A BRIDGE TO NOWHERE IN SELMA, ALABAMA
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.
FINDING THE KLAN’S BIRTHPLACE
No Deal In Pulaski, Tennessee: “The Black Story’s Been a Back Story”
As we drove out of Tennessee, I talked George into following the Columbia Pike south, which linked my great-grandfather’s Civil War battles. The back road felt risky as the shortened afternoon fell into darkness, but I was glad we took it. I meant to talk George into stopping in Pulaski, near the Alabama border, to find the birthplace of America’s premier terror group.
We passed the notorious “sleep-escape” field near Spring Hill. Like a classical episode out of Homer’s mythological Greek tales, Union forces hemmed by Confederate battalions just snuck away northward on the pike, their way lighted by sparks of doused fires while their enemies slipped into sleep. Typical of Tennessee battles, the escape incident resulted from poor communication and rumors of officers drinking too much. I couldn’t help but speculate on my great-grandfather’s state of mind that fateful night. The field looked little changed from 1864. If Austin Patton, at 19, were a typical family member on my Irish side, he would have been slightly soused and fighting a strong urge to sleep, even on his feet.
After Spring Hill and Columbia, the thirty-mile drive south on U.S. 31 to Pulaski was an unheralded rural gem. I’m a sucker for neat pastures and soft valleys, roadsides with no commercialism, no metal outbuildings, just mile after mile of verdant countryside, a church here, a school there. While there’s no shortage of sublime scenery in Colorado, we lack these expanses of rolling, gentle broadleaf forest. In the entire Mountain West, except for small stands of aspen and cottonwood, there are no deciduous forests at all. No maples, elms, ashes, locusts, or oaks unless somebody planted them one by one and took care to water them. With some of the ugliest stretches of highway strip development in creation, we Westerners have treated our wide-open spaces as if they were waste lands, tossing thoughtless development far and wide. But here nature was a soothing cloak, achingly pure, knitted here and there by field and farm.
Though Pulaski was famous as the site where Confederate “boy hero” Sam Davis chose to be hanged rather than reveal rebel movements to the Union forces, the place was notorious in my mind as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. When not only the countryside but the town proved to be so pretty and appealing, I was flummoxed. I realized I had a
naïve, unexamined idea that beauty and community ought to deter humans from atrocity. Apparently, terrorists did not breathe in the fresh air, admire the vistas, enjoy the vitality of the town square, and sigh, “Ah, perhaps I shan’t ravage any blacks, Catholics, or Jews today.” I was hellbent on finding the marker that noted the Klan’s founding here on Christmas Eve, 1865, now a gathering place for white supremacists, a sacred rallying ground for racists. Pulaski seemed the opposite of Columbia. Though also historic, founded in1809, with a similarly magnificent courthouse, Pulaski’s commercial hub bustled with pedestrians conducting actual commerce. I wanted to stop, wander around courthouse square, and see if I couldn’t find that Klan marker.
“No deal,” George told me. Evening was coming on, and he wasn’t going to set foot in any KKK town. So, it was serious. His nephew in Denver had been taunting him with texts. What the hell was he doing, wandering the Old Confederacy? Any burning crosses yet? George’s apprehension and disgust for the town’s history made my tourist curiosity feel superficial. “I felt the same way at the Chickamauga and Franklin battlefields,” he said, “and for sure at that riot site, the Mink Slide in Columbia. This place gives me the willies. I’ve reached the end of this road, Lee. Let’s go on.”
Okay, that penetrated my thick white skull. George didn’t mind if we drove around the courthouse one more time, if I was so intent on that marker. But it wasn’t really that compelling to me any more. I began to feel morbid. What was wrong with me anyway? What the hell was I doing, wandering the Old Confederacy? It felt ghoulish, searching out these localities cursed with atrocity and sorrow. While normal visitors toured historic plantations and got laughingly lost in corn mazes, I was tramping through battlefields and trying to spot a racist worshipping at a marker dedicated to a terror group. We stopped near the courthouse but didn’t get out of the car. Though I craned my neck to spot the KKK birthplace marker on one of the storefronts, I didn’t want to ignore George’s feelings. I wondered aloud if we might stop at the site of a Civil War skirmish near Pulaski since Austin Patton had also fought near here. “We could just glance, passing by. At this point, after all these battlefields, it would be enough just to see it.”
“You were lucky,” George said, looking out on the busy town square. “You found out so much from the historian in Franklin about your great-grandfather’s whereabouts.” “Yeah, at this point, I feel like I’m crossing Tennessee in Austin’s company,” I agreed. “He’s become becoming more real to me all the time. More than just a name on a death certificate.” As soon as I said it, I realized why George had stressed my luck. All paths to his great-grandmother had ended back in South Carolina, tangled and ungiving, despite so much researching and just plain searching, but I’d found so much about my great-grandfather so easily, just by asking. “It’s weird, though, isn’t it?” I said. “So many specifics available about Austin, who was so much older than your great-grandmother. And an immigrant, to boot.” George nodded. “Austin was part of the Pageant. You had his whole name. And he was white, to boot.”
How much of the grand national narrative of the Civil War era was ever a pageant for African-Americans? “It’s like our history is still covered over,” George went on, “and we need to find it and tell it ourselves. Even when I learned about emancipation, as a kid, I felt like black people were pawns in the story. The outcome of the Civil War was so critical to my life, but in all these battlefields and museums, the black story’s been a back story, a side show. A few panels on the wall.” Brimming libraries and entire museums were devoted to the Official Story, the federal story we heard over and over in the national battlefields. “It’s got to be hard for the historians,” George went on, musing as the sun disappeared behind the courthouse. “They’ve got to serve Americans from all over, all races and ethnicities. So they push this triumphant tale. ‘An undivided United States, returned to unity. With equality for all!’ But isn’t that just as one-sided as the South reducing the conflict to states’ rights? We whitewashed reality then, and we whitewash it now.”
So we left Pulaski without finding that damn marker. Later I learned about the modern town’s predicament. The Klan and their sympathizers would hold birthday party rallies for Klan founder and Confederate leader Nathan Bedford Forrest every July, with most locals in adamant but helpless opposition. Though he didn’t play a role in founding the local Klan, Forrest soon led the fledgling group in wide-ranging atrocities against black freemen and their carpetbagging Yankee allies: “Forrest led the Klan through its most violent period,” wrote Larry Keller in the anti-racist blog Hatewatch, “when thousands of acts of terrorism essentially forced black Southerners back into a form of servitude.”
So this town, named after a Polish hero in the American Revolutionary War, had to live with the Klan’s notoriety. But Pulaski also had claim to a gentler history. At its very birth, the town’s first established law was to punish anyone who discharged a firearm against “any bird on wing.”
Finally, I learned that my reason for visiting town had long been impossible to see. In 1990, the new owner of the law office where the Klan marker was placed turned it around so its smooth, empty backside faced out. It remained that way, not denying the birth of the KKK, but not inviting acknowledgment, either. Commemoration without celebration.
Further south, we were about to find modern Klan types still busy trying to destroy commemoration of civil rights struggle. George would soon return to Colorado, while my other writing partner, Kristen, would arrive to join me down in Alabama. In Anniston, the little city famous for the fiery 1961 attack against Freedom Riders, Kristen and I would arrive the day before a new fire was set ablaze.