Doug Cumming – A journal of progressive Southern culture and politics Wed, 06 Feb 2019 18:35:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Doug Cumming – 32 32 Something for Democrats to Run On Tue, 22 May 2018 10:03:52 +0000

A terrible premonition dawns on my Democratic friends: Their party could fail to win either the House or the Senate this November.

An even darker vexation follows: Trump is re-elected in 2020 (after winning the Nobel Peace Prize).

My wife, shaken by this foreboding, challenged me to think of something the Democratic Party can do to stop this train wreck. It’s not enough, she says, for us just to be against Trump. We need to be FOR something.

Democratic Donkey - Caricature by DonkeyHoteyI usually vote Democratic as an old family tradition. I’m more loyal than liberal.

But this doesn’t work for most voters. And being appalled at what we have now isn’t good enough.

So I came up with something.

I’m thinking of a busy community college campus full of people of all ages, high school dropouts, single mothers, blue-collar workers. They are struggling and sacrificing for a better future, not just for themselves but for family and that deep American impulse to rise a notch or two.

This is not like the elite university where I teach, Washington and Lee, but is much more common and important for America’s future. Take, for instance, Surry Community College, with a campus in Mt. Airy, N.C.

One of our sons, after four years in the Marines, just completed his training at SCC on the GI Bill for three types of metalworking. The school asked him to come back and teach welding. He has taken out a mortgage to buy a farm and is waiting for his first child to be born.

A few years ago, after fighting in Iraq, he was hopping trains, Dumpster-diving and protesting police oppression. But there’s something about the future that calls us all, at some point, to improve our position, to plant fruit trees or raise children, to do something not only for others, but for our own not-yet-born.

The Democratic Party should claim this. It should be the party that honors the American will to build and plant and sacrifice for our future. It should point out the contrast between this impulse and the live-for-the-moment hedonism that, oddly enough, has become the Republican brand.

Yes, Trump promised rebuilding infrastructure. But since his actual plan is such a disappointment, the Democrats should re-claim it, 10-fold. Better roads and bridges, yes, but also public transportation.

Democrats have an opening here. They should face the disaster of traffic in cities like my own hometown Atlanta by being smart about the future, finding the good balance between preservation, recycling and engineering.

Today’s technology is neither good nor bad in itself, or rather, both very good and very bad. We don’t know what kind of future it will bring. But Democrats can talk about making it good, with time horizons going out 50 years and more.

I don’t have a slogan as catchy as Make America Great Again, but I have this idea: invest in the future beyond our selfish, crazy present. Creating a huge deficit on tax cuts that feel good, temporarily, is not future thinking. Supporting children and ordinary people’s drive for education and health is future thinking.

Seeing global alliances as an investment and not squandering our privilege as the world’s last super power, that’s future thinking.

Spending on Medicare and Social Security is related. It’s keeping a promise made by our future-thinking (Democratic) forebears.

The GOP agenda seems to be driven by a fear of the future and a reliance on TV’s emotional present tense.

I understand that. The future is scary and the present is stimulating, like Reality TV.

But the future is also something Americans have always believed in. That was the genius of the Founding Fathers. It’s why we fought a savage Civil War. Robert Frost liked to say in lectures that we don’t just believe IN the future – we believe the future IN.

We don’t control it, of course. This is not about a five-year plan or the perfectibility of man, but about actionable belief – planning and trusting at the same time.

In his poem “Carpe Diem,” Frost jokes that “seize the moment” was a hoax imposed by old poets who liked to imagine young love that way. But in reality, the poem says, life lives in the past and in the future. The present, he says, is too confusing, too much for the senses.

If Democrats could steer their party toward the future, in rhetoric and in faith, then the tail winds of the GOP breakdown will get them somewhere for sure.

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Our church was named for Robert E. Lee — here is how we changed it Thu, 18 Jan 2018 13:44:31 +0000
The R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, VA, in Aug. 2017, prior to the name change to Grace Episcopal Church
The R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, VA, in Aug. 2017,
prior to the name change to Grace Episcopal Church. (Creative Commons)

Confederate symbols in churches, especially Episcopal churches in Virginia and the National Cathedral in Washington, have followed a pattern of controversy parallel to, but distinct from, the civic battles over their removal from public spaces.

In Episcopal churches directly associated with Robert E. Lee, the controversy has been a deeply emotional, semiprivate clash of sensibilities, one side claiming to respect the sacredness of history and the other, the history of sacredness.

A bookplate with the coat of arms that was removed from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA.
A bookplate with the coat of arms that was removed from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA. (Creative Commons)

It has been, under the surface, a re-litigating of Lee’s terms of surrender at Appomattox.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Richmond is the church Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis attended during the Civil War. Five months after the mass shooting in a black church in Charleston, S.C., by a neo-Confederate in June 2015, St. Paul’s began removing images of the Confederate flag from kneelers, bookplates and plaques.

“This decision is completely asinine,” one reader commented online in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “These are monuments to the dead and have a deep and direct connection to the history of this building. Burning books and removing historical markers will not help you resolve your juvenile white guilt, self-hatred, or racism.”

The rector of St. Paul’s, the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, resigned on Sept. 15 amid speculation that the church’s embrace of Presiding Bishop Michael C. Curry’s call for racial reconciliation — wholeheartedly endorsed by Adams-Riley — had played a part. St. Paul’s own commitment to the national project is called the History and Reconciliation Initiative, which some felt was somehow behind Adams-Riley’s resignation. A statement from the vestry rebutted these rumors.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” the vestry said. “HRI is the most vibrant and energized project St. Paul’s has undertaken in many years. This work is a mandate of the Presiding Bishop and was Wallace’s gift to the church, and we intend to live it forward fully, without reservation.”

The interior of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA, in 2013
The interior of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, VA, in 2013. Photo by Ron Cogswell (Creative Commons)

Meanwhile, at Christ Church, in Alexandria, a 1773 Episcopal parish that claims George Washington and the Lee family as former worshippers, a relatively new rector was pushing for the removal of heavy memorial plaques to Lee and Washington on either side of the altar, both donated by parishioners after Lee’s death in 1870.

A plaque in memory of Robert E. Lee at Christ Church in Alexandria, Va., in 2013
A plaque in memory of Robert E. Lee at Christ Church in Alexandria, VA, in 2013. (Creative Commons)

The Rev. Noelle York-Simmons, suggesting the church needed to be “radically welcoming,” had run into resistance.

“The discussion about the appropriateness of the plaques in our worship space caused friction in our parish family,” read an Oct. 26 letter signed by York-Simmons and the vestry. “We understand that the discernment process has felt confusing and exclusive. We hope all parishioners will be more fully involved as we move forward.”

In Lexington, Va., the friction began for R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in 2015 after the Charleston shooting. A parishioner who teaches Shakespeare at Washington and Lee University next door wrote a letter to the rector, the Rev. Tom Crittenden, and the senior and junior wardens calling for a “frank, Christ-centered discussion about the name.”

Father Crittenden believed that compromise was possible, with enough love and forbearance. It turned out to be a far more difficult and costly belief than anyone imagined. But in the end, he was right.

I was on the vestry of the parish for all three years of the controversy. On Sept. 18, 2017, my final year, I voted with a bare majority 7-5 to change the name to Grace Episcopal Church.

To me, it felt like a miracle, considering how unbending the resistance had been since 2015 among some lay leaders and how empty the church’s youth program had become because of the alienation of younger families. The defense of Lee’s memorial name, which would have mortified Lee the traditional churchman, had become a gothic battlement against the shifting cultural winds.

The sign at R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, VA.
The sign at R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, VA. Photo by Michael Noirot (Creative Commons)

“Grace” seems the right word, a return to what it was called in the 19th century when Lee was senior warden after he joined the church in 1865. (“Memorial” was added after he died in 1870; it became R.E. Lee Memorial in 1903).

In 2015, Father Crittenden did not try to stop the issue at the church door. But neither did he push toward a foregone conclusion. He summoned a special vestry meeting. He helped organize house meetings and parish meetings for well-run discussions. Instead of a vote, there was a survey. Nearly a third of the congregation felt there was something wrong with the name, from a Christian perspective.

Despite all of this effort at dialogue – or maybe because of it – most members were unhappy with the process. Although the vestry had imposed a super-majority requirement on itself for such an upending change (falling one vote short, 9-6, in November that year), neither side felt that the vote settled anything. The church ended the year in a dark funk.

In the face of a fractured church that one vestry member compared to our national political discourse, the rector sought outside help that turned out to be based on radical peace-building techniques from the pacifist Mennonite branch of Christianity.

Cooperative by Design, LLC, is a consortium of “peacebuilding practitioners,” most of whom have connections with Eastern Mennonite University, an hour northeast of Lexington in Harrisonburg. Father Crittenden researched the group and, with the vestry’s approval, invited two of its consultants (one an Episcopal priest) to the vestry retreat in January 2016. Two things were memorable about their visit to that retreat: A technique of giving an individual the power to speak while others listened and secondly, the idea that conflict was not something to be “resolved” but was a kind of energy that could be used for “transformation.”

Such conflict-transformation was to come from recommendations by a group of six parishioners who would experience that transformation themselves. It would be expensive: The original contract was for up to $12,000, but the work took more time and effort than the consultants had planned on. In the end, Cooperative by Design submitted bills totaling more than $16,000.

The Rev. Tom Crittenden of Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington, Va.
The Rev. Tom Crittenden of Grace Episcopal Church in Lexington, Va. (Courtesy of Tom Crittenden)

It was hard, wrenching work for the six on the committee. They all said as much, although they were reluctant to speak as individuals about the experience. After nine months of two-hour meetings every two weeks, plus leading about a dozen focus groups with more than 100 parishioners, this “Discovery and Discernment Committee” formed a bond of confidentiality: No grandstanding. When the committee members submitted their final 15-page report in April, they seemed to me like castaways rescued from an island after a powerful common experience.

Father Crittenden was seeking healing and reconciliation, so he did not put a limit on where God might lead the committee. But even he did not expect the committee to come back with a recommendation to change the name, or that it would cost him his job. When they first came, the consultants had insisted that the name change was only a symptom, a “presenting” issue of conflict underneath. What the underlying issue or issues might be was anybody’s guess.

Robert E. Lee as symbol, a symbol generations of white Southerners invested with almost Christ-like qualities (as historian Emory M. Thomas has noted), has been hard on the rectors of Lee’s churches. The reason Father Crittenden resigned after it was all over is complicated, and in some ways, inexplicable. A steady, patient, gifted man, Father Crittenden announced his resignation after 10 years at R.E. Lee Memorial, and three and a half weeks after the name change.

In one of his last sermons, he called the D&D report our “John the Baptist moment.”

To many parishioners, it seems he was chewed up unfairly by the name-change controversy. He was faithful to a middle way, a way that worked beautifully for him in his previous parish in Tallahassee, Fla. There, his church flourished and weathered liberal-conservative battles over doctrine that had caused six other Episcopal churches to split or close down.

In the fullness of time, it was his middle way that changed the name from R.E. Lee to Grace. The Discovery and Discernment Committee had found “identity” as an underlying issue. The answer to that identity could not be a stark binary choice, dividing “winners” and “losers.” It had to be compromise. The committee’s recommendation was to restore the historical name of Grace, but also create a subcommittee “to honor Lee and the history of this parish in meaningful and significant ways.”

It took the vestry five months to accept that compromise, and even then, it was with a close, bitter vote. But the D&D committee’s recommendation became the map. No more argument was needed. Now a sign hangs out front for “Grace Episcopal Church, 1840,” and a history committee I chair, dominated by church members who opposed the name change, is discussing an interpretive sign for the front of the Parish Hall with brief sketches of famous people who worshipped in the church.

That would include Lee, of course, but also could include Jonathan Daniels, a former cadet at Virginia Military Institute who was martyred in Alabama in 1965 while helping register blacks to vote.

Father Crittenden’s farewell sermon was on All Saints Sunday. He said that he prays we will continue to implement the Discovery and Discernment Committee’s recommendations — “all of them,” he added. “Last April, the vestry ‘tabled’ some of the recommendations. People of God, we don’t, we can’t table the work of the Holy Spirit!”

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A theory of the leisure class Mon, 03 Apr 2017 09:59:49 +0000

a composite image created for - base image is a promotional photo from BBC TV Middlemarch series; Trump, Melania and Jared from their Wikipedia pages (Creative Commons)

The release by the White House of the financial worth of President Trump’s top advisors, in a Friday night dump timed for underplaying bad news (an April Fool’s joke on us?), was a face punch that we needed. While we were all staggering to understand Trump and his election – baffled, as Steve Bannon told us we were – this knocks us upright, a clarifying blow. These guys, Steve Bannon, son-in-law Jered Kushner, Gary Cohn, Kellyanne Conway and all, are worth hundreds of millions. Added to the billionaires on the cabinet, the West Wing cocktail party guests are worth a total of $12 billion, according to Bloomberg.

The investigation of ties with Russia, now underway by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, might turn out to be less about meddling in the election and more about Trump associates investing in Russian deals. Corruption in Russia’s crony capitalism is at carnival scale now, and you can follow the trail of it by looking at the dead Russians, the ones dying mysteriously all over the world because of what they know.

This is not just Watergate redux. It’s the Gilded Age. It’s Robber Barons and politicos on a Trump Tower scale, a gigantic gilt-edged flimflam. Dear Trump voters, brothers and sisters in Perry County, in Fannin County, in Pontiac: We have heard your message. Now look at the mess you’ve made.

The lucre these slick-haired salesmen make (a lot of it as “consultants” to dark-money right-wingers like Robert Mercer) is way beyond the comfortable salaries of the professionals and bureaucrats Trump voters thought were the enemy – the government bureaucrats, lawyers, media workers, professors, New York Times reporters, scientists, liberal bishops. Those are people I look up to, the ones who set standards I try to honor and meet, as a former news reporter and university professor.

This more modest “elite” is a class of folk that may have lost touch with the pain of the laid-off coal miner or autoworker, but they aren’t the enemy. They are the educated members of modern guilds that follow the rules from the 18th century Enlightenment: checks and balances, codes of ethics, cycles of reform (as alternative to Revolution), rules of evidence, skeptical thinking, education, service to the common good.

Middlemarch by George EliotIn George Eliot’s Middlemarch, you see the rise of this new class of do-gooders just before the Reform Act of 1832, as the steam-engine shakes up the old order controlled by the holders of vast wealth and the “resolute submission” of well-bred ladies. Tertius Lydgate makes no money as a newly arrived young doctor in Middlemarch, with a passion for making medicine a science and making health “public.” Going into the law or the church is respectable, but considered risky because of the low income. The young Fred Vincy, his upper-class status undone by gambling debts, considers going into the church for mere respectability, but realizes he needs to find a true calling, to learn the modern facts and to work for his bread. He does this by learning land-management from the father of the woman he loves, and thus finds his happiness in the new order of progress.

Less respectable is the romantic figure Will Ladislaw, a talented young freedom-lover who dabbles – in art, in music, in writing for the local paper, and writing a reform platform for “the worst landlord in the county,” the carefree Arthur Brooke of Tipton. Brooke decides to stand for Parliament but doesn’t stand for anything else except his own well-being.

These two are Bannon and Trump, characters trying to find their place in the new order (or now, a long-established order) organized and civilized by professionals.

Call it the elite. Call it the Deep State. These professionals are the people who submit to a faith in the Enlightenment idea on which liberal democracy was founded. Now the older regime of money is back in power. The tribal underclass thought it was supporting a Revolution. What they got was just the old money class back in power.





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Lapidary Prose Fri, 17 Mar 2017 11:24:11 +0000

Angel sculpture with rosesTalk about writer’s block: What about having to write an epitaph for your mother’s gravestone?

The idea of an epitaph, of course, is that it’s written for the ages, even those short simple annals of the poor on weed-lost tombstones.

I write, and teach writing. I teach that it starts with your audience. If you’ve been writing only for your teacher, you haven’t really started to learn writing. Writing well for a mass of strangers – that’s more like it.

But writing in stone for that imagined little audience of generations unborn? There’s a word for that. It’s an almost useless word today, one that I was pleased recently to teach our daughter, who reads more than I do and beats us all in Scrabble. “Ok, the word for the day,” said I, “is . . . lapidary.”

She didn’t know “lapidary.” It means of or pertaining to stone. So naturally, most of the citations of the word’s distinctive usages in the Oxford English Dictionary are from writers like DeQuincey in the 19th century, a true Stone Age. That was a time when load-bearing stones created churches and grand civic buildings, and when writers of English sought a “lapidary” prose style.

We don’t write on stone anymore. We don’t even write on paper. Our written words are ghosts, zillions of digitized Os and 1s zinging around the planet.

The old is all we have that’s new. Go to the cemeteries, the libraries. 
Be still for a little while.

I wrote that in a poem, as a pretend poet whose audience, I admit now, was mostly my parents. They also wrote poetry – and prose, some of it even lapidary. Our homespun occasional poetry we called our family secret. In our childhoods, my father recited poems by Stephen Vincent Benet, G. K. Chesterton or Elinor Wiley to us at bedtime, a Southern music in language.

my mother Emily Cumming
My mother, Emily Wright Cumming

My mother died a few months ago at 90 and was cremated. My father’s cognitive impairment, without Mama’s frisky social schedule for cover, became more apparent. He moved into an assisted living center. The old familiar poems still give him joy and meaning, as if they were the deep structure of his consciousness.

I was assigned to arrange for a gravestone where our mother’s ashes will be interred. The burial is in a family plot in Augusta, Ga., the ancestral home of my father’s line going back to when Thomas Cumming, the first mayor, welcomed George Washington to the town in 1791.

I have always enjoyed reading gravestone epitaphs in historic cemeteries like the one in Augusta, but never had to write one. Here in Lexington, Va., the historic Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery is full of epitaphs as brief as “It is well,” and as prolix as the words on the marker for Lee’s artillery general William Nelson Pendleton:

“Of gentle birth and of goodly presence he was a man pure, true, noble, a scholar ripe, exact, accomplished, a teacher wise, thorough, efficient, a soldier generous, dauntless, skillful, a Christian steadfast, unmovable. . .,” and so on, and ALL IN CAPS.

Joe Cumming, former Newsweek bureau chief and my father reading the death notice for his wife, my mother Emily Cumming, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Joe Cumming, former Newsweek bureau chief and my father, reading the death notice for his wife, my mother Emily Cumming, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

I thought of a few possible lapidariae, trying to sound a bit eternal but with a dash of my parents’ whimsy and skepticism. Considering the vague, biblical “It is well,” my sister suggested expanding that to the title of a lovely hymn, “It is well with my soul.” But then she demurred that she was “not quite tingly on the epitaph yet, but close!” There was no support for quoting Augusta’s most famous son, James Brown:

“OW!! I feel good.”

Then it came to me, as in a dream. A poet named Conrad Aiken had always been a favorite of my father’s and my mother’s. A mysterious Aiken poem called “The Morning Song of Lord Zero” became the title poem of a 1963 collection that Aiken sent to my father, signed, in response to my father’s fan letter. The end of the poem is weirdly visionary, an alternative heaven introduced this way:

“The landscape why is it not as we had foreseen it/ there are hills before us but no mountains. . .”

My father has long insisted that we read this part of the poem at his funeral.

In that final section of “Lord Zero,” I found the perfect epitaph for the gravestone my parents will one day share:

“our feet are now in the morning brook/ and its clear parable of time.”

Aiken was an unbeliever, a shadow of his friend T.S. Eliot who stuck with the unauthorized human mysteries. His own epitaph, in an old Savanah, Ga., cemetery, he cribbed from something he read in the shipping news section of the local newspaper:

“Cosmos Mariner Destination Unknown.”

We don’t know our ultimate audience, those future figures who will haunt our 21st century grave sites. But my guess is that, among the epitaphs of Georgia governors and congressmen in Summerville Cemetery, they might be better pleased thinking of a loving husband and wife with pants rolled up, wading in a chilly brook that is, in some symbolic way, a glimpse of eternity inside of ordinary time.

My sister read the epitaph to my father and replied in an email, “he’s a definite yes, with tears and grabbing my hand and saying yesyesyes!!!”



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Defense, Defense Wed, 15 Feb 2017 18:52:15 +0000 st century, I find myself wading into the murky waters of that Southern obsession with the past, which invariably goes back to slavery and the War. This obsession animates the 2016 book I have just finished reading, The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade, by historian Charles B. Dew ...]]>

Southerners are said to be obsessed with their own history. It’s true, belying that old dictum that history is always written by the winners. Even now, well into the 21st century, I find myself wading into the murky waters of that Southern obsession with the past, which invariably goes back to slavery and the War.

The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade Hardcover by Charles B. DewThis obsession animates the 2016 book I have just finished reading, The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade, by historian Charles B. Dew. And I feel it in myself as I riffle through about 40 pounds of family files I recently hauled up from Atlanta to Virginia.

Charles Dew, a professor at Williams College, has written books about antebellum industrial production in Virginia that used slave labor and a book about the secession commissioners who brought on the Civil War (Apostles of Disunion). But The Making of a Racist is different, a personal narrative that is half about his own growing up in segregated St. Petersburg, Fla., in the 1940s and ‘50s and half about how it feels for a historian to read documents about the business of the South’s flourishing slave traffic.

He stitches the two halves together skillfully, painfully. The banal mercantile language of the slave buyers and sellers is almost exactly the same as that of livestock traders. Cotton and slave prices rise together with the intoxicating power of an economic bubble in the 1850s. It had become just another face of capitalism, protected by the Constitution. Long after the African slave-shipping trade was abolished, Richmond auction houses sold slaves bred by the thousands, often in families that were then torn apart by that hot market.

Southern apologists for slavery, by then, had worked out their sacred dogma of white supremacy. One of these early apologists, the historian Dew confesses, was an ancestor of his named Thomas Roderick Dew, who wrote in the 1830s of Virginia as “a negro raising state.” T.R. Dew proposed that these slaves were “harmless and happy” but could be turned into “dark designing and desperate rebels” by those sinister northern abolitionists.

After World War II, the Jim Crow system that became the Southern way of life for young Charles Dew was softer, of course, but the underlying assumptions were the same, he argues. Whites believed that race relations, under segregation, were good, that Sambo books were funny, and that maids like the one the Dews employed were loyal and content, if only the NAACP and other outside agitators didn’t stir things up. Charles Dew, as a teenager, began to stray from the conservative attitudes of his gruff lawyer father and polished upper-class mother. He drove their maid home and visited with her. He went far off to Williams College in Massachusetts, learning just how much of a “Southern white” he was. He studied Southern history. He changed.

I recognize the white South of Dew’s youth, because its fading details still lingered in my salad days in Atlanta in the 1960s and early ‘70s. The roots of his family tree go deep into 19th century Tennessee and West Virginia, while mine go back at least as far in Georgia history. The letters and other documents I’m pawing through from my parents’ file cabinet and boxes tell stories that I have known most of my life. I always took a quiet pride in these stories.

In contrast to Charles Dew’s pro-slavery ancestor, mine in the Cumming line were lawyers whose letters and speeches tended to be about the dignity of the law, the virtue of public service, the charm of classical and romantic literature, and the need for industrial uplift in their fair city, Augusta. My grandfather Joseph B. Cumming was an FDR and LBJ Democrat. He served in the 1920s on an inter-racial committee to address racial problems and in the 1940s led a reform movement against the corrupt “Cracker Party” in the Georgia legislature. His son, my father, was ready for the civil rights movement as a liberal Democrat. More than that, he was in the middle of the movement, covering it for Newsweek magazine.

Joseph B. Cumming interviewing civil rights hero Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth
Joseph B. Cumming interviewing civil rights hero Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

In one folder, I found a photo of him interviewing civil rights hero Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham in 1963, the two pressed together from behind by a group of blacks on the move.

Reading my family’s papers, I don’t experience the kind of guilt that waylaid Dew as he unearthed the past. But I have been disconcerted by something I found in the family record. It’s not exactly racist, but is related. What I found was a prickly defensiveness. The Confederate army fought a good defensive war, and its descendants have remained defensive ever since.

It’s a matter of honor and reputation. I can’t argue with the defense when it is based on evidence and history, as it is with my family. Still, it was disorienting for me to find the old defensiveness coming from my own flesh and blood, because I know that this protective pose has always been one of the main reasons white Southerners are incapable of facing what Charles Dew experiences as our deep collective sin.

My mother died peacefully a few months ago at age 90. Back in 1980, she wrote a well-researched family history constructed around her great-grandfather, Maxwell Rufus Berry, who waited out the Civil War as a money clerk in downtown Atlanta. He didn’t care about slavery or politics; he cared about business. True, he had friends and relatives who were Union sympathizers. But he was not a Unionist himself, my mother wrote in her Berry family history. The distinction was important.

So in a letter to the director of the Atlanta History Center, she said she was “shocked” to see Maxwell Berry described in an ad for a Georgia public TV feature, “Georgia’s Civil War,” as a Union sympathizer. He was a “non-combatant,” she said. Not that my mother admired our ancestor’s “practical and self-serving realism.”


portrait by Whittier Wright
portrait by Whittier Wright

But she was proud to note that he survived to be a major player in the rebuilding of Atlanta from the ashes, and that his 10-year-old daughter’s diary of Sherman’s bombardment was featured on Georgia public television that season. The history center’s director apologized for the error, and thanked my mother for her support.

A far more lavish Southern defensiveness I found in a nine-page single-spaced letter that my grandfather, the Augusta lawyer, wrote to journalist James Wooten in 1978.

Wooten, a New York Times reporter based in Atlanta and later with ABC News (not to be confused with an Atlanta Journal columnist with the same name), had published a biography of the newly elected President, Jimmy Carter. My grandfather’s letter criticized the subtle but pervasive anti-Southern bias that he detected in that biography, Dasher. It’s an essay-worthy letter, typed on the stiff stationery of the Augusta law firm from which he had retired and withdrawn the Cumming name.

He complains about Wooten rendering quotes phonetically, such as Miss Lillian saying “negra.” He questions why Wooten made a point of the local pronunciation of Albany, Ga., as Al-BIN-y. My Granddaddy was known for his florid vocabulary, his extraordinary recall of Shakespeare and other literary touchstones, and his powerful courtroom manner, in the tradition of an earlier Augusta lawyer whose oratorical sway of juries was said to be grounds for an appeal.

“My son, Joe, tells me that you regard yourself as a Southerner,” Granddaddy writes, but then sets Wooten straight. Atlanta, he says, is no more Southern than St. Augustine is Spanish or Mobile is French. Lest Wooten think this Augusta lawyer is provincial, Granddaddy notes that he was in boarding school, Princeton, Harvard Law and the Army outside his native Deep South, and in his youth was quite taken by it all. But with mature judgment, he came to regard everything north of the Potomac a mere “sub-culture” with few of the abiding standards and virtues of the ages.

Joseph B. Cumming Sr. in his library in Augusta, Ga.
Joseph B. Cumming Sr. in his library in Augusta, Ga.

In fact, he argues, it’s New Yorkers who are ignorant of the correct “iambic” pronunciation of “Albany,” he writes. (“Witness the half dozen largest cities in Georgia where the accent is on the penult.”) Wooten’s attempt at local dialect reminded Granddaddy of what Shakespeare did in Henry V with the Welsh speech of Fluellen (“The Welshman in the Globe Theater when that play was performed was not amused”).

Granddaddy was not amused. Or maybe he was – amused with himself. He cites historical tidbits that range from the Edict of Caligula to what he claims were the peculiar causes of the 1970 racial disturbance in Augusta – a city, he says, with a long history of racial harmony. His arguments sound original and even charming, full of the kind of historical flourishes we always enjoyed hearing from him. He was chairman of the Georgia Historical Commission, president of the Georgia Bar, a national advisor on historic preservation and an honorary Cherokee Indian. He wrote long well-reasoned arguments against Nixon, against pure laissez-faire capitalism, against Christian fundamentalism. . . and all in perfect rhyming couplets, in the 18th century style. He seemed to know everything and everybody.

But the defensiveness I found unbecoming. Granddaddy, not quite digging the journalistic style of Wooten (or his son or me, who also became a journalist), in this letter spoils his few gracious comments with peevish insults. Words like “supercilious” “derisive,” “patronizing,” and “offensive” call to mind the luxurious language of Southern gentlemen making a challenge for a duel. Granddaddy knew the old insulting vocabulary of the code duello. He had written a monograph about the duels between his distant ancestor William Cumming (for whom Cumming, Ga., is named) and a governor of South Carolina. In a note I found addressed to my father, he complains – self-mockingly, I hope – about a “base, false, perfidious, whoreson knave” who had failed to return one of his books.

The defensiveness, in the end, is a cover-up. At one point, Granddaddy criticizes Wooten for mentioning that a train’s passenger car was segregated. “So what’s new?” he writes, calling segregation at that time an immutable part of the then-existing circumstances of life. “None objected and all recognized that it was desirable, eliminating possible friction.” Granddaddy was buried in the historic Summerville Cemetery on Cumming Road some thirty-three years ago.

I have no wish to blame my eminent, idealistic Granddaddy for his worldview any more than he was willing to blame his segregationist forebears for being products of their time. It is not blame so much as blindness that Charles Dew tries to reveal in the white South, a moral blindness in the slave auctioneers, in his parents, and in himself. If we can see that blindness in the past, maybe we can begin to see it in our day too, and see to see.



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Mr. R.E. Lee, Without the Flags Mon, 06 Oct 2014 12:37:41 +0000

The Confederate flags are now gone from around the incumbent marble Robert E. Lee, at eternal rest with his riding boots on in the innermost sanctuary of Lee Chapel in Lexington, Va. That is as it should be, for many reasons. One is historical.

Our campus was a sanctuary of recovery from the Civil War, where “the sun falls through the ruined boughs of locusts/ Up to the president’s office.” That president was Lee, “in a dark civilian suit who walks,/ An outlaw fumbling for the latch, a voice/ Commanding in a dream where no flag flies.”

Lee pix
Robert E. Lee, in a Michael Miley photograph blown up and hanging in the foyer of the reopened Robert E. Lee Hotel (note reflection of chandelier), Lexington.

These are lines from “Lee in the Mountains,” a poem by Donald Davidson from the 1920s. He was one of a group of highly literary, romantic and vaguely unreconstructed writers based at Vanderbilt. On April 12, 1948, Washington & Lee, marking the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s foundational gift to then-Liberty Hall, conferred an honorary degree on Davidson and seven others.

“Lee in the Mountains” is a haunting meditation – as obtuse as Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” – on Lee’s decision not to urge a guerrilla war of resistance in the mountains, but to set to work on re-building the South as a defeated section of the Union. The poem seems a bit too wistful about that decision. “I am alone,” the narrator says, “Trapped, consenting, taken at last in the mountains.”

It is not the bugle now, or the long roll beating.
The simple stroke of a chapel bell forbids
The hurtling dream, recalls the lonely mind.

I suspect that it is Donald Davidson, not Lee, who imposes the wistfulness. You can sense it in the other poems collected in the same book, also titled Lee in the Mountains. (The 1938 volume I checked out from the Washington & Lee library has Davidson’s signature in it.) The poet can’t seem to leave alone his obsession with finding redemption in being a loser. “For us, the long remembering/Of all our hearts have better known.” This is worship of the dead, the rutted past, the washed-out soil.

Davidson didn’t give up his fight after the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. He organized a Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government to defend segregation, and wrote paranoid essays about how the integration of schools in Oak Ridge, Tenn., was a pilot for the integration of the rest of the state. He was named as a character witness for John Kasper, the man later convicted of inciting violence in Nashville, including the bombing of an elementary school. Davidson sat in the courtroom in support of other racist bomb-throwers. This was a sorry pose for a Vanderbilt professor of English, even in the 1950s.

But it reminds us of a past we are apt to gloss over. One reason those Confederate flags needed to be removed is that the old battle flag was used in the 1950s by the Klan, the white Citizens Councils and Deep South governors as a last-ditch fight for white supremacy. Blacks seem to remember this history better than white Southerners. In 1956, when Davidson, a gentle poet at heart, was hanging out with a bad crowd thinking he was defending “state’s rights,” the Georgia legislature was changing its state flag to include the Confederate battle flag. Everybody knew what that meant then.

At W&L, the Roger Mudd Center for Ethics is spending a year reflecting on Race and Justice with a lecture series. Meanwhile, on Oct. 13 (Oct. 12 is the anniversary of Lee’s death in 1870), Christian B. Keller, a historian at the U.S. Army War College, will deliver a Lee memorial lecture at 12:15 p.m. in Lee Chapel, “Robert E. Lee, Great Captain: The Military Education of a Future Civilian Leader.” And if you’re visiting Lexington for that, you might be able to book a room in the Robert E. Lee Hotel, a 1926 landmark that just reopened on Main Street with some of the splendor of the original.

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‘Princess Cut’ puts Knoxville’s sex trafficking on stage Wed, 04 Jun 2014 19:56:46 +0000

The theater long ago was laid waste by the gods of big entertainment. Now, when we think of acting, we think Hollywood, celebrities, an HBO series. When we think of the stage, it’s Broadway musicals, or if “serious” theater, it’s usually the work of famous dead playwrights being produced for the umpteenth time for high-priced tickets that put you in the upper seats.

Kerri Koczen and Danielle Roos had another idea. Both women had graduated from their colleges a few years earlier as theater majors. They met through mutual friends involved with Southwestern, a Nashville-based company that recruits undergraduates for door-to-door book sales as a summer job.

Kerri and Danielle
Kerri Koczen and Danielle Roos

They had a dream of doing real theater, the dark transformation of human bodies into the fancies of a live audience’s imagination. Real theater: small black spaces with gel lighting that blots out all but the first row of an audience you can feel holding its breath, fully absorbed. The magic of the human voice; the smile and frown of the old Greek masks on our human condition.

But they wanted to use the power of the theater not for mere entertainment. They wanted to do good. Danielle had already created Yellow Rose Productions and produced one show. When Kerri joined her about six months ago in Knoxville, they decided to move in the direction of addressing issues of social justice. Knoxville seemed like a good place to start, without much competition. It needed them.

“Princess Cut” was their first production together. It had one showing, a riveting experience for a full house of more than 200 people. It played last Friday, May 30, in The Square Room, a venue behind a curtained glass wall at the back of Cafe4, a cool restaurant on Market Square in downtown Knoxville. Kerri and Danielle had apparently done good preliminary work contacting church groups and agencies that deal with the particular social issue the “Princess Cut” tackles: sex trafficking.

You might call it prostitution, or in updated terms, sex work. But what Kerri and Danielle uncovered was that sex work could be actual slavery and trafficking as much as what takes those terms in news stories from Africa and Southeast Asia. Through a fellow writer, they found a woman in her 20s who had been recruited into this subculture at age 5 by a teenage cousin. Her parents both worked, so they never suspected that the cousin was a link to a man, “The Head,” who so terrified the little girl that she lived a double life, at home and in the sex house, until she was 14 – old enough for “the street.”

The two dramaturgists decided to transform this singular story of “Sarah” into art, believing that one real story would spark an interest in the broader issue. Hours of interviews, some recorded and transposed, were turned into a script. The play had seven other actors besides Kerri, who played Sarah; Danielle directed. Reading the script, one actor told me, made her cry. I saw audience members wiping tears in the dark. Kerri, transmuted in the way of live theater into her character, seemed to move from innocent confusion to terror to deadened emptiness and finally, to a glistening brim of tears. How do you end such a grim play, after you’ve used the other actors as a kind of Greek chorus of sadness and terror? “I’m lucky,” says Sarah at the end, recognizing that unlike some others still captive, she has escaped to tell her story.

But that wasn’t the end. After a 15-minute intermission, to help us come back to ourselves from that abyss, three chairs were set up on stage for a panel of experts on sex trafficking in Tennessee: a man and a female “mental health specialist” from Second Life, a Chattanooga agency serving those recovering from prostitution, and a female FBI victim-witness specialist. The discussion proceeded with questions from the audience.

Kerri found out later something I had suspected: Yes, “Sarah” was in the audience, watching her story acted out in public.

The idea of live theater engaging the public on an issue of social justice is familiar to me. In 1971, the Academy Theater in Atlanta received a federal grant to create a play about the tensions and misunderstandings among black and white students who were being forced by court order into newly desegregated high schools in Georgia. The Academy Theater’s director, a brooding Jewish iconoclast named Frank Wittow, had grown impatient with theater as an entertaining social adornment. If theater in Atlanta didn’t address contemporary reality and stir audiences to action, he would say, it deserved its slow death. He recruited a black theater troupe from the Atlanta University community to work with his company to create, through research and improvisation, a play to take to high schools in places like Savannah, Dublin and Rome, Ga.

Princess Cut program
Princess Cut program

I was lucky to join the Georgia Tour Play project just as it was getting started, as its writer-in-residence. I had come back to my Florida college from a semester of independent study in London as a sophomore, and felt too restless to return to the classroom. So I dropped out – not the last time I would drop in or out of college. As “writer,” my job was not to write a script but to record the process. This was, in a way, my first journalism job. But the project itself was also a lot like journalism, in the best sense.

To me, “Princess Cut” is the soul of journalism in the same way. Kerri and Danielle looked out and found an issue, found sources, interviewed one in depth, protected her identity, and told her story artfully to an attentive audience. That’s literary journalism. It doesn’t seem to generate enough revenue for newspapers and magazines these days. And it isn’t generating any immediate revenue for Kerri and Danielle. I’d like to see them take this play, with a localized panel discussion, to other cities around the South. But that would require some grant money from the government (like the Georgia Tour Play), a foundation, churches, or enlightened investors.

Sitting next to me at the play was the chairman and CEO of Southwestern, Henry Bedford, who had come from Nashville on his Harley-Davidson. The 160-year-old company, Southwestern, does not just send college kids around the country to sell education books door-to-door. It also tries to teach entrepreneurial values and business discipline through these demanding summer jobs – which the kids do entirely as independent contractors without a salary. Henry Bedford is a quiet, modest-seeming man who likes to invest in promising enterprises that many former Southwestern sales people launch.

He became an underwriter of Yellow Rose Productions. Like most start-ups in the arts these days, it’s not a promising investment, financially. But in the way of good journalism, it’s a promising investment in the civil sphere. So Henry Bedford is now telling people that this play was the best investment he’s ever made.

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A Senior Moment Thu, 03 Feb 2011 04:06:28 +0000 No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

The other night, my wife and I had supper at a table in the dining room of our local continuing care retirement community, described in its website as “Serving Older Adults in the Quaker Tradition.” Around the table were retirees with sterling memories of having starred. Peyton, on my left, the son of a famous missionary in China, had led Episcopal seminaries all over the world; John Gunn, emeritus economics professor at Washington & Lee University, still asks the sharpest liberal-leaning questions at lectures on the W&L campus; Harrison Kinney, on my right, was a “Talk of the Town” writer at the New Yorker until John Updike ...


No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

The other night, my wife and I had supper at a table in the dining room of our local continuing care retirement community, described in its website as “Serving Older Adults in the Quaker Tradition.” Around the table were retirees with sterling memories of having starred. Peyton, on my left, the son of a famous missionary in China, had led Episcopal seminaries all over the world; John Gunn, emeritus economics professor at Washington & Lee University, still asks the sharpest liberal-leaning questions at lectures on the W&L campus; Harrison Kinney, on my right, was a “Talk of the Town” writer at the New Yorker until John Updike took his office in the 1950s; Jo McMurtry, next to him, is retired from the University of Richmond’s English Department. She and I were reciting a Robert Frost poem together, from memory, the one from which the stanza above is taken.

Also at the table was my wife’s mother, herself respectably accomplished with a degree in economics from Cambridge University and a pioneering government career starting in the Navy WAVES and in Occupied Japan. She has recently moved from Florida to this idyllic old folks home beside the Blue Ridge. My wife and I visit a lot, but last night it was because I was giving an after-dinner lecture, “When Journalism Was an Honorable Profession.” (The title was merely a set up for my opening line: “Honorable? Hell, it’s never even been a profession.”)

The Frost poem ends bitterly, as Jo and I underscored with chilly irony as we quietly completed our duet:

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide.

The residents sitting at tables around the dining room, in their 80s and 90s, certainly have paid dearly for such first-rate friends. Kendal at Lexington ain’t cheap. But the lesson isn’t in the last stanza of the Frost poem, but in a stanza that applies to so many of these retired professors, or retirees returned to the little-changed town where they graduated from W&L or the Virginia Military Institute around the years of World War II.

Some have relied on what they knew;
Others on simply being true.
What worked for them might work for you.

After my lecture, in which I mentioned my past employment at the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, and even mentioned this website, Like the Dew, John Gunn came up with a twinkle in his eyes. “I have a song to sing for you.” I thought he was kidding. No kidding, he sang a song from memory, from when he was a student at Georgia Tech, something played on WSB radio no doubt. So may you all live well, kids, and keep your memories.

The Atlanta Journal covers Dixie like the dew.
Everybody there will tell you so.
Daily it reviews
Everything that’s news.
It will tell you all you want to know,
[soft voice: “I’m telling the world that”]
Every hour and every day
both here and far away,
The Atlanta Journal’s on the air,
If you want that Dixie flavor in your mouth,
Tune in on Atlanta and the Voice of the South,
The Atlanta Journal Covers Dixie like the dew,
And it hails   from   down   in  Geor–gia.

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Looking Back at George Leonard Tue, 19 Jan 2010 21:56:31 +0000 George Leonard, whose dispatches for Look magazine came from the Eden of the West Coast before the Fall of Man, is dead at 86. His obit in the New York Times, which was a link on Tuesday morning’s Like the Dew, says he died of throat cancer on Jan. 6 at his home in Mill Valley, Calif.

I remember his writings on the Sixties in the glossy colorful pages of Look, a promise of redemption for a kid feeling stuck in a dusty old Atlanta high school while Something Big was happening out there. His book Education and Ecstasy seemed more original and damning of conventional life (i.e. my high school) than the liner-notes on a Dylan or Coltrane album. Leonard’s message was


George Leonard, whose dispatches for Look magazine came from the Eden of the West Coast before the Fall of Man, is dead at 86. His obit in the New York Times, which was a link on Tuesday morning’s Like the Dew, says he died of throat cancer on Jan. 6 at his home in Mill Valley, Calif.

I remember his writings on the Sixties in the glossy colorful pages of Look, a promise of redemption for a kid feeling stuck in a dusty old Atlanta high school while Something Big was happening out there. His book Education and Ecstasy seemed more original and damning of conventional life (i.e. my high school) than the liner-notes on a Dylan or Coltrane album. Leonard’s message was so ahead-of-the-curse (to stick with the Eden image), it announced a New Consciousness that is still possible, still unspoiled by our later cynicism and Tom Wolfish irony. When the Sixties went stale and sulky, Leonard caught a wayward updraft, shuffling off objectivity and journalism to become a pilgrim guide on the wild trips of the Human Potential Movement. He was Out There, “walking on the edge of the world,” as he called his memoir. But he was also a Georgia boy of the ‘40s, racing cars down Peachtree Street with his North Fulton High School buddies, and even in his later consciousness-raising, haunted by the South’s racial demons.

I finally met him at the world’s first (and last) Hog Encounter, in a Morningside living room in Atlanta. A tall striking figure with intense blue eyes, white hair, and the grace of a dancer, George Leonard was by then known as a leader of the movement centered at Esalen Institute in California. He became president of Esalen, co-founder and master teacher of a school in the martial art of aikido, president of the Association of Humanistic Psychology, and promoter of various new-age blends of spiritual, athletic and mental practices such as Leonard Energy Training (LET) and Integral Transformative Practice (ITP). Leonard’s books delineate his joyous radical vision in such basic areas of American life as education, marriage, leisure time, and health: Education and Ecstasy (1968), The Man & Woman Thing and Other Provocations (1970), The Transformation (1972), The Ultimate Athlete (1975), The Silent Pulse: A Search for the Perfect Rhythm that Exists in Each of Us (1978), The End of Sex (1983), Mastery: The Keys to Long-Term Success and Fulfillment (1991), and The Way of Aikido (1999). After he left Look in 1970, he embraced and mastered (or helped invent) practices that issued from the very phenomena he had covered (or discovered, as far as Middle America was concerned) in the 1960s.

The process began when Leonard orchestrated a special issue of Look in January 1961 touting the proposition that, as his essay put it, “Youth everywhere is exploding into action,” a clairvoyance defying the conventional wisdom that the rising generation was apathetic. Living in San Francisco, where he established a Look bureau, Leonard directed other special issues from the windy frontiers of cultural change, giving some thirty million Look readers a prescient, vibrant sense of the new meaning of California, hippies, psychedelic drugs, encounter groups, the sexual revolution, hot tubs, and Frisbees. His beat was not merely touchy-feely trends, but the whole notion of “lifestyle,” a term that Leonard introduced into the popular press before “Lifestyle” permeated American culture as a section title of metro newspapers everywhere. Look magazine’s editorial practice was to give one editor or team control over the words, design and photography of an entire package, so Leonard’s evangelizing for the new consciousness included his essays, his choice of artful photographs and the work of other writers of his choosing. For Leonard to participate in the humanistic revolution he was covering—giving Esalen seminars and experimenting with LSD, for example—was in keeping with New Journalism. A new, more penetrating and personal journalism was needed to cover what was happening. The question was this: What drove Leonard to make that leap into a new kind of journalism, and eventually led him to such explorations of the self?

According to his Walking on the Edge of the World, it was largely his upbringing in a segregated South that gave him his vague longing to break down social barriers. (“Breakdown is Breakthrough” he titles the final section of the memoir, on the human potential movement.) As a boy from Atlanta, he spent summers in a small Georgia town with his grandfather, a state senator, undertaker, and farmer. His grandfather took him to see the crowded shacks of the poor black families who worked on his farm. What do they do at night, the boy asked. His grandfather assured him they went to sleep happy. The boy knew this was not the case, but it was forbidden territory and it left him feeling very strange. Later, he witnessed a white mob gathered around the town’s courthouse as a black prisoner, accused of raping a white woman, was escorted through the crowd past the boy. “Something had happened to me when my eyes had met those of the black man. I had felt what he felt.” His heroes would be Southerners who questioned this system—Ralph McGill and Leonard’s own aunt, a novelist and Atlanta Journal columnist named Margaret Long, who once edited a progressive journal of the Southern Regional Council. So, for Look, he returned to the South several times to witness the non-violent protests of black students and the march from Selma, Alabama. He encouraged a young Georgia writer, Bill Hedgepeth, to open an Atlanta bureau for the magazine. Leonard wrote that he liked Hedgepeth because he was a colorful, madcap Southern writer who wore an eyepatch and white linen suits. In the late sixties, when ghettos were erupting, Leonard joined a group of fifteen senior editors from America’s major news outlets on a jetliner tour, sponsored by Time-Life and the Urban League. They dropped in on the country’s most racially troubled cities. Leonard mockingly called the project “seven ghettos  in seven days,” convinced that the mentality of journalistic objectivity would block any understanding even if these editors could spend a month in the ghetto.  At one point in the tour, in Watts, Leonard nearly exploded with rage, nose-to-nose with one of the militant black-power advocates who had been haranguing the white editors. Leonard was disgusted with the lack of response from his fellow editors, pathetic not just in their whiteness, but in their bloodless, colorless “objectivity.” Leonard believed that yelling back was healthy therapy, and his black attacker raised the volume even more. “It was a goddam, all-out black-white confrontation, and what made it wonderful was not the content of the words but the rhythm, the uninhibited release of pent-up feelings. I noticed vaguely during the uproar that my white colleagues were absolutely still and pale.” Race, for Leonard, remained a formidable inner wall, and the dream of breaking through that barrier connected his California mind-body trip with his Southern roots:

“On the matter of race, perhaps more than anything else, I dreamed of things that never were. Race was clearly a powerful searchlight that could illuminate individual neurosis and penetrate to the core of our national sickness. Through heartfelt confrontation and understanding, integration could become a two-way process. Black Americans could gain a fair share of the rewards of the mainstream culture. White Americans could tap into the richness of the black culture, could recognize the spontaneity, the joy, even the ability to perceive reality that we had kept hidden somewhere in the sterile suburbs of our senses.”

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An open letter to my congressman Thu, 17 Sep 2009 03:39:49 +0000 Dear Congressman Goodlatte:

My wife and I attended the Town Hall meeting you held yesterday in Lynchburg to air public concerns about healthcare and health coverage. We appreciated the chance to hear what you and our fellow citizens had to say. We were glad that this discussion was conducted civilly. This is an emotional issue, and an important issue. In a way, it’s a test of our democratic system: How good are we at solving a complicated problem like this – with economic, moral and political dimensions – when Washington opens up the process so fully to non-experts, semi-informed folks and the stirred-up mob?


Dear Congressman Goodlatte:

Picture 8My wife and I attended the Town Hall meeting you held yesterday in Lynchburg to air public concerns about healthcare and health coverage. We appreciated the chance to hear what you and our fellow citizens had to say. We were glad that this discussion was conducted civilly. This is an emotional issue, and an important issue. In a way, it’s a test of our democratic system: How good are we at solving a complicated problem like this – with economic, moral and political dimensions – when Washington opens up the process so fully to non-experts, semi-informed folks and the stirred-up mob?

I remain optimistic. I was encouraged to see the way that you articulated a point of view that, while more conservative than my own, is a perfectly reasonable one. You seem knowledgeable, sincere, and willing to speak the truth to people who have misconceptions about healthcare, on either side. For instance, to the woman who worried about bureaucrats pulling the plug on granny, you pointed out that the feared “death panels” is a myth and that you, in fact, support end-of-life directives and living will agreements arrived at between a patient and doctor (and presumably, covered by insurance, whether private or public). When another person expressed a fundamental distrust in the government having any role in healthcare whatsoever, you pointed out that your argument is not with the government having a role, but with the current House bill.

But beyond the relative civility of that town hall meeting, there is a distressing lack of truth-telling and calm consideration – something more like a seething hatred and fear that I sensed even there, though you did a good job of keeping it in check. I did not speak out, but I do have one plea to make. Please, help provide leadership for the people who are the most emotional and least informed. Instead of being a follower, because “people are afraid” or “people just don’t want bureaucrats taking away their choice in healthcare,” give them the information and perspective they need.

For instance, several people asserted that proposals to reform our healthcare system are “unconstitutional,” one lady even suggesting she’s ready to rise up in rebellion. You’re a lawyer; you went to W&L Law School (I happen to teach journalism at W&L). You know that these efforts are not unconstitutional. Article One, Section One of the Constitution clearly gives Congress legislative power. Please, the next time someone says this is unconstitutional (and you know well that such assertions are a flag for what Republican advisor Mark McKinnon calls the “right-wing nut balls” and “freaks”), call them out. This is NOT unconstitutional, except to the most extreme libertarian interpretation.  This is democracy at work.

A more subtle example. As I listened to your talk, something was bothering me about the way you talked about “the federal government.” When I was young, elected officials like you came to talk to us in our public schools. I remember them talking about “our government,” or “your government.” That made a huge impression on me. Now, many people talk about the government as if it were some evil, alien force.

Less extreme opponents of change have many good points to make. But I notice that their points are usually based on their own narrow experience and self-interest. Of course most people are satisfied with their current healthcare. But to provide leadership, you and our other elected officials (W&L graduates like Rep. Joe Wilson, especially) should be pointing out the problems that are systemic, even if those problems in the system hurt only a small minority. This takes moral vision.

To take my personal case: No one could be happier and more secure with health insurance. My wife and I are both on the faculty at W&L; I just got tenure; and our health insurance at W&L paid an unbelievable amount of money to cover our daughter Sarah’s treatment for bone cancer, then for therapy-related leukemia (including major lung surgery for metastatic nodules, and a bone marrow transplant out of state). Sarah seems to be in the clear now, is starting at Sewanee, and happy as can be, a beautiful and talented girl. This experience has profoundly changed my outlook about healthcare. I believe it is a human right – at least when it comes to life-saving treatments like Sarah got. I cannot understand how any American could be satisfied with the current system, where some families cannot protect their children as we did – because they can’t afford it. I thank God every day for Sarah’s life. But Sarah would probably not be alive today if, at several critical points, we had hesitated or taken less than the best options because of financial questions. Tell the people about this injustice.

And tell the people about the costs. Yes, the various proposals entail costs that are troubling. I appreciate your concern about the federal deficit, and I share it. But people are unaware of what the current system is costing them, because these costs are as hidden to them as are the cases of people who suffer because of lack of coverage, or denied claims.

At the beginning of your town hall meeting, you led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. I am deeply moved when I say this pledge. When I thought back about the narrowness of some people’s expressed views, it occurred to me that they are stopping in the Pledge with the word “liberty,” in a narrow sense of individual liberty. They do not seem to be reflecting on “justice,” and who this “liberty and justice” is for, not only “each” individual, but “for all.”


Doug Cumming

Note: If you want to write Congressman Goodlatte (R-Va.), too:

Representative Bob Goodlatte
2240 Rayburn HOB
Washington, D.C. 20515

Or write your own Congressman.

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The legendary Bill Emerson: ‘Exactly how I planned it’ Wed, 26 Aug 2009 15:59:19 +0000

103712778_-1_240213cBill Emerson, a legendary writer and editor who died Tuesday at age 86, was a one-of-kind force field, a gargantuan figure of Southern theatricality. He amazed everybody who met him, as far back as when he opened Newsweek’s Atlanta bureau in 1953 and began covering a decade of what he called “riots, revolutions and everyday politics.”

Whatever he did, from keeping the Saturday Evening Post frisky long past its bedtime, to teaching journalism at the University of South Carolina, which he compared to “trying to start a reluctant lawn mower,” he radiated a heady sense of rule-breaking possibilities.

William Austin Emerson, Jr., wrote serious books, gave Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., their first serious journalistic interviews, and knew practically everybody worth knowing in New York before he circled back to his hometown Atlanta in 1986 to make a satisfying splash. But his so-called career was nothing compared to his gusty delivery of words – wild, polysyllabic, Shakespearean, backwoods, profane words uttered with a pitch and volume that carried like a jazz trombone.

His talk curved hilariously into Emersonian punch lines. “Old Governor Cherry was a wonderful man,” he would roar. “He hated people.” Introducing his reporter son Bo to a crowd, he’d say, “We’re proud of him, and hope he doesn’t disgrace us.” Or to an interviewer, he would allow: “Southerners are generous, fun-loving people. Homicidal, but basically decent folk.”

His physical presence, tall and cocked back from a Bacchanalian midsection, could be as inspiring as his words. He would greet you with a bear hug and a ready nickname – Ol’ Tiger! Peach! – and love you with the rambunctious play of his broad face and glittering eyes. He was the best of company with every sort of folk, except the pompous. The cleaning lady at the Post wept with him at the end. His best drinking buddies were the Pulitzer-winning newspaper editors of Atlanta and Little Rock, Ralph McGill and Harry Ashmore.

Throughout my life, I had the good luck to draw energy, and always delight, from his presence and wild words. Now that he’s gone, I wonder at the silence. “Did you feel that great sucking sensation of a vacuum?,” my mother asked when she called with the news. Emerson died at Canterbury Court in Atlanta in the midst of his children, who had been summoned from Connecticut, Chapel Hill, Decatur. His health had been declining for about a year, and he had been hospitalized two weeks ago.

There’s no explaining Emerson, but surely one of the more mysterious acts of his life was hiring my father in 1957 to help him cover the South for Newsweek. Emerson had a natural talent and background for journalism, having been a student editor at the Harvard Advocate, then a young editor at the former Collier’s magazine in New York. But my father was in the family building and supply business in Augusta, and not showing much talent for that. Emerson, who knew my father through post-war house parties and was impressed that he came from a “good family,” got him to file a few reports on President Eisenhower’s golf visits to Augusta.

And in ’57, as the South was heating up with the civil rights story, he hired Joe Cumming. My father wrote later about how Emerson for the next few years hammered away at the task of teaching his protégé reporting and writing. “It was a painful and exhilarating experience,” my father wrote. “He was tough and inspiring.”

Across the years, my encounters with Emerson have been remote from the world of journalism, which I also fell into as a career. Instead, I have basked in his fun, funny energy off in mellow vacation homes, by the spell of firelight, mountain twilight, candlelit suppers or cocktail hours on terraces. It seemed always to be in loud social gatherings, with dear kith and kin, lifted by the ethers of the mead hall. Off in Tamworth, N.H., or the Emerson place in Larchmont, N.Y., that looked down the street to a glittering Long Island Sound, or the rustic house called Wildcat Hill on a windy mountain ridge in Georgia.

In 2003, I sent one of my journalism students from Washington & Lee to interview Emerson in Atlanta. “The fluctuations in his strong, booming tone and fabulously familiar southern drawl made it impossible not to sit captivated,” she wrote. “At one point in the discussion he described Martin Luther King, Jr., as the coolest man he’d ever met: ‘cool, cool, cool,’ he said as if each word had at least three more ‘o’s in it, and goose bumps quickly appeared on my arms. There are people who can tell stories that bring across the emotion and power in their words, and then there is Bill Emerson.”

Even in his last days, as a frail man inching along on a walker, he could tell amazing stories that had remarkably hard facts scattered in them. “The truth can be very frightening,” he’d say about facts, then deliver one of his punch lines: “And I don’t want anyone to tell the truth about me under any circumstances.”

I was lucky, again, to be able to visit him in Canterbury Court, where he loved showing visitors the paintings, hanging quilt and photos that memorialized his rich life, especially his memories of his late wife Lucy. And one final time, I saw him in Wildcat Hill. As he was being pulled out of that cozy old familiar living room in a wheelchair, he looked around the room at a daughter, a son-in-law, a nephew, me, a granddaughter-in-law and a couple of great-granddaughters scattered on the floor, and he fairly shouted, “Seventy years ago, right here, this is exactly how I planned it all. Don’t mess it up.”

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Ode to a Confederate Guy You Never Heard Of Wed, 03 Jun 2009 01:43:48 +0000 My friend Keith Graham seems to have stepped on little anthill of online commentary with his observations about the odd tenacity of the Confederate battle flag to decorate certain drowsy precincts of Georgia. Who knew that our presidents from Wilson to Obama were sending wreaths to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery every Memorial Day? And but for Piney Woods Pete’s report on gubernatorial candidate David Poythress’s ploy to question the patriotism of his opponents, who knew that the Georgia Senate just voted 43-1 to cheer Thomas Jefferson’s 1798


stonewall-jackson-memorialMy friend Keith Graham seems to have stepped on little anthill of online commentary with his observations about the odd tenacity of the Confederate battle flag to decorate certain drowsy precincts of Georgia. Who knew that our presidents from Wilson to Obama were sending wreaths to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery every Memorial Day? And but for Piney Woods Pete’s report on gubernatorial candidate David Poythress’s ploy to question the patriotism of his opponents, who knew that the Georgia Senate just voted 43-1 to cheer Thomas Jefferson’s 1798 Kentucky Resolutions (a favorite of John Calhoun’s when he constructed his best arguments in defense of slavery, and of Richmond, Va., columnist James J. Kilpatrick when he constructed his best arguments against the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision).

I say let bygones be . . . complicated. So war is peace, and slavery is freedom when you walk through Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery here in little Lexington, Va. My wife and I walked through this shaded old cemetery the other day. The gravestones, mossy and effaced by the last century or so, say little about those committed to the earth. But I routinely assign my journalism students to dig into the local records to tell their stories, and I’ve done so myself recently. Stories are useful for complicating matters of history, a little.

The simple headstone of one General E.F. Paxton records only that he died at the Battle of Chancellorsville, May 3, 1863, at age 35. Three small Confederate battle flags planted next to the headstone suggest that someone among the living remembers him. And a single incised quotation suggests some obscure biblical contentment: It is well with thee.

Our university library tells more. Elisha Franklin Paxton was one of the best educated citizens of Lexington. He had graduated from Washington College, studied further at Yale, and finished first in his class at the University of Virginia law school in 1849 at age 21. He returned to Lexington, where he practiced law, married Elizabeth White, and had four children. In petty contracts and bills of sale tucked into a folder of the county historical society, his handwriting is graceful and precise. But the reading of legal documents wore down his eyesight. In 1860, he left his law practice, and the city, to commence farming on an estate he purchased south of town called Thorn Hill. Farming was in his blood. His father, also Elisha, owned a 280-acre farm on the south bank of the North River (now the Maury), from which this “Captain” Paxton shipped lumber and grain down to Richmond in his own barge boats. (Today, the father’s estate, with its “splendid Brick mansion, containing eight rooms,” is Glen Maury Park in Buena Vista, with the historic Paxton House in the middle.)

The younger Paxton, according to a 1905 “Foreword” by his son John Gallatin Paxton, was an ardent secessionist based on views of the Constitution he absorbed in childhood from his father (a commander in the War of 1812) and grandfather William Paxton (a commander at the siege of Yorktown in 1781). A war fought defending Virginia against a Union invasion “was as righteous to him as that waged by the Greeks at Thermopylae and his life, if needs be, must be cheerfully surrendered in such a cause,” his son wrote. Rockbridge County was strongly against secession, so Paxton lost his campaign to have secessionist delegates sent to Richmond for the secession convention. When Virginia finally seceded on April 15, 1861, Paxton was ready and eager to fight for that cause.

Paxton set off for Harper’s Ferry immediately, a first lieutenant in the Rockbridge Rifles, the first of ten companies the county would deploy. “I have no time to think of my business at home,” he wrote to his wife on April 21 from New Market, on his way to join General Thomas J. Jackson’s First Virginia brigade. “My duties now for my state require every energy of mind and body which I can devote to them.” He told his wife she could return to Lexington if she wished, and leave the keys to the farm to others.

The first battle of Bull Run, or as Southerners called it, Manassas, was a stirring victory for the Confederate army and its Celtic style of flamboyant and romantic warfare. Paxton was beside himself with joy. “My Darling,” he wrote home on July 23 from Manassas. “We spent Sunday last in the sacred work of achieving our nationality and independence. The work was nobly done, and it was the happiest day of my life, our wedding-day not excepted.” But while the South was inspired, the North learned a dark lesson from its routing. This Civil War would not be a mere Sunday picnic, as many from Washington thought when they brought blankets and lunches out to Manassas to watch the battle. “What happened along Bull Run prompted a change in Federal thinking,” wrote one historian. “The North in time would usher in tomorrow’s war: massive concentrations, hammer blows, constant pressure.” The South was fighting in the old style of the War of 1812, and so Paxton was not alone in believing his side had won an honorable peace. “I think the fight is over forever,” he wrote home. But the new industrial style would be the North’s, and it would be something horrendous that led to the trench warfare of World War I, the carpet bombings of World War II, and the defoliation of villages in Vietnam.

Paxton thought only of duty and honor, in the old style. The Lexington Gazette reported on August 8 that Paxton, in the confusion of battle at First Bull Run, had taken up with a Georgia Regiment just as its standard-bearer fell. Paxton voluntarily waved the colors for Georgia, and in the skirmishing took one bullet through his shirtsleeve, a slight wound, and counted fourteen bullet holes in the flag he carried. The newspaper described his planting the flag on the enemy’s battery, as if he had led the charge. “I do not merit the compliment paid me in a paragraph in a recent number of your paper,” Paxton wrote to correct the Gazette. He said the credit should go to others – to Bartow, Gartrell and Dunwoodie of Georgia, and to all those comrades of Virginia who fell heroically “in the midst of the terrible shower of ball and shell to which we were subjected.”

479px-stonewall_jackson_statue_-_valentineGeneral “Stonewall” Jackson, as he was called after that first victory at Manassas, was much impressed with Paxton’s bravery and efficiency. “There is no officer under the grade proposed whom I can recommend with such confidence for promotion to Brigadier-Generalcy,” Jackson wrote on September 23, 1862, and President Jefferson Davis approved the recommended promotion. The war in Virginia lost its romance, even for Paxton. He longed for home. But duty to his state held him in bondage. “There is no use in having will or wish in the matter, for there is nothing we can do to accomplish it,” he wrote his wife on November 15, 1862. “We must wait in patience for the event when the war shall end, and those of us who survive will be at liberty to return again to our old associations and pursuits.”

Paxton began to turn more and more to religion and to Bible-reading by morning camp light, adopting the kind of calm fatalism that his superior, General Jackson, was famous for. “Our destiny is in the hands of God, infinite in his justice, goodness and mercy,” he wrote his wife on April 20, 1863, from Camp Winder. “We have a just cause, but we do not deserve success if those who are here spend this time in blasphemy and wickedness, and those who are at home devote their energies to avarice and extortion.”

On May 3, a Sunday morning, leading his company through the woods at Chancellorsville, he dismounted in order to march with his troops. Advancing into the thick of things, he was killed instantly with a shot through the chest. That night, a fellow officer brought the news to Stonewall Jackson, who lay mortally wounded from a hail of friendly fire the night before, his left arm amputated and chloroform worn off. His eyes brimmed at the mention of the deaths of Paxton and another officer. When Jackson heard of Paxton’s final hour – how he had read his Bible and slipped it into his coat pocket, had advanced on foot and fell, while General Jeb Stuart galloped ahead whooping, “Charge, and remember Jackson!” – Jackson’s face lit up with the fire of battle as he declared, “It was just like them — just like them.”

In the cemetery in Lexington, the inscription on Paxton’s headstone, it turns out, is from 2 Kings 4:26, where the Prophet Elisha at Mount Carmel asks the Shunammite woman, “Is it well with thee?” Though her son lies dead in the guest bed she once kept for Elisha’s visits, she answers him, “It is well.” But it is not well, until Elisha hastens to her house, stretches out on the lifeless body of the son and effects a miraculous resuscitation.

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Lillian Smith and her ‘Killers of the Dream’ Fri, 22 May 2009 00:19:27 +0000

m-418Lillian Smith (1897-1966) wrote about the ritual dance of the Southern Tradition, the precise steps dictated by the “White” and “colored” signs, the silent taboos of places you go and places you don’t go. A few tiny graces glimmer across the South she conjures up in “Killers of the Dream” (1949). A certain kind of friendship across the color line, lasting from childhood to death, enriched the individuals involved and sometimes restrained mob violence. She recalls the “flashes of sanity” taught in Southern homes like hers, instructions from a father to honor the humanity in every individual, to shun hatred, and to pay back the earth in labor with pleasure. But such small virtues are overwhelmed by the pathology she finds in the South’s religion, sexual repression, and racial anxiety. Even the best friendships between white and black were “lopsided” and “belittled.” Against this, three powerful black “ghosts” haunt the white imagination with guilt and loathing: the possessed slave, the secret mulatto offspring, and the black mammy. The problem, to Smith, runs deeper than “that old treadmill route that the tortured Southern liberal knows so well.” She probes inward and downward, into the physical body and the childhood of white Southerners. Using a poetic, literary version of Freudian analysis, she diagnoses segregation as a symptom of a fatal fracture in the psyche, working its way “from the conscious mind down deep into muscles and glands and on into that region where mature ideals rarely find entrance.”  This sickness was taught by “the unfinished sentence method” of mothers, enforced by an occasional lynching, and preserved by the carefully developed silence of newspapers on such matters.

travelinfo_lillian_smith_museum“Miss Lillian” emerged in the 1940s at the forefront of the Southern debate on segregation, where she was at least a decade ahead of other white liberals and stood virtually alone in calling for an immediate end to segregation’s laws and practices. She had come to this debate through a lesser-known journalism of the South, “little magazines.” In 1935, she and companion Paula Snelling had started a literary magazine called Pseudopodia in the small town of Clayton, Georgia. With little money, an obscure title that meant “fake feet” in Greek, and no experience, the two women seemed to be courting failure. But it was an exciting time for a couple of aspiring writers in the rustic mountains of North Georgia. The literary movement known as the Southern Renascence was flowering, inspired by William Faulkner in Mississippi, the conservative poetry-oriented Fugitive Agrarians around Vanderbilt University, and the liberal sociology-oriented regionalists at the University of North Carolina. Smith and Snelling reviewed and ran works by black writers, which gave them greater access to black intellectuals than almost any other white Southern journalist at the time. Smith moved increasingly toward reporting and editorial comment, interviewing labor organizers and other reformers. Meanwhile, she was developing her fiction-writing. She made a splash nationally in 1944 with her first published novel, “Strange Fruit,” about a secret interracial affair and offspring in a small town in Georgia. The book sold well, but was controversial and banned in Boston for its implicit sex.

50bc793509a0895ff6e76110l_aa240_Smith was sensitive, to a painful degree, to the inner life of others, and her own. She refined this sensitivity as a teacher of young girls at two mountain schools, as director of music at a Methodist missionary school in China, and from 1925 until 1948, as director of Laurel Falls Camp outside Clayton. The camp, started by her father near the family’s second home in the mountains, became her laboratory for teaching the daughters of genteel Southern families new ideas through creative dramatics, modern psychology, sex education, and other progressive classes. Smith herself was raised to be a genteel Southern lady, and never lost some of the courtesies and outward appearances that she learned. Her father had been a prosperous businessman in Jasper, Florida, until his turpentine mills failed in 1915 and the large family moved to their vacation home in the Georgia mountains. Hers was a sweet, privileged childhood, but for her sensitivity to “the old guilt I had felt as a child.”

Her intense brief against segregation put her at odds with the “gradualists,” those Southern liberal editors like Ralph McGill and Harry Ashmore who at the time sought to improve race relations and extend voting and other rights to blacks without upending segregation. McGill, who was then editor of the Atlanta Constitution and writing daily columns, conceded that “Killers of the Dream” was honest and eloquent, but dismissed the writer as too soaked in emotions and Freudian psychology. The year before, the New York Times had run a long letter from Smith blasting Southern liberals for not taking a stand against segregation and charging that Georgia’s newspapers refused to run her letters or quote her. She suggested that this timidity was a mark of the South’s own form of totalitarianism, which she said had a lot in common with that of the Soviet Union. Ten years later, she refused to review another “journalistic piece of writing of ephemeral worth” such as Ashmore’s “Epitaph for Dixie,” as she wrote to an editor at the New Republic who asked if she would review the book. Editors like Ashmore and McGill “are not writing important books about the white people’s attitude toward darkness and Negroes, etc. They are defending their public positions.”

killers“Killers of the Dream”  is arguably a more interesting and original work than her better-known novel “Strange Fruit,” which sold more than three million copies in her lifetime and became a Broadway play. The “dream” is the idea “flung across the stars” of man’s individual sanctity and freedom. The “killers” are fear, taboo, white supremacy, male domination, lynching, and civilized silence, all doing their most effective work when the dream is most vulnerable—in the mind of a child. “The white man’s burden is his own childhood. Every southerner knows this.” Smith mixes forms. She uses confession, parable, narrative, and polemic tumbling one after another, in pursuit of a running urgency that no rhetorical choice can quite catch up with. Even the polemic is often worth quoting. “There have been excellent books written on southern waste of soil and manpower and forest and minerals, but the wasting away of the nature of man has been the South’s greatest loss.” Something about a segregated white college “reminds me too much of a mental hospital, for the people inside are shut away from communication with the rest of America’s people—not because they are ill, but because the culture outside has lost its health.” And the zest of the new regionalists for measuring social conditions in South? It was “a poor substitute for fantasy, this new diet of facts, but gradually we accepted it, though for a long time the word ‘sociology,’ said with a southern accent, made a hissing sound of scorn in our ears.”

Smith’s emotional antennae hurt her, but gave her an extraordinary literary power. It also gave her a special clairvoyance about the youth-led civil rights movement that was coming, but seemed to catch the other white liberals by surprise. In a letter of 1957 to the editor of a black scholarly magazine that W.E.B. Du Bois had started, Smith expressed her desire for a new kind of movement to shake up the old black guard and old white liberals. “Something younger, more vital, more risky, full of fun and ardor. We need to get the youngsters involved; they haven’t got sense enough to know there is danger, so they’ll go ahead and do what even you and I would gulp over. But we’ve got to let them try.” When the black student protest started in 1960, Smith was delighted, calling it “the first movement in the South that I have ever had a sense of excitement about.”

Editor’s note: This is from a book due out in July, “The Southern Press: Literary Legacies and the Challenge of Modernity,” published by Northwestern University Press as part of a paperback series in the Medill imprint, “Visions of the American Press.”

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Leaving Atlanta Wed, 29 Apr 2009 18:11:56 +0000

dubois-bigI walked the city streets of downtown Atlanta in the 1990s looking for signs of the past. Mostly, what I found was obliteration of the past – buildings that seemed to have neither past nor future. References to the olden days seemed hollow or discarded: a historic plaque or two, Henry Grady’s statue, street names. Where Rich’s and the old Journal buildings once stood were empty shells. Where the old Union Station sheltered passenger trains much earlier, a pigeon pit.

I was a journalist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution then. Now I’m a journalism professor in a rural valley of Virginia. I bump into more reminders of history walking through my little hometown of Lexington than I care to see. Lexington hasn’t changed much, physically, in the last century or two. At least it likes to think so. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee both had day jobs here, at different times, when they weren’t fighting for secession. They’re both buried here; so are their horses.

As a media historian, I run into the past not on the streets but in documents. In a 1963 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, I read an account by Ralph McGill, who was editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution when I was growing up in Atlanta, of his interview with the distinguished black scholar W.E.B. DuBois in Accra, Ghana. DuBois was 94 at the time, and would die later that year, a disillusioned but dignified exile who had renounced his American citizenship and turned African Communist.

JA004091DuBois told McGill of his early days as a sociology professor at Atlanta University in the 1890s. One day in April 1899, DuBois was walking to the Constitution office with a letter of introduction to Joel Chandler Harris, an editor there at the time. But then he saw something in a store-front window that sickened him: the severed knuckles of a man who had just been lynched. “I saw those fingers . . . I didn’t go to see Joel Harris and present my letter,” he told McGill. “I never went!”

It’s a famous scene in DuBois’s life, possibly a turning point as his literary and academic gifts became increasingly edged with resentment, with distrust of white society and a marathon determination to fight. This was four years after Booker T. Washington had famously held up his hands in a historic speech in Piedmont Park (as the Cotton States Exposition site would become), spreading his fingers apart as a metaphor for social segregation (which he conceded as a peace offering to the white South) on the metaphorical hand of “mutual progress.” DuBois respected Washington, but hated that “Atlanta Compromise.”

The fingers DuBois saw in the shop window were souvenirs of a lynching outside Newnan, in Coweta County. The case of Sam Hose, a black farmhand who had killed his white boss with an ax, had already received a great deal of coverage from the Constitution before Hose was lynched in broad daylight on April 23, 1899, before a crowd of perhaps as many as 2,000 jubilant citizens. The reason DuBois was going to see Joel Chandler Harris was to complain about the incendiary coverage the newspaper gave to the 10-day manhunt. The Constitution had offered a $500 reward, and published a description of the crime by the victim’s brother-in-law.

I have just read a research paper that a student wrote about the Constitution’s role in the Sam Hose case. “The South’s Standard Newspaper” – as it was called, and this was long before it merged with the paper that “Covered Dixie like the Dew” – had adopted the style of sensational crime coverage so popular in the New York World and New York Journal. So the newspaper published the brother-in-law’s description of Sam Hose splitting his victim’s skull “to his eyes,” then knocking one of the children “six or eight feet,” dashing another, a baby, to the floor, and finally raping the wife “literally within arm-reach of where the brains were oozing from her husband’s head.”

0611001rThe brother-in-law was not present, and was not a trustworthy reporter. However, a muckraking black reporter named Ida B. Wells-Barnett, whose investigations of lynching around the South at this time proved to be highly credible, led a report on the case based on interviews of witnesses and other available evidence. The report, Lynch Law in Georgia, claimed that Sam Hose never entered the family’s home or touched the wife or children, but killed his boss, Alfred Cranford, in self-defense during an argument in which Cranford threatened him with a pistol. When he was finally captured and brought by train from Griffin, a terrified Sam Hose told a Constitution reporter the same version of events that Wells-Barnett would later publish. When the mob brought Hose before the wife’s mother, who asked him why he killed her son-in-law, he told her the same thing.

The excited throng offered to lynch the man right there in the older woman’s presence. She declined the offer. So they hauled him off to a clearing just north of Newnan, where he was chained to a pine sapling, stripped, and divested of several pieces of anatomy that were passed among the euphoric citizenry. A circle of firewood and this human object of Georgia’s extra-legal justice system were then doused with kerosene and lit a-fire. Hose’s only words during this final torture, according to the Constitution: “Oh my God! Oh, Jesus!”

It’s hard to imagine such community-wide, daylight savagery a mere 110 years ago, looking at suburban Coweta County today. This was not some secret Klan activity, or the work of pathetic lowlifes, like the two Mississippi men who got away with Emmet Till’s murder in 1955. This was an entire community, like the town in Shirley Jackson’s gothic short story “The Lottery.” Who stood up against it? Not the newspapers. Perhaps a case could be made that a few decent souls tried to stop the madness. Governor Allen D. Candler had dispatched the militia to Palmetto to try to prevent the lynching, and former Governor William Y. Atkinson, a Newnan resident, had pleaded with the mob to let the law take its course. These efforts remind me of how Governor John M. Slayton was moved by conscience to commute the execution of Leo Frank in 1915, though he could not stop Frank’s lynching in Cobb County in 1915. Leadership without followers. That’s what we had in Georgia in the worst of times.

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