Welcome to a special edition of “Some Other News from Around the Deep South,” my usually quarterly look at news stories around the region that didn’t get much coverage. Normally, a new installment would be coming in April, but with so much going on, why wait?
Though I won’t spend as much time on it as Slate and The New York Times have— conservative Alabamians got yet another historic spanking from a federal judge back in February when the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was struck down. Alabama is now the 37th state to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Since the ruling, Alabama’s highly regrettable and always stolid Chief Justice Roy Moore has gone on a counter-offensive, using a variety legal and religious rationales and edicts, including one about how a state Supreme Court can overrule a federal district court, and another telling county probate judges not to issue the licenses. The federal judge overruled that last one, too.
And, in a distinctly Deep Southern twist, the Ku Klux Klan has joined in as back-up singers in this cacophonous dirge, putting its weight behind Moore’s position. Meanwhile, Alabama’s governor Robert Bentley is taking the high road, saying that our state will comply with the law, and Attorney General Luther Strange is riding out the storm in his own distinctly quiet way. The US Supreme Court is slated to rule on the issue of same-sex marriage in June. ‘Til then, we’ll wait for the next plot twist in this absurdist tragicomedy.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in reading further about the matters of LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage in the South, here’s my further-reading list, from recent news stories:
“A Legal Toolkit for LGBTQ Southerners Is Great. But What About Etiquette?” on Slate’s “Outward” blog
“Mapped: Some States Always Need A Shove Past the Civil Rights Finish Line” on the Washington Post‘s Wonk Blog.
You know you’ve made it to the national spotlight when The Onion takes notice: “Gay Couple Always Dreamed of Getting Married Surrounded by Hostility”
Even the ultra-fickle People magazine is getting into the discussion: “What’s It Really Like to be Gay in Alabama?”
However, the South’s long-standing disdain for gays and lesbians is not the only kind of hateful, shameful behavior that got our region some attention in February. Last month, the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative released its long-term study on the history of lynching in the South.
The New York Times‘ reportage of the story, “History of Lynching in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names”, offers a small sampling of the gory and disgusting details of these racialized instances of “man’s inhumanity to man,” as well as a map showing how densely occurring and widespread this crime has been in our region. The practice of lynching has long been one of those widely known secrets in the South and details have often been closely guarded locally. EJI’s study is the first step in an attempt to acknowledge the victims, and the crimes, with the intent of pushing many of the local communities to erect historic markers about the events.
Likewise, in mid-February, Salon.com ran a lynching-history piece by Bill Moyers with the ominous and difficult title: “When America behaved like ISIS: Jesse Washington and the Bible Belt’s dark history of public lynching.” Though the story of Jesse Washington is not a Deep Southern one – the lynching occurred in Waco, Texas – its details and its significance connect through the region, as EJI’s report shows. A bit of warning: the article contains graphic and disturbing imagery. There is no way for me to tell the story better than Bill Moyers does here— he writes, in the passage below one image:
Take a good look at Jesse Washington’s stiffened body tied to the tree. He had been sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman. No witnesses saw the crime; he allegedly confessed but the truth of the allegations would never be tested. The grand jury took just four minutes to return a guilty verdict, but there was no appeal, no review, no prison time. Instead, a courtroom mob dragged him outside, pinned him to the ground, and . . .
The surreal details that follow are shocking, mainly in the fact that they were commonplace. But that was life in the South in the heyday of lynching.
Living day-to-day life in a region perhaps most known for hate makes every scenario precarious. (Yes, I know that the South is also known for its food, its music and for its hospitality— but none of those can be separated from its historical realities, which are steeped in a hateful way of life.) Just knowing that, in the not-too-distant past, lynching was normal, public, even celebrated . . . I don’t know what to say about it.
Yet, as we see in the same-sex marriage cases, our dark and intolerant history is not over. The aftermath of the same-sex marriage ruling has brought resurgent defiance and protests. And make no mistake that the darkest parts of our past are long gone. The 1999 lynching of Billy Jack Gaither, a gay man in Sylacauga, Alabama, provides details no less gruesome than the ones from 1916 that Bill Moyers describes. I wish I knew when this “Southern way of life” will truly change.