In the United States, when we are first taught about the Civil Rights movement, in our high schools and sometimes into college, it goes something like this: There was segregation and injustice, and it was bad. And then Martin Luther King, Jr. came along, and there were nonviolent protests. And the only people who were against integration were racist, potbellied, tobacco-chewing Southerners, but they put up quite a fight. And then the federal government came along and passed some wonderful laws, and segregation was over for good. Hooray! Isn’t it great to be American?
Guess what, folks. That is not the truth. It is not even close. The truth is far more complicated and painful than that, and it reaches much farther into the past and comes all the way into the present. Timothy Tyson’s book, Blood Done Sign My Name, is part history and part memoir, and it says over and over, in all the ways he can think to say it, that unless we come to terms with the truth of our past, we have no hope of racial reconciliation. This means that we have got to stop telling ourselves that story we first learned — the one we’re happy about, the one we’re comfortable with — and start listening to what really happened.
Timothy Tyson grew up the son of a white Methodist preacher in eastern North Carolina, where his family had deep roots. “My family was as Southern as fried okra and sweet tea,” he says.
When we said we were going to do something “directly,” which is pronounced “dreckly,” we meant we were going to do it sooner or later, one of these days, maybe never, and please don’t ask again. If I hadn’t learned to read, I might never have found out that “damn Yankee” was two words.
And it was in Oxford, North Carolina, in 1970 when Tyson was eleven, that Henry Marrow, an 23-year-old black veteran, was murdered in public by three white men. The three men chased Marrow down, beat him, and shot him in daylight as he pleaded for his life. Tyson describes the history of the civil rights movement — which had barely brushed Oxford, as with many small towns — and the wake of the killing, including his father’s role as a liberal white preacher. Oxford serves as a microhistory, a way of looking at a huge social change in miniature.
At first, I was a little hesitant to read this book because I usually try to read about events like this from the point of view of people of color. I was a little worried that Tyson would try to establish his credentials based on his father’s progressive views, and dispense wisdom from there. Instead, I found myself impressed by his clear-eyed understanding of his father’s place in that society, and indeed his own. At one point, he tells a story of the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated — he was only nine at the time — and of comforting Mrs. Allen, the black woman who worked for their family.
For years, I have told myself the story of Mrs. Allen and me on the day Dr. King died. Without thinking about it much, I have remembered it as a story of how, even at one of the worst moments in hour nation’s racial history, the color line could dissolve in redemptive love…. And yet I have to confess that my account erases some of the important truths about my relationship with Mrs. Allen and the moment. In a society where white men made decisions and black women made dinners, she was a black woman who worked for my white parents. … Mrs. Allen, who understood her world clearly enough, did not need explanations about the power of redemptive suffering from me. She had a church, a family, and a whole life of her own of which I knew almost nothing. And she had already realized, as I would come to understand only many years later, that what had happened on that bloody balcony in Memphis threatened to destroy any path that could ever connect us. As I look back at the story, I still feel the enveloping love she gave me. But what strikes me the most is the soothing and self-congratulatory way I interpreted the moment in my memory, and how much greater was the distance between us than I could possibly comprehend.
This book is immensely powerful, mostly because it deals in silenced history. I knew the outlines of the black freedom struggle, but many of the details I read in this book were new to me. I didn’t know that after Brown vs. Board of Education, many towns simply closed all public parks and swimming pools and recreational areas rather than integrate them; they turned down gifts of public land rather than have integrated spaces. I didn’t know that Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, blamed Dr. King’s assassination on King himself and on the politics of nonviolent direct action, calling it “a great tragedy that began when we started compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.” (I thought I might explode with rage when I read that.) I didn’t know that the FBI sent infiltrators and informants into groups like the NAACP, loaded with drugs and weapons, trying to discredit and divide black groups and send citizens to jail. It had of course occurred to me that the histories of local spaces that African-Americans pass on from one generation to another might be significantly different than the ones white people tell, but the examples Tyson gives — in Oxford, in Memphis, in Wilmington — are heart-wrenching.
Tyson is also clear about the ways white people have not just erased stories, but made them more palatable to themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in the caricature we have made of Dr. King.
In the years since his murder, we have transformed King into a kind of innocuous black Santa Claus, genial and vacant, a benign vessel that can be filled with whatever generic good wishes the occasion dictates. Politicians who oppose everything King worked for now jostle their way onto podiums to honor his memory. Many of them quote Dr. King out of context as they denounce “affirmative action,” despite the fact that King repeatedly, publicly, and passionately supported that principle…. There remains no place in American memory for the economic vision of King, who said in 1957, “I never intend to accommodate myself to the tragic inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the many in order to give luxuries to the few.” … The radicalism of King’s thought, the militancy of his methods, and the rebuke that he offered to American capitalism have given way to depictions of a man who never existed, caricatures invented after his death.
The history of the murder of Henry Marrow also stood out to me vividly. The town of Oxford did finally change, but why? It wasn’t the moral (or even legal) imperative of desegregation. It wasn’t the terrible murder of an innocent man, or the miscarriage of justice when all three of his murderers were acquitted. It wasn’t even the violence that happened afterward — the riots, the burning of white property — though that made some white citizens of Oxford sit up and say “You have our attention, and maybe we’ll change something someday.” No, it was the economic boycott. It was when black people stopped shopping in white establishments, stopped going to the movie theater, stopped getting their gas in town. When it hit them in the pocketbook, Oxford quietly desegregated. This made me furious. What will make us uncurl our fists from power over human lives? Apparently only gold, or the offer of more power.
The ending of the book includes a powerful moment when Tyson brought his father on a trip with his students through the south, visiting important sites of freedom and slavery. He vividly evokes a visit to a plantation where the tour is focused on the “good old days” and barely mentions the slaves on which those days were founded. The students, devastated after the surreal visit, reel back to the bus in tears. Tyson’s father stands and prays, and every student — of every belief and none — bows their heads. They pray for the enslaved people — for the unacknowledged genius, for the heartbreak and the suffering. But they also pray for our own time. “We confess to you,” Tyson’s father says, “that we, too, like the men who once owned Destrehan Plantation, have been tempted to love things and use people, when you have called us to love people and use things. We ask your forgiveness for our complicity in these evils, and in the evils of our own time, and pray your healing for our hearts.” This is no false humility. Tyson believes in that complicity, and that if we do not face the truth of our past we will never be able to find healing in our own time.
This is a microhistory. It isn’t comprehensive; it doesn’t touch every aspect of the African-American experience or everything about what it was like to live at that time or in that place. But oh, I was deeply moved and impressed by this book. I’ve been talking about it to whoever will listen. I recommend it highly, and I hope you will seek it out.