Even halfway through the book, I know this is the kind of journalism I admire: detailed, clear, thorough, no flourishes, but opinionated all the same.
One hot August day in 1991, I drove pretty much right past the spot where the atrocity happened: just off the highway that runs between Atlanta and Athens, in Walton County some miles east of Monroe. I had no idea then, of course, of the little bit of history I sped past. Or I might have stopped and tried to breathe in some of the atmosphere Wexler recreates so well, half a century on.
In any case, here are some excerpts from around page 125:
"Although the [investigating agents] were Southern white men with accents to match, they were outsiders -- most people in Walton County had never seen an FBI agent before... And against the outside threat, the locals constructed a wall of silence. ... Within a week of the lynching, agents concluded in their report that the people of Hestertown [where the victims lived] had indicated in some way that they resented ... the entire investigation. Many have admitted that they do not wish to see anyone punished for the crime.
"But the conclusions agents drew about the sentiments of the people of Hestertown could just as well have characterized many of Walton County's white citizens. [S]ome made no effort to conceal their belief that the lynching was well-deserved punishment, not a crime. I knew a fellow who knew a nigger who had lived in Africa and he'd boiled up his father's head and made soup out of it and ate it, said one retired Walton County farmer. That's the kind of people niggers is.
"[O]thers resented the attention being paid to the lynching when no comparable attention, they argued, was paid to crimes against whites. [Georgia Senator Richard Russell agreed]: I deplore the murders, of course, but I [also resent] the emphasis being placed upon this particular crime by propagandists from other sections of the country who take every opportunity to intensify sectional and racial hatred.
"[S]ince the start of the investigation, 150 white men in the county had pledged to finance the defense of anyone arrested in the lynching. Clearly they'd view those arrested as victims of the Northern-based liberal conspiracy against the South: as political prisoners, not murderers.
"And yet, despite these sentiments in the county, many white people in Monroe did condemn the lynching. Several white churches passed resolutions denouncing the murders and calling for justice; several of the town's leaders publicly expressed their horror. But these sentiments soon faded as Monroe's citizens began to focus less on the brutality of the lynching and more on what they viewed as their unfair treatment by both the national press and the FBI. As the white citizens of Monroe came to see it, the tragedy of the lynching wasn't only the deaths of four black people; it was the smudge on Monroe's reputation caused by those deaths. ... We are today the target of a hostile press throughout the world, wrote the Walton Tribune editor. Events of our soil are being construed and misconstrued to prove every belabored point of the racial discrimination theories so dear to so many who know so little about it."
I read all this and and have been thinking: why does all this sound so familiar? Where before have I heard fantastic tales about a whole set of people, like boiling heads into soup? Where before have I heard words and phrases like "well-deserved punishment", "propagandists from other sections of the country", "target of a hostile press", "liberal conspiracy", "smudge on our reputation"?
And I've also been thinking: if it is so familiar, I need not go as far as Walton County to breathe in some of that atmosphere. I might as well wait for the reactions -- those familiar reactions -- to this.