Saturday, October 3, 2015

Going Home?

Whenever I return to Memphis, it isn’t Beale Street or Sun Records or Boss Crump’s Obelisk in Elmwood Cemetery or COGIC’s Temple of Deliverance or Elvis’s mansion out in Whitehaven that I go to first. I do try to make these pilgrimages, of course, in a mixed state of reverence and irony. First, however, I drive to Covington to make pay my respects to a town I never lived in, but a town that seems to me is the origin story of who I am.
There are two ways to get to Covington, one highway from downtown and one from east Memphis. Leaving from downtown, you take the Paul W. Barret Highway (U.S. 51). Paul W. Barret was a banker and head of the Boss Crump political machine in Memphis. The Crump machine was notoriously racist and anti-semetic. Muscian Bobby “Blue” Bland sang in his blues song “Poverty” about growing up on Barret’s plantation.

Up every morning with the sun
I work all day 'til the evening comes
Busters and corns all in my hands
Lord, have mercy on a working man
I guess I'm gonna die, just like I live in poverty

My pay goes down and my tax goes up
I drink my tea from a broken cup
Between my woman and uncle Sam
I can't figure out just what I am
I guess I'm gonna die, just like I live in poverty

Oh Lord, it's so hard

The other way to get to Covington is to drive the Austin Peay Highway north from Memphis about 35 miles. The Austin Peay Highway is a two-lane ribbon that cuts straight through rolling fields of cotton and soy beans. The highway is named after a former governor of Tennessee. In 1923 Austin Peay was elected governor with the endorsement and active assistance of the Ku Klux Klan. Peay would not have won without the Klan.
The Klan was a homegrown Tennessee institution, having been founded in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1867 by a Confederate general. By the twenties, it had gone through several permutations. When Peay ran for governor in 1923, the Klan had a prominent civic presence in many of the small towns in west Tennessee. In fact, many chapters of the Klan even occupied storefronts on the squares. Covington was one of these towns; its meeting place was just off the square next to the police station. Besides providing fellowship and camaraderie for white males, members of the Klan felt they were the protectors of traditional American values, much like some people today who believe the Bars and Stars represents traditional values. The Klan had a huge base of support from conservative and working-class whites. They felt threatened by economic competition from blacks and immigrants. These Klan lodges also provided what they believed was a civic obligation through their night rides and cross burnings. They believed it was their responsibility to keep the social order as it was meant to be.
According to a secret F.B.I. history of the Klan, the revived Knights of the Klu Klux Klan considered themselves a fraternal organization. In their Georgia charter they described themselves as “a purely benevolent and eleemosynary society…for the purpose of conducting a patriotic, secret, social, benevolent order.” "The Klan couched its racism in high-sounding, patriotic, sentimental language (eleemosynary!), which gave little indication of the basic intolerance of the organization,” writes the F.B.I. report. “For example, the oath taken by prospective Klansmen contained this masterpiece of literary double talk:

I swear that I will most zealously and valiantly shield and preserve by any and all justifiable means and methods the sacred constitutional rights and privileges of free public schools, free speech, free press, separation of church and state, liberty, white supremacy, just laws, and the pursuit of happiness against any encroachment of any nature by any person or persons, political party or parties, religious sect or people, native, naturalized, or foreign of any race, color, creed, lineage, or tongue whatsoever.”

Sometimes, it feels like we are a nation of double talk. The latest 2016 Republican presidential candidates have harvested a bumper crop of euphemistic language to promote racist perspectives and policies about immigration, Syrian refugees, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charlotte, NC, police killings of African Americans, and more.

Back in the twenties and thirties support for the Klan was nearly universal in the white communities of Tipton County where Covington is the county seat. Nearly everyone was just scraping by and certainly felt threatened by any economic competition, particularly the black work force. In 1926 Tipton and the surrounding counties experienced a bumper cotton crop. The next year they surpassed the previous year. As a result, cotton prices dropped dramatically and created an economic depression that led many farmers to burn their crops rather than sell them for half of what it cost to raise them. For farmers in Tipton, this was the beginning of the Depression, three years before the stock market crash of 1929.
Governor Austin Peay pledged to preserve the old order and so was endorsed by those who were nostalgic for those times before the “War between the States” turned the world upside down. Peay’s most famous act as the governor of Tennessee was signing into law the Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach “any theory that denies the story of the Divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man descended from a lower order of animals.” Governor Peay perhaps did more to impede progress and preserve the status quo than any other Tennessee governor in the 20th century. It was not until 1968 that the U. S. Supreme Court struck down the law and evolution was taught in Tennessee public schools, decades after every other state in the union had made evolutionary science a core component of the curriculum.

Where the Austin Peay, as locals call Highway 14, crosses the county line from Shelby County, where Memphis is located, into Tipton, two landmarks seem to offer a clue to this county’s identity. The first is a collection of bold, brightly colored billboards offering fireworks at a special discount of five for the price of one. “Today Only.” At first glance these signs seem like a remarkable deal, but as you pass the signs you notice the dirt and wear from many seasons of sitting alongside the highway and realize that this special discount is offered “today only” for every today. These signs are meant to lure people across the county line to buy their fireworks, the sale of which is illegal in Shelby County. What most people don’t realize is that the sale and setting off of fireworks is also illegal in Tipton County. It is simply ignored along the county line for economic expediency.
            The second marker that proclaims the transition from one county to the next is a green road sign informing drivers that Tipton is the birthplace of Isaac Hayes. This sign was put up on the border decades after Hayes moved away from the county and made his home elsewhere. Hayes had grown up in dire poverty with his grandparents who were sharecroppers, essentially endentured servants to the property owner. Sharecroppers were forced to buy everything from the company store on credit until the crop came in. Then they settled up and usually ended further in debt to the plantation owner after a year of labor.
On first noticing this after twenty years of being away, I was pleased in thinking things had indeed changed. Isaac Hayes had been one of my childhood heroes. I was proud that our families were from the same county. As a teen, my friends and I would go to the Maalco Theater in the black section of town to see the latest blaxploitation movies. We adored such films as Super Fly and Shaft. Afterwards we would walk down the street with a hitch in our step mimicking the pimp roll we had seen on the screen. We’d grunt and hum our way through Hayes’s theme for Shaft:
Who's the black private dick
that's a sex machine to all the chicks?
You're damn right
Who is the man
that would risk his neck for his brother man?
Can ya dig it?
Who's the cat that won't cop out
when there's danger all about
Right on
You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother--
(Shut your mouth)
But I'm talkin' about Shaft
(Then we can dig it)
He's a complicated man
but no one understands him but his woman
(John Shaft)

By this time, my mother, sister and I had moved into an apartment on the edge of Memphis along a cemetery and the newly built interstate. Like many marriages during those years, my parents’ had ended in divorce, and we had returned to Memphis. Down the road about a mile or two on a wooded portion of what once had been the King plantation, Isaac Hayes had built his mansion. My friends and I would sit in the woods on the edge of Hayes’s property and watch Hayes and his friends, tall black men in platform shoes, elephant bell bottoms, and floor-length leather coats, step into and out of stretch limousines. Then, I’d go home and bug my mom for platform shoes.
So it was great to see that the birthplace of the “baddest mother—“ was now memorialized. This sign was the county’s concrete evidence of racial progress. Or so I thought, until I circled the town square and noticed the bronze statue of a Confederate soldier on a pedestal. As I got out of my car and heard the rhythms of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It” driftly lazily across the square from a soft rock station the town boosters pipe in. A magnificent live oak spreads its branches over the square. There are new brick sidewalks, plantings, and streetlamps that recall another, more romantic era, rather than the reality of Covington in the 21st Century.
At the heart of the square in front of the courthouse stands this memorial to the Civil War dead. A tall bronze statue of an unnamed Confederate private, spearing the air with his sword, reaches toward the sky on an eight-foot high stone pedestal. The soldier is anonymous, but represents all the white war dead from this community. Bronze plaques on each side of the square pedestal attest to the bravery and memory of these white soldiers. On one side the inscription reads;

To the Confederate Soldiers of Tipton County whose courage in war and virtues in peace have illustrated the highest type of American manhood.

On the opposite side a quote from an unknown source recalls the importance of the war:

Nor brave bled for a brighter hand nor a brighter land had a cause so grand.

Around the foot of the statue engraved in the stone are the battles in which Tipton’s sons fell: Chichamaga, Franklin, Kennesaw, Harrisburg, Perryville, Shiloh, Tishomingo. The permanence of this monument seems somehow even more horrible that it being tribute to the plunder, terror, rape and murder of African Americans, while the only tribute to the contribution of African Americans to the country is flimsy, tissue-paper-like sign noting the birthplace of Isaac Hayes, a man who hated Tipton county and who left as soon as he could. His adult life and career were a testament to everything he could never have in a place like Covington.
            I had returned the place where the arteries leading to the town and the core of the community were tributes to racists and a horrible history of enslavement and Jim Crow. This is the town where my family worked tireless to disenfranchise their neighbors and relatives, where racism is so deeply imbedded in every aspect of society that it almost seems invisible. Even though many of the blacks and whites in Covington are related, few whites will acknowledge their shared heritage. It makes me wonder if anything every really changes.


  1. The way home is often more than the road traveled to get to there. Where we come from doesn't define us, but it is a place we should hold with reverence, be it for how it motivates us to strike a new path away from the shadows or hold true the values that keep it true in our hearts. Your story is moving and is one I suspect many share. Thank you for sharing. Looking forward to more.

  2. I am enjoying applying and embedding into lesson plans or class discussions insights I glean from your posts.

  3. I am glad that these posts are useful.