta.

Justice Fletcher, who had been supportive of the death penalty during his term on the state supreme court (1989-2005), contended that, since his retirement, “It has been very hard for me to take every time there has been an execution in Georgia. . . . I have a terrible job in forgiving myself.  It is a very, very tough burden to carry.”

But not so tough for District Attorney Danny Porter, who argued that the death penalty “is a valid punishment in a civilized society.”  Moreover, Porter contended, the death penalty is the law in Georgia, so any district attorney who refuses to seek it “is in dereliction of his duty.”

And then there was a fascinating article by Brad Schrade and Jodie Fleischer, “Ga. man serves life despite DNA Questions,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 28, 2016, A-1, 25.  The title of this piece pretty much summarizes it.

What was interesting to me was that much of Stevenson’s experience began in the 1980s, and his book was first published in 2014.  And, for those in our group who worked in “law and order” professions (e.g., attorneys, judges, police officers), the article by Schrade and Fleischer could have been embarrassing, suggesting as it did that the “bad old days” of Jim Crow justice evidently had not yet ended in Georgia by 2016!

* * * * *

As a historian of the South, I found Stevenson’s chapter 16, “The Stonecatchers’ Song of Sorrow,” most interesting.  There, Stevenson laid out what he saw as the “four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice but remain poorly understood.” (299)  These were: slavery, and what happened after its collapse, including what Stevenson refers to as “racial terrorism” (the Ku Klux Klan, etc.); convict leasing (see also Douglas Blackmon’s fine study, Slavery By Another Name); the southern system of “Jim Crow” segregation (see, for example, Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow); and mass incarceration of black men in southern prisons.

These also were the major influences that I emphasized when I taught my Civil Rights course at AFPS.  I had become convinced that the accomplishments of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his associates in the Modern Civil Rights Movement could best be understood only after students fully grasped how awful—and how pervasive—“Jim Crow” actually was, which was why, in my one-semester course, I seldom got past Dr. King’s assassination.  And, in Stevenson’s book, I learned that “Jim Crow Justice” lasted, at least in some southern states, for decades after the death of Dr. King.]  

* * * * *

Additional Sources:

Compilation:  “60 Minutes” interviews with Walter McMillian and Bryan Stevenson; ABC News account of McMillian’s release from death row; story by Swedish television about McMillian’s life after his release, featuring interviews with McMillian and Stevenson, which Stevenson cites in his book:

Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, Montgomery, Ala.:

https://eji.org

Stevenson’s TED Talk, “We Need to Talk About An Injustice” (March 2012):

https://www.ted.com/talks/bryan_stevenson_we_need_to_talk_about_an_injustice

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in American History, Books, Civil Rights Movement, History, History Curriculum, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Form, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments