Old people with good memories tend to be the most interesting people. Like their peers elsewhere, old folk in the American South, where I have been a correspondent for a couple of years, have witnessed the second world war, the onset and end of the cold war, and unimagined advances in technology and comfort. They have also lived through a climactic chapter in one of the great dramas in human history: the story of race in America.
Talking to ageing Southerners about their lives – not just politicians, civil-rights luminaries or historians, but ordinary people, too – means, in the end, talking about race. You hear about petty humiliations, altercations with racist officials, ruptures with bigoted relatives. People tell you about their college epiphanies and brushes with the Ku Klux Klan. They share accounts of covert youthful intimacy, or of friendships with underlings that were more hierarchical than genuine. Some rush to recount a moment of principle; others downplay their bravery. Some have changed their minds; some were always on the right side. Here are a few of the nuanced realities, and private burdens, beneath the headline narrative of marches and reforms.
I met Emmett Burton at a lecture in Georgia marking the centennial of a lynching in 1915 (unusually, of a Jewish man wrongly convicted of murder). He rose to say that his father had been among the lynchers. Later he told me how he had started ploughing and picking cotton when he was six, a common memory in a region where many are a generation or two from the land. He recalled a black neighbour who killed his son and gave his shotgun to the young Emmett for safekeeping. He didn’t want the world to think that his own daddy, who fought in the first world war and became a policeman, was some “low-life drunken monster”. The lynching was “nothing anybody bragged about”, but nor was it shameful. Burton said he had the handcuffs the victim was wearing when he was hanged. “We live in America,” he figured. “The good and the bad got us where we are.”
In the impoverished Black Belt of Alabama – so called because of its dark soil – many people multitask to get by. In Union Springs, James Poe runs a funeral home, businesses that have long been important institutions in black communities. He is also a minister, counsellor and local official of the NAACP. He denounced the state’s latest voting rules as “a slick Jim Crow”, and had vivid memories of the dehumanising, original version. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when he tried to vote on Union Springs’ now-fading high-street, he had to interpret the constitution to satisfy the literacy test. Poe had the sort of worldliness that southerners can accrue without leaving home.
“We ate together, we played together, we worked in the field together, we sang together,” Libby Borgognoni said of her childhood relationship with African-Americans. “It was a different world.” I met her after mass in Lake Village, Arkansas, a Delta town across the river from Mississippi and on the shore of Lake Chicot, in which pure-white egrets nest amid half-submerged cypress trees. Her Italian forebears arrived at the end of the 19th century, more or less as indentured servants, to fill the labour gap left by the abolition of slavery. The hardship they faced was as appalling as the setting is beautiful. Borgognoni reminisced about her grandmother, who would lift her skirt and dance the saltarello when she was happy. She also recalled how locals would holler “dago” at Italian children. American prejudice has been capacious, though some have escaped it more easily than others.
In 1968, around the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Donald Cole was in a group of African-Americans who tried to attend First Baptist Church in Oxford, Mississippi. He was a freshman at the University of Mississippi, not long after the shocking riots ignited by the matriculation of its first black student (Cole and his friends moved in groups for safety). The church had passed a resolution barring black worshippers, and they were turned away. He wasn’t surprised. Now he is an assistant provost at the university; the church recently issued a formal apology. Even in 1968, he told me, some white worshippers extended their hands in friendship.
Claude Collins grew up in the 1930s in Vardy, a hamlet in a stunning valley in eastern Tennessee. He looked white, but his family were part of an obscure, mixed-race group known disparagingly by outsiders as Melungeons. Collins said he never heard that term until – thanks to his missionary teachers – he went away to college. When he came home to the valley, and asked his mother, she told him never to say the word again, such was the stigma attached to racial ambiguity. He and his community undercut simplistic notions of American racial history. Now the Melungeons are out and proud; I met Collins at their association’s annual conference.
Colony was founded by freed slaves after the civil war, in northern Alabama, which was and is predominantly white. Sitting in one of the town’s churches in May, Earlene Johnson, who was born there and was once the mayor, smoothed her hair and said she was sorry, her memory was not what it was. She remembered plenty: her father’s tenant farming, the way black and white tenants shared the same woes, the integration of the local schools. The racial trouble was mostly over now, she thought then – progress at last outpacing the incessant past.