I want to strongly recommend a great book, Blood Done Sign My Name, by Timothy Tyson. He’s a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and this is a memoir of growing up white in the small-town South.
Tyson’s father was a socially liberal Methodist minister who acted bravely in opposing racism in the church during the Sixties. His son tells some moving stories about that. Ultimately, that benign liberalism proved inadequate for the hard-core racism in another North Carolina town where Tyson went to elementary school. The centerpiece of the story is a murder. A storeowner killed a black man in cold blood, before multiple witnesses, and then was acquitted by an all-white jury. Firebombs subsequently torched some of the largest buildings in town. It’s hard to believe this all happened in 1970, long after Birmingham and Selma and the March on Washington.
Tyson’s purpose is to bear witness to the gritty, violent changes that took place in America over race. These are very different from our heart-warming memories of a truth-telling preacher Martin Luther King and his embrace by a conscience-stricken white America. Tyson wants to remind us that Southern blacks had plenty of guns, which they sometimes used to defend themselves, and that many were far too angry to stick to King’s creed of nonviolence. Nor, on the other hand, were whites changed by their recognition of the sin of racism. Almost all whites, Tyson maintains, chose tribe over creed, whether they went to Sunday school or not. They only developed a conscience about race when they realized their society and economy would be destroyed if they carried on the status quo.
The book is remarkable on several counts. One, Tyson witnessed some extraordinary events, and he has done some hard investigative history work to fill in what he did not witness. Second, he is a very good writer and storyteller. Third, as a serious historian he puts these events in a broader context. Some of what he tells about the history of the South in the late 19th and early 20th century is new to me and will be to most readers, I think.
Tyson obviously has a soft spot for his father’s patient, Christian idealism, but he wants to say it’s not enough. Societies change when somebody makes them change, and hard-nosed politics is needed. (In some way or another, too, guns are the hardware for which politics is the software.) He has more questions than answers, but his own urgent idealism, tied to his intimate knowledge of people and places, made this a great read for me.