Blogs > Cliopatria > Chris and I Go Funeralizing ...

Jul 31, 2005 8:35 pm

Chris and I Go Funeralizing ...

Fortunately, I was quoted in yesterday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution's story about the opening of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's annual convention in Birmingham and, fortunately, Chris and I drove east, away from Birmingham, later yesterday.

Chris is my virtual son. He and my other vitual son, Andrew, blog at Outside Report. I met them eighteen months ago, when Andrew was editing the Emory Wheel and Chris was president of the student body. We've stayed in touch and bonded through our common experience with cancer. Andrew lost his father to it last year and Chris and I are both survivors. Andrew is now doing financial reporting in Washington, DC, and Chris will be a second year law student at my alma mater, Duke, in the fall. Both of them have visited Atlanta recently and it was great to see them again. Andrew and I both reported about our trip to North Carolina together. Chris and I took a very different trip together yesterday.

Chris is an African American, who grew up on James Island, near Charleston, South Carolina. After a serious fight with cancer during his high school years, he came to Emory and did a senior thesis on lynching in Georgia in the early 20th century. I've published about a number of the lynchings that he wrote about, so they've become a part of our common interests and it didn't surprise me when he suggested that we drive out to Walton County, where two black men and two black women were murdered by a white mob in 1946. Last weekend, there was a re-enactment of that event at the Moore's Ford Bridge. For the re-enactment, black men assumed white masks and white gloves to play the role of white mobsters.

But, I think I'm glad that Chris and I visited the Moore's Ford Bridge after the re-enactors had gone. The Atlanta suburbs have sprawled out so far that they threaten to envelop Walton County, but we soon came to the highway marker that was recently placed to recall the events of 59 years ago. Moore's Ford is two and a half miles off the highway and our search for it took us through countryside that seems almost as remote now as it must have been then. When we reached the Appalachee River boundary between Walton and Oconee counties, where the murders had taken place, it seemed very remote, indeed. We hadn't passed another automobile since leaving the highway. It was raining steadily when we reached the bridge and the rain continued as we got out of the car to walk the bridge and look down over it into the rushing river and the lush vegetation on either side of it. Even without the re-enactors, it was chilling to know what had happened there years ago. It's even more chilling to know that there was enough evidence for the FBI to produce a 500 page report on the murders at Moore's Ford Bridge, but that no one was ever indicted, much less convicted, of them.

For Georgians, white and black, the Moore's Ford Bridge murders had an important political context. Former Governor Eugene Talmadge had just been renominated for Governor in the Democratic primary, which was tantamount to election then, because there was no competitive Republican Party here in those days. A little statue of Eugene Talmadge now sits atop my bookshelves. It emphasizes the red suspenders he sported and announces that"Ol' Gene""He kept his promises." That was what black Georgians had to fear, because Eugene Talmadge was one of the South's worst race-baiters. If you read the autobiography of Benjamin Mays, the sophisticated president of Atlanta's Morehouse College, he'd remind you that Georgia Afro-Baptists called for a day of fasting and prayer when Eugene Talmadge was re-elected governor of the state. And, when Talmadge died before inauguration day, Benjamin Mays would tell you that G_d answers prayer.

I keep that little statue of Eugene Talmadge atop my bookshelves, in part as a reminder that G_d answers prayer. But it's also part of a little tableau. In front of him is a miniature bale of cotten. Across from him is a scowling Aunt Jemima bank. Aunt Jemima has her hands on her hips – in one of those stances that tells you that there's gonna be hell to pay. Behind the bale of cotton is an old cast metal humidor in the form of a fat, pious monk, with his hands folded in prayer to the heavens.

But Chris and I had other business in Walton County. We drove into Monroe, the county seat, for lunch. Once a thriving regional center, it hasn't weathered the highway's bi-pass and changing times very well. Fifty years ago, Monroe would have been bustling on a Saturday, with people, black and white, gathered in from all over the county. Yesterday, Chris and I barely saw anyone on the streets. We found a place that offered barbecue for lunch, but theirs was as bad as what Andrew and I had found in North Carolina was good. Chris is a more discriminating eater than I am. I cleaned my plate, as is my habit; but he disdained both the brown gruel"stew" and the cole slaw.

We had one other stop to make in Monroe: Young Funeral Home. Funeral practices have long been defined racially in the South. To this day, it would be rare for a white funeral home to handle last rites for an African American or a black funeral parlor to bury a white person. Consequently, almost any county seat in middle or south Georgia would have a black funeral home and a middle class family that has owned and operated it for many decades. In Monroe, it is the Young family. They buried the victims of the Moore's Ford Bridge murders in 1946. A reporter for a New York newspaper sat in the basement of Monroe's Young Funeral Home as their bodies were being prepared for public viewing and burial.

I have just seen the first proof of Eugene Talmadge's election as Governor of Georgia. I saw it in the basement of Dan Young's funeral parlor (for colored) here in Monroe.
An embalmer was sewing up bullet holes in one of the girls, Dorothy Malcolm. He had already done his best to patch up the rifle and pistol holes in the other girl and the two fellows lynched here Thursday night
But nothing in the undertaker's art could put back the faces of Roger Malcolm or May Dorsey.
Shotgun shells fired point blank don't leave much face.
I'd read in the newspaper that the Young Funeral Home at Monroe had photographs of the bodies of the victims and Chris and I went to see them.

"To funeralize" is a verb unique to black English and I like it. It refers to the formal rituals for burial that survive in a more robust way among African Americans than among the rest of us. It can be used actively ("We funeralized Brother Johnson last week.") or passively ("Brother Johnson was funeralized last week."), with past, present and future tenses. When we arrived, unannounced, at Young Funeral Home, Sister Addie May Jackson was laying out in one of the parlors and a half dozen of her loved ones were sitting up with her. The attendant was sitting in the front office, reading about the opening of the SCLC convention in Birmingham. Both Chris and I stumbled a bit in trying to establish our creds and why we were there. The attendant pretended to know nothing of the photographs we had come to see. Finally, I said"I'm the guy who is quoted in that story you're reading about the SCLC convention in Birmingham." So, he picked up the phone and cleared permission with the member of the Young family who now runs the funeral home. As he hung up the phone, Sister Jackson's relatives walked out on her. So, when the attendent directed us to another room, I thought we might have to take our turn sitting up with Sister Jackson.

But we were directed to a conference room and, in short order, the attendant returned with a folder of 12 to 15 nine by twelve inch photographs. They were clearly originals, not copies, a little shop worn after 59 years, but in good condition. It was quite remarkable to look at the bodies of the men and women murdered at Moore's Ford Bridge after all these years. The white blotches on some of their faces were an incomplete result of reconstructive cosmetics for public viewing. I gasped at the photograph of one of the men. His shirt was open to reveal a huge Y-shaped scar on his body. The incision had been sewn back together, but it began below his stomach, reached to his breast bone and branched out to each of his shoulders. Surely the mob hadn't inflicted such a wound, I thought. The attendant assured me that that scar, at least, was the result of an autopsy. It is standard in any autopsy conducted in the United States, even until today.

There was much for both Chris and me to think about on the way back to Atlanta. We'd both faced down ol' death in our own battles with cancer, his more threatening than mine. As we sat there, ol' death laid out Sister Addie May Jackson in the parlor next to us at the Young Funeral Home. And in the photographs, we stared ol' death directly in his face. Their's was a violent, murderous death and you have to wonder at the murderous intent lurking in the hearts of the white men who killed them. You have to wonder at a society that brought none of them to justice and that still conspires against telling their whole story. We have work to do before ol' death calls us home.

Update: In"A Cultural Defense of Urban Sprawl," at Outside Report, Chris offers his own reflections on the trip to Monroe.

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More Comments:

Andrew Ackerman - 8/1/2005

fair enough.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/31/2005

I'm pretty sure that autopsy's are standard practice for any murder case, though I don't know how "standard" that really is or when it became so. But if you're going to bring charges against someone (not that it happened in this case, I realize) you want no "reasonable doubt" as to cause of death or the nature of the injuries. No matter how obvious it is to the external viewer, for a legal certainty you need to check.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/31/2005

If there is a rational answer to your question, Andrew, I'm not sure that any living person knows it. It may be that autopsies were, somehow, routine in deaths brought to the attention of legal authorities. It's pretty clear to any observor that all four of the people were killed by multiple gun shots. But there was other physical damage, as well. Both women, at least, had a broken arm, for example.

Andrew Ackerman - 7/31/2005

you're correct, that y-shaped incision is the mark of an autopsy. leaving out the question of whether or not a presumably white medical establishment would give equal treatment to a black patient, why would the medical examiner conduct an autopsy of a lynched man? if an autopsy's purpose is to determine cause of death isn't one unnecessary in this case? isn't the cause of death intuitively obvious to the most casual observer?

Manan Ahmed - 7/31/2005

yes. it does. perhaps the global effort to combat extremism can focus on race one day.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/31/2005

It leaves us almost speechless, doesn't it?

Manan Ahmed - 7/31/2005

I read your post right after reading this.

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