The Old Man

From the historical novel Long Ride to Paradise

Spring 1934

The old man sat on the top step of the weathered porch and watched the movement of children as they played tag and other games.  His vision had deteriorated, and he squinted attempting to see. The cataracts had thickened, reducing the children to ghostly apparitions.  “Too much time spent in the blazing sun, I reckon.” He could still see their blurry forms and could discern the gayly clad little girls in their summer dresses from the little boys in their shorts and long pants.  “Thank God! My hearing is still good,” He thought

Someone wanted to take a picture with their new-fangled camera.  Something called a Brownie. He sat a bit slumped, his hands resting on his thighs.  A ninety-year-old…today, April 9, 1934. 

His once red hair though full, was now white as the cotton bolls bursting in the fall.  His beard, years ago red and sparse, had thickened like his cataracts. White and long, it spread to the middle of his chest. Tobacco juice from years smoking his cheroots, darkened the whiskers at the sides of his mouth.  

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Marion DeKalb Rodgers-My great, great grandfather

His gaze shifted to the distant horizon.  His once blazing, blue-green eyes had faded but his vision was still sharp…with the images of the past.  He smiled at his thoughts.  Sometimes he couldn’t remember what day it was, but his memories of times now past were as sharp as the old boning knife he once carried.  Again, he smiled, “Old times there are not forgotten.” He spent most of his time gazing back at the past.  Mostly he spent his time with the memory of Lucretia, now dead nearly sixty years.

He had been lucky.  He had loved three times.  Three fine women had warmed his bed and brought him comfort and joy.  Lucretia, Cassandra, and Josephine.  He had loved them with all his heart. The old man had been unlucky too, he had outlived all three along with his friends. 

He cherished the memories of them all, but Lucretia was special.  She had been his first….  He liked to see her in the emerald green ball dress their first night at Madam Shailene’s.  High waisted, it bared her shoulders and dipped low showing her décolletage.  An emerald ribbon held her mother’s cameo and brought attention to her long and slender neck.  He remembered slowly taking her out of the dress, pressing his lips to her neck…”Damn I almost felt a stirring.”

Lucretia Noel? Allen Kell’s great love

Timmy, Tyler James’ youngest sat down beside him.  A boy of six, Allen Kell recognized the youngster’s voice when he asked, “Whatcha’ thinking about Grampy?”  Timmy was John William’s youngest grandchild.  John William was not Allen Kell’s son but his nephew, Brother Arlo, and Stella’s only child and a sack of hell.  Allen Kell had sired no children but had been adopted by John William, Adeline, and his brood of ten children and at last count, fourteen grandchildren.

“Timmy, I was thinking about Grammy Lucretia.  I wish you had the chance to meet her.  She was a special woman.”

“As special as Grammy Josey?”  He asked as if he might be worried about Allen Kell’s answer.

“Oh yes, oh yes she was…and Josephine loved you very much.”

“I miss her…’specially her molasses cookies.”

“I miss her too…and her molasses cookies.”

He missed his friends too.  All were gone.  James, Sean, Arlo and Stella, Alexandre’ and Shailene. Virgil, Eamon….  All had been gone for ages it seemed.  “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” from the book Momma Edwards had taught him to read from.  He had been here too long.  It was time to move on to the great beyond.

All the grandchildren had gathered around his feet, Timmy begged, and the rest agreed, “Tell us a story Grampy.”

Well, maybe it’s not quite time to move on.  The grandchildren agreed.

Excerpt for the newly released Tales of the Drunken Irishman: Long Ride to Paradise. It may be downloaded or purchased at

First image is of Marion DeKalb Rodgers, my great, great grandfather. He came home from the Civil War and lived a life nothing like Allen Kell Edwards but was the motivation for the character nevertheless.

Second image is of a “soiled dove” from Pinterest She is not Lucretia Noel but this is fiction anyway https://www.pinterest.com/pin/262475484508164087/

Southern Horror

I guess I should add a disclaimer from the get-go.  My post is not about the horror of an unexpected swallow of unsweetened tea or being served grits without salt, butter, or cheese.  No, that goes well beyond horror.  This is about the horror genre and its effects on the unexpecting.  The effects of being so scared your feet refuse to move. 

A pair of New Englanders find themselves lost, stuck up to the axles of their ’56 Ford in the middle of a Southern piney woods.  The light is quickly failing over a dilapidated Southern mansion sitting at the end of an overgrown drive.  Brothers, they discuss what to do and decide to spend the night in the abandoned mansion.  Never a smart move if you are familiar with Southern Gothic.

The Pendleton-Graves Home in Sparta, Georgia.
The Pendleton-Graves Home in Sparta, Georgia.
Photo by David Bulit

As they walk to the mansion a flock of pigeons are spooked…the makings of a Southern Gothic horror story for sure.  I can think of dozens of reasons it is a bad idea to spend the night in an abandoned mansion but then I have seen too many movie and TV episodes and have read too many horror stories.

I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with Gothic Horror, specifically Southern Gothic Horror. That would be June 6, 1961.  It was a Monday night in front of a black and white TV.  I watched and listened to a lisping Boris Karloff introduce this week’s Thriller episode, “Pigeon’s From Hell.”  Murder by ax, Voodoo, Zombies, the Blassenville family with a history of abuse, all with bad Southern accents dripping from the screen like Spanish moss hanging from cypress trees.  

I jumped when character Johnny Banner is caught in the afore mentioned flock of pigeons, pigeons that represented the lost souls murdered. Later, I hid my eyes when the same character attempts to split his brother Timothy’s skull with a hatchet.  He does this after having had his own skull split by persons or “things” unknown. 

Love me some murdering Zombies with split skulls although my former Haitian baseball player says Zombies are a movie creation…wait was he Haitian or Jamaican?  Does it make a difference to Zombies? 

A Thriller a Day...: Pigeons From Hell: Season 1 Episode 36
Johnny ready to give forty whacks…wait, wrong movie.

Many years later I would read the short story with the same title the TV episode drew from.  It was written by pulp fiction icon and the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard.  The story was published posthumously in Weird Tales, a fantasy and horror magazine in 1938.  Despite “Thirties noir speak”, it is a good short story and a better story line than the TV version. 

Weird Tales - Wikipedia
Image from our favorite Free Encyclopedia, Wikipedia

There is something baleful about abandoned Southern mansions, with or without pigeons or Zombies.  Doors and shutters hanging askew, broken windowpanes, paint peeling to expose the silver of many layers of whitewash underneath, old chimneys collapsing under their own weight.  Columns…one can almost hear the voices of the dead and abused in the breeze especially if you have an active eleven-year-old imagination…even an active seventy-year-old imagination.

A Thriller a Day...: Pigeons From Hell: Season 1 Episode 36
The decaying Blassenville sisters killed by…well, you’ll have to watch the episode on YouTube to find out.

In the late Sixties, our group of high school friends decided to explore the Brattonsville Plantation house near Rock Hill, SC…in the dead of night, near what is universally known as the witching hour.  Alcohol might have been a contributing factor; I don’t rightly remember.  I do remember there was a Mars/Venus component as we males wanted to impress the young women among our group.  Young women make young men stupid…stupider.

I won’t deny feeling a bit of trepidation as I thought about how close the name Blassenville was to Brattonsville and wondered if anyone had been practicing Voodoo within its less than comfy confines.  Pigeons?  Are there pigeons?

During those days Brattonsville was the perfect example of a “rundown” and abandoned Southern plantation.  The homeplace has since been renovated to its Antebellum glory as have the other buildings but I do not remember them that way. The mental vision I have is of a place perfect for Southern Gothic Horror.

I remember there was a full or near full moon and the unkept grounds seemed to glow with a light of their own as we made our way to the huge mansion house. In my mind I see the first story entryway door standing open, under the twin galleries’ roofs. The darkness beyond is inviting the lambs to a possible slaughter. 

Homestead House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Restoration of the Homestead began in 1975 and it was opened to the public a year later. http://chmuseums.org/history-hb/

One of the members of our group was well versed in Brattonville’s “supposed” history and regaled us with stories of a less than sane family, abused slaves, the Klu Klux Klan, cruel medical experiments and a Yankee spy hung from a pulley above an attic window.  Owned since before the Revolutionary War by a series of doctors, our historian told tales that made the Bratton doctors seem to be the combinations of Doctors Jekyll, Frankenstein, and Phibes.

We explored all the rooms and made our way to the third-floor attic, site of the medical laboratory and the hanging according to my date’s history lesson.  I had overcome my initial fear and found myself leading the group, not because of my bravery I assure you, but because I had the only flashlight.

Built for John Simpson Bratton Jr. and his wife Harriet Rainey Bratton in 1856. Then called “Forrest Hall,” it is now known as “Hightower Hall”. It could have been its own haunted mansion. https://chmuseums.org/hightower-hall-hb/

As my cute historian told her story of hangings and medical experiments, I found myself in the narrow and empty attic lab…not exactly empty.  There appeared to be examination tables and I fully expected to see a medical skeleton. Instead, a breeze drew my attention to an open window and the figure hung with a perfect hangman’s noose suspended there.   

I froze in place while my five friends took off like scalded haints.  My brain said run, my feet refused.  I might as well have been a tree rooted in place.  I froze long enough to realize what I was seeing was a department store mannequin.  The plastic kind…in fact one of its legs had fallen off.

As my fright dissipated, I found my feet and walked closer.  As the mannequin slowly turned in the breeze, I noticed a note held around its neck by a cord.  My flash revealed a single sentence written in red lipstick…”Mickey Mouse is a Jew.”  Yeah, kind of anti-climactic but a sentence that has kept me wondering for over fifty years. 

My friends? They didn’t leave me…I had the car keys. It did take a while to gather them up.

Historic Brattonsville main house.jpg
The Main House at Brattonsville with the memorable attic window visible
Picture by Zan Maddox of LaValla Maddox Design.

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The history of Brattonsville (documented history) includes  

The original home was built in 1776 by Colonel William Bratton who participated in the nearby Revolutionary War Battle between Patriots and Loyalist, The Battle of Huck’s Defeat. Brattonsville was used in the filming of the movie, The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson.

There was a one night stay by Jefferson Davis as he fled the surrender of Richmond in hopes of reaching Confederate troops in the South or West. (Supposedly this is when the spy was hung but I can find no documentation.)

Dr. J. Rufus Bratton, a York County Klan leader, was the inspiration for the book The Clansman and the 1918 movie it spawned, Birth of a Nation. I am not telling this with any sort of pride but history is history. My guess is Dr. Rufus Bratton was not a nice person when it came to race relations.

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Don Miller’s authors page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0pjOyQmBib8Mbptaegd7cbdhBk1Dqd3AwEssRjtjCtVGq4zxV2P_c9zKk

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The featured image is from another Southern Gothic film, Swamp Water, starring Walter Brennan, Dana Andrews, and Walter Huston.

Sunday September 15, 1963

Sunday September 15, 1963…I doubt I paid much attention to the happenings in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.  I probably paid more attention on Monday when Walter brought the CBS Nightly News as the family gathered around the black and white TV, chewing soggy TV dinner fried chicken and cardboard mac and cheese. 

I pay more attention now. The past can be painful. Ignoring the past can be moreso. Four young girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14, born April 18, 1949); Carol Denise McNair (age 11, born November 17, 1951); Carole Rosanond Robertson (age 14, born April 24, 1949); and Cynthia Dionne Wesley (age 14, born April 30, 1949), were killed in the attack as they attended Sunday school…Sunday school. Addie Mae’s sister, 12 year old Sarah, had twenty-one shards of glass embedded in her face. She was blinded in one eye. Fourteen others were injured and there was another death. Some nineteen or more casualties to the war that was Civil Rights.

1963: Bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church
Sarah Collins recovering from the attack. Photograph by Dawoud Bey.

I do not know what I thought.  I do not know what my family thought.  We were not the types to sit around the dinner table discussing Civil Rights, race relations, and the deaths of four young girls in the city that became known as “Bombingham.” I honestly don’t know where my parents stood on racism and Civil Rights. Considering all possibilities I guess that is not a bad thing.

I don’t know for sure what my classmates thought during school that Monday morning. There was no discussion of the travesty that had occured in my eighth grade civics class…my all white class in my all white little school.

I was thirteen. Just about the ages of the girls killed at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  I wonder what I thought.  I am sure I was more concerned about the pennant race in the National League than four deaths in Alabama.  The Dodgers were battling it out with the Cardinals and held a one game lead.  On September sixteenth they would begin a series with the Dodgers one game up.  In the American League the Yankees had run away and hid in 1963.  I knew baseball standings, but I didn’t know the names of the girls now gone.

It is not that I was unfeeling, I was thirteen, probably an immature thirteen.  I was more concerned about baseball and the Playboy magazine I had snuck into my bedroom.  There was that little blond-haired girl that stirred feelings and reactions I simply did not understand.  Alabama was a place far, far away and the lives lost unknown to me.

Occasionally thoughts would enter my teenage mind.  “How is this right?”  I was not ready to go marching with Martin Luther King but images of burning buses, fire hoses, and now rubble were having an effect…a lasting effect.

My grandmother had taught the Golden Rule. I couldn’t understand why we weren’t treating these people the way we wished to be treated.  Why were people so angry and why did they all look like me? Why didn’t I have the guts to act?

I couldn’t understand the lack of empathy from friends either…as I can’t understand now.

The last of the three bombers died in prison this past June.  I will not speak his name. He was eighty-two.  He was not brought to justice until 2001…none were brought to justice in 1963, not because their identities were unknown, because of the system that was in place…a system that is still hanging on in many places.  The three freely lived their lives as if nothing had happened, one for thirty-seven years.  He lived freely thrice as long as the little girls whose lives he helped to take. 

I’m thankful I’m not the same person I was in 1963.  I was a child of the time and carried my racism with me well into my adulthood.  My change occurred over time, there was no sudden flipped switch.  It was the realization that what I saw and heard was at odds with what I had learned despite my grandmother’s best teachings.

I still have my moments.  I still carry my racism. Thoughts I wish I didn’t have, thoughts I pray forgiveness for.  I pray for understanding, pray for peace among all God’s children.  Prayers that don’t include forgetting but do include forgiveness.  Prayers for taking the first step toward healing which is the recognition and acceptance for our sins. 

Don Miller writes on various subjects that bothers him so. His author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0C336Kj_qD1fHk40ybRg8b7CHHd6f8KYcGIC44-qIqsbZJGjv0WdXaeKI

  

The Art of Lookin’ Busy

 

A big for his age youth sporting a lint covered flattop staggered through his first day at the Springs Mills White Plant.  Staggered because in the first hour the man tasked with teaching the youth the art of ‘takin’ up quills’ attempted to crush the youth’s skull with one of the metal quill cans.  It was the youth’s fault, not the young man’s.  The youth was bloodied and staggered, and it was the beginning of a series of the first day on the job accidents, but that is a story for another time.  Clumsy much?

(In textile parlance, a quill is or was the wooden part of a bobbin the thread is wound on.   The bobbin would seat into a shuttle running perpendicularly to the warp threads. When the thread in the shuttle ended or broke, the bobbin was kicked out into a metal ‘can’ and replaced automatically from a magical gizmo called a battery.  I’m a bit short on the science of it all and you aren’t here for a lesson.  A battery with bobbins is shown below.  The wooden portion of the bobbin is the quill.)

I was the big for my age, crew-cut sporting youngster.  Tall for my age, and I got no taller, I was immature by anyone’s standards at any age.  Big for my age and dumb might have been a requisite for the job I was doing.  A spare hand, I did the jobs regularly employed folks were glad they didn’t have to do or filled in where needed.

I understood hard work having grown up on a farm and having been hired out as farm labor since I had turned eleven or twelve.  Farm labor is hard, but cotton mill labor is a horse of a different color as the old farmers might say.

I had worked at Springs for a week and was worn to the bone…battered and bruised, to the point of tears at various times. The narrow alleyways between the looms left my shoulders marked with scrapes and abrasions.  My body was a skin covered sack of pain.  It was a Saturday and all I could think of was the day off on Sunday…except it would be followed by a Monday when it all would begin again.

When I ran into a much older cousin in the water house I received a life lesson I didn’t know I needed. The water house in mill parlance is a combination bathroom, smoking area, and an escape from the noise and heat of the mill.  An oasis of relatively cool, quiet, and stinky aromas.

As I started to walk out, Charles, a much older cousin who had grown up just below my home, stopped me and put his arm across my sweaty, lint covered, bruised shoulders.

“I been watchin’ you boy,” tapping me on a sore arm with his pointer finger.  Charles was what was called a warp hand who worked out to the tie-in room.  It seemed to me warp hands had a good bit of time for watchin’…or playing practical jokes.  Charles, and his buddy Tommy, were masters at playing practical jokes, “Go down to the parts room and get me a loom stretcher, will you?”   It was the first of many practical jokes endured by the young group of spare hands.  I wasn’t singled out any more than anyone else.

The man in the part’s room cocked his head giving me the side-eye, “Loom stretcher, huh?  Charles sent you down, didn’t he?”  Got me.   

Northrop Loom - Wikipedia

Loom with visible battery and warp.  The warp is the big spool of thread.  A quill can is seen below the battery.  Image https://www.timetoast.com/timelines/industrial-revolution-1750-1900-f8002b6a-a164-4f2c-bea9-a0d54908556d

Back to Charles in the water house.

“You work hard but you got to learn to work smart.”  What Charles really meant was “learn to not work if you don’t have to.”

Beings Charles was an elder I decided I was supposed to listen intently…plus he had a scholarly look going…in a Howdy Doody kind of way.  I really felt I needed to learn how to work smarter.

“This ain’t no horse race and you ain’t learned the art of lookin’ busy when you ain’t.  You got to slowwwww things down.  Shifts are eight hours and you doin’ more than your buck sixty-five an hour.  Whatchu’ do after you finish your quill job?”

“I have to strip quills.”  Nothing provocative, I had to remove the leftover thread from the bobbins so the quills could be reused by the spinning room.

“An what do you do when you get through strippin’ quills?”

I pondered a moment wondering if this was a test, “I don’t know, I’ve never gotten through.”

He popped me on the shoulder as if I had had a major philosophical breakthrough.

“There you go.  You ain’t nevah gonna get through.  You could work a month of Sundays an’ you’ll nevah, evah get through.  The only time you’ll be through is when you die.”

So profound, I pondered too long on his words and Charles began again.

“Pretend you do get through.  Whatchu’ think gonna happen then?”

“They’ll find something else for me to do?”

Shooting me with his pointer finger and thumb, he exclaimed, “Bingo!  You nevah get through or if you do, ole Coley Spinks is gonna come along and give you something else to do.  You got to learn the art of lookin’ busy while doing nothin’, boy.”

Just then, as if to add an exclamation point, Coley Spinks, the second hand walked in.  Folding his Popeye sized forearms sporting the Marine Corp ‘globe and anchor’ tattoo across his ample chest, Coley gave us a head jerk which translated to, “You’ve spent too much time in here, get out and earn you wage.”

Charles scooted out the door with me behind, but Coley planted a flat palm against my chest, jolting me to a stop, “I don’t know what line of bull Charles was spouting but don’t listen to a damn thing he says.”  The age-old disagreement between management and the workers?

“Yes sir, Mr. Spinks.” 

But I did listen to Charlie and endured his harmless practical jokes even if I never quite mastered the art of looking busy or falling for practical jokes.  I practiced a great deal and ran into many fellow workers who had truly turned it into an art form.

I am more of a “git er done, git er over with” kind of guy and I guess it served me well.  Mr. Spinks came to me on my last Saturday before the school year began and proposed, “We’d like you to work Saturdays during the school year if you are a mind to.”  Eight hours of hell for $13.20 before taxes.  “Yeah, okay.  Thanks.” 

I’d work there for three more summers and Saturdays during the school year.  Later, I would work part-time in a cotton mill during my college days.  I never did get done. whether it was stripping quill or some other grunt job, and I ain’t dead yet.  Instead, I moved on to another vocation I never finished until retirement.

It was the mills themselves that died at the end of the last century…something I find saddening.  I would never want to return but I do appreciate the lessons I learned.

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For more of Don Miller’s shenanigans, visit his author’s page at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3EyTJntrwvN_Yq4p_rpDH3Ynurn688xmdNvzJhe_fH7NSBku3Zen-6yb0

The image is of belt driven looms take from one of the Lowell Mills.  https://www.newschoolers.com/news/read/The-List-Newschoolers-Member

Historia Arcana

“The deeper you penetrated into the true South, a Protestant land of moral absolutes, Baptist blue laws, tent revivals, fire and brimstone, heaven and hell, good and evil, black and white, and damn little room between.”  Greg Iles, The Bone Tree

And bitter hypocrisy thrown in for good measure.

According to a “too large” number of my Southern brethren, racism hasn’t existed in a while…and if it does it is reverse racism.  All groups supporting social justice and the removal of monuments and flags are Marxist and radical, and the worst danger facing our country has nothing to do with the reactionary right.  Our President has even given us a new group to hate, the “radical fascist” which sets my teeth on edge just thinking about it.

Histories are written by the victors…or are they?

In the middle of the Sixth Century, the last great ancient Western historian, Procopius of Caesarea, wrote Historia Arcana which translates to The Secret History.  He hoped it would never be published, and it was not until well after his death.  It was to be his if needed, ‘get out of jail’ card.

The history chronicled the seedier sides of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and his wife, Empress Theodora.  It is not a glowing history and shows the author’s disillusionment with the Byzantine Empire.  Justinian is portrayed as cruel and incompetent, Theodora, vulgar, and lustfully insatiable.  I feel some of Procopius’ disillusionment today.

No, it is not the history Theodora and Justinian would want to be published and it was not published until nearly a thousand years later.  The sixth-century power couple would go on to be sainted by the Greek Orthodox Church.  Their hidden history remained hidden until it no longer mattered.

I have seen the same with some of our own “sainted” folk.  The heroes of Southern culture and heritage.  In the South, we guard our “historia arcana” with a tenacity unmatched by the rest of our nation.  Families of now-departed men and women hope their histories remain secret.

I’m reading Greg Iles’ Natchez Is Burning trilogy and stumbled upon the above quote on the first page of the second novel, The Bone Tree.  The original book, Natchez is Burning, while fictional, is based on a period in our history that anyone south of the Ohio River would like to forget.

The novel is fictional but based upon historical facts…the treatment of African-Americans during the Fifties and Sixties and how white men got away with the murder of black men and women simply because they could.  A period we are being asked to move on from without recognizing how evil it was or how events from forty or fifty years ago…or one hundred and sixty years ago…or four hundred years ago could actually affect the time we live in now.  Just move on…there is nothing here.

Any Southern town, large or small, has its share of “secret” histories…histories that display our dirty unmentionables, the soiled petticoats displayed as we try to navigate the deep mud puddles of Southern history before quickly dropping our antebellum gown to cover our ankles and muddy shoes.  Like Justinian and Theodora, it is a history we would prefer not to read in print and only speak to in whispered tones if we speak of them at all.

The mud stains are still on our shoes but we do our best to make sure they are out of sight.  Historical accounts we have purged from our memories it seems…or at least the “dark” part of our histories.  Histories so well hidden, a Southern, seventy-year-old retired history teacher didn’t know they existed.

Accounts we claim never existed at worse or were not as bad as were made out at best.  “Why can’t we just move on?” is a question reserved for the propagator, not the victims.  Maybe I should again pick up Faulkner, O’Conner, Williams, Yerby, or Gaines again.  Even in their fiction are large kernels of truth.

Men and women are human, with human failings.  Men and women can be both good and bad at the same time.  Bad…good old Baptist guilt or Calvinist repression, not necessarily the point.  This is more collective guilt…a collective guilt we refuse to accept or acknowledge.  The guilt we have turned into a “Lost Cause” and “Forget Hell” is only reserved for one side of the argument.

As we debate the removal of statues and memorials, the elimination of one hundred and sixty-year-old eulogies made of cloth, disclaimers added to eighty-one-year-old motion pictures, and the changing of aging athletic nicknames and mascots, we pontificate about what seems to be different histories from the same place and from the same time.  Some pray to the gods of the status quo, the good old days, while others are breaking under the burdens we refuse to remove.

Good men doing bad things or is it bad men doing good things…or is it just human nature to cover or change what is unpalatable for us?  Is it human nature to resist change or just a Southern cultural trait?

There is the fear factor too.  Fear that somehow we will lose control of what we have controlled for so long.  Similar to the old question asked by good Protestant ministers so long ago, “What will we do when they run off with our wives and daughters?”  We still look for boogie men under our beds and label them as Marxist or radically “fascist” whatever that is.

I do not know where to stand on statues and memorials.  I know, despite my deep Southern roots, I will not stand next to them in defense.  My great, great and great, great, great grandfathers may be rolling in their graves.

Our statues and memorials are tributes to men and to histories most unsavory but they themselves are not history.  They should not be celebratory, should they? They are reminders of not only heritage but the hate some of that heritage rests upon.

Having taught history, I never used a statue or memorial as a teaching tool but that doesn’t mean they can’t be used as teaching implements…provided those monuments are teaching the “real” histories which are found not on lists of gallant Confederate dead etched in stone or on mountains, but in the pages of primary documents and historical works.

We must focus less on gallant propaganda and more on the facts.  We need to recognize that our history didn’t end with the beginning of the Civil War.  We need to question why some men died to “make men free” and why others resisted…no matter how bitter the taste of the fruit of that resistance might be.

All countries have shame.  We are not unique.  Many countries have tread on the weak for national and economic gain.  We are no different.  We are not even the only country that has not come to grips with the travesties we have committed.  We are not the only country to ignore our travesties and attempt to squash the message of those tread upon.  Unfortunately, as a child in the Fifties, I bought the propaganda of American Exceptionalism.  I really believed we were supposed to be better than other nations.

I  admit to ignoring problems in hopes they might go away.  They do not.  They only grow worse and ours has festered for over one hundred and fifty years.  I have also learned when faced with an issue, the most unappealing and unappetizing option is probably the correct one.

Here in the Bible Belt, we are filled with religious indignation and justification toward anyone who questions authority…unless it is a fellow Christian of a certain race.  It is as if by conforming to a God’s will we give up the right to think on our own.

Here in the Bible Belt, we have tied our Christianity to our politics, and any afront to our politics is perceived as an affront to our religion.  I am seeing this more and more concerning “peaceful” protesters and reactions to “other” religions.  Too many “good” Christians wrapping their Bible in a flag and calling their racism and bigotry patriotism.

As I read Iles’ quote I thought back to my youth and own privilege.  I grew up a Methodist Protestant, graduated from a Lutheran institution of higher learning, and committed the mortal sin of marrying three Baptist women.  If at first, you fail….  I once considered taking up the mantle of religion…God does work in mysterious ways.  It is my historia arcana.

Moral absolutes were something I obviously had a problem with as did others.  I have just now learned others did a better job of covering theirs up and have throughout history.  In towns large and small, men and women have been willing to hide their moral absolutes away when it suited.  Good men and women doing bad things and praying for absolution on Sunday morning? Justinian and Theodora?  Or was I just cursed with the ability to see grays in among the blacks and whites?

I remember the revivals and the Blue Laws, the hellfire and brimstone sermons conjuring the smell of sulfur.  Hot and sticky Southern Sunday morning humidity with funeral fans working against the oppressive heat.  The preacher pounding his Bible before issuing his alter call, a closing hymn…benediction, please.

There was no gray, only heaven or hell, no in-between.  I remember the Wednesday night and Sunday morning Christians, the amen corners, the tv evangelist, and faith healers.  Billy Graham’s piety on display in black and white while George Beverly Shea sang “How Great Thou Art.”

I remember being taught from the pulpit, white was good and black was bad.  When white was virtuous and black was evil.  I remember when we used the same arguments a lifetime ago that we recycle now.  I remember our historia arcana and feel the shame that we can’t seem to overcome it or even admit it.

***

Iles, Greg The Bone Tree: A Novel (Penn Cage Book 5) (p. 1). William Morrow. Kindle Edition

The image is from The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s online portal.  https://nmaahc.si.edu/

Don Miller writes on various subjects that bother him so and in various genres.  His author’s page is https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2syCHGI2Eb96lK63frT528V_cBY995j2m_hd_LOLFPdV4KqqoZQn1J7Fs

Shut up and Listen

 

It’s time for white folk to just shut up.  We are not listening.  We are shouting down the message.

Four years ago, Colin Kaepernick peacefully took a knee and we (White Folk) shouted him down.  Athletes who joined him were called sons of bitches and threatened with firings.  A blonde-haired news pundit told an athlete to “shut up and dribble.” Conservative radio wrapped their racism and white nationalism with the US Flag and made it about disrespect instead of listening.  Award winners who dared to use their medium as a platform were told to just accept their award and shut up.  Be quiet so we don’t have to listen.

Why? It’s easier to be tone-deaf if you don’t have to listen.  You can be happy and secure with your head stuck where the sun never shines.

Four years later, what has changed?  I’m being kind, I could have asked twenty years later? Or thirty….  Nothing.  Systemic and institutional racism is still in place along with the double standard that is our justice system…and white people are still attempting to shout down those who are affected the most.

You dare to question this great country?  Just shut up and sit down, or move.  “Don’t like it here, go back to your shithole country.”  If we shout long enough maybe a bigger story will come along during the next news cycle to make people forget.  People do forget…white people.

White folk needs to shut up and listen.  Violent protest is not constructive…you are preaching to the choir if preaching to me.  It ain’t about me.  The white folks who have the most to lose are using it to drown out the message.

Our forefathers put the system into place, and we have guarded the fire of discrimination as if our lives depended upon it.  Not all, I believe the loudest shouters are in the minority and are the ones guarding and fanning the flame of racism and intolerance.

It is time for the silent majority to shut out the shouts of the minority haters and decide what we believe in.  We can’t afford to sit on a fence that may burn down from under us.  Shit or get off the pot because it is not the responsibility of people of color to destroy an oppressive system.  A system, we, as in whites, put into being…and have maintained since the end of the Civil War.  We must be the ones who dismantle discrimination and we can’t do that without listening.  We have to make dialog possible…by shutting up and listening.

“But things are better aren’t they?”  I don’t know.  I’m an old white guy.  Maybe you should go ask a friend of color…and listen quietly and intently.

I don’t believe white people get to make up the rules for acceptable protest.  We don’t get to share cute memes of MLK’s nonviolence without also sharing his quote “Riot is the language of the unheard.”  To do so is as hypocritical as “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” when we have a system that openly disparages, marginalizes, and discriminates.  

Before we shout about violence, we need to accept our own.  My lifetime memories are full of scenes I’d like to forget.  As a student of history, I am aware our history books are full of glossed over white initiated violence in the name of expansion, manifest destiny, imperialism, and racism.  Glossed to the point it doesn’t exist.

King’s peaceful protests were met with burning buses, police dogs, and water hoses. King’s belief in non-violence got him killed.  Murdered by a white man with a gun, trying to maintain the flame of white supremacy.

“Oh, but that was long ago, people just need to get over it.”  People can begin to get over “it” when we admit and accept our sins and the sins of our forefathers.  I don’t believe we’ve done that.  I think we have done nothing but shout our excuses and what-about- isms.

The riots from the Nineties disappeared from our rose-colored sight and out of mind…and little was accomplished. The same with protests from more recent history.

I’m an old white guy who doesn’t understand how burning down your neighbor’s house because you are pissed is positive.  I won’t ever understand it.   My time and energy, and yours, would be better spent listening with an open mind and attempting to understand why there is so much anger and frustration.

If you find it easier to believe in leftwing plots, led by George Soros or Bill Gates, the Democratic Party, Antifa or the Illuminati…if you believe it is a rightwing plot, led by Donald Trump, the KKK, The Church of QAnon or other far-right groups, you are part of the problem because you would rather face made up problems than real ones.  The real one is too painful.

Are they organized, certainly but I don’t believe it is a Dark State plot.  Activism is not a dirty word and it is not anarchy.  Are there bad players at work  Sure, but you are allowing them to shout over the message.  You are not listening.

You are the ostrich with your head in the sand or worse if you don’t believe people of color have a reason to be mad.  You are shouting instead of listening because you don’t want to hear the truth.  You are afraid to listen to the pain, anger, and frustration of your neighbors because you might have to acknowledge we live in a racist system.  You are helping to fan the flame whether you want to or not.

In 1968, King died from an assassin’s bullet. The white shouts were almost the same as today.  The streets were burning and National Guard troops patrolled American cities. The cries were of anger, sadness, and frustration.  We didn’t listen.  We were too busy shouting about radical agitators as we watched the newsreels loop.  We wouldn’t shut up long enough to listen.  It was 1968 or is it right now?

In 1992, LA burned after four LA policemen were acquitted of the beating of Rodney King.  They were caught on camera for the nation to see.  The National Guard was on patrol again and there were the same shouts, the same excuses.  We didn’t listen.  It couldn’t be about a racist system.  It was 1992 or is it right now?

Do we repeat the same sins by drowning out people in pain or do we shut up and listen?  Are we willing to push for meaningful change or wait for the next tragedy to drown it out and return to the status quo?  Are we willing to change?

George Floyd’s death was awful, but it only cast a light on one symptom of the disease.  The disease isn’t terminal yet but it is moving swiftly in that direction.  Shut up and listen before our racism kills us.

 

***

Featured Image:  https://steemit.com/life/@domioanna/just-shut-up-and-listen

Don Miller’s author’s page https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR1IWVKrQFOwlgUOn0jXI0N85XUF4AFM-IgNPqW7PE1GGK23l7PJUvho9Fs

 

Remembering Kent State

For those of us who were young adults or near adults, it should be a bit of a somber day. Fifty years ago, today, four Kent State students were shot, nine others wounded, one paralyzed.  Twenty-eight Ohio National Guardsmen fired approximately seventy rounds in less than fifteen seconds into students, some protesting President Nixon’s “Cambodian Incursion” by the US military, others who were simply watching from a distance, one was walking from one class to another.  Nixon had promised the day before to get us out of the war.

It had been a contentious period in our history, “The Kent State Massacre” was neither the beginning of the violence nor would it be the concluding chapter.  Three protesting students were killed and some thirty injured during a protest at South Carolina State in Orangeburg, SC in February.  Several days after Kent State, two students were killed, and a dozen injured at Jackson State.  Both were confrontations with the police and on a small scale exemplified the student unrest over the Vietnam War and Civil Rights.

Kent State had been a hot spot for student protest beginning in the middle Sixties.  Students For a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Student Organization and the Youth International Party, (Yippies) all staged sit-ins, marches and other protests, including an attempted take over of the Administrative Offices by the SDS that led to fifty-eight students being arrested by the Ohio Highway Patrol.  There had been scattered violence, including the burning of the ROTC building, but no deaths until May 4, 1970.

Monday, May Fourth. was the culmination of four days of unrest that began the previous Friday after President Nixon announced the Cambodian Incursion on the previous Thursday.  From the aforementioned fire, a protest march, beer bottles and rocks being thrown at police, bonfires in the street, and numerous arrests, violence reared its ugly head, violence from the students, and from groups sworn to protect them.

Unconfirmed rumors of students with caches of arms, spiking the local water supply with LSD, and of students building tunnels for the purpose of blowing up the town’s main buildings added gasoline to an already volatile cocktail.  The city mayor requested National Guard Troops from the governor and the request was granted.  They came armed with loaded M-1 Garands, bayonets, tear gas, and smoke grenades.

The National Guard first became entangled on the Third, breaking up a rally and a sit-in, using tear gas and even bayoneting students.  A noon rally of some 2000 students on the Fourth became the catalyst for the shooting.  Again, rocks and tear gas were involved until the shots rang out.  It became a they said-they said situation after the gunpowder had cleared.

I was a struggling sophomore in college, less than a month past my twentieth birthday when news of the massacre flashed across the community tv screen in the basement of Brokaw Hall.  I remember the silence that followed and the debate that issued later.  Despite being a Southern liberal arts college, Newberry was not a fertile ground for liberal thoughts.

Near the end of the semester, I was more concerned about the effect exams might have on my grades than what had taken place in faraway Ohio or nearby Orangeburg.  I was also mourning the end of my first serious relationship, one I characterized as a hurricane waiting to happen.  You knew you were in for a big storm you just didn’t know when or where it would happen.  It had happened.  A hurricane that had turned my grades into a shambles.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t aware, I was.  A male, I had just participated in the first draft lottery and hadn’t won but I hadn’t lost either…April 9th came up 219…kinda in the middle.  My awareness was focused on my poor but improving grades and fear.

I had no desire to die in a rice paddy in a Southeast Asian country but like many of the young men surrounding me, I would have gone to my death rather than disappointing my family and friends.  I would do what was expected.

As I look back, I am both proud and ashamed.  Happy I wasn’t called while feeling I missed something by not being called to serve.  Ashamed for not taking a more active interest in protesting the war.  Confliction but I am a conflicted person.

There were several veterans on third floor Brokaw my freshman year taking advantage of the GI Bill.  They were good guys, damaged good guys.  Few returned for our sophomore year, fewer still graduated.   They were just too damaged.

I wondered which was worse, dying in a jungle or leaving a part of your soul there.  They all participated in the activities of college life, but it seemed they only participated from the periphery.  All still had the “Thousand Yard Stare.”

One vet, of Marine Force Recon, had been our protector during our freshman year.  I didn’t know what Force Recon was, I just knew from the whispers he was a badass dude.  He was much older and became a buffer against Rat Week and later the fraternity bull pledges whose grades were so low they had been moved out of fraternity housing and onto the freshman halls.  They weren’t happy and wanted to take it out on the ‘rats’.  Force Recon would have none of it and the bull pledges left us alone.

He sat next to me as Walter told us about Kent State.  A man of few words, he leaned over and asked, “Who gives fucking National Guardsmen live ammo against students?”  I wondered myself.  Several friends were National Guardsmen and I wouldn’t have trusted them with a pea shooter.  Thankfully, they were members of the SC National Guard Band.  They blew into their instruments instead of blowing things up.

Later, Force Recon would suggest in a bit of a drunken stupor, “If you get drafted, run to Canada.  It ain’t worth dying for.”  This from the same man who ‘liberated’ a Christmas tree from the Winn Dixie parking lot late one night so we could decorate with toilet paper and beer cans in our community restroom…good times.  Coming from a veteran I began to rethink the war.

Violence begets violence and the violence didn’t end in May of 1970.  Many more Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians would die before that little policing action was over.

The shootings at Kent State would trigger more protests, one in Washington estimated at a hundred thousand that caused President Nixon to be whisked away to Camp David.  Hundreds of college campuses would close involving over four million students due to student protest.  Eleven students were bayoneted at the University of New Mexico during a peace rally and peace protesters battled pro-Nixon construction workers in what became known as the Hard Hat Riots.

1968 was bad, ‘69 was a bit of reprieve if you didn’t look past the moon landing to the Manson Murders and Mai Lai.  ‘70 was a return to the bad but as some smart someone said, “it gets darkest just before the dawn.”  It would be five long years before dawn and the Vietnam War ended but the US had been out of the warzone for the last two.  I must believe Kent State and the protests that followed helped get us out of a war we should never have been involved in.  Helped to stop the killing.

***

I drew from a lot of sources but since I am not selling this I’m not going to footnote.   If you question something other than my sanity I will go back and do so.

The featured image is the iconic photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

Don Miller writes on various subjects and various genres.  His authors page is at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2Iyegsi5CjQ4ZNPU2nA9C1e3q7jekDZ6e3T8qw5QUgwNhM9Yj_-dKOag4

 

For What It’s Worth

 

The song has been running in my head since I heard it early this morning as I tromped up and down the hills around my foothills home. The pain of the steep hills has been replaced by the pain of my broken mind. I’m not depressed, am I? “Children what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down” reminds me of a flushed toilet with its contents circling before disappearing. Maybe I am depressed.  Thank you, Buffalo Springfield and my playlist.

The song became an anthem for the anti-war crowd in the late Sixties and early Seventies but was not written as such. It was written to protest a curfew put into place around the famed Whiskey a Go-Go, a West Hollywood music venue. The status quo (read conservative adults) had become upset about the noise, loitering and traffic congestion caused by crazy kids high on life, “Young people speakin’ their minds, are getting so much resistance far behind.” The culture clash became known as the Sunset Strip curfew riots and featured counterculture clashes with the Los Angeles Police.

My thoughts, my thoughts…. In the late Sixties, I was not a member of the counterculture. I was still the proud, flat-top sporting, John Wayne adoring, “my country right or wrong” conservative.  I’m still proud just not as conservative as I once was.  My country can be and has been wrong.

I grew out of my flat-top during my high school and college years but no one would have confused me with a long-haired hippie freak.  I ignored protest music for the soulful sounds of rhythm and blues and Beach Music, and bells and Jesus sandles for Weegins and stifly starched khakis.  Afterall if it didn’t effect me why should I worry…well, I’m worried.

Because of my worry I have become the aging, white-bearded, balding hippie, embracing those things I should have embraced fifty years ago, although I still toke on cigars rather than weed and find the conservative drug of choice, beer, and Jack Daniels, more palatable…beer and Jack Daniels separately, not mixed. Certain libations transcend social and political orientations.

I had flirted with the left but hadn’t gone ape-shit liberal until my Autumn years when I found Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin more in line with my musical and political taste than Florida-Georgia Line. Country?  That ain’t country.

It always begins with the devil’s music…even if it was from the Sixties.  Having ignored it in my youth it was as if I had discovered Coronado’s Seven Cities of Gold.  First, it’s Rock-n-Roll and before you know it, sex and drugs along with a good dose of liberalism are rearing their radical heads.

I’m a little long of tooth for “free love” and “psychedelics” but my middle of the road liberalism seemed to fit better with what I believe are the ills facing our world; global climate change, hunger, lack of clean water, wage inequality, unchecked capitalism, and a government that reminds me more of a Russian oligarchy.  Funny…my change coincided with the birth of grand children.

My thoughts ramble, I am astounded.  “Something’s happin’ here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Those people I considered liberal in my childhood and my early adulthood have become the status quo of today, the conservative adults wondering what has happened to the youth of today…or their aging hippie teacher.

This from the former blue jean, mini-skirted, halter topped or John Travolta “catch me, f@#$ me” leisure suited crowd, now nattily dressed in their dark blue suits and red ties. They are now the conservatives resisting social and political change, many to the point of embracing any conspiracy related to the evils hiding under their beds.

My “outlaw”, dope-smoking brother even became the paragon of the conservative status quo, forgoing Seventies drug use and briefly flirting with Tea Party politics.  Well, he is still a tee shirt, cargo pants kind of guy.  At least he wears his UNC cap “fore and aft.”  I believe it might have something to do with marriage and business ownership.  Settling down?

My characterization is unfair, my brother is the epitome of the too-often quoted, “social liberal, fiscal conservative.” He helped start and continues to support a food kitchen and other social programs.

The give away is his musical tastes.  They are “neo-hippie” and “Americana”…kind of like mine. He doesn’t think modern country is country either.  It seems his square pegs won’t fit in my round holes…maybe I should take a look at my own square pegs.

Truth?  We don’t stray far from each other’s political or social beliefs. We enjoy many of the same things, and share a live and let live attitude.  I just find it necessary to give grief to my younger brother.

What amazes…and concerns me are the protests popping up.  I should say the types of protests.  Stanchly conservative, dare I say right-wing reactionaries…protestors dressed in camo and battle gear, sporting assault-style weapons have replaced hippies putting flowers down the barrel of rifles.  What?

Make Love, not War does not seem to be their mantra. I think the lyrics from Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, might fit them better.“All along the watchtower, princes kept the view.  While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.”  It seems they want to keep the masses in view…and under their thumb.Based on Isaiah, I like the Hendrix version the best.

It was just a few years, months ago, the same folk were shaming “liberal” teachers for walking out of their classes for more pay and smaller class sizes, global climate change idiots led by a sixteen year old, railing against Black Lives Matter, and cheering when Native Americans were arrested or water blasted for protesting an oil pipeline through their native lands. Oil pipe…peace pipe…hum…water pipe.

The hippie legions from fifty years ago are either rolling in their graves or wondering what kind of bad shit was in those edibles or ‘srooms.

“What a field day for the heat.  A thousand people in the street.  Singing songs and a carryin’ signs.  Mostly say, “hooray for our side.” 

It’s time we stopped.  Hey, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.”

Stephen Stills was quoted saying, “It (For What it’s Worth) turned out to be indicative of what was about to happen.” And I would add, “Continues to happen.” The only changes are the participants and the battlefields they argue over.

“There’s battle lines being drawn and nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”

***

Added note:  I don’t want to be  accused of viewing history through rose colored granny glasses.  Not all left led protest were peaceful and the violence was not necessarily prompted by the minions of the status quo.  At least the police didn’t face protestors with AR-15s.

I decided to include All Along the Watchtower….

YouTube.  Jimi Hendrix live in Munster, 1/14/69

Buffalo Springfield, YouTube Vid of them at the Hollywood Palace in 1967.

The Flower Power photograph is by Bernie Boston, taken during “March on The Pentagon”, 21 October 1967.

Featured image is of protesters of the Michagin shelter in place order.

 

Textile Strikes, Labor Unions, and Ella May Wiggins-History Repeated

 

During research for a novel I hope to write, I ran across the novel, The Last Ballad, written by Wiley Cash.  Cash’s novel is a fictionalized glimpse into the life and final months of union organizer and balladeer, Ella May Wiggins.  The story was inspired by actual events that hit a little too close to home.  Cash paints a historical picture that is both historically accurate and vivid, yet is as dark as the interiors of the textile mills he writes about and the lives of the people forced to work in them.  It’s a novel I wish I could have written.

Image result for ella may wiggins

Wiggins, a spinner at Bessemer City’s American Textile Mill #2 with a history of bad choices for many right reasons and some not so right, was shot and killed in 1929 during labor unrest leading up to the Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, April 1,1929 and ending in the collapse of the strike after Wiggins’s death in September of the same year.

It was the end of the period called “The Roaring Twenties” which for the textile workers and farmers of the South, were anything but roaring.  While Wiggins did not live to see the great Wall Street crash, times were already hard for those who toiled in textiles, many who had just earlier been left destitute from falling farm prices.  As my grandmother often stated, “We lived so hard we didn’t notice the Great Depression.”

For anyone with empathy, the book is a tough read.  It is painful on many levels, not just Wiggins’s death.  It is disturbing because I see a certain parallel with “history repeating itself.”

I grew up a “hill milly”.  My youth was tied both to the fields of corn and beans of my grandparents and to the textile mills of my parents. By the time I cleaned the cow manure off my boots and traded square bales of hay for the lint, heat, and noise of the Springs Mills’ White Plant in Fort Mill, South Carolina, conditions, pay, and hours had markedly improved from Ella May’s day.  Improved, but still some of the hardest physical labor I ever did under some of the most taxing physical conditions.

On my first day, I was two months past my fourteenth birthday.  I was summer labor, a spare hand, working a six until two shift at whatever hell my second hand decided.   Doffing cloth, filling batteries, taking up quill and skinning them were my primary chores.  I must have done okay, I was invited to continue, working weekends during the school year.

The early shift allowed enough daylight in the evening to pull four additional hours hoeing corn, picking beans or tossing square bales onto the bed of an old flatbed for two dollars a day.  I was bone-weary at the end of the day and slept the sleep of the exhaustedly pure of heart, but in my immature brain, I was rich.

A dollar sixty-five an hour, time and a half for overtime over forty hours, plus the six dollars a week I got for tossing hay.  $93.80 a week before taxes for seventy-two hours counting four overtime hours…all hard work.  That was in 1964 and I wasn’t as rich as I thought.  My parents took half my take-home pay for room and board and I was forced to save half of my half for the college days looming in the near future.

My week’s take came out to about fifteen dollars a week in my pocket…more than what Ella May made for seventy-two hours in 1929.  Six days a week, twelve hours a day for $9.00 a week in conditions you can’t believe unless you lived it. $9.00 to house, feed and clothe herself and her five living children.  She had lost two children in early childhood who developed rickets due to malnutrition.  She was pregnant at the time of her death.

Image result for springs cotton mills fort mill sc

South Carolina has never been receptive to unions…the South has never been receptive to unions.  As of 2017, only 2.6 percent of the Southern workforce was unionized. During Ella May Wiggins’s day, unions had only just begun to move south and were met with a solid, often violent, effort to keep them out.

On my first day at Springs, a cousin, Charlie Wilson, took me aside and yelled his whisper above the din of eleven hundred looms, “Never mention the word union if you want to keep your job.”  I’m not sure I had heard of the word at the time but never mentioned it even though many days I doubted I really “wanted to keep my job.”

Despite the mind-numbing sound and physical labor, I was spoiled and didn’t know it until I went to work for another cotton mill during my college days.  Springs Mills was a Cadillac of cotton mills.  Well lit, it was reasonably modern and technologically advanced, cleaner than most, with a family atmosphere.

The two mills I worked at in Newberry, SC, during my college years were everything Springs wasn’t including an “every man for himself” atmosphere.  Dimly lit, the old Draper looms were contrary and dangerous, the closed painted over windows a reminder of what was just on the other side…bright sunshine and clean air as opposed to the oppressive, lint filled atmosphere and heat inside.

As I lived through a week that saw a major drop in the stock market and a toilet paper panic, I am somberly amused at some of the similarities that exist today as in those thrilling days of yesteryear.  Conservatives attempting to hold the line, liberals clamoring for change.  Name-calling, finger-pointing and unfortunately threats to our democratic system if not our very person.

I hope most threats are coming from internet trolls with nothing to do as we “hunker down”, self-isolating ourselves from the coronavirus, worrying about where our next toilet paper score might occur.  We can’t even agree if this disease is a health threat or simply the flu blown up by a liberal media controlled by communists and George Soros.  I digress with tongue in cheek.

The reason for the Loray strike were workers protesting for better working conditions, a forty-hour workweek, a minimum $20 weekly wage, union recognition, and the abolition of the stretch-out system, a system that doubled worker’s labor but reduced their wages as textiles fell on hard times after The Great War and the drying up of government contracts.

An estimated 1,000 strikers at Loray Mills, Gastonia, 1929. -- Millican Pictorial History Museum

The numbers and issues may be different, our responses have been eerily similar.  It would be during the middle of the Great Depression before minimum wage, the forty-hour workweek and child labor, along with the Social Security safety net, would finally be addressed…all maligned at the time as at best socialism, at worse communism, both a threat to American capitalism and the owners it made rich.

In 1929, company men labeled any check to unlimited capitalism as Marxist, socialist or communist, and yes there were more than a few of them around. Ella May’s National Textile Workers Union certainly had communist ties, not that Ella May and her fellow workers knew what a communist was.  She was simply seeking a better life for her children and herself.

I see the same labels raised when we debate increasing the minimum wage, health care, safety nets or educational opportunities.  Labeling has become quite acute with both our political parties battling to pass a coronavirus relief bill.

Union enrollment is on the decline while finger-pointing increases.  There is no middle ground.  Signs of the time…or as my Evangelical friends shout, “Signs of the Apocalypse.  The time is nigh.”

I wonder if we are nearing a tipping point when the national guard, new wave strikebreakers, and the police force will be employed to evict and expel people whose opinions simply differ.  Couldn’t happen, could it?  Yet in 1929 it did, and the violence would continue well into the Thirties.

Violence spurred by unchecked capitalism, fears of communism and being forced to work side by side with those of a different race.  All supported by a sympathetic conservative media, and government “for and by” the “Captains of Industries.”

On April 1, 1929, eighteen hundred workers walked off the job at Loray in Gastonia, mostly women, some marching with babes in arms.  Management evicted them from company housing, throwing their meager possessions into the street.  One striker was killed, many beaten.

The North Carolina National Guard was called out on the third of April, violence erupted sporadically over the next several months.  The police chief was killed, strikers and company men shot or beaten, and in September, a truck carrying twenty-two strikers was chased down and shot up.  The pregnant organizer and singer of ballads, Ella May Wiggins, was killed, shot through her chest.  Her children sent to an orphanage until their eighteenth birthdays.

Image result for ella may wiggins

A general wave of vigilantism washed across the countryside, company men arriving in the middle of the night, forcing strike participants out of the county in exile.  These were their neighbors, people they knew by name, people they might have worked with just a few weeks before.  People threatened with bodily harm if they returned.

The struggle continues today just not in US textiles.  Textiles left the South for climates more receptive to low pay and long hours.  There are a few specialty mills around but we simply can’t compete.   Our standard of living requires we have a higher level of poverty than places like China, India, and Pakistan.   Hopefully a higher level of empathy for our workers…but I am unsure.

***

I recommend The Last Ballad.  Again, I warn you, it is a painful history brought to life by Wiley Cash.  It is a history I was unfamiliar with even though I possess a history degree and lived within an hour of Gastonia and the Loray Mill site.  We Southerners have a tendency to overlook or twist some of our more unsavory histories.  This one seems to have been ignored.

The book may be purchased on Amazon or if you have a library card, downloaded to a Kindle or computer with a Kindle App for free.  Yes, I’m cheap.  https://www.amazon.com/Last-Ballad-Novel-Wiley-Cash/dp/0062313118

Image result for The Last Ballad

Don Miller is a retired educator and coach.  He writes on various topics and his author’s page may be accessed at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Images

Featured Image:  A member of the NC National Guard forcing two female strikers back. https://wilsoncountylocalhistorylibrary.wordpress.com/tag/ella-may-wiggins/

The first image is of Ella May (spelled Mae on her grave marker) Wiggins just before her death, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article175129556.html

The second image is of a young girl tending spinning frames in the early 1900s  https://www.pinterest.com/pin/83457399315355531/

The third image is of Loray Mill strikers who walked out on April 1, 1929.

The fourth image is of the truck that carried Ella May Wiggins to her death.  https://www.shelbystar.com/news/20190405/1929-loray-mill-strike-gastonia-violence-makes-waves

 

Fifty Years Ago…

 

Section 5377 of the Code of Laws of South Carolina of 1942: “It shall be unlawful for pupils of one race to attend the schools provided by boards of trustees for persons of another race.”

Fifty years ago, yesterday, The School District of Greenville County became one of the last school districts in one of the last states to comply with the “spirit” of the Supreme Court Case Brown v Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas.  It had only taken sixteen years to accomplish this compliance.

1954’s Brown v Board included a South Carolina case filed by then Civil Rights lawyer, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on behalf of Harry and Eliza Briggs and 20 other families living in Summerton, SC, a small town in Clarendon County.  Filed in 1947, Briggs v Elliott challenged school segregation in Clarendon County, South Carolina.  It was the first case filed of five cases combined under the Brown umbrella

Unanimously, the Justices found that separate was inherently unequal and that “public school segregation was unconstitutional.” They also found segregation “fostered feelings of inferiority among black children that could harm their educational futures.”

Brown overthrew Plessy v Ferguson’s “Separate but Equal”, a railroad case from the 1890s that had been applied to education.  Mandated segregation in South Carolina was over…defacto segregation wasn’t.

I used the word “spirit” earlier because for sixteen years South Carolina lawmakers systematically attempted to put off the inevitable by increasing spending on black schools, implementing “pseudo” freedom of choice, and an end-run with what became known as “token” integration.

State Senator Strom Thurmond of Dixiecrat fame helped to pen what became known as the Southern Manifesto, pledging, along with one hundred other federal lawmakers, the intent to resist integration as far as the law would allow.

It seemed South Carolina and other states, mostly Southern, were intent on being deliberate rather than speedy when instructed by the Supreme Court to integrate their schools “with all deliberate speed” in 1954.

With a Mississippi Federal Court ruling, segregation ended over a long weekend in Greenville County on February 17, 1970, with the busing of sixty percent of the black school populations to various schools distant from their own neighborhoods.  Only ten percent of white children were bused.  Five hundred educators found themselves cleaning out their desks and moving to different desks in different schools as well.  This was done to reflect the racial makeup of the county, 80% white, 20% black.

What had been black high schools, some quite new became middle schools or closed that weekend.  These centers of pride for many communities, like Sterling High or Lincoln High, were now empty; only living on in the memories of many people of color.

I was a second semester junior in college at the time and not very concerned about the politics of my state.  The next year, my senior year, I would find myself an unpaid assistant baseball coach while doing my student teaching at a local high school.  It would be my first-time interacting with black students and athletes.  It would probably be some of their first interactions with white teachers and coaches.  Somehow we survived.

From all I can glean from friends and fellow educators who taught during the period, the change was relatively peaceful.  I imagine there was some selective memory loss but unlike other states, few buses, if any, were pelted with rocks. There were no rabid white crowds shouting expletives to little schoolgirls. The governor did not stand on the schoolhouse steps shouting, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Still…I can’t imagine what those thousands of students were thinking at the time as they rode school buses to new locations.  I’m unable to fathom the fear of the unknown that prevailed, both black and white.  I can only imagine what might have gone on in restrooms, locker rooms, in the parking lot, on buses…out of range of teacher’s and administrator’s ears.

By the time I became a full-time teacher and coach in 1973, I found race relations still raw and contentious.  Generally, the question of race relations simmered just beneath the surface on briefly exposing itself.  There were just enough brief flareups to remind us.  Beliefs don’t go gently into the night just because judges tell them to.

For years we had been indoctrinated to believe races should be kept separate as a benefit to both, and then in the blink of an eye it was over…or was it?

There were still arguments made and old white men continued to try and find ways around the law.  Court cases would still be heard, especially over busing.  Isolated areas would still attempt to hang on to the old ways.  Affluent white folk found another way to be separate.

One hundred and thirty-four private schools and academies opened in South Carolina during the period, one hundred and thirty-one were opened to whites only.  Many still exist today, many still are all white with names featuring Lee, Davis or Calhoun.

Over fifty thousand white students fled to private schools and today one in seven public schools in South Carolina are considered “highly segregated” still.  “Separate but equal” seems to have a firm foothold all over the South and it appears the Secretary of Education is intent on strengthening its foothold nationwide while weakening an already weakened public school system.

I often hear or read, “We need to move on.  That was so long ago.  I don’t understand why it is always about race.”  I find it is often people of my race who make these comments.  The same people who insist their heritage is under attack when certain flags are removed from federal buildings.

I point out that Jim Crow was still entrenched during the years of my youth well into my college days.  As I reach a major birthday in a month and a half, I find that 1970 doesn’t seem that long ago.  If it is during my lifetime it can’t be that long ago.

I remember the signs stating, “White’s Only.”  I remember fire hoses, German Shepards and burning buses.  I didn’t fight for my Civil Rights, I didn’t have to.  I’m sure for those who fought for their Civil Rights…continue to fight for their Civil Rights, it seems like only yesterday.

Addendum 

According to various accounts, although Brown resulted in a legal victory against segregation, it was a costly victory for those associated with the Briggs case.

Reverend Joseph De Laine, the generally acknowledged leader of Summerton’s African-American community at the time, was fired from his post as principal at a local school in Silver. His wife Mattie was also fired from her position as a teacher at Scott’s Branch school, as were all the other signers of the original petition.

De Laine’s church was also burned and he moved to Buffalo, New York in 1955 after surviving an attempted drive-by shooting.  He never returned to South Carolina.

Harry and Eliza Briggs, on behalf of whose children the suit was filed, both lost their jobs in what was called “economic retribution.”  They both left South Carolina.

After death threats and by a joint resolution of the South Carolina House of Representatives, Federal Judge Walter Waring was forced to leave South Carolina for good.  He had sided with the petitioners.

An interesting article I just read, https://www.greenvilleonline.com/get-access/?return=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.greenvilleonline.com%2Fstory%2Fnews%2F2020%2F02%2F17%2Fdesegregation-1-out-of-7-south-carolina-schools-highly-segregated%2F2843394001%2F

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Don Miller is a retired educator and athletic coach.  He writes on various subjects using various genres.  His author’s page can be accessed at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

The image is from “A New Wave of School Integration”, The Century Foundation, https://tcf.org/content/report/a-new-wave-of-school-integration/?session=1

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Sources

https://brownvboard.org/content/brown-case-briggs-v-elliott

http://www.scequalizationschools.org/briggs-v-elliott.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Briggs_v._Elliott