History Thoughts

A thing that strikes me in these FBI files is that once the FBI determined someone was crazy, they disregarded them as a threat. Instead of thinking, “Oh, hey, here’s a troubled, unstable loner. He might be easily goaded into doing something bad.” they were just like “Oh, he’s a troubled, unstable loner. He couldn’t get it together enough to do something bad.”

I’m truly starting to think that a side-motivation the FBI had for also going after Civil Rights activists is that they were smart and together and made plans they could follow through with.

The racists they were looking at were not worthy foes. And because they were not exciting to chase down, the FBI didn’t even try.

Also, if I learned anything at all yesterday, it was that racists really hated integrated basketball.

Advertisements

Seeing

I went to the eye doctor yesterday and our strategy continues to be me having the most sight I can for the longest time I can and drilling about what to do when my retinas finally tear. It makes me feel a little anxious about how creatively dry I feel lately, to think that there may come a time when I can’t see to do the things I enjoy.

I took the dog for a long walk this morning. We went over to the school and waved at a bunch of neighbors and both struggled up the hill. If you listen to the Another Round podcast, you will appreciate that I always say, “Rufus, we made it,” when we get to the top of the hill.  Now he’s laying on the floor and sleeping. Just a minute ago, he was snoring so hard that I could feel the floor rumbling through my feet.

But man, it’s beautiful out there. The tall grass in the neighbor’s yard is yellowing. There’s some plant right at the edge of the woods that grows these tiny red berries and they’re doing that now. The trees all seem on the verge of turning.

I just love this time of year. Even when I’m out of sorts and feel kind of cut off from the mysterious. Even without ghosts, even without feeling the Universe whispering in my ear, this is still a special time.

The Thing Below

So, yeah, that’s happening. Me on the same bill as Kiini Ibura Salaam and Pinckney Benedict. That distant noise you hear is me laughing for a million years.

Why would Third Man put me on the same bill as those two? I think it’s okay for me to say that there is a reason and that reason is the exciting thing I haven’t yet told you about, but which you may now have enough information to give a good guess at, and which will become public knowledge very soon.

It’s weird to have good things when everything is so shitty. I mean, I know everything is always so shitty, but sometimes we’re able to meet the shittiness with grace and love and sometimes, like now, we stand here looking at each other in horror not sure what to do.

I’d like to get back to feeling like I can act and my actions make a difference. I’m tired of not reading fiction and not writing fiction, because I’m overwhelmed by the need to know facts and state facts loudly and clearly and repeatedly hoping someone will hear them and know what to do with them.

I would like to tell you a story or a bunch of stories, like I do every year in October, but I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t have them.

I’m just here, nodding when people ask me to tell them old stories, hoping that, if I do that, someday, the new stories will come back.

Edited to add: Oh shit! They announce it in the press release. The news is loose.

Harvey Here

I should have left work about a half an hour earlier, but I was an idiot. The drive home was brutal. Everywhere you looked was just a wall of water. It wasn’t flooding yet, but we had to crawl because you just literally couldn’t see anyone until you were within maybe twenty feet of them. Driving over the bridge, I had a tiny panic attack because you couldn’t see the other half of the bridge for all the rain. I had to fight the urge to turn around because I was convinced the rest of the bridge had washed away and people were just driving off into the river.

Luckily, thanks to the medication, it couldn’t resolve itself into a massive anxiety attack. I was able to recognize that it was not true and keep going.

I got home okay and the dog was able to get out and pee. But after that, the yard started flooding. The creek alongside the house was roaring. It was so loud I could hear it everyplace in the house. And the low spot in the yard where the creek should be also was a creek.

And before dinner, the front yard was full of water.

But even after dinner, even though it was still raining, the water in the front yard was down quite a bit. I would bet this is when Whites Creek started flooding.

And this morning, the yard is clear. I’m going to be able to get up to the hospital.

Nothing I Can Do, Total Eclipse of the Sun

You know, when you realize everyone has an outlet to write about what they saw and you’re not going to come up with anything creative, just lean into the cliche, I say.

Anyway, yesterday was the solar eclipse and it was amazing. I’m still stunned by how fast it was. It seemed like it took forever for it to get dark and for the sun to be just a sliver, but then it was completely dark and we all took our glasses off and looked up at it and it was… I don’t even know. Everyone went quiet, except for one guy who would occasionally shout things like “Look at the twilight on every horizon!” or “Look at such and such planet.” But it didn’t seem like there was enough time to look at everything.

We saw the wiggly snake shadows, but luckily, you could see them on the edges of totality. I didn’t see any crescent shadows, but I also didn’t go looking for them.

It was just so fast. Is the moon always hurling itself across the sky at that speed? Of course it must be.

The thing I most remember is how, at the totality ended, this bright sliver of sunlight shot out and we all instinctively reached for our glasses or looked away. Literally, just a tiny slice of sun hurt to look at. But it seemed like a flash. Like literally one second it was dark and the next second the flash of light and the sun was back.

You could see through the glasses that it was still, by far, mostly covered, but you couldn’t look at it with your bare eyes anymore.

It was extraordinary.

New Dress Day

Today I’m wearing one of my new outfits. I’m nerdily excited.

Yesterday at Kroger… well, two things. One, this very old man in overalls yelled out “I’m back and this time Mama’s with me!” which… I don’t know… struck me as equal parts hilarious and sweet. Like, that’s a line and you don’t know if it’s the stinger at the end of a romcom or the opening line of an action movie sequel.

The other is that I went right at noon so there were a bunch of people in their church clothes shopping and there was a young woman in this yellow lace dress and I wanted to take her picture or have someone make art of her. The dress was, I guess, pretty see-through but the way the lace was done, it felt very, very modest. Like instead of you looking at her thinking that the lace was giving you a peek at this woman’s naked form, it was more like she was just providing the most appropriate backdrop for this lace.

I’m not a straight dude, so maybe other people were looking at her and being all “bare skin! Woo!” but I don’t think so. I think the way the dress was made, the intricacy of the lace, that’s what there was to see. The dress is what you looked at.

 

Cemetery Questions

So, I went out to Calvary Cemetery to make sure that some folks were in there who I thought were in there for my big bombing project, and I ran into a priest who was just a joy to talk to about history stuff.

But one of the things we talked about was the old Catholic cemetery and he had it in a slightly different spot than I know Fort Negley thinks it is. He told me a delightful story about what a problem they had getting the Irish Catholics in town to stop burying their dead in the old cemetery illicitly.

But, if the Catholics are right about where the old Catholic cemetery was, then what was where Fort Negley thinks the old Catholic cemetery was?

My wonder…and I’m not sure how to go about figuring this out, since maps of the cemetery are so hard to find (really old maps, I mean) is whether the cemetery at first stretched on both sides of the tracks. The city cemetery, I mean.

Here, I made a map:

City Cemetery

Okay, so the rectangle made by the red and blue lines, the smallest rectangle, is kind of the obvious looking old boundary of the city cemetery. This also matches up with problems the owner of one of the business I know of has had in the upper northwest corner of having gravestones on his property. The yellow circle is very loosely where Fort Negley has thought the Catholic cemetery was based on old maps and an old picture they have that shows tombstones in that area.

The gray circle is where the Catholic priest at Calvary showed me the old Catholic cemetery was. And you can see clearly why they had to get everyone out of there when the land got eminent domained for the railroad. They believe they moved 700 bodies out of the cemetery (though whether they got all the Irish people who were illicitly putting bodies in it, who knows?

So, if the Catholic cemetery was where the gray circle is, roughly, who was where the yellow circle was? Whose gravestones are in that picture?

I have a guess. It’s a guess of pure speculation, and you should not put any faith in it at this point, since it’s just a guess. But if you look above and to the right of the yellow circle, in the city cemetery, you’ll see a big grassy area full of unmarked graves. Those are, by and large, African American graves. Jack Macon, for instance, is in there someplace.

But pre-Civil War Nashville had a small but vibrant community of free people of color. There was some black wealth. Not a ton. But some. There were some black people who could have afforded headstones. Again, not many, but some. Would those headstones have been separated from the grave markers of wealthy whites? Maybe.

Would they have been easily lost due to racist neglect and the needs of the railroad? Yes.

I mean, you can go in the city cemetery and find markers for white people who died in the 1840s and 1850s. But markers for black people with a little money? Again, I’m not talking very many. Maybe even as few as ten or fifteen families, but the photo doesn’t show that many markers, maybe only as many as ten or fifteen families’ worth.

And if that is the old western edge of the black part of the cemetery, is it so hard to believe that’s where they opened the ground and put the black workers from Fort Negley?

Was the old city cemetery originally the size of the red box?

Old Wounds

Yesterday I went over to the NAACP to see what they might know or have heard about the bombings. I knew it was kind of a long shot, since part of the goal of the bombings was to keep who did it a secret from the people it was done to. But I shared some of what I’d learned and… I don’t know. I felt instantly bad about it.

The head of the NAACP, who everyone told me I should talk to because, if anyone would know anything, he would, grew quieter and quieter. He seemed to withdraw into himself.

I think this story is going to open old wounds and I feel awkward about that. But another thing I think I realized in this meeting is just how much I know about this that most people don’t know. Even people who were alive at the time.

And that’s kind of making me rethink some of how I am presenting the story. I need to make sure that I am very clear about who people are and how they fit into the larger national hate movements. Because people don’t know.

But I am very aware that for me this is interesting and fascinating. But it’s going to be painful for folks.

Sitting at the Wet End of a Hose of Words

Happily, I got invited to Third Man yesterday to sit in the blue room and watch while Abraham Smith read his forthcoming book of poetry out loud. It took three hours. We had multiple breaks and were encouraged to bring our lunches, which I did.

It was a small crowd–me, a professor from Watkins who loves old history stuff, poet Ciona Rouse, Adia Victoria and a friend of hers, two women I didn’t know, but the blond one looked vaguely familiar, and I think there might have been another guy. This is why Methodists fill from the back–so you can see who all was there. But I wanted to sit close, so I may have missed who was behind me. And all the Third Man crew.

I know I’ve talked about this before, but I remain in awe of the way that Chet can set the vibe of a space and hold it. There’s a lot of trust he’s able to invoke almost instantly–“Hey, we’re going to do something cool that, if you agree to just be present for, could be wild.”

Having someone read his poetry to you for three hours is surreal. At first, I listened like I would at any poetry reading, paying attention to phrasing and imagery and trying to decide if there was a narrative to the poem or if it was a collection of images. But you can’t–or I can’t anyway–hold a three hour poem in my head. So, at other times, I was just hearing the repeating sounds of words, not even the words themselves, just the kkkkkkk or the chchchchchch and realizing that other people in the audience might have been struck only by all the sssssses.

Then my mind would kind of loop around to hearing words and phrases and verses again, but other times, I would just hear the rhythm of it.

Like, in listening so long and so intently, I forgot how to listen and had to relearn. It also felt mildly hallucinogenic. Every time we took a break and left the dark room and went out into the bright space of the porch, it felt like we were leaving some place where time had no meaning and entering a smaller, flatter world, which, frankly, was a nice respite.

By the third hour, you could see he was suffering. He would stuff first one hand in his pocket and then the other. Sometimes he would grasp his back. Often, when he moved his arms, sweat would fling off him. They mic-ed the box he was standing on, to pick up the sound of him stomping his boots on wood, but by the end, he was not stomping, just, occasionally tapping. He was wrung out.

And I was on his side. We all were, that small half-dozen or so of us, leaning in and willing him, urging him to make it to the end. And he did. And then he collapsed in a chair and I high-fived him.

He was spent and grateful, but I felt like he had done something for us, and I was grateful, too.

When I got back to the office, my co-worker asked me if it was good and I said, “I don’t know.” It seemed weirdly beside the point. It was extraordinary. And I’m really glad I got to be a part of it.

Kids

In researching this story, I found a third racist killed by his kid. I don’t know anything about patricide, really, so I don’t know how common it is, but this feels like a group with a lot more of it than most.

I have two main thoughts about it. One that when we don’t deal with social problems like racism, the suffering is society-wide. The people I’m looking at really harmed black people and Jewish people AND they also really harmed their children. Being white didn’t protect their children from them.

Second, I feel like these kids are often harmed a second time because we tend to dismiss the families of racists as also worthless pieces of shit. As if they can’t be anything other than what their fathers were, which lets us ignore the years of suffering and abuse that the kids endured and then treat what they have to do to escape it as kind of a joke.

Me, too. I mean, I laughed when I saw that this dude had died after a fist-fight with his kid.

But it’s not just funny. It’s also really terrible. And you know the 14 words these yahoos love? What future are they securing? I mean, really. When your kids are abused and terrorized because the only way you know how to go through life is as an abuser and a terrorizer, your kids can’t flourish. And removing everyone who’s not like you from the country or the planet isn’t going to make your kids happy and well-adjusted, because it’s not those outsiders ruining them.

The bogeyman is in the house. Has been there all along.

Hard Work

I just want to reiterate how working on this baby blanket compared to the spiral afghan is…god damn. Like, I’m almost done making squares. On a blanket I started on Thursday. Granted, what I have in mind for the border will take a while, but the spiral afghan was SO HARD!

I’m glad I did it, but I don’t want to forget that it was tough and I probably don’t want to make a thousand of them.

Also, on another subject, can I just say that going grocery shopping on the first day of your period is stupid unless you want to come home with seventeen pounds of pasta and two expensive chocolate and caramel candy bars and some cookies you both want to eat and kind of want to throw up to look at?

I mean, I also got some protein and some vegetables, but I got home and emptied my grocery bags and laughed. And then damn straight ate one of those candy bars.

I’m slowly working on my draft. I’m trying not to freak out by how large it is. I’m already at 1,000 words and nothing’s gotten blown up. But I feel like I just need to vomit out everything I know and then I can work on shaping and trimming it. In other words, I know this draft is supposed to suck, but I’m still worried about it sucking.

I also had this dream that the Butcher told me a secret about one of his friends and I then went on a trip with her and blabbed her secret–which she did not know I knew–to everyone and she found out and was pissed. And all day I was like “Oh man, I really fucked up with so-and-so.” And I felt so bad and then remembered, no, it was just a dream. Everything is fine.

Ah, brain, you sure are fun.

Drafting

So, today, as I was walking the dog and thinking to myself, if I could be doing anything today, what would I like to be doing? I thought, I’d like to be working on a draft of my project. And then I thought, no, that’s nuts. I don’t have anywhere near enough research done.

And then I thought, fuck that. How do I know what research I still need to do if I don’t start seeing what I know?

Anyway, my feeling at the moment is that this story will be “Why don’t we know?” And maybe that will shake some things loose.

Bombings, What are They Good For?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Sam’s comment about the “proper” ways violence flows in our society and what purpose our current myth serves.

The current myth, as I think most Nashvillians who even know it know it, is that everything was fine and calm here in Nashville–people knew their places and worked the system as best they could–and then Brown v. Board was announced and Nashville had to desegregate and, oh my goodness! A school was bombed! A black lawyer’s house was bombed! But it was so outrageous, such a shocking anomaly, that, in the wake of it, we desegregated in order to return to our peaceful existence. And it was so awesome that Dr. King came and told us that he got inspiration from the city of Nashville.

The bare bones of this story is that some outside event happened to rile up black people and as long as black people were riled up, there were these bombings, but once black people got their way, the violence stopped. Therefore, white people are awesome, because we moved gracefully out of the way of what black people wanted. So awesome that even Dr. King recognized it.

It’s hard to see with the flesh on that the story as it is told now is racist–at least for me–but stripped down, the racist narrative is easy to see–this violence happened because black people were not behaving. It ended because white people were super awesome and accommodating.

This is, I think, why the JCC bombing gets downplayed or left out all together–it was clearly an anti-integration bombing, both because the caller who took responsibility for it said so and because that strain of extremists believed that Jews were controlling black people, so get rid of the Jews, black people will settle down–but there wasn’t anything black people in Nashville had do that “caused” it. They weren’t trying to go to school or have a big civil rights rally. There was nothing to point to and say, “If you hadn’t done x, this bombing wouldn’t have happened.”

I’m also kind of suspicious this is why the bombers weren’t ever caught. Maybe not the primary reason, but a subconscious reason. You have faces and names and it makes it a lot harder to pretend like white people were on the side of good here and that black people were bringing this upon themselves.

And also, reducing Looby’s status to “lawyer for the sit-ins”–which, yes, is hugely important–elides his decades’ long work for black people as a lawyer AND his role as a city councilman.

I keep thinking about how important it is for me to keep checking my intellectual filters. Like, okay, if our era is just the third wave of the Klan–so roughly ’49 through like ’83–we have four bombings aimed directly at black people–the two early housing bombs, Hattie Cotton, and Looby. We have, though, six bombings directly linked to integration–the two early housing bombs, Hattie Cotton, the JCC, Looby, and the failed attempt on the Temple.

But what if we change our frame to “white men pissed about something the government is doing?” Then we have for sure the early housing bomb that was about a black public housing unit, two truck scales, an ex-mayor’s house, potentially other things I just don’t know about because I haven’t looked into the Wilson situation as much as I should have, Hattie Cotton, and Councilman Looby’s house.

The number of “Fuck you, government” bombings is the same as the “fuck you, integrationists” bombings.

And I feel like I’m almost on the verge of realizing what that means. I suspect it’s something like my realization about the third wave of the Klan–that there was this anti-black violence in Middle Tennessee already happening and the Klan came out of that, gave the white people who wanted to do violence a shape and a structure and a network of likeminded people.

And I also think that something similar is going on here–that racist bombings provide a socially-approved outlet for anti-government sentiment. You bomb a truck scale because you don’t like following the law, they’re going to catch you. You bomb a school because you don’t like following the law, well, now your just a person with a tradition and a way of life.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not trying to downplay how central and important the hatred and oppression of black people is. I’m just trying to peek underneath that layer to see the secondary things going on.

Racism and anti-government sentiment fed each other.

But, in the years since, Nashville as an American city has become an important way for us of viewing ourselves. We have big 4th of July celebrations. We want all the tourist dollars we can. We like it when the whole country likes our music. We love it when important people move here or come to visit.

So, the anti-government sentiment of the times had to be downplayed and forgotten. Which means that, though people living through the ’50s experienced bombings in Nashville as very common-place, we remember the three bombings I’m looking at as if they were jarring anomalies. Something that almost turned us into another Bombingham, but, whew, we escaped that fate because we’re so super awesome and not that racist.

But they weren’t anomalies. We were that racist. And we had another ugly strain of something here that fed into it.

Forgotten

So, the guy I was talking about yesterday is Jesse Wilson. He ran a trucking company and he was running his trucks heavier than legally allowed. The state put in some truck scales along his routes and he blew them up. He also appears to have, maybe, if I’m understanding the story correctly, accidentally almost killed one of his drivers when he was trying, on purpose, to kill another one of his drivers who had been making some pro-union comments.

He also, maybe, though I’m not certain on this, may have been involved with blowing up a ton of construction equipment–maybe owned by the state?–in Old Hickory. And he seems to have bombed the yard of an old mayor and tried to bomb the house of the publisher of the Tennessean, but failed.

For all this, he went to prison for like 28 months. But then in ’61, he had to go back to prison because a gang he organized robbed some people in Carthage.

In spite of all this, the police officer who caught him all the times he got caught seemed to have become genuinely fond of him and reported that, after one of his prison stints, when he learned to read and write, he did seem to be a changed man.

He was out of prison during my bombings and he was desperate for money, because he had lost everything. But his name hasn’t come up in any of the stuff I’m reading about my bombings. He didn’t appear on Kasper’s witness list. The papers made no note of him being at rallies. So, he’s not at the top of my list of suspects.

But I am confused and baffled by how off the radar he has fallen. There’s nothing about this story online, except at Newspapers.com, that I could find. This dude waged a years’ long war against the state and local authorities and the media and no one remembers him. I’m kind of surprised he didn’t become a folk hero.

But I’m also surprised that he’s been so completely forgotten. It must have been traumatic and scary for Nashville to have this series of bombings. But we just developed cultural amnesia about it and taught ourselves that we were a peaceful city.

Dynamite

While I’m waiting around for my FOIA requests to be looked at and trying to figure out my next steps, I’ve been trying to understand what a bombing in Nashville would have felt like, psychologically.

In other words, Hattie Cotton gets bombed. Do people think “Oh, no! The racist violence is here to disrupt our tranquil town?” This, it seems to me, is kind of how the bombings are remembered now: everything was peaceful then long-simmering but not fully recognized problems bubbled to the surface and these three anomalies hit.

But what I quickly discovered is that this wasn’t the first racist violence in town in this era (I’m kind of thinking of this as a post-WWII phenomenon for a few reasons that I think are right, but are kind of boring, one being that men returned to town to fight with each other and that black men came home feeling an urgency to achieving if not full equality an end to racial violence). There were two bombings in the early fifties directly linked to trying to keep black people out of white neighborhoods. Those bombings succeeded. There was a constant stream of cross burnings. And there were all of the rumors of the return of the Klan, which, of course, turned out to be true.

I don’t want to get side-tracked, but I also think it’s an important point: in Nashville in this era, racialized violence predates organized groups to do it. In other words, the first bombings and the first cross burnings happened before the Klan was revitalized here. It was basically the fact that people were doing these things that seems to have spurred the revitalization and not as we’re kind of commonly taught that it was the revitalization of the Klan that lead to the uptick in violence.

No, the violence was there and the Klan arose to help organize it and let larger groups of whites participate in it.

But there were also two other types of bombing violence that I didn’t know anything about. One is so bizarre that I don’t know what to make of it and the other I am sure there’s something to be understood about it, I’m just so clueless about it that I’m not yet sure where to start.

Okay, the bizarre thing: throughout the 50s, there were a number of incidents where teenage boys would steal blasting caps (and sometimes dynamite, but most often just the blasting caps) and leave them in elementary schoolyards or near elementary schools, where young boys would find them and, sometimes, blow their fingers off or their eyes out.

This was seen as “pranks.”

And every time dynamite or blasting caps go missing, there’s a hubbub in the paper until it’s determined that the thieves are teens and not adults, even though–with the exception of the thing I’m about to get to–if adults stole dynamite, it seemed to be so they could fish with it and, if teens stole dynamite, it seemed to be so that they could facilitate young children disfiguring themselves.

Like, I genuinely don’t understand how it being in the hands of teens is a relief when this is what the teens are up to!  Also, I’m not understanding why there seems to be this distinction between teen thieves and adult thieves as if they live in two separate, never overlapping worlds. Surely teens stealing dynamite doesn’t mean that dynamite doesn’t end up in the hands of adults, but Nashville sure likes to treat it like it does.

So, that’s weird. Maybe you shouldn’t shrug off your teens trying to maim your children, but what do I know?

Okay, then the second thing, which I need to learn more about but am not yet sure where to start, is that there was a lot of violence surrounding trucking and union activity and, weirdly enough, barbershops and union activity, with the head of one trucking company waging a couple of years’ long bomb-a-thon of things around Middle Tennessee.

I need to read a book on this, because I feel like I’m missing out on a lot just stumbling across old newspaper stories, but I had NO idea. None. And the trucking dude bombed the publisher of the Tennessean and a mayor!

WTF?! How does this story just fade from public memory?? And what were the dynamics at play? In the South would unions have been segregated? Could I find that the people who dynamited the stuff I’m looking at became familiar with the use of dynamite during these activities? If so, should I look for them on the pro-union or anti-union side?

I mean, not to belabor this point, but I grew up in the Midwest where people were in unions and they went on strike and there was just a kind of general agreement that unions were good and I have always been baffled by the anti-union sentiment of the South and chalked it up to a residual belief that people owed you labor for nothing or next to nothing.

But I also had no idea of the extent of labor violence in the South and, while I still retain my pro-union stance, I would like to understand more about the era and specifically what the dynamic was here in Tennessee.

Donald Davidson

The more I work on this story, the more I end up reading Ben Houston’s scholarship and feeling like, damn, maybe he needs to write this, not me. And then I think, too late!

Anyway, I read a piece he did on Donald Davidson and it was just so brilliant I’m still thinking about it. His basic argument is simple–that Davidson’s racism was central to his writing and that scholars who try to treat it like a side matter are missing a lot of what’s going on in his work.

But what’s been sticking with me is the way Houston walks through Davidson’s beliefs about race and regionalism. Basically, Davidson was concerned with a specific, meaningful mythology of the white Southerner as an agrarian deeply connected to the land and traditions borne out of that relationship.

And Houston also shows how Davidson believed that black Southerners–and black Americans in general–did not have a kind of racial mythology because they’d been taken from Africa and stripped of their land, language, customs, religions, and kinship ties. And without this racial mythology to draw from, American blacks were always going to be less accomplished than white Americans who had this kind of racial (and regional) mythology.

So imagine the threat that accomplished black people posed for Davidson philosophically. It didn’t just offend him as a man racist against black people. It threatened his whole belief in what made white people great. After all, if you could be great without the components of this racial/regional mythology, then maybe the racial/regional mythology theory was wrong.

Or worse, what if it’s not wrong? What if there was a southern agrarian mythology that came from a person’s relationship to the land and the traditions borne out of that relationship, but it also worked for Southern blacks? In other words, this is not “my land,” it’s “our land.” Which is practically communism!!!!!!

So, the two components of his life fit together hand in hand. His artistic output is about codifying and strengthening this white Southern agrarian mythology. His racist endeavors were specifically about thwarting black Southern efforts to develop and have recognized as worthwhile their own Southern culture that Southern whites would then also find value in.

In other words, I think, at some level Davidson knew his mythology was false and could be remade and the existential threat posed by black civil rights was that his mythology would be remade. The past could be reexamined to mean something other than what he wanted it to mean.

Anyway, I don’t know how much of this stuff will make it into the final project, but I think it’s very worthwhile to know.

Mink

I forgot to say, I saw a mink again! Yesterday. A small one. It crossed the road in front of us and then seemed to realize that this meant we would be coming very near it and so it crossed back again.

The fact that it is small means that I must have three minks, at least, in my neighborhood–two to make a small one.

I know I said this before, but I still find it baffling and delightful that minks are a real wild thing and live in my neighborhood. I guess I assumed they lived in Canada in the wilderness or on fur farms.

But no, they’re in the creeks out back, eating crawdads and frogs, I assume, and crossing the road every once in a while.

Obsessive Thoughts

–I have been trying to figure out what the significance of the April 19th date for the Looby bombing is. The Hattie Cotton bombing took place the evening of the first day of school. The JCC bombing was coordinated with a bunch of other bombings of Jewish buildings across the south. But why blow up Looby’s house then? The sit-ins had been going on since February. The school desegregation lawsuits were on-going.

If something had provoked the bombing, it’s hard for me to figure out what.

So, does the date mean something? If a black man’s house were bombed on April 19th, 2017, we sure as fuck would think it did, but I don’t know about then.

–I have a weird rash on my arm, so I spent a great portion of my weekend washing everything in the house I could find to wash–bedding, couch slip covers, clothes, towels. I’m also trying very hard not to scratch it. When it itches I rub it, but I try not to use nails. It kind of works. It also kind of is not fooling me.

–One of the most personally embarrassing things about going to therapy is having to admit to myself how I have these weird, obsessive thoughts, which are sometimes paranoid. A few weeks ago, I woke up and a cat was in my bed and I became overwhelmingly convinced that it was not one of my cats. I get overwhelmed sometimes by the thought that I am fat and ugly and no one will ever love me and the people who like me only like me out of pity. And this shit is hard to talk about  because it’s not low self-esteem. Because low self-esteem would mean I felt bad about myself all the time.

But I’m really proud of the stuff I’ve accomplished and, sure, while not in love with the way I look, I like how I look in pictures and I’m kind of in awe of how, when I smile, I can see that it radiates. Like, okay, it must feel nice to be smiled at by me.

And I have a lot of friends who love me and they have big and interesting lives and they have other stuff to do beside be someone’s friend out of pity.

I say all this to try to make clear that these are obsessive thoughts. They don’t go away because they’re disprovable. They’re not satiated by being true–in the case of me being fat. They come out of nowhere, hit hard, and leave me reeling. There are some things that make them more common–me being tired or stressed or upset about something else but not dealing with it. But it is like being swept up in a storm my brain is having.

So, on the one hand, the medicine helps a lot because it seems to slow down the storm and, if I can recognize what’s happening before it blows up into the emotional hurricane, I can usually dissipate it. Oh, that’s just the anxiety.

But another thing we’ve been working on is that I like to have order and schedules. If I could keep my whole life by calendar, I would. And that’s great when it helps. Setting a recurring task of cleaning the litter boxes on Monday evenings means I get into the habit and the poop goes in the garbage can the day before garbage day. The schedule works for me and makes my life easier. Why wouldn’t I then schedule everything?!

Because I also sometimes, okay, often, then get caught up in the ritual of the schedule. In other words, I do scheduled things because those are the “rules” and I don’t want to break the rules or my life will be infinitely harder, whether or not I need to do the things.

And here I think you can see how close kin anxiety is with OCD. “I have to check the door five times to feel confident that it’s locked” is not the same thing as “I have to go to the grocery store on Sunday morning because… um… that’s when I’m scheduled to go to the grocery store.” But you can see they’re cousins.

So, I’ve been working really hard on separating what I feel compelled to do from what I need to do from what I want to do. So, Sunday, I was reading a book. I didn’t want to go to the grocery store. Did I need to go to the grocery store? Actually, no. I have enough stuff in the house that I can skip a week. But it still felt really weird and like I was going to regret not going to the grocery store.

The thing is that I think I like schedules because it lets me kind of put my life on autopilot. I can zone out through stuff I find boring or unpleasant, trusting on my schedule, my to-do list to keep me productive even while my brain is checked out.

But I think that coping mechanism has soured for me and I have to find ways to be present more in my life.

And a thing I find baffling and funny is that, without the checklist, I often don’t know what I want to do. I’m 43 years old but when faced with a truly empty day, I often don’t know how I’d like to fill it. And I pride myself on being so insightful and shit. And I don’t even know what kinds of small ordinary things bring me pleasure.

But I am having fun figuring it out.

Gladys

I have been trying to understand the life of Gladys Girgenti. Eventually, I’m going to have to talk to her family and I want to know exactly what questions I need to ask them. I know it’s going to be uncomfortable for them and I want to make it as non-floundering as possible.

I don’t think I suspect Gladys in the earlier bombings, but as of right now, she strikes me as someone who is absolutely well-positioned to know who did do them. I go back and forth on this.

My main question at the moment is whether and how she might be tied in to the guys who were arrested for the Hattie Cotton bombing. I have a sense that I am constantly brushing up against a structure I can’t see–a web of relationships that would make clear how this could happen and how no one has narced, for fifty years. I don’t know what that web is–family, childhood church membership, parents all in the same Klan unit, or ties to the illegal gambling halls on that side of the river, or something that happened in Bells Bend.

But it’s a lot of people who’ve kept their mouths shut for a long time, especially for bombings where no one was killed. There has to be some mechanism by which that silence is enforced, some shared pressure.

Anyway, this requires looking at Gladys’s life, which, frankly, seems pretty fucking brutal. Her two older half-brothers were tried twice for killing a guy in a robbery gone wrong (I think they must have eventually gotten their convictions overturned since they were sentenced to 99 years, but were out and living their lives by 1960). Then, when she was 15, she married her 37 year old neighbor, which you know I’m feeling rather gross about.

By 1960, she’s in Detroit, married to Nick Girgenti, who had a million brothers, not all of whom were scary robbers, but Nick was among them that were. He did quite a bit of time. Nick had a daughter born in 1954, but I don’t know anything about her other than that, in the late 60s, she shot him. (Which parallels what Carroll Crimmons’s son did to him). I suspect she wasn’t Gladys’s child, because her kids with Nick came in the 60s, before he got shot.

Gladys said they left Detroit because her house was firebombed during a race riot in ’71 and then the stress of it killed her husband. As we’ve talked about, there were no race riots in Detroit in ’71, no firebombings, except for the white people rioting about busing and the firebombing of the Pontiac school buses.

She came back here and spent the 70s being a single mom and raising her kids and belonging to the Klan. She then seems to have run into the “Sunday School teacher” equivalent in the Klan, where the smart, capable women are shuttled off into taking care of the children while the men get to have all the fun. Gladys, allegedly, had enough and tried to kill one of the Klan leaders, thus getting herself kicked out of the Klan.

She then formed her own ultraviolent terrorist cell and tried to bomb the Temple.

I don’t know how to describe what I feel about Gladys. I don’t feel sorry for her, exactly. Northwest Davidson County was a rough place when she was growing up. Lots of girls got messed with and saw family members in and out of jail and they didn’t join the Klan and live lives curiously adjacent to many Klan bombings.

But I do see someone whose life was hard and mean and she became hard and mean to survive it. And I wish that her life had not been hard and mean. And that’s how I feel. I wish she had some luckier breaks.

Can I Do This?

I’m having a small moment of existential doubt about my goal of solving the integration-era bombings. Will I be able to do this? I do not fucking know.

One thing I’d like to know is how many bombers you could have expected there to be in Nashville at that time? My understanding from reading about Birmingham–a city so thoroughly bombed that it was known as “Bombingham”–is that most of those bombings were done by the same Klavern (which I believe was #13, but I’m not looking at my notes, so don’t quote me on it), which means that you probably had forty guys willing to plan violence and, even then, maybe only half those who would do it. Birmingham had a sustained campaign of bombing.

We had a sustained campaign of cross-burnings, but we only had the three bombings.

We know that a couple of folks left here and “became” violent bombers.

Should I be focusing on them and whether these were their actual first crimes? Should I be focusing on the men arrested? Is it too late? I don’t know.

Poking Old Bruises

It’s clear to me now that my dad is freaked the fuck out by my research. He’s trying to be supportive, but he’s obviously worried that coming to the attention of the FBI in any way–even if it’s to ask questions and try to get answers–is going to go badly for me.

I have a theory of the Looby bombing, which I won’t go into here, but which I have floated by my dad. I’ve outlined my evidence–or more clearly, my lack of evidence–to him and his response is that my theory does not take into account the true enormity of Hoover’s evil.

And I get what he’s saying. I truly do. But I feel like all I can do is–like I said–look for antecedents in the public record and I do not know of another instance of what my dad is suggesting.

I also don’t know, this long later, how I would find out. I’m not stuck yet, but it is something I’m wrestling with.

And that my dad believes he knows the truth of what happened, and that it is the truth, well, I get why he’s scared. I just think it’s more likely that I’ll be stonewalled until the end of time than it is that the FBI is going to…I don’t know…take me to some blacksite or whatever.

Still, ha ha, yeah, I’m using all my anti-anxiety skills to not let this worm its way into my brain.

Good Work

I spent Friday morning at the downtown library because I believe it is imperative to avoid graduations if you’re not going to them, for the sake of your sanity. I was sitting in the cafe at lunch when I heard someone hollering my name. It was my co-worker, who had been downtown for some meetings.

“Wow,” she said. “I looked over and I almost didn’t recognize you. You look so happy.”

I don’t know what that says about how I normally look at work, but it seems like it’s not good. Ha ha ha.

I had to go back over yesterday and then I ran to the TSLA to get an obituary and then I spent part of the afternoon doing FOIA requests with the FBI.

I can’t remember if I said this already, but I need to keep it in the forefront of my mind, so I’m saying it again. The trick is to understand that, yes, there is a conspiracy, but to not let myself get sucked into ridiculous conspiratorial thinking. The way I’m trying to balance that is to only accept as reasonable a theory when I can find a factual example of something similar having happened.

This could work broadly–could J.B. Stoner have been sleeping with Dr. Fields? Would homosexual relations have been accepted in the white supremacist community? Well, one of the 16th Street Baptist Church bomber was known to be gay, so okay. That rumor could be true. Probably not useful, but plausible.

Or particularly–Gladys Girgenti was convicted of trying to bomb the Temple here in town. She left the Detroit area right after the Pontiac bus bombings. She said she was a 30-year Klan member and I discovered that her family was from here and still lives here. She wasn’t from Detroit. She was of the demographic that went north for work. So, on the one hand, I don’t have any reason to believe that she was involved with the bombings I’m working on, but I don’t think it’s a crazy conspiracy to think she was running in the right circles to know something.

And looking at particular bombing suspects, I haven’t ruled anyone out, but I feel like it’s more plausible that people who were life-long horribly terrible people are more likely to have been the bombers than the people who were just medium terrible. So, if I have three people, all segregationists, and one went on to have an okay life full of people who loved him and one who seemed not to make an impression on the world after his activities in the ’50s, and one who continued to be a nightmare to all who knew him, I’m not discounting that a person could have done one horrifically evil thing and then never done anything wrong again in his whole life, but I am putting the third guy at the top of my list. He gets first scrutiny.

And yet, of course, there were outlandish things that seem impossible–like Gary Rowe. Once you know that it’s a proven and accepted fact that the FBI had a dude who was doing the things on their payroll and they covered for him and kept him safe, then what do we make of the fact that the police knew immediately where to go to find who might be involved in the Hattie Cotton bombing and went immediately to a place after the JCC bombing to see if a certain person, whoever he might be, was the bomber (and there was some indication he might have at least made the bomb), but had no idea, no plausible candidates for the Looby bombing? We ran out of violent jerks between 58 and 60? That seems unlikely. At the least, shouldn’t they have checked in with their earlier suspects?

The fact that they had no ideas seems utterly unlikely to me. But that they might have known but left him alone? That I can see.

 

History Nerd Thoughts

My favorite era of Nashville history is those very early years, with all those folks with oversized personalities making monumental decisions while sexy Frenchmen sex it up. I’ve learned some about the Civil War, though I credit mostly the excellent resources we have in town for pointing out the interesting things about it. Plus, I’ve had to learn some about the war to understand my second favorite era in Nashville history–the postwar pre-turn-of-the-century–which I consider to be Nashville’s second weirdest time. Let’s all talk to dead people and join the Masons and open parks!

And I thought I knew a lot about Nashville post-World War II to like 1970, because it’s the rise of Nashville as Music City and all kinds of interesting people are popping by and Jefferson Street was at its heyday.

But, Christ, I know so little.

One thing that I have failed to appreciate–and getting my mind around it and my attitude changed has been really crucial to understanding these bombings–is how very closely entwined anti-black racism and antisemitism were.

Due to both the personal hang-ups of John Kasper and J.B. Stoner, who were virulent antisemites, and the cross-pollination of KKK-ish groups and Nazi groups, white supremacists had a wide-spread and thoroughly-believed conspiracy theory that black people, by and large, were too stupid and docile to be up to the stuff they were up to with the protests and the lawsuits and the demanding of integration, and so, since they were up to this stuff, there must be someone brilliant and sneaky and hard to pick out under normal circumstances pulling on the puppet strings of black people.

And I get that it’s a tricky story to tell when you’re talking about real life. There aren’t a lot of Jewish people in the South, by and large, and many Jewish communities had survived by being as unnoticeable as possible. Southern blacks were not likely to have any more experience with actual Jewish people as Southern whites. So, from the ground level, when black people started advocating for change, from their perspective, it had nothing to do with Jewish people, except to the extent that they came to find they had some Jewish allies.

And the mother walking her little child to school as white people are hurling rocks and spitting and yelling racial epithets at her and her child is not thinking about Jewish people or that her plight has anything to do with Jewish people.

So, if you’re going to tell the story of the Civil Rights movement centering the perspectives of the people who were working for civil rights, the bombings of Jewish buildings and homes just served to prove that the KKK hated everyone who wasn’t a white Christian and were a violent menace.

And a lot of Southern Jews thought that either opposing integration or remaining neutral on it would protect them from any hatred spilling onto them (and I just want to reiterate that I’m speaking very, very broadly. If you drill down to particulars, you find many Jewish people, even very early on in the 1950s, taking a stand for integration.).

In the minds of Southern blacks and Southern Jews, their stories are not the same stories and their histories are not the same histories.

But in the minds of the white supremacists, they were. And I think this is a really important thing to realize. I mean, look at how it affects my work. If we look at Nashville history through the lens of non-conspiracy-theory, how many bombings did we have over integration after Brown v. Board of Education? Two–Hattie Cotton and Looby’s house.

But now let’s look at history through the lens of this “The Jews control the blacks. Get rid of the Jews and the blacks will settle down” conspiracy. Now how many bombings did we have over integration after Brown v. Board of Education? Hattie Cotton, the JCC, Looby’s house, and the thwarted Temple bombing in ’81. Fully half of the anti-black bombings were directed at Jewish targets.

I haven’t counted all the bombings across the South, but my observation is that you might find that a third of bombings and attempted bombings were on Jewish targets. So, if you discount them as being something other than anti-black bombings–say, merely antisemitic–, you severely diminish the scope of the violence and, important to me, limit your suspect pool. If you don’t see all the bombings, you don’t have a full picture of the atmosphere of violence.

I went to the Nashville room this weekend, which is going to be a tremendous resource for this story, I think, and I spent some time in the Civil Rights room. The JCC bombing is not on their timeline.

The Looby Bombing

Okay, so the story as we know it about the Looby bombing is that someone with 5 or 10 or 20 sticks of dynamite wrapped into a bomb drove in front of the Looby house and pitched the bomb from the car toward the house, trying to get it through the dining room window but missed and thus the bomb landed outside the house at the corner of the house, pretty much destroying the whole front half of the house and a good portion of the neighbor’s house, blowing out windows in nearby buildings, but leaving Councilman Looby and his wife alive in the back of the house.

I went out to look at this yesterday, though the house is long gone, and it is, at the very most, thirty feet from the street to that window. In the picture on the left, the guy in the foreground is standing in the street.

Also important for this–the internet tells me that a stick of dynamite weighs half a pound.

Now, I, as a weak person with no throwing skills, believe that, if I hung out of a large old car window, I could overhand toss 3.5 to 5 lbs of anything and hit that window. I also believe, depending on how far out I was leaning, I might have enough room to underhand lob it. I don’t know if I would be strong enough to throw it hard enough to break the window, but it’s a rather large window. I might not be able to get ten pounds from the car to the window, though. But a man could, right?

Now, if I’m in the car, it seems like the only way to get the bomb to the house is that kind of back-handed newspaper-delivery flick, because otherwise, the car is in the way. But even still, it seems like, if that went awry, the dynamite would end up on the porch.

Also, as an added factor, now the street is lined with parked cars. It’s not in the pictures, but obviously, those pictures were taken in daylight and people could have moved their cars out of the way before then. On the other hand, there weren’t reports of any destroyed cars.

So, my questions are these: there’s a huge difference between five sticks of dynamite and twenty. How much dynamite do you think that explosion was actually caused by? Does the “They threw it from the car” theory make sense? But if they didn’t throw it from the car, why didn’t they place it better? And, just for the sake of argument, let’s say that they did throw the bomb at the front window and it did bounce off and kind of roll to the corner. Does that tell us something about where the car was in relation to the house? In other words, can we guess that the car was headed toward 18th maybe more in front of the porch than the window?

Basically, dear readers, what do we see when we look at those pictures?