A Deeper South Playlist: Georgia

The Deeper South story started where Johnny Cash left off, on August 11, 1997, the day after his last show in Atlanta. So this playlist of tunes that have some origin in Georgia begins with an ending too. The last song on the list is in some ways the one that triggered the entire Deeper South project over twenty years ago. The year before, Cash had released Unchained, his second American Recordings collaboration with Rick Rubin. But it was a song from four years earlier that was ringing in our ears that summer: a tune Bono wrote and tried to sing himself, but gave up, saying that only Johnny Cash could sing it. “The Wanderer” concludes U2’s 1993 post-Cold War Euro-drama Zooropa (an album that has featured regularly on Southern Tours 1-6 in our conversations about the best U2 album). The song is a kind of post-apocalyptic vision starring a preacher who, “under an atomic sky,”

went out walking
Through streets paved with gold
Lifted some stones
Saw the skin and bones
Of a city without a soul

It was an important moment in the revival of Cash’s career, which really took off a year later with the first American Recordings album in 1994. But the odd mediation of Johnny Cash-by-way-of-U2 turned us both back towards the south. A “city without a soul” could very much have named Atlanta in 1997, at least as we experienced it. It would not be the last moment when a European band reminded us how good American music could be, and what we were all in danger of forgetting in the name of Vorsprung durch Technik (“progress through technology”).

John lives in Augusta now, so when we got around to planning Tour 6, we met up at his place to sketch out a rough itinerary. We would trace more or less the route of the first tour, a big jagged oval from Georgia to Memphis and back, ending up in Atlanta. We laid out maps of the deep South, leafed through WPA Guides, and reviewed photos from previous tours. We looked over what scant notes we had taken on earlier trips, narrowed down the places we wanted to revisit, and others we hadn’t been to before. Then we hit Broad Street. It was St. Patrick’s Day.

In his preface to the 1990 reprint of the WPA Guide to Georgia, Phinizy Spalding wrote that Broad Street, “once one of the finest streets in the South and the envy of the rest of the state, is virtually dead every afternoon by six o’clock.” But at mid-afternoon on St. Patrick’s Day, there was nothing dead about Broad Street. It was positively thumping with revelers–black, white, Asian, drunk, semi-sober, superficially sober, mostly in green and glinting with strands of gold beads around the neck. It looked a little bit and sounded a lot like James Brown.

James first heard the kind of music he would make his own in the United House of Prayer for All People on Wrightsboro Road in Augusta. When the future Godfather of Soul visited in 1941, it changed his life. He heard his future in there. He heard and felt the shouts of the big brass bands, the throbbing pulse of United Houses of Prayer in towns all over the country, wherever its founder Sweet Daddy Grace felt needed it. Walking Broad Street on St. Paddy’s, we came across the band from the church in Augusta, throwing it down like they were heralding the Second Coming of the Lord. This recording is from a group in Charlotte, but gives the feel of what we heard that afternoon, and what got James up and moving.

African-American church music is sometimes treated as a quaint cliché of the past, a charming and mythical but dead art form. It may be struggling for breath, but it is no more dead than Augusta’s Broad Street at six o’clock. At the UHOP they’ve been doing it for decades. Since 1946 Brother Theotis Taylor, a turpentine farmer and preacher in Fitzgerald, Georgia, has been doing it, too: playing piano and singing the gospel blues. “You got to be anointed to be anointed to do it right.” His latest album, released in June 2018 (and maybe the best record made this year, but I who am I to say?), is proof that Theotis, now in his nineties, has definitely got the anointing.

Sonny Terry was born south of Athens in Greensboro, the seat of Greene County in central Georgia. My parents live south of Greensboro now, and I have passed through the town many, many times. And I have been listening to Sonny Terry’s collaborations with his longtime musical partner, Brownie McGhee, since I was introduced to them circa 2000 at one of those CD-sampler stations at the now-defunct Millennium Music in Durham. I had never put Terry and Greensboro together until about an hour ago. But you grow up backwards. The great musicologist Alan Lomax called Terry “the greatest of harp blowers.” “He would beat his cupped hands and make blatting trumpet notes,” Lomax wrote. “He could make it sing the blues.” This reverb-heavy recording of “Old Jabo” features Brownie McGhee and Terry’s harp singing the blues in the studio in the 1950s.

Originally from Alabama, then in Athens, Brooklyn, and now based in Nashville, Matthew Houck is nothing if not mercurial, but his band is called Phosphorescent. Houck stands in a jagged musical lineage passing through Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, to whom Phoshorescent dedicated an entire tribute album. On their debut album they evoke Aaron Riches’ Guelph-based band, Royal City, and maybe a dash of Flannery O’Connor:

You’ll hold me here until i can’t afford your kindness
You’ll hold me dear until i can’t afford to leave
While lightning real is leaning out and calling
But there’s all of that doubt plus all of that skin
But all is grace and all is beauty
And when all this is gone beauty will remain

That lyric would be enough to include him on any playlist, but for this one it’s this track from 2013’s Muchacho, which has been on regular rotation for me for the last several years.

“Statesboro, Georgia, that is.”  On his searing 1968 cover of Blind Willie McTell’s classic, ‘Statesboro Blues,’ Taj Mahal felt it necessary to remind listeners that he meant the Statesboro is 80 miles south of Augusta on US 25. Taj’s cover and its opening guitar lick would become the basis for the Allman Brothers’ even more famous cover of the song at Fillmore East in 1971. But the Statesboro Blues go back to Thomson, Georgia near Augusta, where Blind Willie McTell was born William Samuel McTier in 1898. He became one of the most prolific Piedmont blues musicians from the 1920s to the 1950s. According to Bob Dylan, “no one can sing the blues / Like Blind Willie McTell.”

I first heard the Vigilantes of Love play at Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem in about 1992. They were touring the southeast in support of their 1992 album, The Killing Floor, produced by Mark Heard and REM’s Peter Buck and Mark Heard. The live experience and the album amounted to a revelation, and helped to get me back on the good foot musically, after a protracted struggle with bad 90’s country music. Led by Athens native Bill Mallonee, The Vigilantes were a big part of the thriving music scene in Athens in the early 1990s. Bill and his wife Muriah Rose have since moved out to New Mexico, where he has continued to write and record music prolifically (in 2013, just before we left Texas for good, Bill Mallonee played a show at our house, which may be the best thing I did in Waco). Killing Floor was a kind of much needed musical-spiritual therapy for me in the mid-90s; it also introduced me to the story of Andersonville, Georgia, site of one of the most notorious prisoner-of-war camps in American history.

Curley Weaver was born in Covington, and was a regular collaborator with Blind Willie McTell up through the 1950’s. Curley had a daughter, Cora Mae Bryant, who was a ferocious blues guitarist herself, and was a regular at the Northside Tavern, the home of the blues in Atlanta. This solo recording of Cora Mae was made in 2001, when she was 75 and still kicking ass.

I met Jake Xerxes Fussell a year or so ago at a function at the National Humanities Center in Durham, where he is based. We ended up randomly sitting together at the same table and talking Columbus, where Jake grew up. The son of Fred Fussell, Jake grew up traveling around the South with his father, recording traditional blues music. As a teen, he apprenticed, toured, and recorded with Precious Bryant. A student of traditional American music, those–and many other–influences have made their way into Jake’s music. “I’m just link in the chain,” he says. “I don’t really see myself as being all that different. I’m just trying to serve the song.” His 2017 album, What in the Natural World, is representative of the way Jake’s music is not interested in quaint nostalgia or manufactured authenticity but in taking part in and adding his own voice and distinctive guitar picking to a living musical tradition.

Outside of Columbus a piece in Talbot County, Precious Bryant was born in 1942. Like many blues artists, she was first recorded by a folklorist with a recorder, in this case Atlanta-based George Mitchell in 1967. Thirty-five years later, she recorded another session in folklorist Fred Fussell’s home studio in Buena Vista. “Broke and Ain’t Got A Dime” is Bryant’s interpretation of Blind Willie McTell’s “Last Dime Blues”, which is itself an interpretation of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “One Dime Blues,” recorded in 1927. Lemon probably heard it from somebody else, who heard it from someone else.

I spent a lot of hours in Columbus, Georgia during my childhood, including every Thanksgiving dinner for 20+ years at my maternal grandmother’s house. But as with Sonny Terry, I never realized until much, much later, that Columbus is home to arguably the first female blues recording artist. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was born in Columbus in 1886. She was already so well-established in the 1910s that Bessie Smith joined her band in 1912. In the 1920s Ma Rainey recorded songs that would become blues standards, including “See See Rider Blues.” This haunting recording of the tune is very different from the horn-heavy rhythm-and-blues opening number that Elvis played to hip-whip his live audience into a beehived frenzy. It was pressed in vinyl in 1923 for Paramount, and features Ma backed by “Her Georgia Jazz Band.” On cornet, some dude named Louis Armstrong.

Like you, probably, my first introduction to Jerry Reed was as The Snowman from Smokey and the Bandit I, II, and III (when he did double duty as a discount Bandit in lieu of the mostly absent Burt Reynolds), or as a master of novelty music like “The Bird”. But there was another Jerry, who in the early 1970s was the hottest fingerpicker in Nashville. Reed was born in Atlanta in 1937 and raised in foster homes until he got his start as a session player in the 1960s. He cultivated a distinctive style playing mostly on a nylon-string classical style guitar, which almost no one apart from Willie Nelson played. Starting in the early 70’s, Reed teamed up with Chet Atkins and cut several albums together. At the time Chet was a VP at RCA, but a cancer scare turned him back towards the guitar. Like Reed, Atkins had also grown up and learned to play the guitar in Georgia, in Harris County near Columbus. While it’s very difficult to resist the temptation to include “East Bound and Down” on a road-trip-through-Georgia playlist, this much less well-known cover of Junior Parker’s 1953 Sun Records single, “Mystery Train” (made famous by Elvis’s cover two years later, also for Sun) gives the feel of Reed’s and Atkins’s anitphonal collaborative style. To tell who is who, pay attention to those car stereo speakers; Jerry is on the left, Chet on the right.

One-man band Jesse Fuller is known mainly for the blues standard, “San Francisco Bay Blues,” which he wrote in 1954 in the Bay Area, where he became a local celebrity. But Jesse was born in Jonesboro south of Atlanta in 1896. Terribly mistreated as a child, Fuller worked small jobs around the state in Macedonia, Brunswick, and Griffin, until he lit out north for Cincinnati. Part of the first big wave of the Great Migration, Fuller was one of many African-Americans who ditched the oppressive racial caste system of the South for opportunities elsewhere. After hopping a freight train to California, Fuller ended up in LA, where he happened to meet the Hollywood mega-star Douglas Fairbanks. This 1959 recording of “You’re No Good,” a tune closely resembling “San Francisco Bay Blues,” features Fuller on the fotdella, the contraption he invented that allowed him to play an upright bass with his feet, in addition to the guitar, kazoo, harmonica, and high hat.

Sometime in the early 2000s, when we were living in Texas, I saw Larry Jon Wilson perform “Ohoopee River Bottomland” live at the Bluebird Cafe on the Turner South cable TV network. The performance was so unlike anything I’d ever seen that I searched everywhere for Wilson’s records, and even switched cable companies to one that carried Turner South. But Larry Jon’s records had all gone out of print by then, and even trips to Waterloo Records in Austin–an almost encyclopedic inventory of recorded music–yielded nothing. Turner South went under in 2006, and so did Wilson a few years later. Larry Jon had put together a string of albums in the 1970s, and then walked away from the music biz. He returned to music later and when he did play live, he often did it at the Bluebird. Wilson’s music was deeply rooted in south Georgia where he was born in 1940. His voice sounds like it was dug up out of the ‘Hoopee River bottom itself, and his recordings showcase a wide-ranging talent with distinctive guitar and unpredictable songwriting styles, a sign of the kind of risks that Nashville was willing to take in the early 1970s.

About the time Larry Jon died in 2010, I heard of JJ Grey and Mofro, a swamp-rock band based in Jacksonville, Florida. They had just released an album called Georgia Warhorse, named after the local grasshopper (Romalea microptera) that haunts the cypress groves and soggy wetlands of south Georgia and north Florida. JJ is from that part of Florida that could be described as metropolitan south Georgia. It is a part of the state that is still recognizably southern, the last gasp of the Suwannee River watershed before the blank space before you get to Florida™. Southern Florida is Everyone’s Idea of Florida, but the northern part of the state, especially the area around the Okefenokee Swamp, is like a different state. I call it Pre-Florida. Because JJ Grey and Mofro sound like the Okefenokee to me, they’re here:

North Florida is a liminal state, maybe a liminal state of being. It’s part Georgia, part Florida, an area where territorial claims are as contested as they are ambiguous. Florida claims the Okefenokee, even though most of it is in Georgia. Georgia claims the Suwannee River, even though most of it is in Florida. Both states claim Stephen Foster, who wrote a song about it but never set foot in either state. Georgia and Florida both have a rightful claim to Ray Charles, who was born in Albany and grew up in Greenville, Florida. And to mash all of that confusion together a little further, “Swanee River Rock” is Ray’s interpretation of a Foster song, which in its original form is patronizingly sentimental in a classically racist sort of way and also the official state song. But here Ray takes the song back, and makes you never want to hear the original version ever again.

Big Maceo Merriwether was born in Newnan in 1905, a few years after that town became the center of national attention for the notorious lynching of Sam Hose. Like Jesse Fuller and other black musicians, Maceo had enough of the regime of white terrorism in the South and hit the road north for Detroit in the 1920s, and ended up in Chicago, where he died in 1953. In Chicago the piano master recorded for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, and nailed it on the first try. One of his first recordings, “Worried Life Blues,” became a hit and, ultimately, part of the blues canon. I was first introduced to the song through a cover by Eric Clapton, but you could name just about any blues or R&B musician from the last 70 years, and odds are they’ve covered Big Maceo’s signature tune.

Like “Worried Life Blues,” I first heard “It Hurts Me Too” in a Clapton cover. That’s not the only thing the two tunes have in common, however: “It Hurts Me Too” also became a blues standard (covered by everyone from The Grateful Dead to Bob Dylan to The Rolling Stones to–naturally–Foghat), and it was also written by a Georgian. Born Hudson Woodbridge in Smithville, Georgia near Albany in 1903, he moved with his family to Florida, where he became better known as Tampa Red. Having mastered the slide guitar, Red moved to Chicago, where he first hit the big time playing slide for Ma Rainey. It was through Tampa Red’s intervention that Big Maceo Merriwether was first introduced to the folks at RCA Victor.

The writer of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Peace in the Valley,” The Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey is known chiefly for his contributions to black gospel music. Born in Villa Rica in 1899, Dorsey, like Tampa Red and Maceo Merriwether, joined the Great Migration, and left the Atlanta area for Chicago in 1918. Before he became the father of the gospel music, Dorsey was known as Georgia Tom, and regularly played and recorded with Tampa Red in Chicago. Their single, “It’s Tight Like That,” has sold 7 million copies since its release in 1928. A recording of Tampa Red and Georgia Tom playing together exists, as do several brassy editions like this one recorded in 1954 in Copenhagen by Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, an English Dixieland ensemble. This one traveled an unpredictable lineage from a gospel composer in Atlanta to a white jazz band in London to the Odd Fellows Mansion in Copenhagen back to America again. Music makes odd fellows of us all, word.

I first heard Bernice Johnson Reagon sing at a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University in the early 1990s. “Heard” is probably not the right word, though: I don’t think I have ever been in the presence of so powerful a vocal presence as Reagon’s. With a single turn of phrase or crack of the voice she could shift the room on its axis, or tighten some knot in your gut you did not know was there. When I first heard her, though, I did not realize what musical and life experience coursed beneath the voice that seemed like it could liquefy bone. Reagon had founded the SNCC Freedom Singers during the Albany Movement in her hometown in 1961. First a student activist, she became a decorated scholar of cultural history. In 1965 she recorded a solo album of freedom songs and African-American spirituals for Smithsonian Folkways label, and in 1972 she recorded another solo album, this time with an a cappella backing group and featuring the arrangements that would become the signature of Sweet Honey in the Rock, formed in the next year. “Sound is a way to extend the territory you can affect,’ she once said. “Communal singing is a way of announcing you are here and possessing the territory.  When police or the sheriff would enter mass meetings and start taking pictures and names, and we knew our jobs were on the line, and maybe more… inevitably somebody would begin a song.  Soon everyone was singing and we had taken back the air in that space.”

There is a straight line from Bernice Johnson Reagon backwards to Bessie Jones, and you can hear it in Jones’s recording of “O Death.”  Jones was born in Smithville, like Tampa Red, and grew up in Dawson, like Otis Redding. In the 1920s she left her young daughter with her mother and sought work in Fitzgerald, around the time Theotis Taylor was born there. After a stint playing cards and rolling dice, working in kitchens and making and selling moonshine in Florida, she ended up on St. Simon’s Island in 1933, and joined the Sea Island Singers. Her story resembles at points that of Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel. Hurston had accompanied Alan Lomax on his first visit to the Golden Isles in 1935, but Lomax didn’t meet Jones until 1959, when he recorded her for the first time. “Sometimes” was used by Moby for his 1999 album Play, but it deserves to be restored to memory in its original, visceral version:

The Sea Island Singers folded in 2006, but up the coast aways, the McIntosh County Shouters are still kicking it. The setting of the phenomenal Praying for Sheetrock, Melissa Fay Greene’s story about the county’s crooked white sheriff and the collapse of his regime in the 1970s, McIntosh County is a storied place: it includes Darien, which was the site of a Colonial fortress put up in 1721, well before James Oglethorpe showed up, and the mouth of the Altamaha River, . Just north of where the Altamaha empties more freshwater into the Atlantic than all other rivers but two, Sapelo Island is the definition of a “long story.” According to some, the first Catholic Mass was celebrated on Sapelo in the sixteenth century, but it is better known for the Gullah-Geechee community centered around Hog Hammock, where descendants of enslaved West Africans have lived since the 18th century. The island is increasingly contested, as tax increases and legal battles are making it difficult for local residents to maintain their land. A lot of the anguish and hope of African-American residents of McIntosh County can be heard in the stomping plaint, “Blow, Gabriel.”

Fiddlin’ John Carson was a fiddling champion in the 19-teens and -twenties, and first recorded for Okeh Records in 1923. Two years later he started to make records with his daughter, Rosa, AKA “Moonshine Kate.” One of her first solo records (and also one of the first country music recordings by a woman), “The Ballad of Mary Phagan,” tells one version of the story (read the full lyrics here) behind the alleged murder of Phagan by Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman, in Atlanta in 1913. Kate and her father wrote the song during Frank’s trial in 1914 and played it regularly to audiences in Atlanta, stoking the anti-semitic rage that led to Frank’s abduction and lynching in 1915. Carson’s politics were no secret–he campaigned for the segregationist Eugene Talmadge in 1932, and was a member of the Klan. This song, “Ain’t No Bugs on Me,” is an example of both the Carsons’ musical style and catchy self-righteousness, and includes both a shot at the theory of evolution and a small dose of attempted Klan humor:

The night was dark and driz’ly an’ the air was full of sleet
m’ ol’ man join’d the Klu Klux an’ ma she lost ‘er sheet

If you happened to wander down to Underground Atlanta in the late 1980s or 1990s–when people wandered to Underground Atlanta–you might have encountered a guitar-slinging woman busking on Lower Alabama Street, swinging her axe behind her head and playing the blues like nobody’s business. Underground is where you might have found Beverly “Guitar” Watkins in those days, but in the sixties you might have found her opening for Ray Charles or James Brown or B.B. King. Before that, you’d have found her touring with Piano Red. Born at Grady Hospital in Atlanta in 1939, she has been a fixture in Atlanta’s blues scene for decades. Now 78, she is still kicking it and putting much younger wannabe gods in their place. You might find her on a Saturday night at Blind Willie’s or the Northside Tavern, but on Sunday she’ll be in church, singing like this:

Put one way, The Northside Tavern in Atlanta is a dive bar that specializes in traditional blues music. Put more truthfully, it is a living juke joint where the blues is practiced, one of the few places left in the Southeast where one of the region’s most distinctive musical forms can find expression, a sanctuary for increasingly neglected artists to find paying gigs and an eager and grateful audience ready to shake its hips.If you want to understand what a musical tradition feels like, you go to the Tavern. A lot of what the Tavern represents is due to the vigilance of Danny “Mudcat” Dudek, the musical and spiritual anchor of the venue who keeps a standing engagement at The Tavern every Wednesday night. When we wrapped up Tour 6 in July 2018 in Atlanta on a Wednesday night, there was really no question that we would end up at the Northside Tavern with Mudcat and, for me at least, his signature tune:

I have always thought of R.E.M. as an autumnal–the most autumnal–band, and Deeper South road trips have been a summer affair. But but it seems more wrong to not include them at all. As I was driving into Augusta for that Tour 6 planning session on St. Patrick’s Day, “Radio Free Europe” blasted on the minivan hifi-which was not made to blast in any manner whatsoever. We had just launched the ADS instagram account–made somewhere on I-20 behind the wheel en route to Augusta, in radical, shameless defiance of Georgia state law!!–and at that moment I was literally

calling out in transit
calling out in transit

But this track from New Adventures in Hifi, an under-rated masterpiece, if you ask me, from 1996 captures where I was musically on the eve of the first tour in 1997. I had come late to REM, which was in its way a sort of gift, because I was able to receive them when I needed them as if they were new and unfamiliar. When I was feeling particularly acute loneliness in Cambridge, I listened to Document on regular walks along the Cam in an attempt to remind myself who I was. In 1995, I had tickets for Meredith and I to see the band play in Frankfurt (with an opening act called Radiohead), but they had to cancel the show because Bill Berry had an aneurysm and subsequently had to retire. I could include almost any REM song here, but “Departure” seems appropriate as a penultimate tune. It also rocks.

Download the playlist to your iTunes.

 

The Power of Paper

Taylor County, Georgia, 1997.

US 19 intersects Georgia 64 at Butler, but in 1997 there isn’t much to compel a stop. Only much later do I learn about the plaques in the lobby of the Taylor County Courthouse commemorating the veterans of World War II. There are two of them: one labeled “WHITE,” and one “COLORED.” It’s not the only divisive way in which the War touched Butler.

In 1946, Eugene Talmadge was running for Governor again. He had served in the office twice before, and in 1946 he saw an opening. In Georgia, as in many other southern states, Democratic primaries had been for whites only for decades until shortly before the end of the War. Smith v. Allwright, a 1944 United States Supreme Court decision, declared the practice in Texas unconstitutional. Two years later, in King v. Chapman, before a United States District Court of Appeals in New Orleans, lawyers for the NAACP (including Thurgood Marshall) successfully argued against the white primary system in Georgia.

The 1946 gubernatorial election would be the first time that African-Americans were allowed to vote in the Democratic primaries in Georgia. In “Ol’ Gene” Talmadge’s mind, King v. Chapman was a classic case of Washington interfering with local politics, a textbook example of professional bureaucrats sticking their noses in matters that were none of their business. The enfranchisement of African-Americans was fuel for Talmadge’s staunchly segregationist brand of states’ rights politics, and gave him the opportunity to stir up racist sentiment among his die-hard supporters in rural Georgia.

Talmadge was handsome and dapper, trim and tan in tortoise-shell frames, canvassing the state in the Georgia summer in shirtsleeves and pleated trousers, black-and-white Oxford wingtips, and—never one to play it safe—both suspenders and a belt, gesticulating from festooned rail depot platforms, courthouse steps, town square gazebos, claiming that “Two million white Georgians are being attacked at their strongest point—their determination to survive as a white State—and they will slap down the decadent ‘reformers’ by the greatest avalanche of votes ever seen in this State by voting for Eugene Talmadge on July 17.” 

He wasn’t wrong. He won the election thanks to “county unit” rural votes in places like Taylor County. African-Americans took the new opportunity to turn out at the polls in droves, too, but they did not vote for Talmadge. Over 135,000 African-Americans were added to the voting rolls in 1946, but Talmadge was not about to let that new enfranchisement stand without a fight. He reminded white citizens—and especially sympathetic county registrars—of their legal rights under the Code of Georgia, Title 34, Section 605, to challenge any voter’s qualifications, and to call them out if they were “not of good character,” or unable to read and and offer a reasonable interpretation of any paragraph of the U.S. or state Constitution. As many as 16,000 registered black voters were purged from rolls before the election. In Savannah, polls were closed while thousands of black voters remained in line waiting to cast their ballot. 

Where voter suppression or psychological intimidation was not wholly effective, Talmadge resorted to threats of violence. In a speech in Swainsboro a week before the election, Talmadge openly warned blacks of dire consequences if they tried to vote in Georgia’s primaries. “Wise Negroes will stay away from the white folks’ ballot boxes on July 17,” he said. “We are the true friends of the Negroes, always have been, and always will be as long as they stay in the definite place we have provided for them.” He repeated the threat the next day in Cochran, south of Macon, saying, “I think it would be extremely wise for Negroes to stay away from the white folks’ ballot boxes on July 17, for neither the U.S. Attorneys nor Jimmie Carmichael will have a corporal guard to back them up.”

Outside Butler, Georgia, 1997.

It wasn’t empty political rhetoric. The atmosphere at polling places on July 17th was tense, even where there were separate voting locations for blacks and whites (as African-Americans often requested, out of concern for their own safety). The Atlanta Constitution reported the next day that in Cochran, where Talmadge had spoken four days earlier, “not a dozen Negroes went to the Bleckley County Courthouse to vote but left with their ballots after a crowd of white men ‘gathered around them.’” In Meriwether County between Atlanta and Columbus, white crowds picketed polling stations to prevent African-Americans from voting.

Talmadge’s words carried leaden weight; in Taylor County in 1946, the consequences were deadly.

Maceo Snipes spent two and a half years with the United States Army, and fought in the Pacific Theater in World War Two. He was honorably discharged in 1945, and returned to Taylor County to live with his mother, Lula, and work his late father’s sharecropped farm. On July 17th, 1946, he was the first and only black person to vote in Taylor County.

The next day, during dinner with Lula, four white men, allegedly local Klansmen, drove up to his house in a pickup truck and summoned Maceo away from the table. Outside, he got into a scuffle with Edward Williamson, who shot Maceo in the back. Snipes stumbled back into the house, bleeding from the stomach, and then walked with his mother in search of help. Snipes died later in the hospital, having been refused a blood transfusion because there was “no black blood” on hand.

A jury found Williamson—unsurprisingly—innocent of murder, ruling that he had acted in self-defense. Snipes’ friends and family were apparently warned that if they held a funeral for Snipes, they would end up the same way he did. Snipes was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Butler that his surviving relatives don’t even know how to find. To some of Snipes’s family, his killing was the last straw. They left for Macon, and caught the next train for Ohio.

Whites chose to keep quiet about the whole affair, to bury it along with all the other dark secrets of Taylor County. But others saw the rank hypocrisy of a nation that proudly championed its defeat of fascism in Europe as a sign of national virtue, but which at home could not offer its own citizens of color the dignity and legal protection that whites enjoyed. At least one person wanted to talk about it. Less than three weeks after Snipes’s murder, on the 6th of August, a young African-American student at Morehouse College in Atlanta wrote to the Constitution:

“We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens: the right to earn a living at work for which we are fitted by training and ability; equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and good manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations.”

It was the first piece Martin Luther King, Jr. ever published. It certainly was not the last. When Maceo Snipes of the United States Army voted for the first time in Butler, Georgia in 1946 and was murdered for it, the event represented the confluence of two equally American traditions: a “democratic” election and white supremacist violence. For King, the tragedy of Snipes’s murder was an altar call for Americans to be serious about their commitment to equal opportunity, the right to vote, equality before the law. Or, as King later expressed the challenge to America on the night before he, like Maceo Snipes, became a fatality of white supremacy: “Be true to what you said on paper.”

anImage_2.tiff

Barbecue Is Sin

Is it really, though?

I don’t know about that, but at Maurice’s Piggie Park in West Columbia, South Carolina, there is plenty to atone for (and I don’t mean just the mustard sauce). Founder Maurice Bessinger was an outspoken segregationist in Columbia who forbade African-Americans from eating in his restaurant until the Supreme Court forced him to, led the National Association for the Preservation of White People in the 1960s, and argued that the Civil Rights Act “contravenes the will of God.” A precedent-setting 1968 lawsuit against Bessinger—Newman vs. Piggie Park Enterprises—ended up before the United States Supreme Court, which ruled 8-0 against Bessinger, forcing him not only to admit black customers to all his restaurants but to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees to boot. Six years later, Bessinger campaigned for governor in 1974 by riding around the Palmetto State on a white horse, wearing a white suit and white tie, saying that “all the white stood for clean government.”

Maurice Bessinger is so white in this photo that he barely shows up in print. This is his scarcely-visible and not-at-all-ridiculous campaign get-up for his disappointing fifth-place shellacking in the Democratic primary for Governor of South Carolina in 1974, the year Maurice reined in his ambitions and rededicated his life to disseminating his white supremacist views not from the Governor’s Mansion but from his chain of uniquely braggadocious barbecue restaurants.

 

When Maurice hobble-clopped into his home county to drum up support for his campaign, his former homies in Orangeburg did not exactly roll out the red carpet for him. If he still had friends on the police force, they didn’t pull strings for Maurice this time. The police didn’t even give Maurice or his beloved horse, Queen, the escort he thought they deserved.

But Maurice didn’t just suspect negligence; he saw a nefarious anti-Queen conspiracy at work. “Somebody has pulled another political string in Orangeburg,” he said to the Orangeburg Times and Democrat. “I’ve been afraid for my horse. A car might have hit him.”

The Times and Democrat, it seems, was non-plussed. A not-very-informative headline in the paper declined to name either Queen or its rider:

Bessinger did not win, place, or show in the election.

But Maurice didn’t give up his fight for “heritage.” When the Confederate battle flag was removed from the dome of the state capitol in Columbia in 2000, Bessinger raised Confederate flags at all nine of his restaurants. Retailers including Walmart and Winn-Dixie soon stopped carrying bottles of Maurice’s “Southern Gold” sauce, a substance that David Firestone described in The New York Times in 2000 as “an act of defiance, a thick, yellow mustardy glaze that dares to call itself a barbecue sauce despite its utter lack of tomatoes. South Carolinians are among the only humans known to allow it upon their meat.”

Maurice’s business tanked. By December 2000, he had laid off fifteen employees and lost 98% of his sales, he said. “Freedom of speech has a price, I guess,” he claimed.

Southern Gold has since returned to shelves, but still struggles. Earlier this year, Piggie Park Enterprises was forced to recall two years’ worth of the sauce because they chose not to disclose that the powdered honey used to make the substance contained wheat and soy. Freedom of speech has a price, I guess.

Maurice Bessinger died in 2014, but controversy around him has hardly abated. Last year an ice cream shop opened on John C. Calhoun Parkway (you really can’t get away from these guys if you try) in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Owner Tommy Daras set up The Edisto River Creamery in a building once occupied by one of Maurice’s Piggie Parks. The corner lot came with a Confederate flag that Daras did not particularly want. 

But he couldn’t do anything about it. Before he died, Maurice Bessinger apparently deeded 3/1000th of an acre to the Rivers Bridge Camp No. 842 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who fly the rebel flag from their microscopic bit of real estate.

Maurice’s children are now having a go at running the barbecue behemoth, without the rebel flag. The Christian mission he operated next door to the original location on Charleston Highway (seen above on Tour 2 in 1998) is now shuttered, and the sin-denouncing cross marquee is gone. 

But Little Joe remains atop the original sign on Charleston Highway, still touting Maurice’s golden pig.

World’s best barbecue? I don’t know about that.

 

Read more about the Bessinger legacy in Lauren Collins’ 2017 excellent piece for the New Yorker, “America’s Most Political Food.”

Locked in Hell in Amnesiaville

 

Being educated is supposed to mean being aware of the things you aren’t educated about, becoming cognizant of the gaps in your own knowledge of the world. in 1992, Flannery O’Connor was one of those gaps. Being introduced to her in my early twenties was like finding an extra present behind the Christmas tree that you had overlooked. It was a kind of unbelievable gift, that this woman who’d change your life was right in your living room the whole time. 

Andersonville, Georgia, was one of those gaps, too. But learning about it was like finding a cigar box full of Nazi memorabilia in your grandfather’s closet. You wish you hadn’t.

I hadn’t learned about Andersonville formally in a classroom, but first heard of it in a song on The Killing Floor, a 1992 masterpiece by The Vigilantes of Love, one of the greatest bands to come out of Athens. The Killing Floor began to turn me out of an unfortunate nutrasweet-country phase in the early 90s. Head Vigilante Bill Mallonee sang about Andersonville, but I didn’t realize what he meant until we ended up there on our first Southern Tour in August 1997.

We were locked in hell in Andersonville
In shebangs hot and stinking
The stream we use as our latrine
Gives water for our drinking
And a hundred of us daily die
To fill those fresh-dug graves

Andersonville wasn’t quite in my living room, but it was basically in the backyard, a hundred and twenty miles south of Atlanta in a deliberately remote part of the state. Andersonville was the site of a notorious Confederate prison camp during the Civil War. Conditions were horrific at Andersonville. Union prisoners were starved and diseased, forced to drink from the same shit-swamp in the middle of the camp that held their own excrement. Contemporary descriptions of the place resemble those of Nazi labor camps in Poland during World War Two, and the likeness is not entirely an accident. Camp Sumter, as the concentration camp in Andersonville was officially called, was a precursor to the camps of the Third Reich. The military tribunal that tried Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz was a model for the Nuremberg trials eighty years later.

Born Heinrich Hartmann Wirz in Zurich, 26-year-old Henry Wirz left his wife and kids in Switzerland and ended up in Louisiana, where in 1861 he enlisted with the Confederate Army. In 1864 he was given command of Camp Sumter, which he ruled with an iron hand. Rumors that he murdered prisoners were not unheard of, nor suppressed. He was arrested in May of 1865.

In Annapolis in 1865, Walt Whitman witnessed a boat load of the newly-freed returning from southern prisons. He said that the treatment of prisoners of war in places like Andersonville “steeps its perpetrators in blackest, escapees, endless damnation.” “Reader,” he asked, “did you ever try to realize what starvation actually is?—in those prisons—and in a land of plenty?”

That November, hundreds of Union soldiers and onlookers watched as “The Demon of Andersonville” was hanged from a stockade in Washington within sight of the Capitol. He is one of only a handful of men during the Civil War to be convicted and executed for war crimes. 

Outside the boundary of what is now Andersonville National Cemetery, in the middle of Church Street in the tiny village of Andersonville, there is—naturally—a large obelisk in honor of Wirz, erected in 1909 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to “rescue his name from the stigma attached to it by embittered prejudice.” 

The UDC has long been the organ of the Lost Cause mythology, which still has a strong hold on the imagination of many people in this isolated outpost of Georgia’s upper coastal plain. In other cities and towns, statues of Lee, Jackson, Davis, “Silent Sam” and other monuments to white supremacy have been removed, but the monument to Wirz still looms over Church Street. There have been—as far as I know—no marches for its removal, no op-eds in the local paper arguing that its time has long passed. On the contrary: the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans holds an annual memorial service for Wirz, but not—as far as I know—for the thousands of prisoners who died under his command. 

The real monument to Wirz is not, however, the marker on Church Street, but the thousands of white marble headstones for the Union prisoners who did not have to die here. Which leaves the obelisk to Wirz on Church Street to serve another purpose: as a monument to collective forgetfulness, to selective outrage, to the most threatening disease that bedevils American culture at this hour: amnesia.

This post was published as part of my ongoing series for the Culture Care newsletter from International Arts Movement. Sign up here.

Memories Full of Bullet Holes: On Emmett Till and Saint Augustine

Money, Mississippi

 

Robert Hodges, seventeen years old, was checking trot lines from the water’s edge when he first saw Emmett Till’s feet break the surface of the Tallahatchie River. The rest of Till’s water-logged, mutilated body remained submerged from the weight of a cotton gin fan tied around his neck, hung up on the river bottom.

“Everybody knows what happened to Emmett Till in 1955,” Terrell tells me in front of his home in Glendora, Mississippi, just up the unpaved River Road from the muddy riverbank where Hodges first discovered the body. Terrell points to a sign marking the spot. It’s painted bright purple, labelled “The River Site.”

It is riddled with bullet holes.

I am not sure if Terrell is right. I don’t know if everyone knows what happened to Emmett Till, but around here they do. This corner of the Mississippi Delta has become a sort of crossroads of memory, where at least two currents of American culture intersect: the vigilant who want to keep alive the memory of Till’s violent lynching, and those who don’t. Despite its local significance here, “crossroads” may not be the best metaphor; a “roundabout” might be more apt, since the cycle of remembrance-oblivion seems to go around and around from everlasting to everlasting. Almost as soon as the Emmett Till Interpretive Center puts up a sign, it is shot up. As recently as three weeks ago, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that the sign had been shot up for a third time, just thirty-five days after being re-erected.

As a whole, the South is a sprawling tourist site for students of Civil War and Civil Rights, a region where conflict seems to sprout up as involuntarily and irrepressibly as kudzu. But these two historical battles represent a more deeply-rooted conflict here, between alternative memories, competing accounts of history, and contradictory attitudes toward the past.

The South is torn between at least two (and probably many more) versions of history: on the one hand, the view expressed by the passage from Willam Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun—“The past is never dead; it’s not even past”—a text cited with such frequency that it’s become almost as clichéd as a kudzu metaphor. On the other hand, there is the view expressed by an anonymous North Carolinian in the late V.S. Naipaul’s travel memoir, A Turn in the South: “We have had too much of the past.” Sometimes these two conflicting attitudes co-exist in the same town, the same neighborhood, or the same person.

A short film about the site, which I made last month while in Mississippi:

*  *  *

I’m no student of numerology, and I am not—I don’t think—natively superstitious. But lately the number 828 has been popping up with strange frequency.

Emmett Till was lynched on 8/28/1955. He was fourteen. In 1961, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin began planning for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to take place two years later. They eventually settled on the date: 8/28/1963. It was no coincidence that eight years to the day from Till’s murder, Martin Luther King, Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and and proclaimed that, one hundred years after The Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro is still not free.”

8/28 is also the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo, a bishop and theologian from north Africa, one of the four great “Doctors” of the early Latin church. Augustine died on August 28th, 430, and his legacy remains wider, deeper, and more contested than perhaps that of any other figure in church history. He was an unusually prolific and imaginative thinker and writer. His first complete masterpiece, The Confessions, is by some accounts an early landmark in the genre of memoir. The book is a work of memory, but it is also a treatise about memory. After retracing the story of his life—or rather the story of God’s grace through Augustine’s life—for nine books, Augustine suddenly takes what seems to many to be a sudden turn, an optional detour from juicy autobiographical narrative into a highly abstract mini-treatise on the nature of memory. 

This is the point at which many people stop reading The Confessions. The first nine books are well-trod, but the final four are like unpaved road into a dense forest of metaphysical speculation. “Proceed at your own risk,” seems to be most teachers’ advice. But avoid at your own risk, too, because you’ll miss out on lines like: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new.”

In Book Ten, Augustine pauses to reflect on what he has just done, to ask, what is this capacity that we have to recall—and forget—our own past? A student and teacher of rhetoric, Augustine used classical images of memory as a “great cavern” or a “vast hall” or stomach of the mind,” all common tropes in the ancient (and very popular) “art of memory” in the Latin West. For Augustine, memory was one of the most essential, and most mysterious, faculties of the human soul. “This power of memory is great, very great, my God,” he writes. “It is a vast and infinite profundity. Who has plumbed its bottom?” 

We are all sites of carefully curated memories, which often serve something less than a full and honest picture of ourselves. “I myself cannot grasp the totality of what I am,” Augustine writes. We are unfathomable, sometimes terrible, mysteries to ourselves:

“The human mind, so blind and languid, shamefully and dishonorably wishes to hide, and yet does not wish anything to be concealed from itself. But it is repaid on the principle that while the human mind lies open to the truth, truth remains hidden from it. Yet even thus, in its miserable condition, it prefers to find joy in true rather than in false things.”

It’s almost as if Augustine is talking about Emmett Till, and the way we (mis)remember him. Or not remember him at all: Till did not figure at all in my own education, and only later did I come to learn the details about his killing. It seems easier to hide from the truth about what happened to him, and the conditions that brought about his murder and led to his killers’ acquittal, and how those conditions still benefit some and harm others. The good news, for Augustine, is that we all naturally desire truth, even if it brings pain, because falsehood and deception are their own sorts of bondage. There is freedom—and joy—only in truth.

Salvation—literally, “well-being” in Augustine’s language—consists, at least in part, in a healed memory, a restored, unvarnished, #nofilter account of oneself. Salvation, in other words, subsists in truth.

So Augustine’s Confessions are an exercise in recollection and remembrance, gathering and putting back together the pieces of a fractured existence and offering them as a prayer to God, a confession both of waywardness and of gratitude.

Because regions are comprised of human beings, public memory in the South is always conflicted, too. Sometimes it is a confusing mixture of affirmation and inaction. As a teen I listened to the “I Have a Dream” speech repeatedly—especially its more stirring, unscripted bits near the end—but failed to ask what it might have to do with Emmett Till, what it might have to do with my city, what it really might have to do with me.

The remains of Bryant’s Grocery in Money, where Emmett Till met Carolyn Bryant, his accuser

*  *  *

828 is also my area code.

It’s come—strangely—to be shorthand for where I am these days, for the weird convergence of places and stories that now constitute my life. 

When I was first really exposed to The Confessions, I had this sense: “where has this been all my life?” Lately, I am experiencing a similar sense about other figures and episodes in my city’s—and my own family’s—history. I seem to keep circling back on a question that I pass by over an over again like a signpost on a roundabout (Big Ben, Parliament): “why am I just learning about this now?” 

There was a time in my own life, not so long ago, when I tried to help young people try to make sense of Augustine’s words, and maybe—of their own lives. Now, I find myself trying to do as he did: putting the fragments of a dismembered self back together again, attempting to recover the unremembered pieces of a life that seem so eager to speed away from me. To get off the roundabout, onto a different road.

Augustine was after something similar: a whole and full self that included the memory of both regretful faults and great joys, and the conflict between them. “Which side has the victory,”  he said, “I do not know.”

So 828 is a kind of sign for all that: the convergence of these stories, in this particular place, this area code, this moment in my own history. A shorthand for an urgent need to tell a fuller story of myself. Yet another draft, another revision, but one that includes Emmett Till and other people and truths that previous versions of myself left out. A reminder of all the signs I might have missed, ignored, built up or shot down.

 

 

The Night the Lights Went Out in Marion

This is the Perry County Jail in Marion, Alabama, on the corner of Pickens and Greene Streets. Zion United Methodist Church sits on the next block, a few hundred feet away.

On 18 February 1965, James Lee Orange was arrested and held in this building for allegedly inducing local schoolchildren to stay out of school in protest of local voting practices. In protest of Orange’s detention, local civil rights leaders organized a march from Zion Methodist Church to the jail. Among the marchers: Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old local deacon in St. James Baptist Church, and his 82-year-old grandfather, Cager Lee.

Albert (“Big Al”) Turner, a Marion native and civil rights leader, and Reverend James Dobynes, a local minister, led the march out of Zion at 9:15 pm. About five hundred peaceful protestors turned out of the church onto a Pickens Street lined on both sides with law enforcement officers, including Alabama State Troopers, Marion Police and Perry County deputies. Not fifty feet away from Zion, the marchers were confronted by state troopers, who ordered them to disperse. As planned, Reverend Dobynes knelt to pray before returning to the church. A state trooper clubbed him in the head and dragged him to the jail where Orange was being held.

The streetlights were suddenly turned off, and marchers began to be billy-clubbed and pistol-whipped in the dark. Troopers detained some marchers and forced others to return to the church, but blocked the front entrance, forcing them around back, where they were met with more violence.

Albert Turner saw it happen:

“In the melee in back of the church, Jimmy’s grandfather was hit in the back of the head with a billy club and his skull was bust. He left the church and went down to the café to have Jimmy carry him to the hospital. Jimmy immediately tried to rush out, forgetting about what was going on, to take his grandfather to the hospital. As he attempted to go out of the door, these troopers met him and forced them back into the building. Of course, Jimmy kind of insisted that he wanted to carry his grandfather to the doctor and they insisted that he did not go. From that they ganged him, physically subdued him and put him on the floor of the café. There they started to whip him up pretty bad. His mother was in the café also. She had come down with her daddy. She just couldn’t stand it no longer, so she took a drink bottle and tried to knock people off her son because they was going to kill him right there on the floor, it appeared. When  she hit them, they knocked her out. And then they took Jimmy and pinned him against the walls of the building and at close range they shot him in the side. After shooting him, they ran him out of the door of the café. Some of the remaining troopers was lined up on the sidewalk, back towards the church. He had to run through a cordon of policemen, then, with billy sticks, and as he ran down, they simply kept hitting him. He made it back to the door of the church, and just beyond the church, he fell.”

The rear side of Perry County Jail.

Jackson died eight days later. 

The murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson led directly to the planning of the Selma-to-Montgomery March, which took place eight days later. The first march, on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7th, 1965, was a reprise of the state-sponsored violence at the Marion march, but on a much larger scale. A second march took place two days later, on “Turnaround Tuesday,” but did not proceed past the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On March 21, 1965, two weeks after Bloody Sunday, approximately 4,000 marchers crossed the Pettus Bridge under federal protection.

Cager Lee, Jackson’s grandfather, was on the front line in Selma that day, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. The March was “like nothing Selma had ever seen before or dreamed of,” Paul Good wrote in The Washington Post in March 1965. And Cager Lee “knew better what it was like than anyone else. For him, it was loss and gain to the roots of his soul.”

To Lee, the march from Selma to Montgomery was what his grandson had lived and died for. 

“Yes, it was worth the boy’s dyin’,” Lee said. “And he was a sweet boy. Not pushy, not rowdy. He took me to church every Sunday. worked hard. But he had to die for somethin’. And thank God it was for this.”

The Perry County Courthouse in Marion, as seen from the county jail.

A 1965 grand jury in Perry County declined to indict the trooper who shot Jackson. He was never questioned by local law enforcement or the FBI, whose agents were present in Marion on February 18th, 1965. For many years the identity of the state trooper who shot Jackson was not publicly known, until a 2005 profile in The Anniston Star revealed him to be James Bonard Fowler. In 2007, Fowler was indicted for second-degree murder. After years of delays, he pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter in 2010. He served five months of a six-month sentence.

 

Coffee with Dante

When Virgil first enters the scene in the opening canto of Dante’s Inferno, he just sort of appears in the dark wood. Almost out of nowhere, he just transpires. The Italian word Dante uses to describe his appearance is offerto: so more literally, Virgil “offered himself.” It’s the first sign that–even in the harsh landscape of Inferno–nothing is going to turn out like you expect.

Heading east out of Augusta on Central Avenue, we are not a block into the trip before I need to stop. I know it could be a while before we see another decent cup of coffee, so the early pit-stop at the Buona Caffé in Augusta seems well-advised.

I leave the car running, because it’s already hot as it’s supposed to be in Georgia in July, and pop inside to place my order with the barista.

Now, I have a background in theology and an amateur interest in southern history, and John is a professional historian who’s written on race and religion in the south. While he’s brewing the previous customer’s beverage, the barista asks what brings me to town. I try—for the first time over the next two weeks—to explain this strange journey we are on. It comes out like a very poorly-rehearsed elevator pitch, all ragged-edged and semi-coherent, but he manages to get the gist.

I’m a seminary student, he tells me, doing a thesis on race and religion. It’s on Howard Thurman, King, and Thomas Merton, he says.

No way, I say. Hang on a sec, I tell him. There’s someone you need to meet. 

I drag John out of the minivan, which already sounds like it’s overheating. Back inside the Buona, John tells the barista he lives around the corner. We really should chat, he says, and they make plans to do that when he is back in town.

I give the barista my card, and scrawl onto it the name of the hastily-made instagram account we made for the trip because that’s who we are now. We say thanks for the coffee, and promise to be in touch.

Not much later, on US 1, John interrupts his dramatic reading of the WPA Guide to Georgia to respond to an alert on his iPhone (also who we are now).

@truthdrifter interrupts a dramatic reading of the WPA Guide to respond to our newest instagram follower

“Hey, he followed us,” John says.

“Who?” I ask.

“Dante,” John says. “The guy from the coffee shop.”

“His name is Dante?” 

“Apparently.”

“And we are just getting ready to go on a quest deep into the Southern inferno?”

“His name is Dante.”

“That does not seem like an accident.”

Two white dudes in a minivan meeting an African-American man with shared interests in a coffee shop does not seem like an accident either. It is a instance of unlikely gratuity, an in-breaking of common humanity that makes the world not seem so small or random or cruel or inhospitable. We come to call them “Dante moments,” which, over the next two weeks, seem to offer themselves with alarming frequency.

What I Did Not See in Tuskegee

I know there are those who insist that Confederate monuments do not make any political statements, but simply represent an innocent collective recognition of the self-sacrifice of fallen soldiers, and an attempt to preserve their memory. There was a time in my life when I might have been able to believe such a thing, a time when I failed to ask some pretty basic questions.

This is the Confederate monument in the town square in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers (and later, Tuskegee Institute, and ultimately Tuskegee University) would eventually become one of the country’s most important institutions for higher learning for African-Americans.

The Tuskegee Normal School was established in 1881. This monument was erected in 1906.

Monuments like this were put up all over the south, not simply so that we would remember the war dead. They were put up in public places like the town square in Tuskegee as reminders to African-Americans of their place in a white supremacist regime, and as a warning to them not to forget it.

We did not see this in 1997.

We visited Tuskegee briefly, ate lunch at Thomas Reed’s Chitlin House Chicken Coop, and then visited Booker T. Washington’s grave and the “Lifting the Veil” statue on the campus of the university. But that was about it. We missed the town of Tuskegee entirely.

Thomas Reed’s restaurant in Tuskegee in 1997.

This time was different. We approached from a different direction, from the east. But we also approached the city from a different angle this year, more attuned than we were twenty years ago to the ways the legacy of white supremacy is written into the landscape of places like Tuskegee.

We ate in Thomas Reed’s restaurant in 1997, but I did not think then to ask about who Thomas Reed was.

I later learned that Thomas Reed once vowed to climb up the State House in Montgomery and personally remove the Confederate battle flag flying atop the white dome. Apparently the flag went mysteriously missing the night before the planned coup, and was moved to the Confederate memorial on the north side of the Capitol. Turns out the episode landed Reed both in jail and in The New York Times.

On February 3, 1988, Reed and thirteen others attempted to scale an eight-foot chain-link fence around the Capitol and purloin the flag. They were held briefly and later released on $300 bond. Reed had made the removal of the flag a personal mission. “This is just the beginning,” he said at the time. Five years later, the flag was taken down from the cupola of the Capitol. A write-up in The Chicago Tribune at the time illustrates how the debate around the flag was framed thirty years ago. It concludes with the sentence: “But the flag’s supporters argue that removing the flag is tantamount to erasing history.”

It is not difficult to see now the subtext in such reportage. This was, for many years, the final word on the subject, and where most whites were keen to leave the matter.

But not Thomas Reed. By 1988, when Reed was President of the Alabama NAACP, he had been involved in state politics for over twenty years. In 1970, he and Fred Gray, a pioneering civil rights attorney from Montgomery, became the first African-Americans to serve in the Alabama legislature since Reconstruction. Photographs of Reed in the State Archives show him on the town square in Tuskegee in 1966, campaigning to a small crowd of mostly African-American men in fedoras, hands crossed, on hips, in pockets. He stands on the tailgate of a station wagon emblazoned with signs that say, THOMAS REED, THE MAN WE NEED.