Jerry Shinn, who earned a stellar reputation for both his prose and his thinking during his tenure as editorial page editor, associate editor and columnist at the Charlotte Observer, has written a novel titled Dixie Autumn. I've been reading it, and it's a stunner, at least for me. Jerry and I grew up in the same small South Carolina town of Gaffney, and although he has a few years on me, we're both familiar — probably too familiar for comfort — with the days of Jim Crow, as well as the 1960s' civil rights struggle and Southern resistance to it.
Dixie Autumn is a sharply plotted, genre-bending novel that blends mystery, murder, romance and history, both social and political. It's based on a racially driven act of violence in 1957 Gaffney that still haunts some residents of the town who were around at the time, as evidenced by conversations through the years with old S.C. friends, and by my having written about it in these pages.
With Jerry Shinn's novel coming out now, and this being Black History Month, I've thought a lot about not only black history but also white Southerners' part in that tale, how those stories interweave in complex ways — and how too few whites today understand that history. Americans have never been known for nurturing an interest in their own history — an astonishing fact considering how unique and fascinating it is — but it's still disturbing to hear or read about people routinely passing along myths about the pre-civil-rights South. Myths such as "blacks and whites got along fine till Martin Luther King started stirring up trouble," or my favorite delusional quote, "It wasn't really as bad as they've made it out to be."
In case you've fallen for those myths, and in honor of Black History Month, let me tell my tale again about what it was like in the South during those "happy days" of the 1950s. Afterward, pick up Jerry Shinn's book for a deeper look at the pained relations between blacks and whites, as well as between racist and more moderate whites of the era.
African Americans in 1950s Gaffney were usually patients of one of the town's white doctors, who provided separate entrances and examination rooms for black patients. One of the white physicians, Dr. James Sanders, was a favorite of Gaffney's black community and, because of that, a number of whites hated him.
In 1957, the year of violence-plagued school integration in Little Rock, Ark., a group of South Carolina pastors published a small book of essays titled South Carolinians Speak: A Moderate Approach To Race Relations. One of the essays was by Dr. James Sanders' wife, Claudia, a member of a venerable Charleston family, and chairwoman of our county library board. Not long after the book was published, a Ku Klux Klan bomb blew up one side of the Sanders' house, prominently located on a corner of the town's nicest residential street. Luckily, no one was home at the time. Gaffney being a small town, lots of people, including my family, drove by the bombed house for days, surveying the damage. I can still see a toilet sitting in the Sanders' front yard near some singed bushes.
Three local Klansmen were soon arrested. The evidence was indisputable, but charges were dismissed by a judge, who hinted broadly that Mrs. Sanders had brought her troubles on herself.
Forward to 1998 in a used bookstore in the N.C. mountains, where I ran across South Carolinians Speak, the first and only copy of the pastors' book I've ever seen. It rekindled my memories of the bombing, so I eagerly flipped through the pages, searching for Claudia Sanders' essay, which I assumed must have been pretty inflammatory to rile some people enough to want to kill her.
As I read the "inflammatory" essay, the depressing realities of the South's "good old days" came rushing back. Claudia Sanders' essay made a heartfelt, but very mild case for a gradual integration of schools, argued from a Christian viewpoint that "all men are my brothers." She chastised Southerners for ignoring the "scandalously inadequate" schools for black children, but also suggested that each community find its own way to integration, without federal interference. And for that, her house was bombed.
To me, the Sanders bombing says all you need to know about the ambience of race relations in the pre-civil rights movement South: So deeply and tenaciously repressive, that even a respected, prosperous, Christian white woman risked having her life taken for merely writing that perhaps racial segregation in schools should be gradually phased out. And some people wonder why we have a Black History Month.
Jerry Shinn will read from and sign copies of Dixie Autumn at Park Road Books on Wednesday, Feb. 19 at 7 p.m.
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