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An American Tale: A Lynching and the Legacies Left Behind

An American Tale: A Lynching and the Legacies Left Behind

One day, sometime during your childhood or adolescence, a Negro was lynched in your county or the one next to yours. A human being was burned or hanged from a tree and you knew it had happened. But no one publicly condemned it and always the murderers went free. And afterward, maybe weeks or months or years afterward, you sat casually in the drugstore with one of those murderers and drank the Coke he casually paid for. A “nice white girl” could do that but she would have been run out of town or perhaps killed had she drunk a Coke with the young Negro doctor who was devot­ing his life in service to his people.
Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream, 1949

I WAS AN ADULT BEFORE I ever saw the picture. But even as a girl I knew there’d been a lynching in Marion. That was my father’s hometown. And on one of many trips to visit my grandparents, I heard the family story: The night it happened back in 1930 someone called the house and spoke to my grandfather, whose shift at the post office began at three in the morn­ing. “Don’t walk through the courthouse square tonight on your way to work,” the caller said. “You might see something you don’t want to see.” There was laughter at the end of the story — which puzzled me. Something you don’t want to see. Then, laughter.

I now know that, in the 1920s, Indiana had more enrolled Ku Klux Klan members than any state in the union, and that my grandfather was one of them. Learning this after he died, I couldn’t assimilate it into the frail grandpa I’d known. Couldn’t really assimi­late it and for a long time, didn’t try. He had been an intensely secretive man, and certainly, there’d been other obfuscations. He always said, for example, that he was an orphan, that his parents had died in a wreck when he was three. I accepted this, but the grown-ups knew better. After grandpa’s funeral, my father dis­covered there’d been a safe-deposit box and hoped at last to find a clue to the family tree. Instead, he unearthed this other secret: a Klan membership card. All my father said was, “I never saw a hooded sheet. He’d go out. We never knew where he was going.”

So much of this story is about shame. My grandfather was a bastard, a fact that someone born in small-town Indiana in 1886 would rather die than discuss. And so he did. But if that particular humiliation seems foreign today, what about the other secret? A lot of us who are white come from… something, and it is not discussed. “That’s in the past,” we like to say, as if that did more than give us another hood to wear.

I remember, for example, when I first saw the picture a few years ago. Two black men in bloody tattered clothing hang from a tree and below them stand the grinning gloating proud and pleased white folks. I remember looking anxiously for my grandfather’s face. But of course, he hadn’t been there. I recalled the family sto­ry. There’d been something you don’t want to see. Then, laughter. And as I began to tell people this story, that became the detail I left out, because it shamed me: there was laughter.

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FOR YEARS NOW I’ve wondered if I should ever write about these things. Part of me thinks — why my family? I knew my grand­father well enough to feel sure that he was a follower, not a leader, not evil, not really different from other white men of his gen­eration. Would “removing the hood” illu­minate anything? Or merely cause pain? I discussed this with my brother, inconclusively, but shortly thereafter he sent a news­paper article he happened to see while visit­ing my sister. I seized upon these coincidences, made them a sign.

Because there’d been a third man lynched in Marion that night — and he’d survived. He was living in Milwaukee.

Somehow a survivor hadn’t made it into the family story. But the clipping my broth­er sent said that this man, James Cameron, had opened a museum devoted to the histo­ry of lynching. And I know it mentioned that Cameron’s book, A Time of Terror, would soon be reissued by Black Classic Press. I reread the article many times, then lost it at some point along the swing shift of my ambivalence. Even so, I knew I would have to meet this man or regret it for the rest of my life.

James Cameron came so close to dying in Marion’s courthouse square that he had rope burns around his neck from the noose. He’d been dragged from the jail and beaten bloody and carried to the tree where the other two men were already hanging. In those last moments — certain he was about to die — he had a vision. Then, miraculously, he didn’t die. The mob let him go, just let him walk away. He was 16, and he believes he was saved by divine intervention, sent back to us with news — our Ishmael. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee. 

Yet who would hear what he’d come back to tell? For over 45 years, Cameron tried to find a publisher for his story, prob­ably the only written record by a lynching survivor. Finally, in 1982, he mortgaged his house for $7500 and published A Time of Terror himself. Now he’s struggling to reno­vate his museum building, an old boxing school/fitness center donated by the city of Milwaukee. He doesn’t have a working boiler. He pays electric and phone with his Social Security. He figures he needs $200,000 for renovations, and he’s certain that this — more than the book, even — is the true work for which God saved him. But Cameron is worried. He is about to turn 80, and this time he won’t have 45 years to get it done.

But here I get ahead of myself. First, you must hear the story of the lynching — and the miracle.

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IT BEGAN ON THE EVENING of August 6, 1930. Cameron, 16, had been pitching horseshoes with a school friend, Tommy Shipp, 18, and an acquaintance, Abe Smith, 19. The three decided to go out for a joy­ride in Shipp’s car. As they drove past the Marion city limits and into the countryside, Smith announced that he wanted to rob someone to get money for a new car of his own. Cameron wavered inside; he immedi­ately wanted to get out, yet he didn’t get out. They drove to Lover’s Lane to look for a victim. Spotting one parked car, Smith pulled out a .38-caliber pistol, handed it to Cameron, and ordered him to tell the white man and woman inside to “stick ’em up.” Cameron didn’t even know Smith very well, and later he would tell the sheriff that he didn’t know why he’d followed Smith’s orders. But he did know: once more, he had wavered. While something inside him said “go back, go back” even as he approached the car, he had been pushed forward by someone with a stronger will. And it was a last but fateful moment that this would be true of him.

There he stood, pistol in hand, telling the driver and his girlfriend to get out. And when the driver did so, Cameron realized that he knew this man — Claude Deeter — a regular customer at his shoeshine stand, someone who’d always tipped him, some­one who’d always been decent to him. Now he knew he couldn’t go through with it. He handed the gun back to Smith, and ran. A few minutes later, he heard shots, and he wondered what had happened back there, but he never stopped running. As it turned out, Deeter had been mortally wounded.

Cameron arrived home with new eyes, because he saw the gulf that had opened between past and present. He saw his moth­er differently, feeling sorry for her for the first time in his life, though he lied when she asked him why he was so agitated. He couldn’t sleep. He kept telling himself he hadn’t really done anything wrong; he’d just been foolish. “The trouble was,” he wrote in his memoir, “this was Marion, Indiana, where there was little room for foolish Black boys.” Cameron hadn’t been in bed long when the police arrived — guns drawn, surrounding the house, raking it with searchlights. He could hear his mother getting up from the sofa bed to answer the pounding at the door.

Shipp and Smith had already been locked in separate cells on the first floor of the jail by the time Cameron got there. He remem­bers the three hours of interrogation, the kicks and punches delivered when it was over, the confession he then signed without even reading it. The officers tossed him into an upstairs cell block with 30 black men arrested for riding a freight train.

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By the next morning, rumors were circu­lating through Marion that the white wom­an in the car had been raped. She would later testify in court that she hadn’t been touched, but the spark had been lit. Camer­on writes that there was no particular “race problem” in the town, just the strictly en­forced segregation common to so many towns, just an everyday sense of limits, if you were black. “And once the boundary was crossed, anything might happen to the trespasser.… The realization dawned on me that I had crossed the boundary into the most sacred area of all, the world where white women lived.”

He noticed a crowd of white people gath­ering outside the jail right after breakfast, some pointing to the windows of the cell, some shaking their fists. He could feel the tension among his older cellmates, who’d abandoned their usual card games to pace. Small groups of white people kept coming up the steps to stare into the cell block. A white prisoner assured Cameron that “peo­ple in this part of the country wouldn’t lynch anybody,” but a black prisoner coun­tered that the white guy was “nuts.” Hadn’t Cameron been charged with the rape of a white woman?

The mob outside the jail grew steadily larger. Then, sometime during the after­noon, Deeter died. His bloody shirt was hung from a flagpole. As Cameron learned later, local radio stations announced that a lynching was imminent, and white people began to stream in from surrounding small towns, while entire black families fled Mar­ion. Around 5:30, a reporter from the Mar­ion Chronicle came by to interview Camer­on. He told the journalist his story, but he could see that he wasn’t being heard, that the truth didn’t matter. “Ask the girl,” Cameron finally implored him. But the re­porter just smirked, “You’ll never get out of this.”

In his book, recalling how he felt as that day built toward its violent climax, Camer­on can’t quite fit the dimensions of his fear into words. “At times, even now,” he writes, “I awaken in the middle of the night, reliving that whole day — and night… I can never return to sleep. I suf­fer headaches all through the night. I just lie there, thinking, praying, saying my rosary, hoping, reassuring myself that it all hap­pened a long, long time ago. I am not the same man. I am somebody else now.”

At dusk of that fateful day, August 7, Cameron could peer out from his second­-floor cell block and see white faces for as far as he could look in any direction. He could hear people demanding “those three niggers.” And they began to throw rocks at the windows of the jail. Some carried shot­guns. Some carried pistols. Some carried bats, clubs, crowbars, or stones. And among them, Cameron recognized people he knew: customers from his shoeshine stand, boys and girls he’d gone to school with, people whose lawns he’d mowed. He saw Klan members in robes and headgear, faces un­masked, who seemed to be monitoring the crowd. He sensed a carnival air. And there, laughing and talking with them all, were the scores of policemen ostensibly protecting the jail.

The assault on the building began at nightfall. Some men ran into the alley with gasoline cans and doused the brick wall, but they couldn’t get it to burn. Then, for the next hour, men took turns pounding with a sledgehammer on the steel door of the jail and the brick casement around it, while the mob chanted itself into a frenzy, and, as the frame began to give, people pulled bricks out with their bare hands and four men­ — adrenalized by hatred — lifted the entire door jamb out of the wall. Cameron could hear Sheriff Jacob Campbell ordering, “Don’t shoot! There are women and children out there!”

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The ringleaders burst in and pulled Shipp outside first. As Cameron wrote, “I could see the bloodthirsty crowd come to life the moment Tommy’s body was dragged into view. It seemed to me as if all of those 10 to 15 thousand people were trying to hit him all at once.” Clubbed and stoned and then garroted at the bars of a jailhouse window, Shipp was dead long before the hysterical mob ever got him to the tree. So was Smith. Someone rammed a crowbar through his chest, while souvenir hunters cut off Shipp’s pants and distributed the pieces. Shipp was then dressed in a Kluxer’s robe, and the crowd dragged both bodies over to the courthouse square and strung them up. Cameron couldn’t stop watching: the deliri­um, the sadism, and finally, a weird ecsta­sy. Over at the tree, “people howled and milled around the lifeless bodies, their voices a mumbo jumbo of insane screams and giggles.” He could see them posing for pictures with the bodies.

And then he could hear the men coming up the steps to get him. Cameron remem­bers what they carried — ropes, swords, ri­fles, a submachine gun. He remembers the chanting outside: “We want Cameron!” But when the ringleaders rushed into his cell block, they couldn’t pick him out. At first, none of the other prisoners would identify him either, but the white mobsters threat­ened to “hang every goddamn one of you niggers,” and Cameron watched in horror as about half of his black cellmates dropped to their knees groveling, “Don’t hurt us, Mister White Folks.” Finally, one old black man pointed him out.

He remembers the white men gripping him viselike, and the chorus of voices yell­ing “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!” as they got him outside. He remembers the bricks and rocks and spit that hit him as they carried him toward the courthouse, and the crow­bar glancing across his chest, and the pick­ax handle hitting his head, and children biting his legs. “Once or twice, I thought I saw a kind face in the press around me. To each of them I called out for some kind of help.… But nothing happened.” Police be­gan clearing a path to the tree where the other two bodies were hanging, and some­one called out for the rope. Cameron felt numb, encased in ice, and as someone put the noose around his neck and snaked the other end up over a branch, he remembered what his mother had told him about sinners facing death, about the thief on the cross, and he prayed, “Lord, forgive me my sins. Have mercy on me.” In his mind and body and soul, he was dead at that moment, and he stopped thinking.

Suddenly a woman’s voice called out, sharply and clearly, “Take this boy back! He had nothing to do with any raping or killing!”

A silence fell over the mob, as Cameron remembers it. Or perhaps, it was part of his vision — because he recalls that the people around him were struck dumb, that every­one froze, and that he suddenly felt himself surrounded by what seemed to be a film negative and on it were the images of the people in the crowd, and he couldn’t tell anymore if they were black or white.

Then the spell broke. “And hands that had already committed murder, became soft and tender, kind and helpful,” he wrote. “I could feel the hands that had unmercifully beaten me remove the rope from around my neck. Now, they were ca­ressing hands!”

Then the crowd drew back. He saw that many bowed their heads. They couldn’t look at him as he staggered back to the jail.

In the years since the lynching, Cameron has spoken to many white people who were present in the square that night. And no one heard any voice. No one but him. “You were just lucky,” they tell him. But some­thing had stopped the rampage cold, and Cameron knows he didn’t imagine the voice. Sometimes, he can still hear it.

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AND AT WHAT POINT in that evening did someone call my grandfather? To tell him there was something out there he didn’t want to see. Perhaps that’s the problem: we don’t want to see. I was thinking about Cameron’s vision. And that’s my term for it, not his. For in this story of signs and wonders, why should there not be a “vi­sion.” I mean that moment of suspended animation when everyone around him froze and became an image, a negative, and he could no longer tell if those people were black or white. But why didn’t this “vision” appear to the white people — who needed to see it? Maybe it was something they didn’t want to see. Or maybe it had to be entrust­ed to someone whose life depended on it.

In the first hours, days, months following his narrow escape, however, Cameron had a heightened sense of black and white — as the blacks got angrier and the whites got more cruel, or more ashamed.

The four detectives who drove him out of Marion right after the lynching, to a jail in nearby Huntington — they were white. They ordered this beaten and traumatized kid to lie on the floor of the back seat the whole way, for safety, while they cracked jokes like “this nigger back here is as white as a sheet.” Then, in Huntington jail, there was the old man in the facing cell who began apologizing to Cameron — he was white too. He told Cameron he’d had a fight with his own son about going to Marion. The son wanted in on the lynching. “For all I know, he might have been one of the people in the mob. He might have been the one who put that rope around your neck, and caused that rope burn. He had me arrested and put in jail. Told everybody I was crazy. I am sorry, son, sorry to my heart.”

Next day, the white detectives drove him back to Marion. He lay down on the floor beneath a mat while they cruised the court­house, where part of the lynch mob re­mained on guard. The cops crowed gleeful­ly that “those niggers are still hanging on the tree” “and look how their necks have stretched.” One detective called out to a newsboy, bought the day’s paper, and pulled the mat back to show Cameron the front page. There he saw for the first time the infamous photograph of his dead com­panions surrounded by celebrating white people.

Copies of the photo sold briskly to sightse­ers that day for 50 cents apiece. And the bodies hung in the courthouse square till late afternoon when the state attorney gener­al, a notorious Klan opponent, arrived from Indianapolis and personally cut them down.

Cameron, meanwhile, had been delivered to the state reformatory, where white guards gathered around to laugh at his clothing, shredded during the beating, and to ridicule his ashen complexion. But then Cameron saw another group of white guards come in and stare from a distance, tears running down their cheeks. Sorrowful, immobilized, they were unable to be more than Greek chorus to the tragedy.

Sympathy was apparently in such short supply among white people in the Indiana of 1930 that Cameron has never forgotten those who gave it to him. Like those guards. And the old man in the Huntington jail. “They are etched in my memory, stamped upon my heart,” he would later write. But at the time, tears weren’t enough to ease his growing hatred of all whites. For months, Cameron felt sick with rage and wanted to kill a white man, any white man. His stepfather actually lived this out for him within a week of the lynching, going crazy to “kill some white folks,” and managing to shoot nine policemen (none fatally) during a nightlong battle. (He then spent a year in prison.) Naturally, the lynchers went free. A grand jury ultimately concluded that Marion authorities had acted “in a prudent manner” on the night of August 7. Cameron was never even asked to testify.

Granted a change of venue for his own trial, he moved from the state reformatory to a cell in Anderson, Indiana, a town about 30 miles from Marion. Word soon spread that Klansmen from Marion planned to storm the Anderson jail, lynch Cameron, and “break in” the sheriff who’d just taken office there. But Anderson’s new sheriff, Bernard Bradley, turned out to be the first white person in Cameron’s life to make a positive difference. First, he promised his young prisoner that if those Kluxers showed up, he and his deputies would shoot to kill. Bradley had patrols in the streets every night, for weeks. Rumor had it that he had even armed the town’s black residents. Cameron writes that that clinched it for the Klan leaders, who decided not to try anything.

Once the tension eased, Sheriff Bradley called Cameron to his office and announced that he was going to make him a turnkey trusty, which would allow him to leave jail during the day. The sheriff said he didn’t believe Cameron guilty of any rape or murder. “I want you to treat me like a father,” Bradley told him, “and I’ll treat you like a loving son.” Utterly shocked, Cameron studied the sheriff’s eyes and body language, “because no white man had ever spoken to me like that before.” But he decided that “my concentration, my scrutiny, could detect no deceit or falsity.” He came to love this sheriff, this anomaly who’d grown up in an all-white town near Anderson. Cameron could only conclude in retrospect that Sheriff Bradley must have been “a weird sort of person, because he was mysterious and apparently outside natural law. By his nature, he seemed to have belonged to another world.”

Then, one day while Cameron was out in the town of Anderson, he saw a man on a bicycle, riding with a little blond girl perched on the handlebars — both of them laughing. Suddenly Cameron realized that this was one of the raging men who had grabbed him in the Marion jail and pulled him out into the street. And he felt a flicker of intense anger, but mostly he felt confounded by the purely human mystery of it. How could it be that this “happy-go-lucky man with that equally happy child had been capable of doing the thing I knew he had done”?

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I COULDN’T HELP BUT notice that, after the lynching, many of the white people in Cameron’s story were either laughing or crying. As you’ll remember, I’m from the lineage of those who laughed. Though personally, I never got the joke. And when I think of my grandfather, who died when I was 16, I shared Cameron’s sense of bewilderment. I ask myself — how could it be?

Of course, how much can one know about a man who never even told his own family about the circumstances of his birth? All he ever said of his childhood was that he’d seen Buffalo Bill then. He had no family stories, while my grandma told so many. I remember once asking her about his parents, and she said, “We don’t talk about that, because it makes him very sad.”

One day when I was eight or nine, I found his mother’s obituary in a desk drawer. I didn’t know that that’s what it was. Just saw that certain lines had been cut out with a razor blade. Curious, I walked into the living room where everyone was seated, blurting out “Who’s Josie Carr?” No one spoke, but my grandpa got up and took the clipping from my hand. None of us ever saw it again. A search of every little news­paper in and around Marion never turned up another copy. Nor is there a record anywhere of her death. Or for that matter, her life. And certain lines had been cut out with a razor blade.

Now it’s been more than 25 years since I last visited Marion. Months after my grandpa’s death, my father drove us out of the town into farm country to see the little house where my grandpa had been born. Somehow my father had managed to find it again, after visiting once as a child. Sort of. My grandpa hadn’t shared this either, leav­ing my little dad at the end of a dirt road, telling him, “I want to see that house one more time before I die.” And my father remembered that while he waited, he could see a church in the distance with its graves. Now our car was parked at the foot of a rutted road from which we could see that church, its graves. And we were walking through knee-deep grass. Then we came to the little house. Or shed. Some horses were living in it.

My grandfather had a sixth-grade educa­tion. He hated cars, airplanes, speed — mo­dernity. He never learned to drive. There was still a shiny black hitching post out in front of the house. For a hobby, he studied railroad timetables, and knew which trains rode on what tracks all over America. He was always walking to the tracks to watch a train. He named my father after Eugene Debs, the Socialist and trade union man. He did not allow any liquor in the house. He wore a long-sleeved shirt with cuff links every day of his life, and he’d wear the same necktie until it wore out, before he bought another. Always parsimonious, he did the grocery shopping rather than give my grandma any money — buying tongue, green-fried tomatoes, mush, hominy, the fatty cuts of meat. And when he took the family on vacation, it was always the same thing: one day in either Cleveland or Chica­go to window-shop and ride the elevated.

He was part of the intolerance in the town, a narrow man. Yet I can also see him joining the Kluxers for the most painfully human reasons. The Klan made him re­spectable. For awhile there, all the “right people” belonged.

The Klan took over the Indiana Republi­can Party in 1924 and elected a majority of the state legislature. One open Klansman became governor, another the mayor of Indianapolis. Cameron thinks a prominent lawyer ran the Marion group. I read Kath­leen M. Blee’s Women of the Klan, because most of her research focuses on Indiana in the ’20s, where, she concludes, the Klan was an integral part of white Protestant culture: “Far from the popular media image of people with weaknesses of character or temperament or intellect as the Klan’s only adherents, the Klanswomen and Klansmen of the 1920s were more often­ — and perhaps more frighteningly — normal.” Scholars disagree on the number of enrolled members, but it ranges between a quarter million and half a million at a time when Mississippi (for example) initiated 15,000. The indisputable fact is that in the ’20s Indiana had more Kluxers than any other state, though it was 97 per cent white and Protestant.

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The Klan had developed over the years from a raw expression of hate to a more convoluted expression of hate. After the Civil War, it had been a purely terrorist organization. But in the ’20s, the Invisible Empire sold itself as a morality crusade redolent of today’s “traditional values” campaigns. The Klan claimed that Jews, blacks, and Catholics were purveyors of vice and social decay.

Possibly the only white writer to examine what it meant to be white in a segregated society, and this in the ’40s, Lillian Smith analyzed the signs and signifiers of the KKK, pointing out that no one could have dramatized the Return of the Repressed more vividly. These were men dressed in sheets and pillowcases, stalking through the darkness, intent most often on “the symbolic killing of a black male who, according to this paranoid fantasy, has ‘raped’ a ‘sa­cred’ white woman. It is a complete acting out of the white man’s internal guilt and his hatred of colored man and white woman.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that the Invisible Empire in Indiana collapsed in a sex scandal at the end of the ’20s. Apparently, the state’s charismatic Grand Dragon, D.C. Stephenson, had long been notorious among the Klan elite for sexual harassment, attempted rapes, desert­ed wives, and late-night orgies. But his ex­ploits didn’t become public until 1925, when he was arrested for the rape and mur­der of a young woman. Once Stephenson was convicted, many Klan members never attended another meeting, and political in­fighting began to discourage many of those who remained. Again, scholars disagree on an exact figure, but by 1928 membership had declined to somewhere between 4000 and 7000.

The most bizarre stories I found in my research relate to the Indiana Klan’s fixa­tion with Catholics, who were much more of a focus in the Hoosier State than either blacks or Jews. “Escaped nuns” and former “priests” often appeared at Klan rallies to regale their audiences with tales of Roman­ist sadomasochism, kidnapped white Prot­estant girls turned sexual slaves, and “abor­tions forced on nuns by the priests who fathered their babies.” It’s almost funny­ — these porn fantasies of the rubes, but they are a reminder of another fact: everyday life back then was determined in ways we can’t imagine by phantoms, rumors, and myths. Many Klan members anticipated the imminent invasion of the pope, who, it was believed, already had a papal palace under construction in Washington, D.C. Given their loyalty to the “dago on the Tiber,” Catholics were simply not good Americans. Blee recounts this incredible story from an anonymous informant: “Some Klan leader said that the Pope was coming to take over the country, and he said he might be on the next train that went through.… Just trying to make it specific. So, about a thousand people went out to the train station and stopped the train. It only had one passenger [car] and one passenger on it. They took him off, and he finally convinced them that he wasn’t the Pope. He was a carpet salesman.”

My grandfather had a particular hatred for Catholics. I still remember the worried dinner conversations over the possible elec­tion of John F. Kennedy — who would most likely be turning the country over to the pope. Maybe this antipathy helped push him to join his local klavern. I’ll never have an answer to that mystery. When I first learned that he’d been a member, I remem­bered that his was the only one of my relatives’ homes in which I ever saw black people — women from my grandma’s Sun­day school class. And I remembered that my grandma herself was one-quarter Indi­an. But these are the paradoxes of Ameri­can racism.

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LAST AUGUST I WENT to Milwaukee to meet James Cameron.

It was a way to begin to find what had been hidden from me. At the time, I didn’t analyze it beyond that. Certainly there was nothing I could do about my grandfather’s choices, or about a lynching that took place decades before I was born, but somehow I felt I was still living the wages of that sin. A human being was burned or hanged from a tree and you knew it had happened. Or maybe you knew that someone you loved had even participated in it, or condoned it, or laughed at it. The moment embodied in that infamous Marion photograph was a tragedy for everyone there. And I didn’t see a way to set it right. But I could go to Milwaukee.

When I met Cameron, I would have to acknowledge my own connection to that defining moment in his life, and I consid­ered this with some apprehension. As I drove into the neighborhood near his muse­um, I realized I must also be near the paro­chial school where I attended kindergarten and first grade. I was born in Milwaukee, and back then, this area was undergoing “white flight.”

America’s Black Holocaust Museum sits on a quiet street between a public school and a soul food restaurant. Greeting me at the museum’s locked steel door, Cameron is more robust than I expect. He is a soft-­spoken man, a down-home Midwesterner who in many ways has lived an ordinary life. He puts in six days a week at the museum, by himself. As we sit in his small makeshift office, I ask him to talk about his life between the lynching and the present.

First came four years in prison, as an accessory before the fact to voluntary man­slaughter in the death of Claude Deeter. Ordered to serve his parole outside Indi­ana, he moved to Detroit, then returned to Anderson, and finally moved to Milwaukee in 1953, working a series of blue-collar jobs. He worked at a shoeshine parlor, the Delco factory, then a cardboard-box fac­tory. Went to night school to learn air con­ditioning and steam combustion. Worked at a big shopping mall. Retired. Then, went into business for himself as a rug and upholstery cleaner. He attends mass daily. In 1953, he converted to Catholicism, a faith he attributes to the example of Sheriff Ber­nard Bradley. He’s been married for 55 years and raised five children.

But mostly what he’s done for over 60 years is struggle obsessively to bear witness. He began writing A Time of Terror in pris­on, but authorities confiscated the manu­script when he was paroled. By early the next year, he’d written it out again. Once he’d moved to Anderson, he began going back to Marion to interview white people who’d witnessed the lynching. Cameron then rewrote the book about 100 more times as he accumulated nearly 300 rejec­tions before self-publishing. He pulls out pamphlets he’s produced on the Klan, the Confederate flag, the Thirteenth Amend­ment, slavery, Reconstruction, the first civil rights bill, the second civil rights bill… he’s written hundreds. The latest is “Definite and Positive Proof that Free Black Men Did Vote Right Along With Free White Men in the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of Ameri­ca.” Neither an academic nor an activist, he’s out of the loop in which these messages usually get advanced, self-publishing as much as he can afford at $20 per copyright.

He hasn’t even begun to renovate the ex-­boxing school. His exhibits have been packed away for over a year. But Cameron points into the gymnasium where I notice basketball hoops and piles of chairs: “That’ll be my Chamber of Horrors.” That will be the room with, for example, the photo taken in Marion’s courthouse square. Cameron intends to exhibit large pictures in the style of the Jewish Holocaust Muse­um. That’s what inspired him, when he visited during a trip to Israel with his wife, Virginia, in 1979. “It shook me up some­thing awful,” he recalls. “I said to my wife, ‘Honey, we need a museum like that in America to show what has happened to us black folks and the freedom-loving white people who’ve been trying to help us.’ ” He shows me where he intends to put his book­store, his contemplation room, his lecture and screening room. The spaces are still filled with old weightlifting machines, lock­ers, a pool table.

This building is his third location. With $5000 of his own money, he opened the museum in 1988 on the second floor of Milwaukee’s Black Muslim headquarters, then moved to a storefront around the cor­ner, but he never had room to exhibit more than 10 photos or to store many of his 10,000 books on race relations. And, to his utter frustration, he would sometimes go for days without a single person coming in. And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

The approach of his 80th birthday has kindled a sense of urgency. “I got one foot in the grave and the other one got no busi­ness being out,” he chuckles, then sobers. “I wish that book would hurry up and come out so I can get some speaking engagements under my belt and then I can get my money to put that boiler in.”

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Cameron is part of that tradition of Afri­can Americans who would hold this coun­try to her ideals. He would like to replace the word “racism” with “un-American.” He pulls out a copy of Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynchings: “This should be in every home just like the Bible.” I ask him if he’s ever studied history — noting The Rhet­oric of Racial Revolt, The Negro Since Emancipation, Writings by W.E.B. Dubois and stacks of other books in his cluttered office. “Yes,” he replies, “I live in history.”

“My grandparents were from Marion,” I tell him.

“They probably remember it,” says Cameron.

This benign assessment of what I know to be shameful slows me down. “My father remembers it too, even though he was only seven when it happened.”

“Yeah, that made an impression on him. Sure.”

He begins to tell me his story, even though he has said that he doesn’t like to do this one-on-one. It’s still too emotional for him. Showing me a postcard of the Marion jail, he points out where Tommy was, where Abe was, where he was. Almost com­pulsively, he describes how they were beat­en, how he’d found out later that the Mar­ion sheriff, Jacob Campbell, was in the Klan, and how, when the mob was about to hang him, he prayed. “And then this voice spoke from heaven. It was from heaven. No human voice could have quelled the fury of that mob.” Then a great silence fell over the crowd, and he entered what seemed like a room made of film negatives, where he and everyone else was “petrified,” and he couldn’t tell anymore if they were black or white.

I tell him my family’s story, leaving out the cruel part — the laughter. “Then, after he died, we found out that my grandfather was in the Klan.”

“That happens,” he replies.

“All my father said was he never saw a hooded sheet.”

“You know what?” Cameron tells me. “During the roaring ’20s, Indiana had over a half million Klansmen and Marion had the first chapter. They were called the mother den of all the Klans in Indiana. It was an upgoing thing. If you weren’t in the Klan, you were nobody, and that’s what gave them the liberty to lynch black people with impunity. Sure.”

“My grandfather may well have known about the lynching and may well have ap­proved of it.”

“Sure.” He gets up, saying that he has something special to show me, a new arti­fact for the museum. Someone in Marion had sent him one of the Klan’s infamous “souvenirs.” The ropes used to hang Tom­my Shipp and Abe Smith had been cut into pieces and distributed as mementos. Now, from a business envelope, Cameron pulls a piece of nondescript and fraying rope. A handwritten document says that it was ob­tained from the original owner by the man elected sheriff several years after the lynch­ing, and that it was unknown which of the two ropes it came from. “I’m going to put that in a glass case with all kinds of pad­locks on it,” he says, handing it over for me to inspect. “You’re the first one to have seen this.”

In my conversations with Cameron, I found myself constantly astonished at things he mentioned in passing. I would stumble to rephrase a question, not sure I’d heard him right. Most of these little shocks related to his interactions with white peo­ple — not the brutal ones, the “nice” ones. Like the 200-plus white people Cameron found who’d been among the spectators at his near-death. The actual lynch mob prob­ably numbered between 25 and 50. But thousands more had watched. Those Cam­eron interviewed were all happy to see that he’d survived the beating (rumor had it he’d died), but none of them had lifted a finger to ensure that he would survive. And they now demonstrated neither a reluctance to talk nor a wish to apologize.

Then there’s the story about the mayor of Marion, who came to visit Cameron in jail the day of the lynching, bringing with him a red-haired man who had the bottom half of his face covered with a handkerchief. I think we can assume that the redhead was a ringleader, that he’d come to see which three prisoners they’d be taking from the jail, but he remained silent while the mayor asked Cameron how old he was and what his mother did for a living and had he ever been in trouble before. Then the mayor left town “on business” before the lynching be­gan. In 1980, Cameron visited the old may­or and together they looked at the infamous picture taken that night while the mayor named for him nearly every person in it. They were photographed while doing this, for Ebony magazine.

In an old article from the Marion paper, I read a vehement denial from Sheriff Camp­bell’s daughter about his allegiance to the Klan. Not only was he never allied with them, she asserted, but it was his voice that called out that night to save James Camer­on.

When I related this to Cameron, he said, “Isn’t that pitiful?”

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THESE HISTORIC CRIMES are the ghosts still flitting through all of our lives. Perhaps if we white people could take responsibility, reconciliation could happen. But how do we do that? The further we get from these stories and their contexts, the easier it is to say: I wasn’t there; I didn’t do anything. We ignore how much the new stories grow out of old rot. And we can’t acknowledge that we’ve done something that needs forgiving.

But in 1991, Cameron decided that he would ask to be forgiven. He wrote a letter to Indiana governor Evan Bayh, requesting a pardon “for the foolish role I played in the commission of a crime that resulted in the loss of three precious lives.” Cameron said the idea to request a pardon just came to him. He wanted to clear his name before he died. He wanted to “wipe this whole thing clean.” Bayh signed the pardon in February of last year, and Cameron went back to Marion. The mayor gave him a key to the city in a ceremony at a Marion hotel, and Cameron wiped away tears as the in­scription on his pardon was read.

“Now that the state of Indiana has for­given me for my indiscretion,” he told the overflow crowd, “I, in turn, forgive Indiana for their transgressors of the law in Marion on the night of August 7, 1930. I forgive those who have harmed me and Abe and Tom realizing I can never forget the trau­matic events that took place that night.”

See, he did it for us. Wiped it clean.

In a racist society, a white person can not feel “whole.” That was the conclusion reached by Lillian Smith, and I keep going back to her because she is one of the very few to consider what whiteness means, and what its tragedy might be. “Only a few of our people are killers,” she wrote in her analysis of lynching, but she noted the heightened level of violence, how usually the black man was killed several times over, becoming a receptacle for “dammed-up hate” and “forbidden feelings.” There’s a pathology there that leaks out into everyday relationships. Only a few of our people are killers, but we are dissemblers, dehumaniz­ers, averters of eyes, enforcers of a rift in our psyches, and all because we’re wearing the hood — to hide our guilt, our past, and our helplessness in the face of that past. This is why Smith analyzed lynching, in the end, as “a Sign, not so much of troubled race relations, as of a troubled way of life that threatens to rise up and destroy all the people who live it.”

I remember my childhood disquiet with that Bible verse about “visiting the iniqui­ties of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” It was so unfair, yet I worried that it might be true. I no longer know this as the curse of a wrathful God but as the curse we’ve brought on ourselves by refusing to look at our histor­ies. We white people don’t want to feel guilty, of course. And guilt isn’t useful. But, too often, we compensate by feeling noth­ing.

We can at least begin to tell the truth about the past. I decided to, hoping in some way to uplift my race. ■

A Time of Terror will be published next month by Black Classic Press, 410-358-0980. America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, 414-264-2500.

 

Photo of James Cameron who survived a lynching An American Tale the Village Voice

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Body Count: “Cop Killer” to Manslaughter

He’s not a cop; he just plays one on TV. He’s not a cop killer, he just sings about it on a record: “I’m a cop killer, better you than me / Cop killer, fuck police brutality!”

On TV’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, as a compassionate detective, he tracks a serial rapist through NYC in an episode called “Outsider.” In “KKK Bitch” he sings, “She got wild in the backstage bathroom / Sucked my dick like a muthafuckin’ vacuum / Said ‘I love you, but my daddy don’t play / He’s the fuckin’ grand wizard of the KKK.'”

So who is Ice-T? He’s a self-proclaimed orphan who wrote a song inspired by his father on the new Body Count album, Manslaughter. (Both parents died before he was 13.) He’s a seminal African-American rapper with respect from the street and the critics; an OG, original gangster, since the ’80s, who may have written one of the best metal records of 2014. He’s also Tracy Lauren Marrow, 56, and to millions, for nearly 15 years, brusque but humane TV detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola.

The seeming contradictions are what can make Ice-T a polarizing figure — but that’s what they mostly are, seeming. He’s got a gift for being legit in everything he does, hence his success in various musical and media genres. Is he the rapper/metaller with a heart of gold and mouth dirtier than a Superfund site? Maybe. He’s no dilettante, but is a consummate actor, both on screen and stage.

In his distinct, Jersey-by way-of-L.A. voice, he explains his fronting Body Count since 1989. “I’m playing a role. All the time,” he says over the phone. “With acting, it’s your script; I have to do it till you like it. With Body Count, I’m not a cop killer. I never cared to kill no cops. I become the characters, and I take on the rage or the attitude of the song, so it is acting to an extent. More like channeling. Before I do [Dennis Hopper–directed 1988 film] Colors, I become 15 years old and I’m gang-banging again. That’s what a good artist will bring to the stage. If I’m singing ‘Pray for Death,’ I’m really thinking about killing a motherfucker, about my enemy, about this dude I fucking want to torture, and you’ll see it in my face and you’ll hear it in my voice.”

That voice became an aggro metal one in the late ’80s Los Angeles with Body Count, the metal band he founded with Crenshaw High School pal Ernie C. (Cunnigan), now the only other original member of the group: Bassist Lloyd “Mooseman” Roberts was killed in a drive-by in South Central in 2001; guitarist Dennis Miles, aka D-Roc, succumbed to lymphoma in 2004; drummer Victor Ray Wilson, better known as Beatmaster V, died of leukemia in 1996. By the time Body Count got signed to Sire/Warner Bros. in 1991, Ice had established his name as a rapper and actor, thanks most notably to 1991’s O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album, where he introduces Body Count on the record’s 18th track. (He left the label in 1993 following the political fallout from “Cop Killer;” then-President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle were not fans, though Sire supported him and his freedom of speech.)

Detractors and rabid fans, Ice has both, and thanks to SVU, Cunnigan observes, “He’s been in your house for the last 16 years. Your grandmothers know him.” And many have no clue about Ice-T the rapper, let alone the metal frontman, says Cunnigan: “People see our videos and the comments are like, ‘Isn’t that the guy from Law and Order?'”

That said, early buzz for Manslaughter and the revitalized Body Count is loud, credible, and deserved. An appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon further legitimizes the band and closes the loop for Ice-T, star of stage and screen. While Ice did reality TV (Ice Loves Coco) and SVU, living in his home state of New Jersey, Body Count was on somewhat of a hiatus in California, their last album, 2006’s Murder 4 Hire, released eight years ago. While most artists won’t dis previous work, Ice-T is candid: “The last couple albums I mailed in.”

Guitarist Cunnigan concurs, laughing, “I don’t even know what the last record was. We try to forget. This time we sat in the room and wrote a record the way we used to. We stayed damn near in the same house for a month.” Cunnigan, who in high school took the bus from South Central to West Hollywood’s infamous club the Starwood to check out rock gods like Randy Rhoads in Quiet Riot and Eddie Van Halen — along with alt acts like the Blasters and X — is essentially Body Count’s musical director, and for Manslaughter, he and Ice-T put together 13 songs that are incendiary, melodic, heavy, pointed, poignant, dirty, and funny.

“If you don’t get the humor, it’ll scare the shit out of you,” Ice-T says. The album’s title track, “Manslaughter,” refers to — as Ice-T sings in the thrash-metal, shredding guitar and chant-along riff rock tune — how “manhood’s dead. It’s a play on words. Hip-hop got real soft, real pop, now everyone is trying to be politically correct,” he explains.

As expected, and in his trademark clever, foul and biting way, on Manslaughter, Ice-T criticizes the pop culture he’s part of, ranting about Oprah’s dating life, email passwords, and vegans. Socio-“political lyrics are about poverty (“Enter the Dark Side”), the military (the surprisingly tender anthem “I Will Always Love You”), and a friend’s addiction (“Back to Rehab”); in true hip-hop tradition, he pays homage and refers back, covering and updating the Suicidal Tendencies classic “Institutionalized” and a hit from Beyoncé’s husband, “99 Problems.”

“It’s kinda like a sucker punch, to get people asking, ‘Why is Ice-T making Jay Z’s record?'” Ice-T says. “Then somebody can come along and smack the shit out of them. It’s a booby trap on the album.” To wit: “99 Problems” appeared on Jay-Z’s 2004 The Black Album, but the song’s chorus hook is taken from “99 Problems” from Ice-T’s 1993 Home Invasion album. “Now it allows me to play ’99 Problems’ in a Body Count concert,” Ice-T notes.

It’s the rare savvy artist who manages equal success across artistic platforms, and with a little luck, Manslaughter will put Body Count back on the metal map. Ice-T ruminates on his time in the spotlight. “With a movie, you’re gonna get paid whether it sucks or not. TV is more stable. But there’s nothing I’ve done that can compare to being on stage or being a rock star. It’s better than being the fucking president,” he raves. “You stand on that stage, and when you get 10 or 20,000 people there and you can hear a pin drop, and you go, ‘I want a glass of water,’ and you hear everybody go ‘Yeah!’ It’s so raw. It’s the shit.

“It would be wonderful for Body Count to get back to the top of the game,” he laughs, “so people would have to deal with me again.”

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Beautiful and Violent Art from the Civil Rights Movement at New Brooklyn Museum Show Witness

Something is terribly wrong with the sedan in this black-and-white photo: The doors gape open, glass is shattered, dark drips trail down the seat back. In 1965, civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo’s automobile was overtaken by a carload of Ku Klux Klansmen who shot and killed her along a stretch of Alabama highway. Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson’s compelling composition — the angled roof just nips the horizon line, the broken window is sliced by the slanting windshield frame, wheels are abruptly cropped — presents evidence as art.

See more images from this exhibition.

Beauty and violence, art and evidence, tribulation and transcendence — so much sings out from these works, created mostly in the 1960s by 66 artists of different races working in varying mediums.

Gordon Parks leavened theatricality into his photos, which documented the struggles African-Americans faced in a country where too many in the white majority openly fought against, or benignly neglected, racial equality. In a 1963 photo, Malcolm X holds aloft a Black Muslim newspaper with a headline as stern and direct as a line from one of his speeches: “Seven Unarmed Negroes Shot in Cold Blood by Los Angeles Police.” Parks’s portrait of Eldridge Cleaver and his wife, Kathleen, captures a militant couple as striking as matinee idols, not surprising coming from an artist who would go on to direct the 1971 blaxploitation classic Shaft.

In Birmingham 1964, painter Jack Whitten used a nylon stocking to cover a newspaper photo of police dogs attacking protesters, and then centered that image inside a ragged aureole of black paint. Looking back on this collage, Whitten recently said, “My use of the stocking mesh over the photograph was straight out of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, his notion of the Negro having been born with a veil that created a double-consciousness (‘this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’).”

Violence is less overt in Philip Guston’s 1969 painting City Limits, but his ludicrous cartoon Klansmen in a bulbous jalopy exude menacing ignorance. In 1971, Guston said, “I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil? To plan and to plot.” The context of this show reminds us that the bumptious beauty of Guston’s late imagery was partly underpinned by the outrage he felt upon seeing photos like the one of Liuzzo’s bullet-riddled car. Such call-and-response among imagery happens often in this thoughtfully curated exhibition.

In Homage to Nina Simone (1965), painter Bob Thompson applied a rhythmic clash of colors to a classical pastoral scene to channel that virtuoso’s visceral performances. Simone had written “Mississippi Goddam” just the year before, and called her musical litany of Southern perfidy “a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” On a more surreal note, Joe Overstreet painted The New Jemima on an eight-and-a-half-foot-tall structure mimicking a pancake-mix box, the smiling cook blasting away with a machine gun as flapjacks fly like shrapnel.

Any social movement benefits from strong graphic design to convey its message, and Ben Hazard succinctly summarized postwar American history in a stark black-and-white lithograph from 1967 featuring a war plane on top, a mushroom cloud at bottom, and a black man framed by a gun sight in the middle. The only nation ever to use an atomic weapon in anger, the U.S. was in the process of dropping more bomb tonnage on Southeast Asia than it used in all of World War II, and young black soldiers were dying in Vietnam at a higher rate than their white counterparts. Hazard’s image of a black male caught in the crosshairs of American history would resurface decades later in Public Enemy’s logo.

And so it goes. With the Supreme Court recently eviscerating the Voting Rights Act just as it neared its golden anniversary, America still awaits that great road show of racial justice.

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Ku Klux Klan Is Recruiting At Westchester’s Mercy College (According To Sophomoric Flier Found In Residence Hall)

Anyone interested in joining the racist, knuckle-dragging ranks of the Ku Klux Klan is in luck: they’re recruiting — according to an idiotic flier posted at an Upstate college, anyway.

The flier pictured above was posted on the third floor of the Westchester Marriott Hotel in Dobbs Ferry last weekend. The hotel serves as a residence hall for students at Mercy College, so chances are the Ku Klux Klan isn’t actually recruiting in Upstate New York — it’s more likely just a dopey prank by some college-age dipshits.

]
According to the flier, the “meeting” was to be held at a home on Elm Street and Broadway in Dobbs Ferry. The flier claims it was to be hosted by the Mercy College men’s lacrosse team, and lists the names of three players on the team.

Police, however, determined that the flier was probably just a hoax, and the members of the lacrosse team had nothing to do with it — the players listed were reportedly “horrified” when they found out about it.

Police are currently investigating the origin of the flier. Those responsible could potentially face aggravated harassment charges.

“The college has zero tolerance for insensitive and disturbing behavior.
Mercy College’s code of conduct specifies offensive material cannot be
posted anywhere,” the college says in a statement.

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The Ku Klux Klan’s New Ally: The ACLU

Despite being a group of racist, knuckle-dragging hillbillies, members of the Ku Klux Klan are entitled to the same rights as anyone else — so says the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Klan members in a lawsuit over an Adopt-a-Highway program in Georgia.

Just to get the laughter out of the way before we go any further, the Klansman behind the lawsuit, Harley Hanson, considers himself the “exalted cyclops of the Georgia Realm of the International Keystone Knights of the KKK.”

The alliance is odd for a number of reasons. For starters — and as we
mentioned — the KKK is a group of racist, knuckle-dragging hillbillies
that’s hate-filled political agenda goes beyond the realm of despicable.
The ACLU, on the other hand, is one of the leading voices against
racism in America.

In any event, the civil rights group views the case as a First Amendment
issue, and is trying to downplay the fact that it’s aiding a bunch of
racists who want to adopt a highway.

About two weeks ago, the Georgia Department of Transportation rejected
the Klan’s application to adopt a highway in Union County because,
well…the Klan is made up of racist, knuckle-dragging hillbillies with
titles for its members like “exalted cyclops.”

“Exalted Cyclops” Hanson, however,doesn’t live in Union County, which is
part of the reason the DOT gave for denying the Klan’s application.

From the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

Instead, [Hanson] lives in Morganton in Fannin County, which he described
as “a mile or two from the Union County border.” But he said the KKK’s
headquarters is in Blairsville. He said it also has a physical
headquarters there but would not provide specifics.

“That’s one of the secrets we do have,” he said, adding that the fact
that he lives in Fannin has no bearing on the Adopt-a Highway
application. “It doesn’t matter where we live, it’s irrelevant to the
case.”

Irrelevant or not, Union County officials aren’t exactly thrilled
with the idea of government-issued road signs applauding the Ku Klux
Klan for cleaning up a highway in their county.

“We don’t know why they picked Union County,” Union County
Commissioner Lamar Paris, a native of the county and the top elected
official for a dozen years, tells the ACJ. “They could have easily chosen the last mile
of Fannin County as opposed to the first mile in Union County.”

Aside from confirming to the ACJ that it’s involved in the lawsuit,
the ACLU isn’t saying much about its decision to help a gang with the
mission of promoting hate and violence — the group is yet to return our
call requesting comment.

We’ll let you know if we hear back. Check back for updates.

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Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story

Racism, rebellion, and filmmaking ethics intertwine in Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, a documentary by Raymond De Felitta that focuses on a 1965 NBC News piece by De Felitta’s father, Frank, about Booker Wright, a waiter and shop owner in Greenwood, Mississippi. In that 47-year-old film, the good-natured Wright admitted to his—and, by extension, all African Americans’—use of a subservient smile to mask anger and hurt at segregation, a candid confession that further fanned the flames of racial tensions in KKK-saturated Greenwood and led to Wright losing his job, having his establishment trashed, suffering a severe beating, and, three years later, being shot to death. Director De Felitta’s excessive use of mournful piano and expressionistic visuals (a grasshopper trapped in a jar, headlights peering through the dark) interferes with his otherwise graceful black-and-white aesthetics, which place a premium on not only archival clips and photos, but also on past and present close-ups of Mississippi men and women. Frank De Felitta’s guilt over having aired the footage is moving, yet it’s ultimately countered by this piercing film’s stance—promoted by the subject’s proud children and grandchildren—that Wright’s statements, far from a slip of the tongue, were an intentional act of courageous defiance.

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Honoring the Voice Senior Film Critic’s New Book, An Army of Phantoms, at BAM

A new book by an obscure film writer with the suspicious handle “J. Hoberman”—a blacklist pseudonym?—occasions this 14-title salute at BAM, curated by the author himself. Moving from the immediate post–World War II period to Eisenhower’s re-election in 1956, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War collates action in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and around the 38th parallel, defining the era as one in which collective drama was “elevated to a cosmic struggle against National Insecurity for possession of the Great Whatzit” by the movies.

That “Whatzit” refers to the doomsday device Ralph Meeker’s swinging detective seeks in Kiss Me Deadly (1955), one of several classic zeitgeist-condensations in the series, along with Johnny Guitar (1954), starring HUAC-friendly witness Sterling Hayden in the title role, with Ben Cooper tortured into naming names.

On other fronts, Gregory Peck leads a detail of misfit soldiers attempting to hold a mountain pass against hordes of Apaches in Gordon Douglas’s wasteland cavalry Western Only the Valiant (1951), which can be taken as a Battle of Thermopylae replay or a containment-policy primer. The latter reading is encouraged by a double-feature pairing with Rear Admiral John Ford’s grudging, trudging frontline doc This is Korea! (1951), in which artillery and napalm pour endlessly onto an invisible enemy that is always, maybe, over the next frozen hill.

Introducing one of pop culture’s most enduring flexible metaphors, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) leads the sci-fi contingent, in which screen space invaders are suggested as stand-ins for Commies. Nothing, however, seems so much set on another planet as Storm Warning (1951), in which Ginger Rogers hooks up with D.A. Ronald Reagan to break the code of silence around the “Ku Klux Klan” in a small California town. Part of the film’s premise is that the KKK isn’t explicitly involved in racial terror; other than a violent prejudice against “out-of-town” folks, they might pass for a hooded Kiwanis Club.

As we breathlessly anticipate One Tree Hill star Paul Johansson’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, King Vidor’s one-of-a-kind, Rand-y melodrama The Fountainhead (1949) will have to tide us over. Uncompromised individualist architect Gary Cooper rails against classicist porticoes and, by sheer willpower, fills the Manhattan skyline with International-style matte paintings. Monumental camp right up to the climactic elevator-ride into Cooper’s crotch, The Fountainhead endures as hardline anti-collectivist Russian émigré Rand’s gift to her adopted country: a blueprint for a popular art as irony-dumb and straitjacketed as the Socialist Realism Stalin was pushing back home.

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Studies in Crap: ’30s Texas History Textbook on Lazy Indians, Idle Negroes, and Awesome White Folks!

Each Thursday, your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from basements, thrift stores, estate sales and flea markets. I do this for one reason: Knowledge is power.

The Lone Star State: A School History

Author: C.R. Wharton
Date: 1932
Publisher: The Southern Publishing Company
Discovered at: Submitted by a Dallas Junior Crap Archivist

Representative Quote:
“Thousands of the flower of Texas’ manhood had been left on the battlefields while mothers, widows, and orphans mourned them throughout the desolate land. Freedom of the slaves meant the loss of one-fourth of the property owned by the people of Texas.” (page 224)

It turns out that all of American history is decided by Texas, the state that nobody’s supposed to mess with even though it used to get its ass stomped by Mexico. Last year the State Board of Education stunned America by suggesting that Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez be stripped from textbooks. Then, the governor got so mad about poor people maybe getting health insurance that he fantasized about secession, which sounds crazy only until you remember that in its first 15 years of statehood, Texas managed to quit both Mexico and the U.S., because that’s what patriots do.

Dentist Don McLeroy, of the Texas Board of Education, recently explained that his decision to edit brown folks out of textbooks has something to do with freedom: “We have an obligation to Texas to make sure [students] understand the original principles upon which America was founded.” The board votes this month on the changes.

To help them out, your Crap Archivist has boned up on how textbooks explained the principles upon which Texas was founded. Here’s how the The Lone Star State: A School History describes the early Texans’ conflicts with Mexico:

“It was impossible for two peoples of different racial origins, speaking different languages, and having different religious views and laws, to mix without trouble.”

And here is author C.R. Wharton on Native Americans:

  • “The Spaniards should have known from common sense that there was about as much possibility of civilizing the Indian as there was of taming lions and tigers.”
  • “The Indians were troublesome and stole everything they could.”
  • “The Indians did not like to work and often ran away or, in savage fashion, raided the missions and killed the priests… the Indians were lazy and neglected crops and herds.”

Wharton was wrong to write these things because today we know that Native Americans should not be mentioned at all.

Eventually, “people from the U.S. came and claimed the land after years of savagery.” Texas became a state, and then quit to be a Confederate state, and then became a regular state again. As the proposed schoolbook standards make clear, that meant only one thing: The federal government must be limited. For example, after the Civil War, Washington forced Texas’ Native Americans onto reservations, where they subsisted on meager government aid. Wharton made clear that this was unfair to everyone.

“Nor did this handling of the Indians suit the white people. They worked hard to make a living without the assistance of the government and they resented the government’s aid to the Indians.”

Damn that special treatment!

Wharton may complain about other races, but that doesn’t mean he’s interested in them. His first chapter concerns the earliest Spanish explorers and ends with this sentence:

“One hundred and forty-two years went by before a white man came again.”

The next chapter picks up exactly 142 years later. Some fifty pages after that, once he’s described the failure of Spanish missionaries to convert the natives, Wharton announces:

“We are now at the real beginning of Texas history. All that happened in the three hundred years after Pineda sailed our shores and Cabeza de Vaca tramped from Galveston Island to the Rio Grande was of little importance.”

The lesson is one the state board has taken to heart: The parts of history that bore you don’t matter.

That also applies to parts of the world your people haven’t made it to yet!

Anyway, the tyrannic federal government told Texans that the black people they could no longer own now had the right to vote. The results:

“The negroes had been given the right to vote and the ‘carpet baggers’ controlled them and their votes for selfish reasons.”

And:

“When the ‘carpet baggers’ arrived, they deceived and pampered the negroes and soon had them loafing about the country in idleness, homeless and helpless. Southern farmers could not get them to stay at home and work.”

Why does this all sound so familiar?

Wharton believes things got worse.

“These ‘carpet baggers’ even gave the negroes uniforms and guns, thereby making the latter very impudent and causing whites much annoyance.”

The solution?

“Finally, a mysterious order of the southerners called the Ku Klux Klan came into existence to scare the negroes into behaving. They rode throughout the country at night clothed in white robes and high hats telling the negroes they were ‘haunts’ from the dead of the battlefields.”

The book’s one other Klan reference:

“The political situation was complicated by the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, a fraternal order organized in a system of secret clubs or lodges just after the World War. Hundreds of thousands of people had joined the order and it gave support to Judge Felix D. Robertson, of Dallas, for governor.”

Speaking of governors, the only explanation for these boys’ beards must be that the ZZ Top hot rod can travel through time.

Assorted Ironies:

  • Change “colonists” to “Texans,” and this statement could fit right in to tomorrow’s textbooks:

“The colonists hoped for a day when they would govern themselves and have their laws written in English.”

“The Mexican government was very liberal with the colonists, made them large grants of land, and did not require them to pay taxes. Commerce was unrestricted and special grants were made for gins, saw-mills and other special businesses.”

  • Tensions between Texan colonists and the Mexican government escalated when president Bustamante passed a cruel 1830 law “prohibiting further immigration from the United States.” Wharton gets so worked up about this he might as well work for La Raza:

    “Such an act would have kept relatives and friends of the settlers from joining them in their new homes.”

 

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Free Will Astrology

ARIES (March 21–April 19): Though one of the closest stars to our sun, Teegarden’s star was unknown to as
tronomers until 2003. Located in the constellation of Aries, it’s a red dwarf with relatively modest heat and luminosity, and moves very fast compared to other stars. Let’s make Teegarden’s star your metaphor of the month for June. I predict that you’ll discover and engage with a major presence that has always been close to you but low-key—a quick, understated influence that has never before captivated your attention.

TAURUS (April 20–May 20): The editors of Harper’s magazine took a survey of American organizations devoted to bigotry. They counted 151 different neo-Nazi groups, 163 chapters of the KKK, 62 congregations of Christian Identity, 48 skinhead cults, and 29 black separatist movements. But five states harbored none of these groups at all—Iowa, Alaska, Maine, and North and South Dakota. Racism undoubtedly exists there, but not so much that anyone feels a burning drive to formally organize the hatred. Take your cue from these relatively enlightened oases in the coming week, Taurus. Be a master of peace, acceptance, compassion, and optimism—especially when you brush up against people who are exuding derisive, judgmental cynicism. Do it for your own health as much as for your environment’s.

GEMINI (May 21–June 20): This week’shoroscope draws on the wisdom of Gemini philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. His soaring perspective is a perfect fit for your current astrological omens. Here’s the first: “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” Emerson

2: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.” Here’s your third Emersonian clue: “He who is not every day conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.” Let’s finish up with this battle cry, Emerson

4: “Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

CANCER (June 21–July 22): In her CD Spiritual Madness: The Necessity of Meeting God in Darkness, Caroline Myss tells us that wading through messy darkness is an essential part of our search for meaning. She doesn’t recommend that we avoid chaos at all costs, or even just accept it with resignation. Rather, we should welcome it as a gift that can teach us crucial secrets about how to become ourselves. I agree with Myss. That’s why I advise you not to resent the confusion before you. And don’t just mindlessly clean it up as fast as you can, either. Instead, dive into it. Celebrate it. Allow it to change you into a riper, wiser, more beautiful soul.

LEO (July 23–Aug. 22): “Dear Rob: Thanks for writing your horoscopes. You make me laugh even when life is pelting me with stones. You comfort me, teach me, bring me back from deluded daydreams, give me realistic goals to daydream about, kick my butt into gear when I need it, and tell me when it’s safe to kick others’ butts when they need it. You rock the foundations of my world! —Grateful Leo.” Dear Grateful: What’s amazing is that your allies and loved ones need you to bestow on them the exact blessings you’ve just ascribed to me. It’s prime time for you to be a towering role model, a servant of the greater good, the feisty leader of your tribe.

VIRGO (Aug. 23–Sept. 22): Your relationship with time seems to be one of your biggest problems. There’s never enough of it. You’re always fighting against the limitations it imposes. It frustrates you and even hurts you. But let me ask you this: Can you imagine yourself cultivating a more friendly and cunning relationship with time? Are you able to visualize the prospect of you and time becoming more like allies than adversaries? How would it feel to regard time as a loving taskmaster that compels you to realize you can’t do everything and must therefore focus on only your brightest dreams and truest pleasures? This is a perfect moment, astrologically speaking, for you to attempt this magic.

LIBRA (Sept. 23–Oct. 22): Do you think you could arrange to drive a car equipped with a jet engine through desert salt flats at 200 miles per hour? Given
the current astrological omens, that would be my first recommendation for you. If that’s not possible, would you consider enrolling in circus school and learning how to be safely and elegantly shot out of a cannon? And if neither of those two alternatives are likely, Libra, please somehow stir up a visceral sense of moving speedily toward the future.

SCORPIO (Oct. 23–Nov. 21): “Dear Rob: Can you give me a rational explanation for why Scorpio is the most hated and feared sign of the zodiac? When I tell someone I’m a member of that tribe, the usual reaction is along the lines of ‘Ooohhh, a Scorpio,’ in the same way someone would say ‘Ooohhh, a horribly disfigured, compulsively evil, sexually deviant sideshow freak.’ —Sick of Being Dissed.” Dear Gorgeous Crafty Rebel Lover: I have some good news for you—2007 is Scorpio Rehabilitation Year, and June is Scorpio Glorification Month. To take advantage of these milestones, all you need to do is vividly express your most beautiful qualities. Leave the rest to the universe.

SAGITTARIUS (Nov. 22–Dec. 21): Here are a few of the fine improvements I expect you to have accomplished by the end of June: tips on how to live well in two worlds; an addition to the reasons why people find you attractive; a crash course that helps you become more fluent in the language of intimacy; richer, more interesting feelings than you’ve experienced in a long time; and practical insights into how to avoid being flustered by paradoxes that have driven you crazy in the past.

CAPRICORN (Dec. 22–Jan. 19): “If you make people think they’re thinking,” said author Don Marquis, “they’ll love you; but if you
really make them think, they’ll hate you.” My objective in this week’s horoscope is to prove him wrong: I want you to love me for making you really think. In the hope of accomplishing this goal, I’m giving you the assignment of revising two of your long-standing opinions or theories about the way the world works. As you aggressively seek out the information that will help you change your mind, try to feel tender compassion for me, the wise guy who’s asking you to undertake such an arduous and potentially rewarding task.

AQUARIUS (Jan. 20—Feb. 18): When my friend Keith and I were in college in the early 1980s, we were extravagant ambassadors for poetry. On weekends we’d roam from party to party, reciting Neruda poems to audiences of drunk punks and declaiming Ginsberg verses as we teetered on the tops of cars. On occasion we’d scrawl our own poems on the walls of strange living rooms or improvise surrealistic spoken-word rants in the streets, begging for alms. Years later, I write a syndicated astrology column that might be described as a stealth poetry invasion, and Keith is a producer for a national news broadcast, onto which he sometimes brings noted poets to close the show with a lyrical splash. So now I ask you, Aquarius: What raw passion would you like to turn into a polished gig in the future? Now is a good time to make a deep commitment to it.

PISCES (Feb. 19—March 20): “I usually solve problems by letting them devour me,” wrote Franz Kafka. That’s an interesting approach, I guess, and though it might work for a fire sign or air sign, it’s not a wise policy for you Pisceans. In fact, I urge you to fervently resist any temptation you might have to allow your problems to gobble you up. On the contrary, be like a gargantuan sea monster in the midst of the perfect storm. Rise up as high as the dark sky and growl back at the thunder. Shoot flames from your mouth at the lightning. Become too big and ancient and wild to ever be devoured.

Homework What does this mean to you: “In the same way that you judge others, you will be judged”? Comment by going to realastrology.com and clicking on “Email Rob.”

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‘Something to Cheer About’

In 1927 Indianapolis, the Ku Klux Klan opened the all-black Crispus Attucks High School with the intention of keeping black children out of allegedly superior white schools. The plan backfired, and Attucks became one of the premier schools in the entire country. By the 1950s, it was also home to one of the greatest basketball teams in the country, led by future immortal Oscar Robertson. Several Attucks Tigers, all spry and thoughtful 50 years on, are on hand here to retrace old footsteps on the hardwood and claim their place in history, but Betsy Blankenbaker’s doc
doesn’t possess the kinetic charge of the tale itself; it’s too reliant on talking heads and faded photos. Cheer feels amateurish for a generation raised on sports films. Shoulda been a slam-dunk too.