We choose the Klan over my clan, which is perhaps not the mental-healthiest choice. Instead of barbecuing at a family-and-friends reunion organized by my cousins in Grove, Virginia, we head toward Columbia, South Carolina, for a protest by a KKK outfit against the removal of Confederate flag from the capitol grounds.
It makes sense, though we weren’t exactly looking forward to it. Erin and I went south to examine the enduring and corrosive myths of the Confederacy and the evidence of African-American agency and humanity that these stories are invoked to negate.
In Columbia, we will see and hear people who make no bones about the direct link between heritage and hate—these are folks who speak in support of Dylann Roof, after all.
Klan organizations are now marginal in American society, we know this. They do not form the “invisible empire” that united white men across class and around racial hatred after the Civil War or barely 50 years ago, when KKK cells murdered Civil rights workers and people of color. Many of the 21st-century neo-Klansmen and wannabe Nazis—self-styled members of the National Socialist Movement from Michigan will join the North Carolina KKK group that organized the rally—may be playacting out of ignorance and fear. What matters is, they choose to enrobe themselves in a murderous legacy that has never been fully examined in—or extirpated from—this country. And that’s dangerous.
As a kind of inoculation against the hate, I catalogue some of the life-affirming encounters we’ve had during our journey: our chat with Aaron that led us to the South Asheville Cemetery; the early morning in Montgomery with Bryan Stevenson; the impromptu tour of Brown A.M.E. Chapel in Selma, with Evelyn Babcock and the youth from Alabama State’s ASPIRE; the “Purchased Lives” exhibition at the Historic New Orleans Collection; our time with Taylor Knowles III at the Central-Carver Museum in Gadsden.
On July 12, in Wallace, Louisiana, we spent a large part of a sweltering day at the Whitney Plantation, first with a young guide, Courtni Becnel, and then with research director Ibrahima Seck. Seck allowed us to piggyback on a private tour—with the consent of the members of the 30-plus Johnson family reunion group, whose roots are in Edgard, Louisiana, right down the road. The Whitney is the only institution of its scale that explores plantation life from the perspectives of the enslaved. The big house and the family that owned it are small facets of the larger story of exploitation, ingenuity and survival. It is not an especially mirthful place. And yet, our adopted group was engaged and upbeat.
“Kizzy, I’m home!” Dexter Robertson shouted as he walked into an authentic slave cabin. (For those of you too young to remember, Kizzy was the daughter of Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley’s "Roots.") “Me and massa gonna have to talk about the profit sharing,” he cracked as we walked to the big house, smaller than "Gone With the Wind’s" Tara, but palatial compared to the shacks of the enslaved. But Robertson got serious when I asked him if his teenage son learned any of this material, anything about the names and lives of the enslaved in school. No. And that’s one of the reasons they were there.
Two days after our Whitney visit, Erin and I made a pilgrimage to the Jackson, Mississippi, home that Medgar and Myrlie Evers shared before he was assassinated there in 1963, in the concrete driveway. On the day we were there, half a dozen black boys whizzed up and down the quiet street on BMX bikes, the littlest one, maybe 8 years old, constantly getting lapped—but finding himself in the lead for at least a few seconds of every circuit.
The historical marker on the lawn says the home is a museum, but there was no one inside. I walked two doors down to speak to an elderly African-American woman sitting in her car, under the carport. (I assumed the AC in her house was on the blink.) She told me that we needed to call the caretaker to get in. I asked if she’d lived in the neighborhood when the Everses did. No, she said. She’d apparently been asked these questions before.
Erin and I examined the photos on the outer walls of the small, green house, thinking that there should be more, so much more, for a man who fought for his country abroad and then fought for its soul right here.
From the Evers home, we drove through Jackson’s outskirts to pick up the Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee. Centuries before it was a scenic highway, Native Americans lived in the area—there are prehistoric ceremonial mounds along the parkway—before being dispossessed by the English and the French. Later it became a major artery for traders in humanity, who drove black captives along the Trace to markets in the Deep South. The rise of the steamboat, which could move goods and people faster on the Mississippi, killed it as a trade route.
I also made Erin stop at the Ross R. Barnett Reservoir, a 33,000-acre artificial body of water named for the segregationist governor who publicly supported Medgar Evers’s killer, Byron de la Beckwith. “The jurors could not help but notice Gov. Ross Barnett shaking hands with Mr. Beckwith in the courtroom before they deliberated,” reported the New York Times in the assassin’s 2001 obituary. I watched an African-American man wearing a blue auto mechanic’s shirt and navy work pants cast for fish, and then coax his significant lady to give it a try.
“I would have wanted it named after someone who actually did something,” not a person promoting "negativity" like Barnett, 31-year-old Jackson native Jonathan—pronounced Joe-Nathan—Harvey told me. Both he and his partner, Genevia Mangum, 24, live near the Evers home. In school, they learned a little about him, “but not enough,” said Mangum.
After losing myself in reflection, I look up from my notes. What matters is staring me in the face this morning in Columbia, South Carolina: Our America—all ages, colors, shapes—stroll past us at a street fair just yards from the coffee shop where we’re fortifying ourselves for the day ahead. Leslie and Greg Blum, a white couple from Charlotte, North Carolina, had come to town for 24 hours. I bum-rush them as they read a historical marker about the Civil Rights struggle in South Carolina titled “Our Story Matters.” They have followed the flag controversy, and Leslie has been reading the Daily Gamecock, the University of South Carolina newspaper. This notion of Confederate “home pride”—her term, Leslie said—this “romantic view that had nothing to do with their daily lives” was “foisted on everyday Joes by people in power,” she tells me. “You can kind of see how groupthink takes over.”
Their Porter-Williams Family Reunion T-shirts announce why Marilyn and Ron Gudes, an African-American brother and sister from Tampa, are in Columbia. Marilyn had read something about the Klan rally on Facebook, but paid it no mind. “We face racism every day, so there are just some things we have grown accustomed to,” she tells me. The KKK has “to fight harder than ever to keep their organization alive. They’re dying.” Adds Ron, “It doesn’t put a damper on what we’re doing." Their family is mixed—black, white and Filipino.
We have a pretty good idea where Reggie Lauren, a tall, lean, white-haired African-American senior, is walking when we catch up to him on Main Street. The tip-off is his blue kepi, the cap worn by the average Union Army soldier. Headed to the State House, he tells us. We’re just a few blocks away and can see that something is going on even though the main event is almost two hours away. I tell him that we’re ambivalent about attending, and in particular about focusing our attention on such a marginal group.
“You belong here,” Lauren tells us, clearly and unequivocally. For an 84-year-old black man who grew up in Jim Crow South Carolina, Lauren seems positively tickled to be attending a Klan rally in the middle of his city, to which he had just returned after decades away. “I went through segregated everything,” he tells us. “I was raised here. We had no chance to be around any of this,” he says, gesturing toward the well-manicured capitol grounds. Police officers and even college students, civilians armed with the power of Jim Crow, “used to run us through here. You didn’t have to be doing nothing. They would just run your ass along.”
A black nationalist rally, organized by Black Educators for Justice and the New Black Panther Party (NPBP) is in full swing when we hit the square in front of the capitol. “This is so different. It used to be so mean and hateful,” Lauren says, though never as bad Charleston. So many changes for the good, he said. “It’s like paradise.” We stand next to the enormous monument to “South Carolina’s Dead of the Confederate Army” as we speak.
Within the multiracial counterprotest there are a few white men and women wearing battle flag T-shirts and some holding the flag itself. Still and video photographers hover around them, me among them, snapping and rolling. The atmosphere on the north side of the State House is almost carnivalesque, with a definite pregame feel, even as Hashim Nzinga of the NBPP—not to be confused with the Black Panther Party of the 1960s and ’70s—preaches Afrocentric history and eye-for-an-eye self-defense.
But when small groups of people toting big Confederate flags start marching on the south side of the complex, escorted by a literal army of local and state law enforcement officers, the tension spikes. I watch one older white man crumble to the ground after being hit by someone or something.
They’re not robed, which is both a relief and a disappointment. Some wear black military fatigues with either Klan or Nazi insignia. The Klansmen and their friends strut, fulminate, flag-wave, and chest-puff from behind barricades and several walls of cops. Counterprotesters yell back. Bottles and other things are tossed.
Outside the pen, various full-contact games of Capture the Flag erupt. Anti-Klan demonstrators snatch a Confederate flag from a KKKer and police intercede to prevent the violence from spreading. There may be a role for uncivil disobedience in the struggle for racial justice, but I don’t think what we see serves any purpose. The day boils down to an ugly struggle between the disempowered—enraged, deluded, perhaps fearful, and demonstrably racist whites against angry and militant black folk.
July 26. Henrico, Virginia
We’re back in Virginia now. We pass the statue of Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue. Some sort of poultice has been applied to sections that have been hit with graffiti, presumably to draw out more of the paint. The words affixed to the memorial, as mendacious and fantastic as they are, remain untouched.
Erin squats in the dirt at East End Cemetery and starts to clear half-hidden graves. She introduces herself to whomever she uncovers. “Hello, Mr. White,” she says to the stone in a nest of brambles. This was William Hamilton White, she finds out with some research, born in Brooklyn, September 14, 1903, died in Richmond of tuberculosis in 1923. In life, he was a member of the household of Henry J., a senior officer in a local branch of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, and Emma Brown Faulk. In death, they are buried side by side.
I wander the grounds to photograph what was done while we were traveling. Earlier in July, busloads of Mormons joined the small core of regular volunteers to hack away at the vines, trash trees and carpet of invasive English ivy that choke this abandoned African-American cemetery in Henrico County and the city of Richmond. And yet, this historic site still looks like this—torn-up and sad. Nothing like Davis. Or Robert E. Lee. Or even Oakwood Cemetery, owned and maintained by the city of Richmond, with its huge, well-cared-for Confederate section.
I think about the people Erin revealed and those who volunteers unearth on every visit to this 16-acre tangle of vegetation, granite, concrete. Buried here are regular black folk—the once-enslaved and the born-free; mail carriers, teachers, and domestic workers; churchgoers and club members—not “Great Men,” like, say, Jefferson Davis, whose name and image have been forced onto our landscape and into public memory by those who wielded the power to celebrate themselves and nearly erase us. But these almost-lost stories can/do/will add up to a vital chapter in our collective American history. The “contrabands”—enslaved people who escaped and fought the Confederacy—the builders of Richmond’s black Wall Street, Civil Rights warriors. They’re here at East End (and other sites) waiting for us to rediscover them, and then to reinvest them with the power they had, the power these people earned in spite of men like Davis, his partisans, and his modern-day worshippers.