Alabama Burning, 1966

Alabama Burning, 1966

A Story by bob skye
"

On a hot night in Alabama, when I saw crosses burn...

"

 


When we landed at the Birmingham airport, the wreckage of a small private plane sat in a heap at the end of the runway. Rust and weeds poked through the fuselage. It must be an omen, I laughed. I snubbed my cigarette and closed the ashtray until the smoke stopped, and then I inched into the aisle, and pulled my ratty backpack out of the overhead bin.

 

The terminal was no larger than a hockey rink. I quickly found the van that had been sent to meet the students arriving on the Delta flight from Newark. It was parked alone alongside the curb, with the words Saint Bernard College lettered in blue on the side.

 

 

We had barely left the airport grounds before I spotted some wooden shacks on the side of a muddy hill. Water trickling down the hill had etched tiny veins in the mud. A group of skinny boys sat on a flattened cardboard crate and slid downhill. At the top, girls skipped rope and women in sundresses hung clothes to dry on a line that sagged between two straining poles. The sun gleamed off their dark shoulders as they worked. In the van, the radio was playing Buffalo Springfield’s new hit; “…It’s time we stop children, what’s that sound, everyone look what’s goin’ down.”

 

Alabama, just like I thought it would be.

 

 *

 

It was 1966, and parts of downtown Cullman, Alabama still had the raised sidewalks you’d see in old westerns. The Dollar General Store sat at the eastern end, and sold everything from Dickies coveralls to posthole diggers. Grizzled old men sat on benches outside, rolling Bugler cigarettes, and spitting pecan juice on the sidewalk. I was barely seventeen, and had found myself on the set of friggin' Gunsmoke.

 

*

 

The Saint Bernard College faculty was mostly a handful of Benedictine monks, a few locals fresh out of junior college, and a pair of English teachers from Philadelphia, one of whom bore a resemblance to TV host Dick Cavett.

 

The campus encircled a shallow bowl of well-trimmed grass, crossed by gravel paths. I was assigned to a room in Maurus Hall, which sat at the edge of the campus, tilting into a swamp of weeds and cypress trees. The asphalt shingles were stained a coppery green at the high water line. I tossed my back pack onto the empty bed. My new roommate, known only as ‘Snyder,’ was busy lying on the other cot ignoring me. He rolled himself on one elbow, examined me from head to toe, and muttered something under his breath as he turned away faced the wall again. He was a moody megalomaniac, but I was badly in need of a friend, so I watched him closely and soon developed an adequate sneer of my own.

 

 

*

 

 In my sophomore year I became the features editor of the Saint Bernard College Guardian. It certainly wasn’t the big time, but I liked the way my name looked in print. I wrote book and film reviews, and an occasional editorial, usually some radical, leftist rant that had the dean’s office on my a*s full time.

I received word one afternoon that somehow we’d managed to book Julian Bond to speak at our yearly address.  Julian Bond was the first black man to win a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives. He had come to Alabama to address colleges across the state.

 

When I first heard the news, a shudder rose up my spine. The Civil Rights Act had been law for less than two years, and in a few hours I would meet one of the men who had fought so hard to turn the bill into law.

 

I nervously intercepted Bond at the foot of the stage after his address. He was thin and patrician, with a pair of narrow eyes that seemed to bore into mine. He was and a man on a quest. I felt intimidated, and my interview was shorter than I had hoped for.

Nancy Parsons, the reporter from our ‘sister school,’ Sacred Heart Academy, seemed more at ease with Bond. She was a tall, intelligent young woman, feisty in a southern belle way. Her mother, Alma Parsons, was a professor at St. Bernard, and as frail as a butterfly wing. She smiled widely as she watched her daughter Nancy interview Bond, whose eyes were smiling even before the interview was over. The two of them joined hands, and posed for a group of local photographers. 

 

 

*

 

Hours later I was at my desk with a tee-shirt draped over the lampshade, afraid to awaken the beast--my snarling roommate, Snyder. It was very late, and the dorm was quiet. I was doing my best to describe Bond’s stirring address earlier in the night, when I was suddenly jarred by the loud ring of the telephone in the hallway. It was obvious that no one was going to get it, so I went out in the hall.

 

I lifted the receiver and heard a woman’s panicky voice. I asked what was wrong. She he said to come to her house as quickly as possible, and to bring help. Suddenly, I recognized her voice. It was Alma Parsons. I got my notebook and she gave me directions to her house. She was sobbing hysterically, imploring me to hurry. I assured her that I would, and I was about to hang up the phone, when she said “Bring a camera. Please.”

 

 

There were nothing but scrub pines and palmettos along the unpaved road. There was no moon. The sky behind us was as black as coal, but above the palmettos and scrub pines, the glow of flames licked at the sky.

 

  * 

 

Burning flakes of newsprint peeled free from the charred coals of a burning wooden cross. Two more crosses were staked into the front yard, which was littered with newspaper photos of Julian Bond and Nancy Parsons hand in hand. Some of the photos that had been nailed to the crosses were still aflame as they peeled away. 

 

I could make no sense of what was happening. There was no compartment in my mind for this kind of thing. I’d seen such stories on the small black-and-white TV we watched at dinner time. But my friends and I could only stare at the scene.

 

 

*

 

It was raining fire as we held bed sheets behind the smoldering crosses while we took photographs. One by one we smashed the burning stumps with a shovel and rake. As we pushed the dying embers into small piles on the lawn, the silhouette of a pickup truck crept past the house with its headlights turned off. Shadowy profiles stood on the truck bed with their rifles pointed at the sky. They made two more passes, but no shots were fired.

 

 

As dawn peeked over the palmettos, I turned to survey the carnage again. The charred newspapers still smoldered in piles, and an occasional ember flared free and burned out.  Alma Parsons was shaking in her doorway, a pistol still in her hand. She thanked us profusely, and promised she would be all right.

“You boys can go now,” she said. 

 

 

*

 

Malachy and I sat on benches outside of the Grotto gift shop. I swore to the monk that I would write a firey condemnation about the account, complete with photos of the carnage. He was a large, rotund man in his Benedictine robe. He was my mentor, and I told him I would spread the news of what had happened across Cullman County with my own hands if I had to.

Malachy said, “No.”

I stared at him, dazed. "What do you mean, ‘no’?”

“I mean just that. No.” He turned away from me with a distant, mournful look.“Do you think that nothing like this has ever happened before last night?” he asked in a sad Irish brogue.

I waited before answering. Something was happening here that I did not grasp yet. I chose my words carefully. “I suppose it’s been happening for decades.”

“No, I mean here.” He waved his huge hands in an arc, from the Grotto to the campus and back.

I wondered what was happening here, and I looked in the large man’s eyes. He was quiet.

“Tell me. What are you trying to say?”

 

“All right, so,” he said and drew a deep breath. “It’s been ten years. Mind you it was a terrible sin. Someone much like yourself saw a... thing happen, and just like you, he wanted justice done.  He wanted to spread the news. And he did.” Malachy shut his eyes dramatically..

I spoke quietly, “What did he see?” I asked.

 

“Can’t say, son. It isn’t spoken of anymore. Lips are sealed.”

One student stood up and exposed the story, he told me.

“He wrote about it in your paper, so.”

“And?”

“The locals did not take to that, especially the youth. In their thirst for retribution they entered the campus one night while the campus police were away. They burned every automobile on campus.”

“Was anyone…hurt?”

“As I said, it isn’t spoken of anymore.”

 

“So what are you saying?” I asked angrily. ”That I give up on the story? That we'll be attacked if I print the damn thing? your talking about something that happened ten years ago. This is 1966.”

 

He rose from the bench and stood before me, his hands hidden in his long black robes.

“I’m not saying a f*****g word.”

 

*

I stormed to my room and threw myself face down on the bed. I saw crosses burning on a woman’s front lawn, and the shadows of men with weapons pointing at the sky. I pictured dozens of cars in a holocaust of of gasoline and burning tires. I could only imagine what horrible “sin” they had committed.  If I had the facts, maybe I should write the whole damned thing, and the hell with some old monk's account...

 

 

*

 

I did not write that story, or any others. I had to live with that in 1966, and I live with it now. Whenever I repeat it a different emotion arises.

 

Maybe on that particular day I did the right thing, or maybe not. Maybe I'd learn what happened in 1956. I mayhave been a coward.

 

But I was young, and the stories were so much older than I. 

 

 

 

*          *          *        

 

 

 

© 2011 bob skye


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652 Views
Added on December 6, 2010
Last Updated on January 20, 2011
Tags: racism, cross burning, Alabama, KKK, racial hatred, Julian Bond, NAACP

Author

bob skye
bob skye

Hoboken, NJ



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A Story by bob skye