A dark and bloody his­tory

The Covington News - - Opinion -

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.

Robert Lamb

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