ANNISTON, Ala. ― A smirk furled at Edward Wood’s lips as he recalled a white farmer interrogating him upon his return, in the late 1940s, to Alabama from service in World War II.
“Ain’t no niggers in the Navy. You better pull that uniform off before some of these white folks take it off of ya.”
“I said, ‘Well, you’re white,’” Wood quipped. “But he decided he didn’t want it.”
This is Anniston, a beautiful city with a deep and dark civil rights history. Walking its streets gives the impression they’d been stored in amber, with columned storefronts, globed streetlights and wide, gravel boulevards offering an air of the 1950s American south.
Wood and I spoke in a nondescript bus station, in this widely forgotten city, in the embattled state of Alabama, in an uncertain country reignited by the lingering embers of its sordid past.
Ahead of a contentious special election for Senate in his state, we talked about how we’d arrived here — he, I, and the nation more broadly.
Wood’s grandfather was a white slaver who impregnated Wood’s grandmother, a slave, resulting in two children. Wood’s father, born February 17, 1861, belonged to his own father. When Wood’s grandfather died, his father inherited the land under the supervision of a landlord in a sharecropping arrangement. For years, the Wood family worked at the behest of their landlord, who siphoned money from the plantation and left the Woods with little, if anything, for themselves.
“He got all of it,” he said. “And if you resisted ― I’ve seen at least two occasions where the tenants resisted and the Klan put their hoods on at night, whipped the family and ran them off.”
After Wood’s father died in 1939, the landlord continually claimed profits made from the Woods’ crops. In a year’s time, his family may have earned enough to buy an extra pair of pants, he said.
Wood spoke of these experiences with clear eyes and an unshaken meter.
It struck me, both when I visited in late summer and now, that people like Edward Wood are rarely idealized by media, rarely depicted as representatives of southern sentiment in articles depicting a stubborn region. These reflections have become abundant as Alabama decides whether to elect Republican candidate Roy Moore ― an accused child molester, who recently praised early American life and values “even though there was slavery.”
Instead, the scope of acceptable outrage is more often determined by, and confined to, those who don’t look like Edward Wood, and who haven’t endured the trauma he’s endured and cannot speak empirically, as he can, of his state’s ugliest flaws.
Middle-class and working-class Americans in our imagination are overwhelmingly white, and this is especially so when it comes to Alabama, despite boasting one of the highest black populations in the country.
The danger in this is the potential to marginalize black voters, who experience economic downturn similar to or more severe than their white, middle-class counterparts.
But blacks in Alabama know their state and its pitfalls uniquely.
‘I Was Willing To Take Whatever Happened’
Wood and I meandered through the contours of his life story ― his childish horseplay with white children from across the way, his entrance into the Navy, the pivotal moments leading him into civil rights activism.
He claims triumphantly to have been one of the first blacks to sit at a lunch counter and on the front seat of a bus in Anniston. He paused, at one point, to motion to a nearby exit at the back of the room, which lead to an alleyway.
“And that’s where they slashed the tires to the Freedom Rider bus,” he said.
On May 14, 1961, Wood intended to treat his wife to a Mother’s Day dinner in Anniston.
Trapped in traffic behind a large Greyhound bus, the two of them witnessed a horde of Klansmen descend upon the vehicle ahead and slash its tires. On board were dozens of Freedom Riders, a coalition of black and white activists committed to integrating bus systems across the south.
The Ku Klux Klan trailed the bus as it attempted a lumbering escape up the street before ultimately screeching to a halt. Klansmen then threw a bomb through its back window and held its doors shut, trapping Freedom Riders inside.
“The Freedom Riders were laying outside on the road, bleeding and crying,” Wood said. “I was afraid. I didn’t know what might happen. But I didn’t think it was right to have to live under the circumstance I was living under, and if it cost my life to make it better for someone else, I was willing to take whatever happened.”
LISTEN TO EDWARD WOOD DESCRIBE HIS ATTEMPTS TO RESCUE FREEDOM RIDERS BELOW:
The images captured during the Anniston Freedom Rider bombing are shared as cautionary tales. Billowing smoke, an exploded bus interior and bloodied bodies strewn about the street are images that induce a visceral rejection of American racism in ways that stories of gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement or employment inequality simply do not.
Wood also shared stories of a less violent, equally intractable racism in the south.
“There were young people who were my age: We hunted together, we fished together, we ate together, we did everything together except go into public places,” he remembered. “We went to town to go to the movie — I had to go upstairs, they had to go downstairs. Some of them didn’t like it any better than I did, but there wasn’t anything they could do about it.”
I listened to Wood’s recount of an ignorant people ― a people who knew their society had erred gravely and to the detriment of their brethren, yet did little to stop it. In this, I noted a familiarity with our current political predicament, and more specifically, the predicament in Wood’s beloved state of Alabama.
In the months preceding and following Donald Trump’s election, the media was awash with romantic treatises on the plight of working-class voters. Despite evidence suggesting the Trump campaign’s appeal was not particularly alluring to the poor as a whole, invocations of “coal country,” “rural America” and “evangelical voters” served as euphemisms for “white,” allowing a neat attribution of Trump’s victory to his deftness in addressing the poor rather than his explicit racism.
Trump po’ mouthed more effectively, so the story goes.
And yet, peering through this lens with the benefit of history to reflect upon, our urge to deny a figure’s racist appeals in favor of a sanitized image becomes all the more foreboding.
If, at a time of glaring need, Wood’s allies could not be relied upon to affirm his humanity and question wrongdoing before the world, what reasonable expectations of solidarity ought we have for those among us today?
How are we to interpret a man who champions the age of slavery leading in polls and primed to assume a Senate seat?
And further, what sort of faith ought we vest in media to convey these traumas of our time, not in service of cynical revisionism but in service of our nation’s difficult, damning truths?
‘It Looks Like Now, We’re Having To Fight The Battle All Over Again’
I experienced a confusion of gratitude and frustration in speaking with Georgia Calhoun.
Calhoun is an elderly, black woman with a certain regality to her; she, a longtime resident of Anniston who has observed the worst of her city yet speaks of it as though she owns it.
Calhoun is well known in Anniston, specifically for her efforts at forcing the city and state to reconcile with its racist past. As a child, she remembered, she attended a grade school with six grades sharing one room. She skipped the first grade because, as a kindergartener, she eavesdropped on lessons and learned the necessary skills to leap into the second grade.
Beyond sixth grade, there were no schools accepting black children in Anniston at the time, so Calhoun and family traveled 20 miles a day in the segregated south to receive her education.
She spoke to me with a keen memory, recollecting names and locations from decades ago with apparent ease.
“Fred Shuttlesworth,” she offered while recounting a story of her school days. “He was my Sunday school superintendent.”
LISTEN TO GEORGIA CALHOUN DESCRIBE WHAT IT WAS LIKE GROWING UP IN ANNISTON, ALABAMA:
“We lived five miles out of Anniston, in the Choccolocco area, near the Creek Indians,” she remembered in another instance.
Her sharp mind served her well, such that in her mature years, she’d committed herself wholly to convincing the Alabama Historical Commission to mark spots of major, racist unrest throughout Anniston.
“You best forget it,” she recalled committee members threatening whenever she’d offer suggestions.
She did not, and instead forced the hand of community officials to have the markers made anyway. She railed off many of them in our meeting.
There’s the marker she’d worked to have placed roadside at the Freedom Rider bombing site; the marker at the Anniston bus station; the marker at the Regional Medical Center to honor black Freedom Riders who were denied treatment after surviving the bombing; the marker at an Anniston rail station when Klansmen sought out “the nigger who was sitting in the waiting room” and punched the teeth out of his mouth.
Truthfully, there was an immobilizing quality to the stories Calhoun told. At once, they were triumphant narrations of a black woman holding her city and state to account, but also the dirgeful memories of one forced to affirm her lived experiences at every turn.
As proud, thankful, grateful and overwhelmed as I was to meet her, I could not shake the sense of collective dread we shared that she ― having endured all she has ― justifiably feels a dire calling to refresh our national memory, and particularly under the nation’s current leadership.
“Everything we did in the 50s, and the things that we’ve overcome―,” she said, “it looks like now, we’re having to fight the battle all over again.”
Where do Georgia Calhoun and Edward Wood’s experiences fit in our assessment of the south and its mores?"
In our discussions about prospects for the city of Anniston, Calhoun’s concerns reflected practical concerns many media professionals often attribute to Trump voters. She spoke of a need to invest in the city’s infrastructure after the closure of Fort McClellan, as well as the need to attract business to the largely black, “economically stripped” West Anniston.
And given these realities, there are lingering questions ― not for Georgia Calhoun to answer ― but for those covering elections in her state from within and without: Why aren’t her grievances considered impassioned cries from the struggling south? Why, in our coverage, do black southerners ― having never recovered from centuries of oppression and recession ― not serve as arbiters on these matters? Where do Georgia Calhoun and Edward Wood’s experiences fit in our assessment of the south and its mores?
These are questions that frighten our nation in earnest. They speak to our innermost fear that lending credence to black concerns will indict our nation in cutting ways.
And so, in avoidance of this, we commit to the sin of obscuring those we’ve harmed most. Dismissing Edward Wood and Georgia Calhoun’s lived histories soothes national worry; it rejects their trauma and insists their pain is being exaggerated by a fragile, forlorn people incapable of moving beyond their past.
It is only under this system of belief that a nation empowers an administration which has openly praised the system that enslaved Edward Wood’s father, defended some of the organizations that once threatened Wood’s life, or intimidated those who operate with Calhoun’s sense of activism.
These examples, despite our desperate belief in America’s linear, upward progression, were also the struggles of Wood and Calhoun’s forebears; they are the struggles of Wood and Calhoun themselves; and they are struggles to be assumed by the heirs to their legacies.