Monday, August 19, 2013

Life, race and rightwing politics

I've just read two autobiographies in succession that combine autobiography of a woman with issues very much part of present-day politics and "culture war": Claire Connor's Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America's Radical Right (2013) and Molly Walling's Death in the Delta: Uncovering a Mississippi Family Secret (2012).

Connor has a blog at her website that features links to reviews of the book.

Walling also has a website for the book.

Connor is the daughter of a long-time leader of the John Birch Society (JBS), Jay Connor; her mother Laurene was also an active organizer for the JBS and in the anti-feminist movement. Her story is mainly about the history of the JBS and its influence in the Republican Party and the Radical Right, two groups that overlap each other today far more than when the JBS was formed in 1958.

Walling discovered after the death of an uncle that her father had been involved in the murder of two African-American men in the Mississippi Delta town of Anguillo on December 12, 1949. She describes her years-long research project to find out what really happened on that night. She weaves genealogical descriptions and personal family memories into the story. She also gives some really good descriptions of the dense, complex nature of segregation culture.

Both are also varieties of conversion narrative. But neither of them offer their own experiences as giving them some kind of special authority on their subject beyond the facts they present. Both of them focus on their parents' stories and their experiences in relation to their parents and the shadows on their parents lives.

The shadow of Connor's parents was the genuine political fanaticism that drove the John Birch Society and that attracted recruits to it. Her parents were devout Catholics and her conservatism had a distinctly Catholic tilt. She was active in the anti-abortion movement just after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision before conservative Protestants and rightwing Republican politicians discovered it as a cause. Eventually, it was the mean spirit that she so often found in the conservative movement that led her to reject it, at least in the form the Republican Party currently defines it. She doesn't give her new political "profession of faith." But she does make clear the problems with her parents fanatical brand.

In a previous post, I quoted one of her perceptive explanations of the convoluted thinking in Bircher conspiracy theories. In telling her parents' story, she gives a political history of the JBS. Her comments on mutual support and tension between the Birchers' attitudes and conservative icons like Barry Goldwater, William Buckley and St. Reagan are particularly informative.

Walling's narrative winds up providing a disappointment. Because she structures it as a mystery story as she searches out documents and witnesses about the 1946 killing. But in the end, she doesn't solve the factual mystery. Too many of the documents are gone, and she had no access to physical evidence. But she was able to make a plausible reconstruction of the incident. The two men killed were both African-American, David Jones and Simon Toombs. The killers were some combination of three white brothers: Walling's father, Harris Fields and his younger brothers Tom and Bill. On the night of the killings, they had gone to a "juke joint" (she uses the term "juke jive") with exclusively black customers. Some kind of fight broke out. One or more of the white men shot Jones inside the bar, and, as Toombs ran outside, shot him one or more times in the back. For what it's worth, Harris claimed to be the shooter. But Walling thinks it's possible he was giving Bill an alibi.

The Fields owned a plantation and, at least by Arguillo standards, were rich. The law made only the barest pretense of investigating the killing. Both the white and black communities understood it as a racial killing. There were a couple of possible motives. Harris ran the local newspaper and had been on a Prohibition campaign to shut down the juke joints. Mississippi was a "dry" state in 1946. So all alcohol sales were illegal. But alcohol Prohibition never worked much better than marijuana prohibition has worked. The motive promoted by the Fields family was that the Fields "boys" were trying to shut the place down and things went off the tracks.

Another heavily rumored motive was that Toombs was actually a half-brother to the Fields boys, and that Old Man Fields had deeded a piece of the family plantation to him. If that were the case, the white Fields sons may have actually wanted to kill Toombs. The evidence strongly suggests that he was shot in the back, maybe multiple times. Even if the killing inside was really self-defense as the Fields claimed, shooting Toombs in the back as he was fleeing would pretty obviously have been straight-up murder.

In the end, Walling goes with a version of the favorite family story, that it was all an argument that escalated to shooting. She does make it clear there was no good reason to shoot Toombs in the back. But she offers an even more benign version of why they might have gone to the juke joint. She suggests that their mother, her grandmother ("Mawmaw"), may have sent her sons to the place just to get some of the plantation employees or the family "help." She presents it as though this was an even more scandalous view of the events, because it implicated her respected grandmother. "And what if the story was never spoken of after that night for one simple reason: no one in the family, especially my father, wanted Mamaw to suffer public humiliation, loss of control of status and power, of her great spirit." (p. 215)

Walling talks throughout the book of her increasing understanding of the situation in which African-Americans had lived in that town and in Mississippi in 1949. She talks about how she hoped that telling her father's story would help promote racial reconciliation. But it doesn't seem to occur to her that in selecting this version of the crime, she is putting the most favorable possible spin on her father's killing of two men. Just like the unwritten white code of 1949 would have expected her to do.

And would it really have besmirched her Mamaw's reputation among whites if the Fields family story had been that she sent them to look for one of the family's regular black employees? It's not at all clear to me that it would. Because it would make the story something like the version Walling gives, which makes the Fields boys' intentions in the situation even less hostile-sounding. In her father's version, the three white guys walked into a black juke joint at night and started ordering the black men there around, which means they were looking for trouble. Or, more accurately, looking to start trouble.

Despite how disappointing Walling's resolution of her father's killing story is, she really does have some good descriptions of how the segregation system worked. She quotes her Aunt Sis, her father's sister, from 2008:

"I know my brothers well enough to know that in the many, many conversations that we had that went on for hours and hours, on my front porch about all the sadness that was in our lives growing up as kids and there was a lot of it, this was an issue that happened and it was bad and not good and there wasn't anything we could do about it. Basically, you need to put things in proper perspective. If you want to start stirring the stink up, and this letter you wrote me - I couldn't believe it. It's ridiculous. You're the one that's doing it. Give that some thought. You have two daughters, don't you want to protect them?" (p. 160)
More than seven decades after the event, there was still an element of downright threat in Aunt Sis' dealing with the story. "You have two daughters, don't you want to protect them?" Bad things might happen if you talk! Like what? Getting kicked out of the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy? Please.

Late in the book, Walling talks about discovering one of her father's favorite childhood places and describes in very sentimental terms, "I felt a need to walk the land and get to know it better. I wanted to recapture and resurrect a better time in my father's life." (p. 205)

By the conclusion of her book, she resolves the news that her father was involved in a racial murder before she was born by doing what any good segregationist daughter would do: she comes up with what she thinks is the best possible alibi for her father's action. In the end, she can't seem to fully admit the cold, ugly reality of the Mississippi segregation system: it systematically denied black people recognition as equal human beings, and very often allowed whites to get away with murdering black people.

In her concluding paragraph, she merges the victims and the perpetrators into the same sorrow, with regret but no outrage. The pain of the killers' family is put on an equal footing with that of the murdered men's, blaming everything on The System:

I grieve for the lives of Simon and David and for their families who still, sixty years later, mourn the loss of those young men. I grieve for my mother and for my father. Our collective sorrow could have been avoided were it not for the prevailing historical and social context in which horrendous deeds were enacted with impunity. If my beloved family and I can bear to look unflinchingly at our history and tell ourselves the truth and if we can allow ourselves to own our past and our human failings, there is hope for forgiveness, even reconciliation. [my emphasis]
It is certainly true that segregation culture created an "historical and social context in which horrendous deeds were enacted with impunity." But that doesn't let the individual actors off the hook. Individuals had agency and choices within the broad restrictions of the segregation culture, especially rich white guys from prominent families like the Fields.

Most white people living in that same "historical and social context" did not shoot a black person to death, much less two of them. Most white people were not so homicidal and cowardly as to shoot a fleeing man in the back. Basically all white people in those areas were to some degree collaborators in sustaining the "historical and social context" of segregation. Many of them, probably most of them in Mississippi at the time, would have been inclined to support Harris Fields' side if it had come to trial and they had known about it. But Harris Fields killed two black men by his own account. The evidence his daughter produces in her book shows that one of the victims was almost certainly shot in the back while fleeing the scene. That was not at all the typical experience of a white person in Mississippi or the Deep South. What Fields did was far more serious than what most other white people did.

It's the great virtue of Claire Connor's memoir that she can recognize that the parents she loved were also people with deep flaws. And very untypical ones. Her parents were part of a genuinely fanatical political movement that promoted horrible ideas and the most poisonous kind of bigotry. Their influence led her to participate actively for years in an anti-abortion movement that she later came to realize was sadly lacking in compassion and decency. Her memoir will likely provide helpful insights for researchers on the whole phenomenon of fanaticism.

Walling, on the other hand, winds up giving her father a free pass for murder, just like the 1949 Mississippi system of white supremacy did. She winds up doing with her book what she describes elsewhere in the book:

In those days, family stood together, accepted each other, forgave acts of indecency, ignored or forgave the obvious foible. This was especially true for men. When my father was exonerated of the charge of manslaughter, whether or not he was the one that pulled the trigger, he was freed from accountability and he effectively set aside his complicity for the sake of family honor. He could go on believing as he always had. [my emphasis] (p. 204)
In the case of Harris Fields murdering two African-American men, it certainly sounds like it was forgiveness without repentance. It's also notable here that she's sticking with "complicity" on her father's part, even though he himself fessed up to pulling the trigger.

But what does it even mean to "forgive" a member of your own family for murdering someone else's son or father or sibling? It doesn't seem to me that her father's act was hers to forgive.

Claire Connor seems to have emerged from the shadow of her parents' Bircher fanaticism, though not from its memory. In ultimately forgiving her father for killings it was not hers to forgive, Molly Walling looks to be still trapped in the shadow of the segregation culture that made the "historical and social context in which horrendous deeds were enacted with impunity." In the end, she leaves her father with impunity for two acts of murder.

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