Dirty Boots: “That Something-Else”

The character Quentin Compson is famously quoted as saying, “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past,” at the end of William Faulkner’s classic novel The Sound and the Fury. The passage is often-repeated during discussions of Southern history, in large part because it’s true. In the South, we can draw direct lines from each historical event to the cultural and political features in the era that resulted, and those lines lead to here and now. Yet, in an age when imagery and immediacy rule, the relevant facts of history, particularly local history, can take not only a back seat, but are often left standing on the curb.

My newest book, Closed Ranks: The Whitehurst Case in Post Civil Rights Montgomery, was released six months ago, on November 1, and I’ve been interested to note the reactions to it. The book is about a police shooting in 1975 whose aftermath in 1976 and ’77 included the resignations or firings of the mayor, police chief, and nearly a dozen officers. Admittedly, the Whitehurst Case is a story of local import in Montgomery, but its uncomfortable familiarity – the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer – brings the story out of the past into the present, and out of the local into the wider world. However, neither the book nor the story has yet transcended that gap by emerging into the national consciousness as a topic on the forefront of discussion . . . which has prompted me to wonder why.

Although recent years (and mobile technology) have brought our nation into fuller contact with stories like that of Bernard Whitehurst, Jr.’s death in 1975, our national “conversation” on these issues remains largely focused on incidents from the last seven to eight years, since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. However, it isn’t so easy to say that we don’t care about the past, since we’ve also seen massive amounts of attention heaped onto the Equal Justice Initiative‘s new Legacy Museum and Lynching Memorial, both of which offer opportunities to reconsider our past, including acknowledging previously unknown or lesser-known cases. So, here is what I wonder about: where does a man like Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. – whose family once did have a day in court, and whose case has been given not one but two historical markers – fall into this schema?

I’ve had people tell me that the Whitehurst Case is “just a Montgomery story.” If that were true, then Michael Brown’s killing should have been just a Ferguson story.

I’ve also had people to say that the Whitehurst Case upsets people, so they don’t want to talk about it. If that’s true, then why is the daily news chock-full of terror attacks, murder conspiracies, internet scams, toxic bigotry, and political failures?

Others still insist that Americans don’t care about “black history.” Then why did anyone build the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and moreover, why do so many people visit it?

No, it has to be something else . . . and I wish I knew what that something-else was. The reactions to Closed Ranks have so far been mostly positive, and sales have been good. However, my questions relate to the mysteries of why some cases garner attention and others don’t, of why we are outraged sometimes and others times not, of why some history gets to ride upfront while other stories are left on the curb. What determines which episodes from our past are held up for remembrance and which are allowed to slip into obscurity, that’s what I’d like to know.

“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige,” a weekly column published every Tuesday afternoon, offers a Deep Southern, Generation X perspective on life in the 21st century. To read find and read previous posts, click here for a full list.

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