"The South in Black and White" Midterm Examination 2013:
Book Proposal for Thomas LeBien, editor, Simon & Schuster, NY, NY
Imagine that you are a scholar at the Center for the Study of the American South and Afro-American Studies. Your research has uncovered the following story from Statesboro, North Carolina in the late 1950s. You do not necessarily know everything about the story yet. Feel free to “find” additional information from the archive of your imagination or better yet in the materials for this course; the basic stuff is laid out below. With it, you hope to produce a landmark book in Southern U. S. and African American history. But first you have to write a proposal, which is how humanities types obtain large sums of other people’s money to do with as they please. Hopefully, this will not only let you show us how much you have learned this semester but help you develop an invaluable skill. Nobody gives you anything without a written proposal.
You aspire to write a book that reflects--and may even deepen--the themes and insights of David S. Cecelski’s Fires of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War, Timothy B. Tyson’s Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: the Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle and Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance: A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, and any other works that reflect your aspirations, but definitely including those works. You want to write a book that will appeal to readers who bought them, liked them, and found them useful to their understanding of the history, politics and culture of the color line in the U.S. South.
To that end, you are trying to recruit a publisher—in your case, editor Thomas LeBien at Simon & Schuster--and obtain a book advance so you can afford to take time off to write the book and so the book will get the care and attention it deserves. And so like all authors seeking a publisher (and students seeking an A on the midterm for “The South in Black and White”) your assignment is to write a book proposal that gives editor LeBien an understanding of the book you want to write and he will want to publish after he reads your brilliant proposal. Your 1200- to 2000-word proposal will therefore (1) recruit the reader to the book; and (2) show how this story from small town and rural North Carolina reveals the most important historical themes, forces, and events in the history, politics and culture of the color line in the South; and (3) describe a book that will fit on the shelf nicely alongside the aforementioned works.
Asking the right questions of the material is important. Read carefully and then ask yourself: what larger themes, forces, and other events may be relevant? Why did these events occur? What is the larger historical context in which they occur and that they may illuminate? How should the larger context for these local events be drawn so that this is not just exciting local trivia? In short, what is this book about?
Your book proposal is essentially a letter to editor LeBien; not a personal letter but instead a literary/historical work of its own that gives him a taste of your book and a clear explanation of its content, usefulness and importance. I have included a sample book proposal and the opening of another one to give you a sense of the medium, which is not a narrow, specific form. It should be engaging, informative, creative and analytical. It should sketch the events briefly but only with an eye to analyzing and framing them in the light of all that you have learned this semester and all the course materials available to you. Your answer will be evaluated in terms of its intellectual creativity, historical insight and analytical grasp, but also the extent to which it demonstrates mastery of the materials for this course. Everything is fair game--songs, lectures, books, articles, and poems. Show us you know your stuff and can think about it.
The Raw Materials of the Statesboro Story
Police in Statesboro, North Carolina, a small town near Wilmington, saw a carload of young people driving down a rural highway—called “Niggerhead Road” by white locals for the past 60 years--near at 2:30 a.m. on December 31, 1959. Inside they found Judith and Martha Weller, white teenaged sisters, 17 and 18, with two 18-year-old African American men, David Washington and Purvis Ellington.
After a high-speed chase, the police arrested the foursome and called the local newspaper, which photographed them in the car together. Two days later, the photograph appeared on the front page of the Statesboro Record-Dispatch. That evening, police escorted the Weller family to the county line only minutes before a large mob, led by the Ku Klux Klan, burned a cross in the yard, broke all the windows, destroyed all their property, and set the house on fire. Police officers were present.
In downtown Statesboro, police arrested 17 young black men later than night for " shouting insulting remarks. " Nine had guns. Carloads of Klansmen raced through the streets. Black and white ministers broadcast radio appeals for peace. The owner of a local textile mill ordered workers to stay home. At a pool hall in “Scuffletown,” a group of black veterans made other plans, some of them involving guns and gasoline.
The young African American men in the car with the white girls were members of a local " doo-wop " group called the " Z-Cats " that sang at churches but also performed for parties among the young people. Whites and black high school students had begun to gather secretly in the country at parties and dance to the " Z-Cats, " much to the dismay of the KKK and the sheriff s department. The " Z-Cats " played traditional gospel but also blues and R B and “doo-wop,” some blend of which sounded a lot like what had been dubbed " rock and roll. " Rumors of these parties raged among adults.
Whites used several means to prevent most blacks in Statesboro from voting, except for a few of what Zora Neale Hurston once called " pet Negroes. " Local black World War II and Korean War veterans were organizing another voter education drive aimed at doubling the black vote in 1960.
White workers had been trying to organize a union at the mill. The mill owners distributed handbills with pictures of black men and white women dancing, saying that the union favored " race-mixing " and was connected to the " Communist-inspired NAACP. " They hired Klansmen to beat up the union leaders and threatened to hire black rather than white workers if the union won higher wages. The local Democratic Party chair was said to be sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan but for some reason clamped down on the sheriff s department and insisted that the sheriff prevent any more violence or lose also his job. The party chair also appealed to Governor Luther Hodges, who aspired to be John F. Kennedy’s running mate in 1960; see pages 74-76 and 104-108 of Radio Free Dixie for details on Hodges. The local newspaper began a feature called "What's Right about Statesboro" and also a series of articles on the favorable climate for industry in the county. The editors refused to cover or answer further questions from the national media about the mob violence.
The banishment of the Weller family did not appear in the News & Observer right away but somehow landed on the front pages in Cuba, Italy, England, the Netherlands, France, Egypt, India, China, Ghana, Kenya and elsewhere. The U.S. State Department dispatched Louis Armstrong to tour many of those countries; the Voice of America did broadcasts in Africa entitled “From Jazz to Rock ‘n’ Roll: the Drumbeat of Freedom.”
One Sample Proposal: Blood Done Sign My Name
On May 11, 1970, my daily playmate, Gerald Teel, walked up into my driveway and announced, "Daddy and Roger and them shot 'em a nigger." We were both ten years old. His father and his brothers, Gerald bragged, had killed a young black man who had "said something" to his sister-in-law. They shot Henry Marrow while he lay on his back with a fractured skull, the district attorney told me years afterward, "like you would kill a snake." That evening, my sister and I crept down the sidewalk and saw the wide porches of the Teel home covered with armed Ku Klux Klansmen. Some of them were draped in hoods and robes, while others looked, for all-the world, like my own father when he went bird hunting. The next morning as I walked to school, the asphalt was sequined with broken glass and sheets of plywood covered the charred storefronts along Main Street. Fifty state troopers came to Oxford to prevent another riot.
In the days that followed, a large black protest movement emerged in Oxford. This crusade was led by a 22-year-old high school teacher named Ben Chavis, who later became executive director of the NAACP and now (as Benjamin Chavis Muhammad) heads Malcolm X's old Harlem Temple Number Seven for the Nation of Islam. Soon the "white only" and "colored" signs disappeared and black faces began to appear behind a few sales counters downtown. That fall, sixteen years after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared segregation unconstitutional, two years after an assassin's bullet had robbed us of Martin Luther King Jr., my elementary school made its first tentative plans to enroll a few African American children. The civil rights movement had finally come to Oxford.
The night that an all-white jury acquitted my friend's father and brothers of this murder--exonerated them despite a dozen eyewitnesses and one confession--the tobacco warehouses downtown caught fire. Flames licked high into the night sky and burning debris fell into residential yards miles away. Having fought for freedom in the Mekong Delta, the young black veterans who hung around McCoy's Pool Hall were no longer afraid of the Ku Klux Klan or the police. To a small boy only a few blocks down the street, it had looked as if the whole world was on fire. One of the arsonists explained it to me years later: "We weren't into that Martin Luther King shit."
My father, a Methodist minister who admired Dr. King greatly, received death threats from white terrorists because he preached racial equality. Segregation was based upon the notion that God was a respecter of persons and had made one race superior to another. It was not just a falsehood, he would say, but a vicious and prideful lie, and therefore, a sin. Black people in Oxford will still tell you that I am the son of that preacher that the white folks ran off back during all that mess back in 1970. Our family moved away, but Oxford burned on in my memory.
Fifteen years later, as a college sophomore, I returned to my hometown and interviewed the murderers, witnesses, jurors, attorneys, police officers, public officials, and family members of the victim. I went to the state archives and ferreted out government documents and investigative records. I talked to my old friend, Gerald Teel, and asked him about his memories. Gerald's father, Robert Teel, explained to me why he and his sons had killed Henry Marrow: "That nigger committed suicide, coming in my store wanting to four-letter-word my daughter-in-law." The police, still fearful of what my investigation might disclose of their own lapses, escorted me into a basement room in the police station and tried first to persuade and then to intimidate me into abandoning my research. The only truly terrifying moment was when a police van chased me through and then out of town at high speed-six inches from my bumper, ninety miles an hour--in an effort to frighten me off the project.
Although the police resisted my research, the black Vietnam veterans who had burned downtown Oxford took me into their homes and spoke freely. The aging conspirators described exactly why and how they had launched this small guerilla war back in 1970. "We tried to tear that bitch up," one recalled of the first night of rioting. "The only thing I really hate is that we couldn't pull down that Confederate monument." For many, the sense that the law belonged to white people justified violent retribution: "They just killing us off like it was nothing," one veteran told me, "and the judge just as well have had on his Ku Klux Klan suit." Their well-orchestrated firebombing campaign torched more than forty buildings in a month, forcing the white power structure pay attention. "It was a military operation," the ringleader told me. "It was like we had a cash register up there ringing up how much money we done cost these white people. We knew if we cost 'em enough goddamn money they were gonna start doing something."
What happened in Oxford expressed a spirit of rebellion and reaction that gripped the United States in the summer of 1970, creating a crisis more severe than anything the country had seen since the Civil War. "This is a dangerous situation," the editors of Business Week declared the day after my friend's father blew Henry Marrow's brains out. "It threatens the whole social and economic structure of the nation." Marrow died seven days after National Guard troops killed four student demonstrators at Kent State and five days after Mississippi state troopers fired 350 shots into a women's dormitory at Jackson State, killing two students and wounding a dozen more. Blood Done Sign My Name will use the killing and conflagration in Oxford as its narrative core, but will show how these events reflected a nation torn apart by racial, political, social and cultural conflicts--clashes so deep that they echo in our lives to this day.
Blood Done Sign My Name tells the story of that war in Oxford, North Carolina, an event that challenges everything we think we know about African American freedom movements in the South. Although armed self-defense was common, even among those like Martin Luther King, Jr. who espoused nonviolence, no historian of the African American freedom movement has uncovered anything that could be called "a military operation." That fact alone will make this a significant work of history. This is history and not exactly memoir, but it is not only a work of history.
The kinds of readers who will buy Blood Done Sign My Name include African Americans, veterans of the civil rights and antiwar movements, Southerners, students of American history, and professors who want texts that make history come to life. Those who enjoyed Rick Bragg's All Over But The Shoutin' and Melissa Faye Greene's Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing will relish this book. My ambition is that years from now it will rest easily on the shelf alongside Lillian Smith's Killers of the Dream, Ann Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi, or Willie Morris's North Toward Home. What Blood Done Sign My Name does that none of these works does, exactly, is to make a significant scholarly contribution at the same time. It exists, as I do, in the space between history and literature.
Another Sample Proposal: Hanging Bridge
Racial Violence, Grassroots Struggle, and America's Civil Rights Century
On a hot June day in 1966, John Cumbler stepped off a Greyhound bus in Quitman, Mississippi. The nineteen-year-old Wisconsinite had traveled south to volunteer for a tiny civil rights project in an isolated corner of the Deep South.
Cumbler remembers two things from his first day in Clarke County. First, he jotted down his next-of-kin on a mimeographed form at the local movement headquarters. Then, John Otis Sumrall—a homegrown black activist—drove Cumbler down a series of dusty roads to a rusty river bridge. "This," Sumrall announced, "is where they hang the Negroes."
Sumrall did not say when. "The way he said it," John Cumbler recalled forty years later, "It could have happened a hundred years ago, or last week.”
Like most civil rights workers and journalists who ventured into Clarke County during the 1960s, John Cumbler quickly learned the Hanging Bridge's bloody history—and lynching's long reach. When another visitor asked why most blacks avoided involvement with the movement, a local woman explained, "They remember things. In the forties they hung two little boys…in this county… They still call that place in Shubuta the hanging bridge."
Another woman spoke up. Back in 1918, a white mob lynched four young African Americans—two men and two pregnant women—at the same bridge. "People says they went down there to look at the bodies," the woman recounted a half-century later, "and they still see those babies wiggling around in the bellies after those mothers was dead."
In the summer of 1966, black youth in Clarke County faced mobs yet again. This time, two hundred club-wielding whites attacked a few dozen demonstrators—mostly black teenagers and white college students—just a few miles down the road from the Hanging Bridge. Rather than protect the defenseless marchers, a phalanx of local cops and highway patrolmen diverted them down a side alley and into the jaws of the waiting mob. John Otis Sumrall, the march leader, somehow slipped away untouched. But by the time he arrived back at movement headquarters in Quitman, racial unrest had reached the sleepy county seat. After a truckload of white hecklers traded volleys of bricks and bottles with black youth, a patrol car rumbled to a stop in front of his office.
Across the street, Sumrall's mother Jimana, hurried from her front porch as white policemen questioned her son. A revered community organizer in her own right, Mrs. Sumrall had used the federal War on Poverty dollars to build a pioneering Head Start preschool program in her hometown. While she preferred antipoverty work to "getting knocked around in a march," the violence that had always met any attempt by blacks to better their situation now threatened her son. She demanded that the officers leave him be, and chase down the white boys who started the fight. When one of the policemen told her to shut up and slapped her across the face, as John Otis remembered, "I hit one of them and my mama hit the other one.”
After local cops hauled off mother and son, word spread that angry whites were milling around the nearby county jail. Rather than lock John Otis up in the same cell bloc from which two teenage boys had been snatched a generation earlier, local authorities decided to transfer the prisoner to a neighboring county "for safekeeping." Such a diversion, standard anti-lynching protocol in an earlier generation, might seem a relic of a bygone era in 1966. But in Clarke County, home of the Hanging Bridge, mobs and memories died hard.
In the days following Sumrall's close scrape, local authorities mailed two letters that would undermine the local civil rights movement as effectively as a club-wielding mob. The first, sent by Quitman's white mayor to the local draft board, offered to drop the latest charges against Sumrall "upon his immediate induction into the armed forces." The second package, sent to War on Poverty czar Sargent Shriver, charged Clarke County's Head Start program with corruption and subversive activity. Local Head Start workers had marched on his town, Shubuta's mayor charged, under the direction of "a militant Negro" named John Otis Sumrall.
Anti-civil rights forces, it turned out, no longer needed mobs to undermine racial change. White resistance, like black protest, had evolved. As local whites conspired to ship Sumrall to Vietnam, the homegrown black activist spoke at northern antiwar rallies and fought his induction on the grounds of racial discrimination. When his appeals failed, he went underground rather than fight for a country that refused, in his words, "to recognize me as a citizen." Meanwhile, his mother struggled in vain to prevent the defunding of the Head Start program she had helped to build from the ground up. "If they can spend $2 billion a day to fight a war in Viet Nam," she asked, "surely they can give you a few million to run schools for a year."
Hanging Bridge links three generations of violence and resistance that culminated in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. From the depths of Jim Crow past the legislative triumphs of the mid-1960s, the memory and ongoing threat of racial violence in rural Deep South shook national politics, shaped protest strategies, and connected bloody struggles for equality at home to conflicts abroad….