For years, probably since we existed as a demographic, White American men have enjoyed the reflected glory of our antecedents. Guys like me have absorbed our American history, our war movies, our historical epics, especially if there’s a family connection. We have basked in the great achievements, the noble exploits, of our heroes, of people who look like us, of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, General Patton, Audie Murphy, the heroes of Normandy, the heroes of Bunker Hill, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Neil Armstrong, the gutsy settlers of Plymouth and Jamestown, the rugged pioneers who crossed the Appalachians and then the Rockies.
And, let’s put full truth on the table, as a Southern born and bred boy and young man, I took particular reflected pride in the reported courage, tenacity and resourcefulness of hungry, barefooted Confederate soldiers and their military leaders, the noble Lee, the fearsome Jackson, the dashing Stuart, the rugged Longstreet. (Like many white Southerners, I tended to overlook the pathetic losers in the Western theater, especially that idiot Braxton Bragg.) I was proud and grateful for them all, for the legacies they left to us, the stories of courage and persistence and honor and duty.
Oh, I was glad “we” lost the war, was glad slavery was eradicated, and in my case at least, admired Lincoln and Grant as much as I did any Southern leader. (In fact, I’ve come to believe Lincoln is the most perfect and compelling democratic leader in all history, a figure of such mythic and Biblical substance as to almost overwhelm reality.) I discovered Harriet Tubman as a teenager and was gripped by her astounding exploits and fathomless courage. I later became as fascinated with the Civil Rights era as I had been with the Civil War, and my mind’s eye followed Bob Moses in Mississippi and John Lewis at Selma as my boy’s imagination had marched in the Shenandoah.
Yes, it probably takes a peculiarly Southern brain to accommodate both. But this allowed me to have it both ways, you see. Because one thing I didn’t do was put myself among the slaveholders, the overseers, the slave traders at their auction blocks. Nor did I rub imaginary shoulders with what many of those gallant Confederate soldiers later became—night riders, Klansmen, lynchers, enforcers of Jim Crow. No, my selective white Southern man mind’s eye didn’t join in whipping slaves, didn’t separate mothers from children, didn’t write or enforce the Jim Crow laws, wasn’t there to destroy Greenwood, didn’t commit the lynchings. It never even just gazed silently, passively, as others (no doubt much worse others) committed those crimes, or those acts that at the time weren’t even treated as crimes. If my mind’s eye gazed at “strange fruit” hanging from Southern trees, it was from a sickened but safely dispassionate distance, as a photograph in a history book. The participants in those awful deeds, even the spectators, were as foreign and alien to me as the tragic, ruined body around which they were gathered to gloat, to smirk, to celebrate their carriage of justice.
They weren’t my responsibility. They did not reflect on me. The lynchers and their enablers were somehow disconnected from Lee’s gallant tattered lads, although they might have been their grandfathers, or their fathers, or themselves. If the one had been essentially heroic and the other clearly villainous, then they must have been separate people. And, no, I confess, I admit, I didn’t ask myself “so where were they”?
Growing up in and near Athens/Clarke County, Georgia, I always heard that my mother’s parents treated black people fairly, paying black farmworkers, for example, the same rates as white ones. I understood my grandfather was liked and appreciated by black people, whose children he sometimes delivered, although his degree was in agriculture. During the Depression, when hungry people came to my grandparents’ door, they were fed, regardless of skin color and despite my grandparents’ own dire straits. And so on. My grandfather died a few years before I was born, but I got to know my grandmother well. I rarely heard her use racist language and saw her treat black people as respectfully as white ones. So it seemed our grandparents had been good guys, at least relative to their time and place, which meant we could comfortably be good guys. More reflected history, I suppose.
But one day in 1980, that image, that history, took a nasty hit. That day, I dropped in on my then 89 year old grandmother (who had never learned to drive) to take her grocery shopping. Usually gentle and good-humored around her grandchildren, I found her in an unusually subdued mood, her brow furrowed in thought, her blue eyes intense. After a bit of small talk, she told me, in terse, angry tones, a shocking story I’d never heard before and which she apparently never shared with anyone else in our family. She described how, one evening, her husband, my grandfather, had ridden off in a pickup truck with a group of men who joined a much larger group to abduct a black man accused of killing a white woman. “They tied that poor colored man to a tree and burned him alive even though he kept yelling he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it,” she said, shaking her head. “How could those men go to church on Sundays and call themselves Christians after doing an awful thing like that?” Struck speechless, I had no answer to her question. After a while, we went shopping and I tucked the story away in the recesses of my distracted college boy brain.
My Grandfather (Maybe) Witnesses a Lynching
But the story stuck and in recent years, I pinpointed the event that most closely matches Grandma’s description. I found that in February, 1921, a black Athens resident named John Lee Eberhardt was accused of the early morning shotgun murder of a young, pregnant white farm wife in neighboring Oconee County and after voluntarily surrendering, was locked in the “mob proof” jail in Clarke County, home of the University of Georgia. As darkness came on, a group of several thousand men gathered around the Clarke County courthouse, defying the sheriff’s order to disperse. Ultimately, some number of these men, using sledgehammers, blowtorches and chisels, stormed the courthouse from multiple entrances, overpowered the sheriff (most of whose deputies were apparently absent), and abducted the terrified prisoner.
John Lee Eberhardt was chained and then driven to the scene of the original crime, followed by a caravan of vehicles. One by one, the white men from those vehicles filed through the nearby farmhouse to view the murdered housewife’s shotgun blasted body. Then some of the white men chained John Lee Eberhardt to a small pine tree across from the house. The thousands of onlookers were forbidden to discharge weapons and were ordered to sit. According to eyewitness Clarke Foreman, “A fire was built about the negro’s feet and lit. Neither gasoline nor kerosene was used, in order that the job might not be done too fast. The family was brought to the center of the ring so that the negro might have one more chance to confess. He pleaded to God to testify his innocence. More wood was thrown on the fire. The negro yelled for mercy. The fire leaps up and seems to burn him too fast. Some hardened onlooker smolders it so that the negro might suffer longer. He tried to choke himself, his hands tied behind him. Finally with a monster effort he bends over far enough to swallow some flame. He dies amid the jeers of the crowd.” (Taken from “Report by Clarke Foreman” in Hankering for History.) In a slightly different telling, the Atlanta Constitution (Feb. 16, 1921) reported “The torch was applied about 9:30 o'clock and shortly after the flames had enveloped his body.”
Clarke County and University of Georgia officials reacted with outrage. The Oconee County coroner “held an inquest over the remains of Eberhart yesterday and after examining many witnesses, the jury returned a verdict and he came to his death at the hands of unknown citizens.” (From the Athens Banner, Friday Morning, February 18, 1921.) Following “two day’s thorough investigation,” a Clarke County grand jury issued a report praising the sheriff and “condemning the action of the mob” but concluding that the jail was forced “by unknown parties” and that “the mass of people around the courthouse … apparently were innocent spectators.” (From the Athens Banner, Sunday Morning, February 27, 1921.) Meaning all the perpetrators, all the onlookers, walked away free. Just another unsolved lynching by an amorphous “mob” in a state that already almost held the record for the most such crimes.
Of course, I don’t know with certainty if my grandfather was in attendance. Perhaps it was a different lynching Grandma recalled, such as the one of Lent Shaw in Colbert, Georgia in 1936. As I say, the Eberhardt lynching most closely matches Grandma’s story. In any event, I can’t help but wonder: if my grandfather was there, at any lynching, what part did he play? Did he assault the courthouse, perhaps using skills he learned while serving his country in France during WWI (and where he suffered a serious head injury)? Is there a chance he took part in the actual lynching? Surely he had no part of torturing or killing John Lee Eberhardt? Since I can’t reconcile those acts with the stories I’ve heard about his relative racial enlightenment, I choose to think “No” to all of those questions. But if not, why would he have been there at all? Was he just an “innocent spectator”? Why didn’t he speak out? What would have happened to him if he had? What if I had been there? Would I have spoken out? Did it haunt my grandfather the rest of his life, as it did Clarke Foreman, who years later spoke of its horrors?
But I also wonder if my grandfather’s role, if any, even if passive, in this (or any) lynching somehow triggered a positive change in his relations with black people. After all, Mr. Foreman went on to become a civil rights activist. Could some sense of responsibility—guilt—have passed through to my grandparents’ oldest daughter, my mother, a woman with zero patience for “ignorant” racists. A woman who, ignoring the blandishments of her co-workers, would seat and then wait on and then serve the African Americans who, in the troubled early 60’s, broke the color barrier at the Holiday Inn where she worked one of her 2 jobs, so that she, recently divorced and before that widowed, could feed her six children.
I wonder if that ancestral reflected complicity somehow made its way to our own son, who, home from his graduate studies to quarantine with his parents, reacted to George Floyd’s brutal murder with an immediate and honest outrage, and who kept us apprised of the ensuing demonstrations on an in-depth basis, notwithstanding his usually marginal interest in politics. Is his outrage, his and our daughter’s (as well as their parents’) participation in Black Lives Matter demonstrations all somehow an end product of my grandfather’s silent witnessing of a black man’s lynching 99 years ago?
I can’t say for sure. But here’s what I do know. We, we gray-haired white men who have benefited so much from this country’s gifts, cannot bask in the reflected achievements of our country, the glory of its heroes, and at the same time reject reflected responsibility for its shortcomings. We have to accept that the country built by men who make us proud includes men, sometimes the same men, who did things that should make as ashamed. And that may very well have made them feel ashamed. And therefore left us with a duty to address unfinished business.
A Sacred Duty
All of this, the pride and the duty, are to me bound up in the simple “Pledge of Allegiance” we’ve all sworn to on hundreds, thousands of occasions. I wonder how many of us have truly taken to heart what it is we’re pledging to—not only to a flag “but to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” “Under God.“ “For all.”
Allegiance shouldn’t be passive; patriotism isn’t just a warm, fuzzy feeling. It demands action, like the Christianity that most Americans profess; after all, James (2:14-26) says “faith without works is dead.” If we want to take pride in the people, especially the white men, who established this country and built if largely to suit their needs, then we have to recognize that others quite logically may see us as the gatekeepers, and possibly the barriers, at that country’s doors of opportunity. And we have to recognize that people who looked like us, our own ancestors, all too often slammed those doors shut, and with violence. And that makes it our sacred duty, pledged thousands of times, to fully and finally do our bit to make liberty and justice a reality for our fellow citizens who are black.
“If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.”
― Mark Twain