A dark and bloody history
I have a great affinity for the south. I spent much of my early years in rural and small-town Tennessee and hardly a day goes by without the sights and sounds of those days floating up to the surface of memory: watching the old men whittle on the court square, floating on Kentucky Lake under a July sun and listening to the cicadas swarm in their regular cycles of death and rebirth.
I remember coming across old homesteads in the woods, the families who lived there long relocated by the Tennessee Valley Authority to make room for a new age of hydroelectric power. The buttercups always came back, though, spring after spring, cycle after cycle, to line what was once a walkway to a long-lost home.
A lot of things are like that. You see the faint shadow of how things used to be, even when you’re not supposed to.
We have a lot to be proud of in the South, from such flagship attractions as our food and our music to the odd little bits of the absurd that fill the corners of our culture. Where else can you enjoy Howard Finster, fried green tomatoes and the sequined, rhinestone country western suits of Nudie Cohn?
But there’s more to our past than good times and local color. There’s the Civil War, slavery, the plight of the American Indians — all the same shades of humanity at its worst you can find in just about any cultural heritage. So much of our faith and artistic expression is an attempt to make sense of the darkness that came before. Indeed, what do we do everyday but face the reality that, as humans, we’re destined to keep making the same mistakes?
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have a decent education and attentive parents who didn’t mind taking a few minutes to answer difficult questions. But so much of what we learn, we absorb on a cultural level — from the versions of the past and present you see taken
It’s much like those rows of butter cups leading to vanished houses. You can’t just erase such a streak of brutal violence from a culture; you can’t just ignore the remnants and pretend it didn’t
at face value in TV and movies, in the casual comments and polite histories you encounter everyday. Looking back, I can’t help but feel a lot of things were glossed over, made tamer by polite fictions and omissions.
Last July, The Covington News ran an article about the 1946 Moore’s Ford lynching that occurred in near-by Monroe. A reenactment was held by civil rights activists, depicting the horrible events that transpired that hot summer evening. Two black men and two black women, one of whom was pregnant, were pulled from a car and shot to death beneath the bridge. One of the men, Roger Malcolm, was partially castrated, and Dorothy Malcolm’s unborn child was ripped from her corpse.
No one was ever brought to justice for the crimes.
Even in writing this column, I’m shocked at the savagery — that something so vile could happen so close, so relatively recently. And, in reading that story and discussing it with reporters, my eyes have been opened to these dark chapters in our southern heritage. Lynchings weren’t the sanitary hangings of afternoon westerns; they weren’t simply the bad deeds of a few bad apples. Women and children were sometimes present at these horrific events. Pastors attended. Postcard photos of burned and tortured bodies were sent through the mail to friends and loved ones. There are even accounts of bits of blackened bone being handed out as souvenirs. An estimated 5,000 lynchings took place in the post-Civil War period, and 85 percent of those crimes took place in the South.
After we published the story dealing with the Moore’s Ford lynching, The Covington News received a few complaints. Some accused us of buying into the misinformation of activists. Others insisted that stirring up the past did no one any good. One letter to the editor labeled our coverage of the reenactment “macabre” and urged everyone involved to “put their demons to rest.”
Forget the past, they insisted, even as some of the very men who perpetrated the crime still lived — maybe even skipped over the very article with a guilty heart.
There is a tendency to gloss over these shameful chapters from our past, to frame it in terms of a few bad men, a few unfortunate victims, simple hangings devoid of terror and torture. Certainly, it wasn’t covered in my junior high or high school history courses. It’s the sort of thing that often gets pushed to the bottom, kept in the shadows.
It’s much like those rows of butter cups leading to vanished houses. You can’t just erase such a streak of brutal violence from a culture; you can’t just ignore the remnants and pretend it didn’t happen.
It’s an old adage, but you have to remember where you came from, the culture you were born into, warts and all. You have to be able to recognize that we, as humans, are capable of rationalizing the vilest of things, just as we’re capable of such beauty, such amazing kindness and wonder when we set our minds and hearts to it. None of us have to be reminded of the fate for those who forget the past — there’s a sprawling timeline of racial intolerance stretching back through the ages to remind us.
When last I visited Tennessee, the cicadas were dormant, asleep under the ground, out of sight and out of mind. I’d be a fool to think they wouldn’t, couldn’t come back some day, just because I’d forgotten how their songs once filled the night.