A Confederate Defender at the Ground Zero of Civil Rights Marches
Marooned in the lot of the Bedbug Budget Motel on the edge of Selma, Alabama, I sat beside Kristen in our rental car, trying to stifle my laughter. Ever the intrepid journalist, Kristen already scored a great contact on our first morning in town. We hoped to talk to the town’s warring parties over the placement of a memorial to Klan founder and Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, which had been beheaded. Now Kristen captured one of the warriors on her smart phone! I was laughing because Kristen was being so professional and well-mannered, while the woman she’d contacted was being belligerent and resistant, saying something about “carpetbaggers who don’t know anything about the South.”
That was us. Northern know-nothings. Carpetbaggers, complete with fresh bedbugs.
Here’s Kristen’s account of her conversation with this Friend of Forrest defender from her chapter, “Ghost Moon Over Alabama.” This also includes her insights into Selma’s place in Civil Rights history, where the battles still rage over who should and should not be commemorated:
Confederate patriot Patricia Godwin shot a question right back when I asked her how to find the controversial monument to Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest in the cemetery in Selma, Alabama.
“How’d you get here from Colorado if you can’t even find Selma’s cemetery?” she asked.
I’d already explained to Mrs. Godwin, who is a Friend of Forrest, that Lee and I were writers from Colorado researching the South and that we wanted to see what remained of the memorial, located in one of the two Live Oak Cemeteries in Selma. The seven-foot granite monument once had Forrest’s bust atop it and was used for target practice with rotten fruit before finally disappearing in March 2012, provoking a battle over its restoration.
“We could be here until the twelfth of Never and you wouldn’t understand the South or what it means to be Southern,” she said. “Why can’t you people just leave us alone? We just want to be left alone, just like we wanted to be left alone in 1861. You people come here and make history political. And don’t even get me started on slavery. That’s a time we cannot relate to. Every time someone puts a pen to paper or finger to keyboard they get it wrong. I will not talk with anyone about slavery. That’s something I had nothing to do with.”
Mrs. Godwin spoke in a breathless rush of aggrieved accusation. … She kept repeating: “I’m not going to talk with you.” Then she would launch into another tirade about people like me.
“Not everyone can be Southern,” she said. “It’s a God-given gift. Not even all Southerners are Southern. But you have to be born in the South to understand the South. Nobody can understand what my people went through in those four years of war.”
She asked me how I defined the word racist.
“Someone who doesn’t see people as individuals, but only in terms of their race.”
Mrs. Godwin paused, evidently considering that. “My definition of a racist is someone who perpetuates and defends their race,” she countered.
Making me a racist by default since I had two little white babies, definitely perpetuating the white race.
“Racist and racism were words invented by Leon Trotsky,” Mrs. Godwin declared. “The words were designed to shut down talk.”
Making racism a made-up, communist propaganda point? Or was it the noble act of perpetuating and defending your race? Could it be both?
Mrs. Godwin believed that Selma’s Nathan Bedford Forrest monument was a sure-fire tourist magnet and that its opponents were crippling development.
“Confederate Circle will be an historical learning site,” she wrote potential donors, painting a picture of more Confederate battle flags, historical markers, wrought iron park benches, and re-landscaping with Southern trees, flowers, and shrubs.
It was difficult to imagine how LED lighting, and flags would improve the ghost-whispering Southern landscaping at Live Oak Cemetery. Statues of sorrowful angels, corroded by the weather and blackened by age, their faces spoiled, eyes black holes, mark the graves. When we were there, a late afternoon’s slanting sunlight made golden the alleys of trees, hung with ragged gray lace, ruined fingers of Spanish moss draping their branches. The moss was almost monstrous; spider webs caked with dust; ghostly yet graceful. Here were transience, death, and dreams made visible.
Construction cluttered the cemetery’s center. Within yellow tape, we found a monument to the Southern generals, a confederate flag, and the empty pedestal meant for Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust. The scene was meaningful. Commemorative statues to Confederate war heroes litter the South. Should they stand behind construction tape, symbolizing the ongoing need to build and rebuild the mythic memory of the gracious lost cause; or should it be crime scene tape around them, because these men fought for slavery?
The questions over Southern commemorations couldn’t be clearer. Who had the power to decide what should be remembered and celebrated? Would it be a memory that everyone could celebrate, or only a few? How could African-Americans—or anyone appalled by slavery—celebrate Confederate “heroes”? Was the flip side equally true? Were Civil Rights monuments just for the descendants of former slaves?
“Our history began long before Martin Luther King came here,” Mrs. Godwin had told me with great bitterness.
* * * *
Civil Rights leaders chose Selma in part because it had a sheriff, Jim Clark Jr., cast in the Bull Connor mold. Martin Luther King and others learned in Birmingham that brutal sheriffs with bad judgment allowed Americans from Alaska to Maine to witness racist injustice in a way that a million sermons and court cases could not. Sheriff Clark made Selma the perfect stage for the voting rights struggle. Selma’s white power structure, disenfranchised blacks, and brutal sheriff would focus the nation’s attention on voting rights.
That’s exactly what happened. At the start of the Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights on March 7, 1965, six hundred marchers made their way across the Selma side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Fifty troopers stood shoulder to shoulder at the other end, another fifty deputized white men behind them. The marchers, armed only with bedrolls for the fifty-four mile walk to Montgomery, realized they weren’t even going to make it across the bridge. A trooper warned them they had two minutes to disperse, but as soon as he spoke troopers began donning gas masks and were ordered forward.
The kneeling, praying marchers scrambled to their feet as the troopers attacked them with tear gas and clubs. John Lewis, the future U.S. representative from Georgia, was beaten unconscious. The deputized whites threw themselves into the melee. Afterwards, the Civil Rights supporters reorganized themselves at the A.M.E. Brown Chapel. The troopers’ violence inspired thousands of people from across the country to come to Selma and join them.
“What happened in Selma … is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said in a message to Congress on March 15, 1965. “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
* * * *
Touches of architectural elegance look out from Selma onto the green, soft banks of the Alabama River. The town, in character as part as frontier South, boasts far more Western-looking storefronts than does most of the West.
Selma has one fine old hotel, the St. James, an antebellum place where slave traders stayed, then Confederate officers, and then, when it was their turn, Union officers. Benjamin Sterling Turner, a slave who ran the St. James before the war, became Selma’s first black tax collector and was elected twice as a U.S. representative during Reconstruction. A man who secretly taught himself to read and write, and who fought for the restoration of Confederate soldiers’ rights, he lays buried in Selma’s beautiful Live Oak Cemetery. He deserves a monument.
Selma’s disrepair and decay felt hopeless to Lee. I wasn’t so sure. With good leadership, couldn’t the rear-end collision between the Civil War and Civil Rights become an evolution? Couldn’t it be unmoored from the old nightmares?
Lee and I walked over the broad Edmund Pettus Bridge to the scruffy former Voting Rights Museum, which had moved into new digs in town. We wandered through the Voting Rights Park, a place choked with kudzu, Spanish moss, and graffiti. Selma sleepily totters on the eastern bank of the wide river, its resentful, thuggish, and graceful ghosts out in midday. There’s an air of what novelist Tom Franklin, talking about a similar place in Mississippi, described as a “defeated feel, a lingering of old sin that makes it sweet in a rotting kind of way.”
…Lee and I, from a West bloodied by its own Indian wars, were naïfs in that bloodied place, wandering through the antebellum St. James Hotel, peaking in through arched windows at the foliage filling the ruined foundry that had supplied the Confederacy. Selma’s relentless sense of history wasn’t a motionless mural depicting past dramas, or even a sociological case study of rural poverty and the lingering damage from slavery and segregation. Its history in fact was alive, either slithering alongside us as we walked, threatening to pull us in and trip us up with its sticky tendrils, or pulling us along on feathered wings of hope. It was up to each of us to decide how we saw it, how we embraced its breathing energy.
Overlooking Selma before we left town, Kristen had a lot more hope for its future than I did. Kristen even said she’d invest in Selma if she could, that it’s sure to come back, its empty historic storefronts just awaiting development. I never would; though it’s true that there’s a kind of faded grandeur about the place, I felt pretty hopeless about Selma’s future, those imploding buildings and vanished businesses. What I felt was a void, as if, if it were out West, tumbleweed would be rolling across the vacant lots and listless streets.
When we’d crossed the Pettis Bridge on foot, this iconic site in America’s freedom struggle ended abruptly in weeds . Across the busy road, there were vestiges of river walkways that now treaded pointlessly, without guidance or interpretation, into a jungle of mossy woods tangling the river banks. Empty storefronts that catered to a vanished commemorative tourism were soaped over. Amateur artworks faded in old kiosks.
There was nothing across the river now, making the historic span seem an afterthought, a bridge to nowhere.
FRESH CONFLICT ON THE FREEDOM RIDERS TRAIL IN ANNISTON
Fresh from following my great-grandfather’s Civil War battles of the 1860s in Tennessee, I entered Alabama for the first time, determined to follow the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. I dropped George off at the Atlanta airport and picked up our project co-author, journalist Kristen Hannum. We were bound for Anniston, just beyond the Georgia state line.
The small city intrigued us as the site of KKK terrorism against the1961 Freedom Riders, mostly students who attempted to integrate bus lines and stations throughout the deep South by traveling from station to station as mixed racial groups. We wanted to know what the town was like today and how it commemorated its notorious, violent chapter in American history more than fifty years later.
We had no idea we would arrive in Anniston just when vandals would try to burn that history away.
Nearing the border, Kristen and I left the mind-numbing Interstate—which makes all American landscapes the same coast-to-coast, one bulldozed corridor—and escaped onto the old highway. This was the Freedom Riders’ route on the pre-Interstate two-lane blacktop. At first, aiming the rental car along the old highway felt creepy, considering the Freedom Riders’ horrible fate ahead. The landscape changed from flat cropland to dark, dense forest as soon as we entered Alabama.
But the countryside’s beauty transformed us from creeped-out to awestruck. Rolling countryside wove through tiny railroad towns, the main streets lined with century-old store fronts with elaborate facades. Mostly, though, the route traced gentle forest and meadow throughout the Talladega National Forest, cut through here and there by handsome rural holdings. We even got happily lost, taking far-flung side roads because the scenery was so pleasurable, the brisk sky so fine and clear.
Enfolded by the national forest, a wildlife refuge, and the undulating hills of northeast Alabama, Anniston beckoned ahead, looking much more promising than we expected.
Would its physical setting inspire a unique community—similar to scenic Western towns where surrounding nature nestled harmoniously, as in Ashland, Oregon; Sedona, Arizona; or Boulder, Colorado? Driving down Anniston’s main drag, Noble Street, we quickly learned the answer: no.
Anniston’s business district starred only a long-abandoned movie house, so dilapidated its last feature really might have been The Last Picture Show. Quick-loan shops and the inevitable beauty suppliers held out between empty storefronts, all pocked by parking lots. Grand facades and stone construction belied bygone glory. A few mid-rise buildings amid the emptiness suggested a depopulated place trying to audition as a much larger town. Planter boxes suggested languishing efforts at beautification and renewal. Little-town sprawl snaked into hillside strip malls.
Kristen’s writing on Anniston captures our move from first impressions to quick escape, all featuring her unreliable and unpleasant fellow traveler, “Lee” (you know, me), who…
….also seemed just slightly road ragged, still moving even when we’d stopped, still fascinated but a touch overwhelmed. “I keep thinking I forgot my passport,” he confessed. “It really does feel like another country.”
Lee sat at our motel room’s miniature table, reading an article about the 1961 Freedom Rider bus firebombing in Anniston that had run in the Anniston Star on the fiftieth anniversary of that violence.
“Oh my God,” he kept muttering.
The Supreme Court had found segregation to be unconstitutional in its 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision, but it was still the law of the land in Alabama. In May 1961, the Freedom Riders, blacks and whites together, boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses to challenge the South’s enforced segregation—specifically illegal by 1961 because it violated federal laws governing interstate travel. The Freedom Riders were traveling from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. They would sit next to one another, amidst other travelers, and at least one of the black riders would sit up front, in the part of the bus reserved—illegally—for whites. At stations and rest stops they would eat at the same counters and use the same restrooms.
In 1961 you could get killed for doing those things.
America’s Christian terrorists, the KKK, with logistical assistance from state troopers and local police forces, planned to first attack the Freedom Riders in Anniston and then, should a bus make it that far, in Birmingham. The KKK would teach the Freedom Riders a bloody lesson and send them home, dead, injured, or just scared.
Lee leaned back from his computer. “The mob had come from church,” he said. “It was Mother’s Day. Some of them were still dressed for church.”
The Anniston thugs, armed with bricks, chains, iron pipes, and knives, slashed the bus’s tires at the station in Anniston, and then, a few miles down the road, surrounded the limping bus. They broke its windows and threw a homemade bomb inside. Smoke choked the passengers and flames spread as those on the bus desperately tried to get out.
The mob held the door shut.
“They were trying to kill them all—the Freedom Riders and regular passengers alike,” Lee said.
Finally a state patrolman shot his pistol over the heads of the rioters. The passengers escaped from the burning bus moments before its fuel tank exploded. The pack then savagely beat the sickened, injured bus passengers, many already on their knees. They were preparing to lynch the riders when a state patrolman finally stopped the assault by firing his gun into the air.
The Freedom Riders—and presumably the regular travelers caught up in the violence—were refused care at the hospital in Anniston. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil rights leader in Birmingham, organized more than a dozen cars to rescue the riders, driving them to safety.
A gang of armed men also met the second Freedom Riders’ bus in Anniston, an hour after the first. This time the brutes boarded the bus to beat the Freedom Riders. That bus then went on to Birmingham, where an even worse Mother’s Day mob would meet them.
People around the world heard what had happened. Anniston’s goons hadn’t just beaten the brave Freedom Riders; they’d also delivered a blow to America’s reputation, giving fodder to Soviet Cold War propagandists.
We’d walked along Noble Street where the buses had pulled in at the old bus depot. Unexceptional buildings stood unchanged on the empty street as we read the mural in the glassy autumn sunlight. We could imagine being on the bus, looking out the window at pretty little downtown Anniston, thinking maybe Alabama won’t be so bad, our optimism cut short by the nightmarish sight and sounds of the gathering mob. Fifty-one years ago the storefront windows had reflected the KKK-led factory workers and shop clerks turned criminals as they slashed tires, shouted epithets, threw rocks, and beat people for sitting together on a bus, for riding towards a New South…
That night, in our motel room, Lee seemed as though he was witnessing that satanic mob, not just intellectually understanding injustice but feeling it. It seemed to hit him like a fist.
It didn’t feel as immediate to me. I was wondering how those men could come from church and do such terrible things. Had they told their mothers where they were going? Did they say they’d be back by dinnertime? Were they drinking, drunk? Did any of them wake up one morning, days or years afterwards, and moan “Oh my God,” as Lee had done as he’d been reading about that afternoon? Had any of those men later come to terms with what evil had possessed them?
I remembered theories of mob psychology, one being that influential leaders contaminate mobs, inducing people together to act in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise. Another posits that people who choose to be part of a mob have pre-selected themselves and are primed for violence. They’re simmering with similar fears and hatreds, coming together as a band of bullies, igniting one another, and egging each other on towards evil acts that each would hesitate to commit individually.
The theory of de-individuation, as ancient as the Dionysian cults (outlawed wherever they took root), posits that a cult member—usually under the influence—could lose his or her individual consciousness and become one with the mob, an unthinking force of nature, as murderously powerful and amoral as a tsunami, tearing apart any random victim in its path. It’s the death of self-awareness, conscience, and self-awareness without dying.
Charles Manson knew about de-individuation.
“It’s like pack behavior in dogs,” I said, the motel room’s walls close around us, Lee looking thunderous. “Nice family dogs, once they start running in packs, kill people. Children, but really anything they see as prey. Humans can be pack animals. Look at Rwanda, neighbors killing neighbors, people who had been friends, just swept up in craziness.”
“No,” Lee said. “The people who did this terrible thing were each individually responsible for their actions. No excuses. No Dionysian bullshit. And there’s no comparison to Rwanda, where the Hutu leaders used the radio to bring in their followers and kill people.”
He was passionate enough that I shut up—it was hard me to argue since I was feeling perplexed rather than ardent. I wasn’t excusing the mob. I was just trying to figure it out. This was just the latest of many disconnects between us. Over little things that didn’t seem worth clarifying and over big things like excusing or not excusing mob violence.
Lee was so fervent that he included a defense of dogs. “The dogs in my neighborhood would never act that way,” he said. “They’re nice dogs.”
So was I excusing the human mob? Distressingly I felt guilty. Maybe, I thought, this is how white liberal Southerners feel, before they’ve worked it though. God help us, maybe it’s how they feel after they’ve worked it through.
* * * *
Despite its toxic reputation, its lack of restaurants, and its sprawl, tourists have begun coming to Anniston. That’s because that pitiless 1961 Mothers Day put the town on the Civil Rights Trail.
Local whites struggled to celebrate this part of Anniston’s history. It was like being known because your father was Lee Harvey Oswald. You’d rather forget it than help people remember. And yet the Civil Rights Trail brought Anniston good national press for a change.
When student groups followed the Freedom Riders’ route on its fiftieth anniversary in 2011, Francisco Diaz, one of the anniversary riders, kept a journal. He wrote that Richard Couch, the Annistonian seated next to him at dinner was stereotypically white Southern: blue-eyed, burly, and with a thick drawl. Couch’s father had been part of the mob that attacked the bus.
Diaz wrote that Couch was also funny and sincere, and that he gave an emotional welcome to Hank Thomas, one of the original Freedom Riders. “When they embraced,” Diaz wrote, “I viewed the full power of nonviolence. The son of a Klansman hugging a man who his father hated and wanted dead was a greater victory than any violent counter-attack that could have been done at the time to the mob had surrounded that bus. If the Freedom Riders had not been nonviolent, and they fought back and perhaps killed Richard Couch’s father, this true moment would not have occurred.”
Betsy Bean with the Anniston Development Association was eyeing this new Civil Rights Trail tourist market as she got Anniston’s murals up that commemorated the Freedom Riders. Lee was determined to meet her, to ask her about her dream of creating a park and memorial at the actual site of the bus burning, a long empty verge of land between the old and new highway. The site was hard for us to find; people in Anniston gave us a variety of opinions on where it might be. When we found it, we discovered a makeshift car lot there, sedans and trucks parked with signs in their windows advertising their mileage and the number for buyers to call.
The park did have a sturdy sign announcing that the land was the site of a future park. Kids from Cobb Elementary had unveiled the sign just a week earlier during a groundbreaking ceremony.
We tromped through the high grass, past the trucks for sale. Lee took photos: “The site of the future Freedom Riders Park!” the sign read, with some history, photos, and plans. His photos may have been the last ever taken of the sign.
The next day vandals burned it down. Police never found the culprits.
The arson followed on the heels of the Anniston development organization firing Betsy Bean. The city council had already cut the organization’s funding in half in 2010. Bean told the Star that the city council had notified her board of directors that the organization wouldn’t be funded at all if she remained at the helm. As she understood it, they didn’t like her focus on the Civil Rights Trail and saving historic buildings.
Lee was transfixed by the realization that history was still happening as we were walking through its pages. “It’s sparking right now!” he said. “It’s not past!”
Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” The great Southern writer gave those words to Gavin Stevens, a character in Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. How brilliant of Lee to have been feeling those emotions so purely here in the South, especially since Faulkner was writing about exactly what we were experiencing: how the past haunts Southerners, and how elusive a New South truly is.
—Kristen Hannum, excerpted from her chapter in The South Within Us, “Ghost Moon over Alabama”
Kristen had another reason to visit Anniston; it was the home of the Anniston Star’s star editor and publisher, Brandt Ayers, whom she wanted to interview for an article. Kristen also planned to review Ayers’ just-completed memoir, In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal. His newspaper had a national reputation for excellence, gaining fame for its coverage of civil rights events.
I joined in on the extensive conversation, charmed by Ayers’ patrician manners mixed with a newspaperman’s bluntness and BS detection. Yet he was often conflicted about the South and surprisingly sympathetic, from his beautiful modernist home tucked into the hills of east Anniston, to the plight of those he called the Redneck, “meant to be a contemptous term” which “needs more sympathy and understanding. Bearing defeat with dignity—even respect—his Redneck liturgy is forbidden in the Church of the United States…” This was one small sample of Ayers’ unique perspective and phrasing that knocked me out. When I told him that we had plenty of rednecks out west, Ayers corrected me. “No, redneck is a regional term, it belongs to the South.”
But Ayers was by no means blindly loyal to any single narrative about Anniston. He was contemptuous of local politicos, “Keystone Kops with no oversupply of leadership and enlighenment,” and their inability to transform Anniston for the better. He had even harsher words for as the outside, corporate forces that had stripped the city of its potential. He saw Wells Fargo “as a destroyer, buying out locals, running things from a distance. In our second Gilded age, there’s too much money sloshing around. Anniston lost its wealth when manufacturing stopped, and the city didn’t adapt.”
Brandt Ayers extolled Anniston’s past as a utopian Model City full of community spirit, and contrasted nearby Birmingham as a “money town.” Both Kristen and I had apprehension and plenty of advance disdain for “Bombingham,” our next destination.
Of course, we were completely unprepared for the shock that awaited us.