Southern Journalism

My first assassination was in 1963. I had just entered Memphis State University as a freshman journalism major. I graduated from Whitehaven High School in the South Memphis suburb of Whitehaven that summer. I was in the very last of the all-white student bodies of Whitehaven. Integration came to Whitehaven with the class of ‘64.In my senior year the buzz was furious: The colored are coming to innegrate Whitehaven and ain’t no stoppin’ em. Damn shame! I had somehow developed a keen distaste for the casual racism of Memphis. A popular movement for basic human rights guaranteed by moral law and the Constitution was erupting all around and it thrilled me. Racism for whatever reason didn’t.

My salesman father had our family move to Memphis at the height of the 1961 freedom ride and sit-in movement. I was stirred by the flow of buses carrying white kids not much older than me going through Memphis en route to Mississippi bus stations and Delta towns where they would be beaten with tire irons and shot by gun-toting segregationist mobs and KKK/deputy sheriff kill teams. Many died. I admired their courage, knowing I lacked the courage 16-year-olds usually display to join them.

And so I wrote letters to the Memphis Commercial Appeal praising the freedom riders and the true ideals of America they represented.

“Ahem,” said my father.

“Please sign these things ‘Boyd Lewis Jr.,’” he said gruffly. “The people at work think I’m the one who’s writing the letters. I blame you of course, but it’s making things unpleasant at work.”

That’s all he said about the matter. New Orleans men of his age freely used the “N” word, but never my father. There was something of To Kill a Mockingbird lawyer in him. A decent strain of our breed. With this upbringing, I now watched the civil rights movement swirl around me, cheering it on openly.

Being a journalism major, I hung around the Associated Press teletype machine in the basement that was the J Dept. to see the latest news printed on yellow sheets from what looked like a metal phone booth for a midget. The news clattered onto the paper at the rate of 45 words a minute and we J-majors gathered around the AP ticker to stay abreast, compare notes, or flirt. Whenever there was an urgent dispatch, two bells rang. A bulletin got three bells.

On Nov. 22, 1963 the AP teletype rang five bells and did it repeatedly.

President Kennedy had been shot. Dallas. Book depository. Hospital. President Kennedy, dead from a sniper attack.

From the crowd that was now packed around the teletype machine, there came several whoops of delight. “Aw man, yeah,” cheered one fellow student who thought killing a president was the coolest thing in the world to do.

Some of students and faculty told him and the boys to shut up. The boys turned down a hallway singing their fraternity song. Something about preserving the honor of the Old South. This was the fraternity with the mock Confederate cannon out front of its house.

From the building next door, freshman band members went through their scales in a slow, awkward way.

I had just been introduced to Verdi’s Requiem and the choruses swelled in my inner ears to block out the off key chorus of brass instruments cluelessly doing their scales next door. I went back to my dorm room and played Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence over and over, crying like a goddamn sissy. A lot of hate in the South toward JFK.

I was a fan. President Kennedy had backed a civil rights bill and all good Southrons protested. The embattled White Race of Memphis, Mississippi, Alabama, and throughout Dixie thought that JFK was downright communistic. The rich hated Kennedy because he was a prince among them who had turned away from crony politics and crony capitalism. Powerful Texas oil barons, as endlessly wealthy as they were profoundly right wing totalitarian, openly lusted for the removal of John and his goddamn nigra loving brother Bobby. Bobby, the nepotistic attorney general of the United States, was sending federal marshals to the South to actually protect these outside agitatin’ /communist /fornicators with the beast/ beatnik/ jew mongrelizers who were threatening the Southern Way of Life. Go back to your northern ghetto Hymie. And take that nigra-loving white trash with you. Fergit Hell. States Rights. Our coloreds are happy with the current situation thank you very much.

That was the broth in which I found stewing all around me in Memphis, at the university and in dear old Whitehaven, three miles from the Mississippi line. I was going one way and the whole damn society was going another. I was my father’s son after all.

The murder in Dallas was celebrated with shouts and many a beer. MSU fight songs and chants: “Kennedy Kennedy, now you’re dead and now you’re dead, you’re good to me…” then something about pee.

Then everybody got quiet to see what kind of president we had after Nov. 22. LBJ had a face like one of those old long eared coon dogs dozing on the porch. Something about a Great Society. The Vietnam War started to go way bad. He was the best of presidents and the worst of presidents.

But Freedom Summer came in 1964 and President Johnson did a hell of a job enforcing existing civil rights laws and shepherding new ones through Congress. Hell, he even told the nation “We shall overcome.” Successes and the movement made its way with steady progress until Memphis, on April 4, 1968.

The second assassination came then. I was the 23-year-old news editor of the Clinton Courier News, in the mountains north of Knoxville when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. Mr. H.V. Wells Jr., editor and publisher of the Courier, asked me to get some Negro reaction to the King killing. But, ah Mr. Wells, we’re in Appalachia and ain’t no black folks here. He gave me a list of three black ministers and their phone numbers.

In turn, each looked immensely sorrowful but their words didn’t match the faces. All said that responsible Negros in Anderson County Tennessee didn’t hold much truck with Dr. King. He was always stirring things up. Things were good for the Negro community because slavery never made it to the mountains. People in the southern mountains valued freedom itself.

So I wrote the story, something like Local Negro Leaders Unmoved by King Death.

Needless to say the entire Negro Community of Anderson County mobbed the newspaper and demanded to talk to me. From the Halleluliah Chorus of about 100 men women and children came: Who put you to these Uncle Toms? demanded a woman. Our hearts got broken in Memphis, Mister Reporter. How dare you question that? Redo the story again. Who’s your boss?

Two days later, a feature with photos corrected the earlier incorrect view that civil rights didn’t matter among black people in Anderson County, Tenn. I came away with a mental musical track very different from Verdi’s Requiem: Bob Dylan’s line about “don’t follow leaders watch the parkin’ meters.

Dr. King had been called “the most dangerous man in America” by none other than J. Edgar Hoover, who suspected Martin and the whole crew of being under the influence by Moscow’s agents in America. Commonist. The hatred of Dr. King was omnipresent and oozed like summer asphalt into every aspect of Southern life from 1955 on. Another assassination.

Two months later I was state editor of the Meridian Star in Meridian, Miss. East Central part of the state. Civil rights movement headquarters for COFO’s Freedom Summer in 1964. Four years later I was embroiled in fascination with the ugly and historic election of 1968. I was glued to all three of the five channels we could pick up for the news. The Chicago convention radicalized me. Those damn Chi-town pigs were acting like Alabama sheriff’s posse. I had a McCarthy for president sticker on my sports car in a town where every other car sported a Wallace sticker, sometimes two with a Fergit Hell Reb in between. Trucks and gun racks and fertilizer hats. To say I stood out is an understatement. But I was two years out of college and didn’t give a damn. I did make some very dear friends though.

McCarthy turned flakezoid and limp so I enthused about Bobby Kennedy and knew we’d Dump the Hump(phrey) and take on Nixon to stop the Vietnam War, which was swallowing 500 U.S. troops every week in a bloodswamp of death.

Bobby Kennedy was a ruthless son-of-a-bitch but he was our ruthless son-of-a-bitch. Stop the war. Tend to the least in society, like the Bible says. Bring true justice to the land. The dude even quoted Eschylus to a black audience the night King died.

It need not be said that RFK was roundly despised in Dixie.

The Klan offered a bounty for his murder. Robert Francis Kennedy, after all, led the federal invasion into the Holy Southland in 1961 just like they did in 1861, just like those Yankee blue bellies invasion of 100 years before, Only this time the invaders upset genteel courthouse staff with the sudden arrival of serious looking white men in suits and dark glasses marching in platoon formation down marble halls whose name tags said they were from the U.S. Justice Department and an ungodly abomination called The Civil Rights Division. Bobby turned the 1965 Voting Rights Act from a pussy to a wildcat and under RFK, preventing black citizens their constitutional right to the vote was no longer the official state sport in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, et al.

Bobby was also one of the most eloquent people who ever wanted to become president of this grand old land. I loved his speeches from the stump in the spring of 1968 televised by Walter Cronkheit on CBS News. Southern people I met hated CBS too. The media. The commies, the nigra. the undeserving poor and the fucking ACLU were also on the list of hates that engulfed the Bobby Kennedy Hate Volume in the mental library of the South in the 60s. A lot of these haters had guns.

The fury was almost unrestrained. My 23 year old self kept my trap shut out of an abundant sense of self preservation in hostile country. I was however a Booby for Bobby in Meridian Mississippi.

The assassination of his brother five years before made Bobby tragic and noble like something of a goddamned Greek story about the gods playing with our destinies.Facing the assassin with utmost calm and total defiance of his power until the bullet went into the brain (they always go for the head, don’t they?) Bobby Kennedy lived large and shared his good heart with us in turning a national shame into a good hearted and goodheaded fight to win this time.

It was night and I was on the late shift at the Star. News flash. Robert Kennedy killed in Los Angeles. This time the cheers from my Southron companions were more subdued. They were older. But it was clear others on staff and in management remembered Bobby Kennedy the crusading attorney general who sided with the nigras and commie faggots to destroy our way of life and our women. They ignored it except for chuckles and blowing breaths.

When I started the job at the Star, the managing editor told me that the Star’s policy is to never put photos of a local white and a local black person on the same page. The Meridian Star actually had a column in the very rear pages of the paper slugged “Colored News” I had emerged from some infernal time hole back in 1936 WPA South.

I left the paper under trying circumstances and went to work for a black candidate for Meridian, Miss, city council the local NAACP president Rev. Richard S. Porter. We worked out of the offices he had rented to COFO in 1964 for Freedom Summer. It was from these offices on the second floor above a drug store that Andy Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney left to investigate the firebombing of a church up Highway 19 to Neshoba County. A KKK-Deputy Sheriff kill team intercepted them, murdered them and buried them in the earthen dam you’ve heard about in Neshoba County.

These were the same offices where I worked in the summer of 1969. Ghosts? Oh yeah.Posters, worn paperbacks of Sartre plays, Shakespeare’s Othello, copies of the voting laws and registration rules of Lauderdale County Mississippi, a stack of Meridian Stars and their coverage of the search for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.

So Good by Martin. Good by John. Good by Bobby.

The same force fields of irrational snarling dog hate by frenzied persons that impacted my soul in those three assassinations are dangerously close to us today, in the wake of the Tuscon Massacre.

Only this return of King Hate well-armed and well funded and organized like an SS Panzertrupen. Good God, it’s 1943 all over again.

War images invade in this time of gathering conflict (it ain’t over folks).

Guns fire and bodies fall. Fair enough. Happens all the time. But what doesn’t happen all the time is a full throated defense thjs clearly hateful and almost comically ignorant culture that worships a Black Ops approach to American politics. It’s a cultural odor and atmosphere that is now causing the lizard people to take up arms and kill nine year old girls. There is now a jabberwock chorus of haters and paranoid pinheads who want the “unbalanced lone gunman” phenomenon to start the killing again.

However there is resistance. I feel and believe people are changing their minds about this season of the witch, the attack of the assassins. There is bound to be building pressure to change how we do political discourse and debate. I sense the same changes now as we’ve experienced before in the aftermath of the assassins. For the better. It’s usually for the better. We can change in how we conduct ourselves in the bad times now, worse times to come. Let us brace ourselves and do our duty, and all that. And fight for a decent America at home and abroad.

Dr. King was wrong. He spoke of the moral arc of the universe as being long, but bending toward justice. The assassin culture is trying to bend it so the geometry takes us toward mammon, madness and mendacity.The future of this land for which our fathers died is really, really at risk.

Good southerners and decent folk are in the majority. Manufactured hate must be dealt with like this: simply ignore the sumbitches.

It is still our destiny to catch the moral arc of the universe on the upswing.


Boyd Lewis

Boyd Lewis

New Orleans family. War baby. Family moved a lot. Secondary and college education in Memphis, TN. Just before 1967 graduation, commissioning and tour of leafy, lovely Vietnam, banged up in auto accident. Decided to go into journalism. Tennessee mountain weekly, small Mississippi daily and nearly three decades in Atlanta. Black and alternative newspapers, freelance photojournalist, public radio news and documentary producer, news writer for CNN. Married Deborah James, followed her to Los Angeles for job. Quit the dismal trade and became middle school English teacher in LA barrio school. Quite happy.

  1. Alex Kearns

    Thank you for a brilliantly-done article. How different were our experiences – I in Canada and you in the South – but the horror, repulsion and grief unite us.

  2. Those assassinations mark my senior year in high school (we were studying Macbeth when JFK died) to my 21st birthday (MLK, one day after) and the end of my senior year in college (RFK).

  3. I grew up outside Atlanta. I was 13 when JFK died. In my humble opinion here is a difference between then and now. The trouble then was driven by hate and fear. The trouble now is driven by greed and money ( although I’m sure there is plenty of hate in the white southern politicians for Presidaent Obama). Maybe greed and money where the real root cause of the horrible events of the 60s.

  4. Are you writing a book? You should be.

    Like you, Bobby Kennedy was my hero. I was a senior in high school and on student council. On the morning after, I was awakened by a call from a fellow council member relaying the news. We were charged with presenting an assembly about Bobby Kennedy. We spent all day together researching, remembering and consoling one another. We pulled it off. It was an honor to be part of this experience and to honor this man. I will never forget how I felt when I received that call.

    Thank you for your article.

  5. Thank you. That’s all I actually wanted to say, but your program said it was too short.

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