Seeing the Moral Issues—
North Carolina’s Civil Rights History, A Critical Reflection
Blood Done Sign My Name, A True Story by Timothy Tyson
(New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 2004).
by John L. Godwin
“If they lowered the banner of nonviolence, I said, Mississippi injustice would not be exposed and the moral issues would be obscured.”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
The social revolution of the 1960s changed America in ways that will be debated for a long time to come. Legacies both positive and negative were a part of that revolution, along with a few stirring controversies held over. Stories of heroic acts of protest, sweeping reforms, and unresolved crimes remain with us. And the town of Oxford, North Carolina in 1970, and the city of Wilmington in 1971, provided the setting for happenings that today offer important lessons and debates.
In Oxford, it seems that the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement had accomplished almost nothing, for white Oxford had closed the gate against reform. This is according to the latest book by Timothy Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name. Tyson’s call for confrontation with our recent history is delivered with an impassioned sense of justice denied. In the words of the author, it was a story that was “burning a hole in my head from the time I was eleven years old.” This is important because the story told by this forty-four year old professor of African American Studies at the University of Wisconsin is a chilling tale of murder, fused with introspection and historical observation.
An unusual blend of narrative voices enables Tyson to accomplish three objectives. First, he writes a personal story of coming of age in the South at a time when the region underwent dramatic change. Second, the book is an investigative account of a brutal crime, bringing forward new evidence and direct testimony of the events. And finally, Blood Done Sign My Name offers a reflective commentary on the history of the Civil Rights era, weaving together the story of Oxford, North Carolina, where the killing of twenty-three-year old Henry Marrow in May of 1970 led to rioting by blacks, along with comparable events in the coastal city of Wilmington. In that city, rioting in 1971 led to the internationally renowned case of the Wilmington Ten.
Because of the circumstances in Oxford, this account is intensely personal, making this book an unusual history with a compelling though disturbing message. At the age of eleven years, Tyson was the son of a prominent Methodist clergyman in Oxford. And in May of 1970, shortly after the time of the Marrow killing, Tyson heard one of his childhood playmates utter the words that would haunt him for the rest of his life. “Daddy and Roger and ‘em shot ‘em a nigger.”
These words made Tyson in effect a material witness to one of the more significant crimes of the Civil Rights era in North Carolina. Tyson provides a persuasive account that shows what other observers have long thought: justice in the Ku Klux Klan inspired-Marrow killing was denied because a white conspiracy in Oxford stalled out the prosecution.
It is of such circumstances of course that historians are made, but Tyson’s message requires thoughtful consideration. This impassioned call for confrontation with history speaks to us on a number of levels. It is a human story about friends and family and the discovery of Southern identity in a land of racial oppression. Bravely submitting himself, friends, and family to what for most would be a rather strenuous exposure, Tyson tells the story of his father’s involvement as a clergyman in the Civil Rights Movement, and its consequences in Oxford and Wilmington. The confrontation in this sense is existential—not academic.
In this compelling sense, Tyson suggests that honest scrutiny of sources in an attempt to understand events and the people behind them should go hand in hand with self-examination. The book is thus consistent with the best tradition of personal memoir writing in the South. And the gate has been closed, the mind of the South and of America has been closed for far too long for these crimes and others like them in Oxford, Wilmington and elsewhere. As Tyson shows, the forces of resistance have been present from the beginning, and not enough has been done to open the way to legitimate enquiry and public accountability in these cases.
The small, tobacco-marketing town of Oxford in rural Granville County was also the scene of one of the largest fires resulting from arson in North Carolina in the 1970s, which Tyson witnessed as a child standing on the front porch of his parents’ house in the dead of night. Tyson shows that the roots of Black Power grew out of an indigenous tradition of black militancy that in 1970 led to the episodes in Oxford. In response to the Marrow killing and the subsequent failure to bring the murderers to justice, a furious group of black revolutionaries took the law into their own hands in a retaliatory spree of violence that, for Tyson, marked the real beginning of social change in Oxford.
Not many people have shown a willingness to follow Timothy Tyson’s path from the fiery conflagrations of Oxford North Carolina to Wilmington, where the infamous prosecutions of the Wilmington Ten originated. The 1972 trial stemmed from a period of rioting in the port city in February of 1971 during which two people were killed, a dozen or more wounded, with petty assaults that ran in the hundreds, and arson that totaled more than $500,000 in public and private buildings damaged or destroyed. Nine black youths, including Benjamin Chavis, who later briefly served as national leader of the NAACP, were tried, convicted, and eventually exonerated on appeal from charges of arson and conspiracy to assault firemen and police with firearms. One white woman, charged as an accessory, also stood trial as a member of the “Ten”.
We may celebrate Tyson’s personal triumph resulting in the exposure he brings to an outrageous criminal act in Oxford and the flawed system of justice that sustained it. But the thicket of obscurity thrown over the events in Wilmington does not seem to lessen as a result of Tyson’s book. And do we buy into his larger interpretive approach to Black Revolution and the Civil Rights era?
Older studies by Michael Myerson, Manning Marable and the works that followed them argued that violence in Wilmington occurred when white members of the KKK and the Rights of White People (ROWP) assaulted a nonviolent school boycott organized by Benjamin Chavis and his supporters. Solidarity with the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement was important. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights leadership believed it held the key to racial advancement for African Americans. Even Malcolm X in the last year of his life came to embrace the notion that racial progress must come through broad coalition among diverse peoples in the USA. Tyson, however, seems to challenge this tactical understanding. Hailing from a long line of Duke University clergymen, Tyson embraces the Black Revolution—including retaliatory and aggressive violence by blacks—as a positive force that represented the only path for black Americans to achieve “real power in this society.”(318)
Tyson’s account of the events in Wilmington in this regard is not fully consistent. He seems to dispense with the myth of nonviolent leadership on the part of Chavis, acknowledging that in the case of the Oxford militant, they “framed a guilty man,” and that Chavis later fasted, prayed and “repented of his errors” in Wilmington.(270) But elsewhere Tyson says that “Chavis apparently was not himself a man of violence,”(250) and that “Chavis was not a wholehearted party to the violence that angry young blacks committed in the name of freedom.”(201) Tyson also tries to argue that Chavis was the target of an FBI COINTELPRO operation(147).
Tyson is provocative with statements such as “Unjust social orders do not fall merely by appeals to the conscience of the oppressor... Rarely do such revolutions emerge in a neat and morally pristine process.”(317) The crux of his interpretive approach to the history of the CRM stresses the limitations of 1960s liberalism and the failure of nonviolent leadership to move beyond the removal of racial barriers to achieve the “real” transformation that occurred through Black Power and racial balance in school integration. On Tyson’s view, Americans should stop romanticizing the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and acknowledge that the Black Revolution did accomplished what nonviolence couldn’t.
Such an approach may help us at least to grasp the significance of such cities as Wilmington or towns like Oxford or Monroe in the wider debate over civil rights history. But what about the issues that defined the Black Revolution? Is it really all about sex and crime, as Tyson suggests? As an introspective memoir and an investigative crime study Blood Done works well. But unlike Tyson’s previous study of black militancy in Monroe, North Carolina, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power(1999), Tyson does not undertake a thorough social examination of Oxford or Wilmington. Black schools, black voter participation, black employment, community life and culture are less important than the author’s perambulations through the vagaries of his family history. And the model of a small town of bigotry and repression is applied easily to Wilmington with only a brief tour through the labyrinth of the 1898 Wilmington Racial Massacre. Seemingly, for Tyson, such towns as Oxford or Monroe are more representative of North Carolina and the American dilemma of race than the small but nevertheless more complex city of Wilmington.
While we may agree that Klan inspired crime in Oxford needed the added exposure provided in Blood Done, what happens when sex, violence, and retaliatory black militancy take the center stage? For Tyson, the dominant narrative in the relationship between black and white Southerners is the murder of Henry Marrow by a deranged white racist out of a twisted sex-related motive. This image of horror for Tyson is so pervasive in the history of the South, that for all intents and practical purposes it defines it and overshadows all else. Of Oxford, Tyson says, “the color line throbbed with sexual taboo,” and “the race-sex complex, with all its hypocrisies and contradictions, underlay the entire struggle.”(36) From slavery virtually to the present, it is this sexually driven white racism that ensures for Tyson that the Blood Done Sign My Name. Only a confrontation with this history will do, and only this history. This visceral and emotional confrontation followed by sweeping conclusions—that the Black Revolution and its violence were fully justified.
In this book it seems that, for Tyson, it is not necessary to examine how the so-called “military operation” in Oxford actually resulted in or produced Black Power, the real power that he says could not have been achieved through nonviolence. The logic of the inference from circumstances, to revolt, to Black Power is concealed in the horror of the Oxford crime. Similarly for the case of Wilmington, it is not necessary to look at the port city in terms of the qualities of black schools, the history of black voting, or the popular response to middle class leadership to determine if the Oxford-Monroe model really holds up. Along with this goes the insistence that real integration only occurs when federal courts impose a mathematical formula for racial balance on public schools. So, dismiss everything that was happening in Wilmington prior to 1971.
On this analysis one might conclude that in order for real integration and real power for blacks to occur it was necessary for North Carolina to revolve on its political axis, to put Jesse Helms in the United States Senate while electing the first Republican governor since 1896. And so Tyson shows little interest in the story of the public school boycott organized by blacks in Wilmington, the leadership role that was played by Chavis, or the position that was taken by Chavis on the question of the schools. Was Chavis a black separatist in favor of preserving black schools in Wilmington, or does it really matter?
Within his list of sources at the end of Blood Done, Tyson expresses considerable praise for the work of David Cecelski, whose study of the Hyde County public school boycott Along Freedom Road (1994) focused on the subject of the fate of black schools in North Carolina. Cecelski, a fellow Duke University PHD., showed that in Hyde County, N.C., a nonviolent boycott led by Golden Frinks of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had the favorable result that a traditionally black high school was preserved in a racially integrated setting. Does it matter now that Golden Frinks and some other blacks in Wilmington sought to keep Williston Senior High open as a racially integrated black community institution?
Regardless of the strengths of Tyson’s portrait of Oxford, his treatment of Wilmington is fragmentary and imprecise. The implication that blacks had more political power in Oxford in the wake of rioting and arson and that increased political power came as the result of this “revolution” is not shown as the verifiable result of any evidence. Of both Oxford and Wilmington, Tyson has chosen to drop bombshell revelations while writing a personal memoir, and though he cites an impressive list of sources, including John L. Godwin’s Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way, he does not cite sources for his most provocative assertions. We are told about the cabal of black Vietnam veterans who instigated the riot in Oxford. And we are told that FBI counterintelligence operations in Wilmington was aimed at Ben Chavis. Yet no specific FBI documents are cited in this study. Nor does Tyson examine the role of the national and international campaign to free the Wilmington Ten as a political prologue to the Ronald Reagan electoral revolution of 1980.
Martin Luther King, Jr., who rightly became a national hero in the 1960s, proved decisively that a strategy of militant, nonviolent direct action protest could be an effective means toward racial advancement even in the most repressive areas of the South. The methods and assumptions of this movement defined the achievements of an entire generation. For millions of African Americans, Satyagraha—“the power of love”—was real enough to open the gate toward equal opportunity and full citizenship. In spite of Timothy Tyson’s considerable achievements in Blood Done Sign My Name, it seems that the gate so far remains closed against a full understanding of the events in Wilmington, and perhaps other cities like it as well.
John L. Godwin is editor and publisher of Carolina Civic Voice, and is the author of Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way: Portrait of a Community in the Era of Civil Rights Protest, (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 2000).
Vol. 5, No 1 Spring 2005
From Carolina Civic Voice, Spring 2005...