We turned left at Maplesville and headed for Clanton, drawn by word of a Confederate flag and rumor of a lynching. Ida B. Wells wrote about the killing 125 years earlier. Now, we’d read in the paper, stars and bars flew nearby, well in view of drivers on Interstate 65 near the geographic center of Alabama. The flag adorns the Confederate Memorial Park and Museum in nearby Marbury. The lynching is all but forgotten.
One month earlier, the park grounds had seen cannon fire. Re-enactors presented a “skirmish” displaying military maneuvers that never took place in Marbury, the site of no battles. The park’s director, a man named Rambo, explained that the event offered the public an opportunity to see how Confederate forces engaged the enemy. “All of the people are trained living historians,” he beamed, reflecting on the re-enactors, “and they love to spread the knowledge. Unfortunately, a lot of people learn of history through Hollywood.”
We were there to make a film — An Outrage — a documentary about the history of lynching in the American South, and the legacy of this orphaned past. Good people in Clanton, Marbury, and beyond hadn’t learned about history that wasn’t taught. Others had succeeded in muffling open secrets that had fallen out of fashion. My wife, Hannah Ayers, and I had driven 723 miles from our home in Richmond, Virginia, to find killing fields across the region. We wanted to see how these places looked today. We wanted to explore memory, interrogate history, and ask what happens when the two do not agree.
Hard rain darkened the sky. It squeezed the spindly Route 22 to Clanton. The trees were tall, lining the way on both sides. They formed a silent swaying wall. We knew they held secrets, secrets herded into shadows, secrets long hushed.
I received the notice for jury duty with mild annoyance. I hoped I wouldn’t get picked as I put the date of the summons on my calendar. I thought about how jury duty would throw me off my work schedule; how I didn’t want to participate in this particular part of civic life in small town Alabama; how I didn’t want to help someone, probably another Black person, go to jail.
But I didn’t spend too much time worrying. It was summertime and the date, during a week in the middle of September, seemed an unpleasant blip on the road far ahead. I pushed it out of my mind and tried to enjoy the remaining pieces of a waning summer in my sleepy southern town.
Eventually the summer break gave way to the fall semester, though the weather stayed oppressively muggy. Living in a college town where God and football are rivals for people’s undying devotion meant there was also an air of jubilance and anticipation everywhere. I care little for football and even less for their God, so I did not have much to look forward to except the return of my regular paycheck and the eventual end of sultry weather. Otherwise, the date of my summons — September 12th — loomed unpleasantly before me.
It was 2011, the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11th. The decade had rushed by impossibly fast, but there it was, on the news and emblazoned in public memory like an unwanted tattoo. I had been a college senior when the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon happened and now here I was, a grownup with a job. Maybe it was growing up with my mother always reminding us that “the days are being shortened for the sake of God’s elect” — those chosen for salvation — plus our being unaware of the day or the hour of God’s return, but even though I was scared, I was not shocked about terrorism on American soil. Or maybe it was having grown up in Caribbean immigrant communities where America was loved more pragmatically than patriotically. Curiously, when I moved to the white, rural South in 2007, far away from New York, D.C., and the Pennsylvania field where the third plane went down, there seemed to be more anger, more panicked rhetoric about terrorism and violence than in my hometown of Fort Lauderdale. At first it didn’t make sense. What would terrorists want with a state in which memories of the Confederacy were wistful and sweetly savored? Still, on the tenth anniversary, there didn’t seem to be any commemorations in town, aside from faded t-shirts and bumper stickers proclaiming, “These colors never run,” and “Never forget.”
Over the next three decades, Hank Sanders became a fixture in the statehouse, ascending to the chairmanship of the Senate’s Finance and Taxation Education Committee. From his expansive office just off the Senate floor, he controlled Alabama’s Education Trust Fund, the largest operating budget in state government. Sanders tried to exercise his power to represent people who were unaccustomed to having a voice in Montgomery—namely poor, black Alabamans. He helped bring more money to their schools and their hospitals, better infrastructure to their neighborhoods, and greater fairness to their tax bills. Thanks to Sanders and a growing caucus of African American legislators, many of whom also chaired crucial committees, it was a period during which black people in Alabama enjoyed their most substantive political representation since Reconstruction. And Sanders, an exceptionally large man who suffered from severe obesity and whose supporters called him “The Rock,” was the cornerstone of the black political power structure in the state. When Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton faced off in Alabama’s 2008 Democratic primary, both candidates sought the endorsement of Sanders’s political organization; it went to Obama, and Obama won.
Sanders told me the story of his remarkable rise to power earlier this year, but his tone was more wistful than triumphant. For so long, his life had been an uplifting tale of slow but seemingly inexorable progress—not just for himself, but for African Americans throughout the South. In recent years, however, the trajectory of Sanders’s story has been abruptly—and just as inexorably—reversed. In 2010, Republicans took over the Alabama Senate and Sanders lost his chairmanship; in the four years since, he’s watched as the new GOP majority has systematically dismantled much of his life’s work.
Maybe it wasn’t just Nelle’s insecurity that held her back from becoming “the Jane Austen of South Alabama,” but also the dismaying decline of the “small-town middle-class” idyll she’d staked her career on documenting. She had, after all, written a historical novel. To Kill a Mockingbird was filmed not in Monroeville but on an L.A. lot. There were — still are — remnants of Depression-era Monroeville, not least the old Federal-style courthouse. But even as the film came out, a drab new courthouse was being built next door. Downtown’s only movie theater burned down not long after Mockingbird had its first run, and was never rebuilt. In 1997, the city was dubbed “The Literary Capital of Alabama,” prompting Lee, who wasn’t consulted on the nickname, to remark, “The literary capital of Alabama doesn’t read.”
Harper Lee’s assisted-living apartment is on Highway Bypass 21, just a couple of blocks from the town’s real commercial center, a series of malls. There’s a place called Radley’s Fountain Grill down that way, and an old stone wall that once separated Lee’s childhood home from Capote’s — both long gone, replaced by a takeout shack called Mel’s Dairy Dream. Lee prefers the more generic places by the lingerie factory outlet (a remnant of the old Vanity Fair plant). Before her stroke, she could be found at Hardee’s, or better yet at McDonald’s, gulping down coffee during long chats with friends. (There were higher-end expeditions to the local golf club and to casinos on the Gulf coast.) When she watched an advance screening of the biopic Capote at a neighbor’s house — the Lees had no television — she opted for Burger King.