JIM CROW’S STRANGE AND RECENT CAREER: I want to recommend a really wonderful book, Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy B. Tyson. If you're interested in the civil rights movement, you ought to read it. If you're interested in the craft of writing and teaching history, you ought to read it.
The centerpiece of the book is the murder of Henry Marrow in Oxford, North Carolina in 1970, a case with some affinities with the infamous Emmett Till case. In other words, it was all over a black man making a suggestive remark (maybe) to a white woman, and her male relatives taking revenge. (The author recites a short but definitive treatise about the white-male sexual insecurity that underlies a LOT of the ideology of white supremacy.) The killers are connected to the local Ku Klux Klan, who post armed guards at their house; although their identities are known and they haven’t gone into hiding, the police do not take them into custody for 36 hours. In the trial, the defendants and their family testify that they (and only they) saw Henry Marrow wield a knife. That shaky testimony gives the all-white jury an opening to acquit, on grounds of self-defense.
Tyson lived through a lot of the events in the book (a childhood friend of Tyson’s was the killer’s youngest son, who tells him that “Daddy and them shot ‘em a nigger”), and he reflects on how the experience influenced him to become a historian, and the differences in dealing with the events as an academic vs. as a memoirist (the book is some of both). I enjoyed his personal recollections, partly because they rang familiar to me. I know some of the places he describes (I’ve spent some time in Oxford, albeit long after the events of the book) and although I’m four or five younger than he, my grade school years in Virginia had hints of the racial tensions Tyson experienced in North Carolina.
Like most Americans, at least white ones, I tend to assume that the production of history is something that happens naturally, like water flowing downhill. Tyson makes the reader understand that that’s not the case. He meets with resistance and even threats from the Oxford police when they learn of his interest in studying the Marrow case—and the project starts out only as an undergraduate term paper. Even more chilling, to me, is the fact that the powers that be in that little town have hidden or destroyed newspaper archives and court records pertaining to the case. (Tyson suspects the involvement of Billy Watkins, the prosecutor, who went on to be a force in the state Democratic Party.) When Tyson finishes his masters’ thesis examining the Marrow case, he hand-delivers a bound copy to the Oxford public library. Some time later he goes back to see that someone has torn key pages out of it.
Tyson is very deliberate about portraying the powder-keg atmosphere of the small-town South of the early 70s. White liberals make ourselves feel better by making a plaster saint out of Martin Luther King Jr. and by characterizing the civil rights movement as nonviolent and sweetly persuasive. Tyson gives the lie to this narrative, and shows time and again how violence or the threat of it was decisive in the white establishment giving in to black demands. One important backdrop to the Henry Marrow case was that Oxford was close to Camp Butner, a World War II army base where many black soldiers were posted. Camp Butner had revealed cracks in the Jim Crow façade: black troops stubbornly resisted segregation, and there were too many of them for it to be enforced effectively. In the postwar years, many of the most effective people in the movement were black military veterans. These men had tasted a life of discipline and respect. They had also been able to measure their performance directly against that of white soldiers, and they had not come up short. So they were confident and uncompromising, and in Oxford in the days after Henry Marrow’s death they made full use of their martial training (including nighttime firebombing raids and diversionary tactics). One of the best passages in the book recounts a protest march from Oxford to Raleigh. The leader of the march is the state director of the SCLC, Dr. King’s organization, and he invokes Dr. King’s rhetoric of nonviolence. Meanwhile, a substantial number of marchers are carrying concealed handguns, ready to return fire in case of a Klan ambush.
One last thing I like is the portrait of Tim Tyson’s father, Vernon Tyson, a liberal white minister trying to preach racial justice to congregations deeply committed to, indeed implicated in, the status quo. Vernon Tyson is a character of humor, love, occasional anger, great courage, and imperfect judgment. The book delineates Vernon’s precarious position of trying to offer prophetic leadership, yet maintain the trust and consent of the people he’s leading. He was often unsuccessful (he was forced out of his ministry in Oxford), but the book brings to life vivid episodes where Vernon found support in the community and discovered people willing, at personal cost, to reach across the color line.
There are no saints in the book; as Tyson writes, nobody has room to sit back and congratulate himself. Anyway -- thumbs way up.
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