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Photograph by Cameron Kunzelman

Issue 117, Summer 2022

A Long Georgia Night

The life and legacy of Mattie Green

TWO CEMETERIES

 

Segregation has seeped into the landscape of the northwest Georgia cemetery where Mattie Green is buried. On one side of the chain-link fence dividing plots, the trimmed, healthy grass shimmers in the spare February sunlight, and the pruned trees overlook the grounds with stately authority. Legible headstones, arranged in neat, orderly rows, stand straight as pillars. The manicured site, tranquil and inviting, could be a national park.

On Green’s side, the trees are overgrown and unkempt. Weathered headstones sink and hunch. Faded pine needles, gnarled twigs, and wilted, dust-gray leaves litter the buckling ground. Every footstep through this grim pall produces a swish, crunch, or crinkle, precluding the quiet cemeteries typically offer the bereaved. The tipped vase on Green’s grave, which houses a solitary, yellow flower, is one of the few signs of care.

A bomb killed Mattie Green, a beloved sister of eleven and mother of six, in May 1960, and her family has been tending to her memory ever since.

On the chilly day I visit the grave a few miles north of Ringgold, Georgia, I unexpectedly meet Randall Adams, the groundskeeper for the maintained side. Randall, who is a descendant of Green (née Adams), tells me he occasionally extends his maintenance to his great-aunt’s part of the graveyard, but he is only paid by a local church to upkeep “the white cemetery,” as he describes it with a grin. He’s not even sure who is responsible for or owns the Black side—a mystery I too cannot solve even after looking at county property records and calling the church weeks later. Randall plans to return on a day when the ground isn’t muddy and he can successfully park his truck and trailer on the Black side, which lacks a driveway. I silently wish him luck. His task is thankless.

Green’s case illustrates how emphatically the racial violence of mid-twentieth-century America presses into the present, coursing through infrastructure, the lives of survivors, and in this case, the literal earth. Green’s death is one of hundreds that various civil rights groups, researchers, and federal and state authorities have revisited to offer families of victims some sense of closure.

A few of these efforts have answered long-standing questions such as who perpetrated this violence, why they went unpunished, and how families and communities can move forward from such heinous acts without erasing their staggering toll. Most reviews of these incidents, though, have ended like Mattie’s, settling into lopsided wars of attrition pitting aggrieved families waiting for answers against indifferent towns more focused on attracting heritage tourists and bachelorette parties than addressing their racist history.

My reporting does not pinpoint the killer or killers of Mattie Green, but it enlists itself in the conflict between the forgetters and the rememberers, showing, as the latter have always insisted, that their experiences are not mere footnotes but history itself.

 

“JUST LET IT GO.”

 

The weeknight of May 18, 1960, played out like any other at the Green household. Mattie, a domestic worker, spent that Wednesday evening ironing and folding clothes for her employers to pick up the next morning. Her mother, who lived a few houses away, visited for a few hours, and three of Mattie’s four sons played in their bedroom. By the time Mattie’s husband Jethro, a mechanic and porter, arrived home from the latter job, Mattie’s mother had left with the couple’s two daughters, who were fond of their grandparents’ cozy, recently constructed home. Jethro ate dinner, took a bath, then climbed into bed with his wife; a few feet away, their youngest son, seventeen months old, dozed in a bed of his own.

Sometime past midnight, a destructive mixture of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel placed under Mattie and Jethro’s bedroom detonated and leveled the four-room structure. The blast uprooted plumbing, launched furniture and Jethro and the Green boys into the yard, and collapsed lumber and piling onto Mattie and the baby. The explosion was so powerful it damaged other houses, and so loud that Mattie’s daughter Anna Ruth Montgomery, ten years old at the time, heard it from down the street.

She and her younger sister ran out of their grandparents’ house and rushed up the hill toward the scene, she tells me over the phone and later in person. She was confused when she saw the extent of the destruction. Clothes were strewn across the power lines. Her father and baby brother were injured. Her mother wasn’t moving.

Mattie was pronounced dead by the time she reached a hospital later that morning. A medical examiner concluded that she died from hemorrhages and ruptured organs and blood vessels.

Local, state, and federal authorities quickly began an investigation, suspecting racial animus as a motive. Days before, a Ku Klux Klan group under surveillance by the FBI had posted flyers advertising a meeting nearby, and the previous summer, the FBI had investigated two other anti-Black bombings in Ringgold. At the time of the summer bombings, Catoosa County Sheriff J. D. Stewart told a newspaper, “It’s the same type of thing that has been going on around here for a long time.”

Curiously changing tack, a day after Mattie’s death, Stewart attributed the bombing to a “personal grudge,” boasting the area as a racial paradise. “We’ve never had trouble with Negroes here,” he told the Atlanta Constitution. A sheriff’s deputy echoed Stewart a few days later, telling the same paper that officers had eliminated racism as a motive in favor of the grudge angle. The governor and local residents offered rewards for help solving the crime, and the FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigation assisted the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office, but the investigation stalled. Within months, the case closed without arrests.

Six decades later, the bombing remains a sore point for Ringgold. Multiple requests for comment that I submitted to city leadership went unreturned. A local historian claims the killing was caused by a personal problem, echoing the late sheriff. Meanwhile, Anna Ruth, now seventy-two, says the family has never received a formal apology.

If Anna Ruth were to place a marker at the site of her mother’s killing, she told me, it would incriminate the city. “Nothing was ever done about it,” she said the text on the marker would read. “They just let it go... Swept it under the bridge. Just let it go.”

Yet, Ringgold is her home. “We know everybody,” she said when asked what she likes about the small city. “Everybody that lives here, we know ’em... It’s quiet,” she reflected.

She suspects the initial investigation was corrupt, accusing the sheriff’s office of being affiliated with or sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan, which had multiple chapters in the region at the time, one of which was known to gather at a local creek. “They killed a Black person, ‘So what?’” she said, characterizing the way she feels local law enforcement approached murders of Black people.

The sheriff plays an odd role in the original FBI report. He proposed bizarre and unsubstantiated theories, including that Jethro Green planted the bomb and that the Greens were swingers and a jealous partner was the culprit. And he reportedly claimed that he contacted “every negro in the county” about the bombing. He’s also the source of a theory that the Greens were targeted because Jethro’s meetups with other Black men as part of a singing group were mistaken for NAACP gatherings.

The NAACP’s branch directories from the time have no record of a Catoosa County chapter of the civil rights organization, and a chapter for nearby Walker County appears only once between 1956 and 1961, but Sheriff Stewart’s erratic hunches and lack of arrests would hinder the FBI’s return to the case years later.

Mattie Green's grave in Graysville. Photograph by Cameron Kunzelman

“A GOOD FILE”

 

The FBI reopened the Green case in 2009 under its Cold Case Initiative, which reviews suspicious deaths and unsolved killings from no later than 1979. The initiative began in 2006 on the heels of successful prosecutions for the fatal 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham and the 1964 Freedom Summer murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Those high-profile convictions in the early 2000s prompted civil rights groups to send other unresolved killings to the Department of Justice and FBI, one of which was Green’s. “We cannot turn back the clock. We cannot right these wrongs. But we can try to bring a measure of justice to those who remain,” then FBI Director Robert Mueller said at the news conference announcing the initiative.

Like most cold cases revisited under the FBI initiative, Green’s was characterized by a thicket of logistical hurdles. Among them: potential suspects had died, physical evidence from the bombing that was stored at the Catoosa County Courthouse was destroyed in a 1970s flood, and the FBI discarded the original file in 2005—resulting in the bureau having to work from a redacted version of its own file that it had issued to the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2003.

Marcus Veazey, the now-retired FBI agent who was assigned the Green case, told me in a phone interview that the lack of material evidence was the worst snag. “I was stepping off in the investigation way behind the curve because of that,” he said.

Without bomb fragments or DNA samples, he “had to go backwards and just try and determine who are the players here? Who’s involved?” he said.

He came to view that blankness as an asset, explaining that it allowed him to avoid the biases and flaws of the first FBI investigation. He spent much of his time conducting interviews and chasing down the many rumors surrounding the case, one of which was that a Ringgold Klansman, Lester Waters, confessed to the crime and was admitted to a psychiatric facility, where he died. Waters’s daughter confirmed the Klan membership and informed Veazey that Waters was a friend of Sheriff Stewart. However, she claimed to have no knowledge of a confession or the psychiatric facility bit, and Veazey found no corroborating medical records that could confirm or deny the latter story.

Over dozens of interviews, similar bits of intriguing hearsay kept proving unconfirmable, and persons of interest, like Waters, tended to be dead. All of this prevented Veazey from achieving “traction,” his go-to term for momentum in an investigation.

Some of the inertia, though, stemmed from the lingering legacy of Klan intimidation. “I truly felt some chill from some of the witnesses that I interviewed,” he said of sources who were related to potential suspects. “People didn’t want to talk about it. And I was asking some fairly hard questions: ‘Was your grandfather in the Ku Klux Klan? Do you have any journals or notes or anything that may help me?’ I would get a very cold response. Just a ‘No. No.’” He never made any arrests.

I hit similar walls during my reporting. Records requests sent to the GBI, the FBI, the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office, the Catoosa County Superior Court, multiple U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives yielded no documents. The case was too old, and the lack of arrests when the case was first investigated precluded a paper trail. My most vital leads came from other journalists and academic entities like Northeastern University’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project and Emory University’s Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, which have built their own archives of these incidents.

Most civil rights cold cases go unsolved regardless of who looks into them. A 2021 report by the Department of Justice details that of the 119 incidents the department has reviewed since the initiative began in 2006, 107 have closed without prosecution or referral to state authorities. And of those twelve outliers, only two have resulted in federal prosecution, one of which produced a federal conviction.

Cynthia Deitle, a retired FBI agent who once served as the chief of the Civil Rights Unit and supervised the FBI’s Cold Case Initiative from 2008 to 2011, told me over Zoom that these long odds required an operational shift from a prosecutorial mindset to an archival one. “Where I wanted every FBI agent to get to,” she said, “was, even if you knew early on you weren’t going to find out who did it, or you found out who did it...this guy’s dead...at least put together a good file. Figure out what you can, talk to as many people as you can, collect whatever evidence you can, and make sure the file is the best it can be today.”

That pivot didn’t win over all agents, she admitted. The agents working the cold cases also worked bank robberies and kidnappings, crimes for which suspects and evidence were less elusive. “I don’t have time for this,” Deitle remembered some agents would say, an attitude often shared by the federal prosecutors who were also assigned the cold cases.

Veazey said he always adopted a prosecutorial mindset because he wanted his work to withstand scrutiny if a case went to trial, but it never defined his work. For him, working cold cases like Green’s allowed him to prove to families that victims were “not just a name somewhere in some old archives, that someone cares.”

“There is a measure of justice in the effort, and the caring, and the attempt to do the right thing,” he said.

 

HILLS AND HERITAGE

 

Ringgold is the seat of Catoosa County, a hilly rural area wedged in Georgia’s northwestern corner. A ten-minute drive from Chattanooga, Tennessee, the small, mostly white city proudly celebrates its role in the Civil War, during which it was leveled as Sherman’s army blazed toward Atlanta. A statue and roadside park honoring Confederate General Patrick Cleburne sit at the southern edge of the downtown area, one of many markers along the main drag. Cleburne routed the Union army at the Ringgold Gap, a narrow corridor between two mountains of the Valley and Ridge region of the Appalachian Mountains.

I’d vowed to keep a low profile during my trip because of the topic of the story and my wife’s fear for my safety as a Black person in an unfamiliar part of the rural South, but I’m not actually worried. I’m traveling with Cameron Kunzelman, a friend and fellow writer from nearby Walker County, and I’ve seen every mundane corner of my home state, from College Park playgrounds to Blue Ridge grocery stores to Trion backyards. Ringgold resembles many humble Southern towns, its small downtown area quickly spilling into a sea of strip malls and backroads. But walking around Ringgold, the tininess of its Black populace agitates me. Though I mill about the downtown area for almost ninety minutes, until I meet Anna Ruth later that day, I do not see a single Black person. The observation swells the magnitude of the city’s history of racial violence.

At the heart of the city, signage in front of the courthouse notes that Ringgold housed Confederate hospitals from 1862 to 1863. A bust of Joe Barger, city mayor from 1975 to 2015, adorns a bridge adjacent to a preserved railroad depot that is also flush with historical markers. There’s even a placard noting the 1966 wedding of Dolly Parton and Carl Thomas Dean, which took place at a Ringgold church. No event appears too small or tangential to the town’s history to go unmentioned.

Which makes the absence of a marker at the site of the bombing that killed Mattie Green more pronounced. The week before my trip, when I talked on the phone with Anna Ruth, she said such reticence about her mother’s death is typical. Asked if the City of Ringgold has ever acknowledged the killing, she scoffed. “Ringgold ain’t done jack. ’Cause they know it was the people of Ringgold that did it. They didn’t care,” she said.

The one acknowledgment she did receive was too late, she says. Anna Ruth was grocery shopping years ago when the daughter of Waters reportedly approached her and apologized, an event the woman denied when later interviewed by the FBI. “I didn’t know what to do,” Anna Ruth recalled. “When she told me, I wanted to hit her...but I just said, ‘Why are you telling me now? Why didn’t you tell it when my daddy was here, so he’d know?’”

Jethro Green died in 1995, over a decade before the FBI’s Cold Case Initiative existed, and thirty-five years after his home was destroyed. Anna Ruth told me her father didn’t discuss the bombing with her and her siblings. “He just wanted us to, you know, go on with our life, and he didn’t talk to us about it because he knew it would make us angry or upset,” she said during our phone conversation. Her voice brimmed with pride as she recalled the efforts large and small he made to help them move forward, from gathering everyone to pray before bed every night to installing gas lights outside their home so they could detect trespassers.

Anna Ruth’s house, one block over from the site of the bombing, is walking distance from downtown. A retired textile mill worker with a wiry frame, she’s babysitting her shy but energetic two-year-old great-granddaughter when I visit. The toddler orbits the retiree like a loving moon. We sit at a table in a room painted a warm mustard. A rolled Black Lives Matter flag rests in the corner, next to a large framed picture of a young Mattie Green, who looks into the distance with a soft grin, her hair crimped and glossy. Anna Ruth is as frank and straight-shooting as she was on the phone, pausing her testimony for the occasional gut-buster, but never letting Ringgold off the hook.

Conscious of how death defines Mattie, I had asked Anna Ruth when we spoke on the phone what kind of person her mother was. “I don’t know nothing about my mama,” she replied. Our second conversation is no different. She says she has no memory of her mother now, or of her own life before the explosion.

It’s a common refrain among Mattie’s descendants. In a phone interview that same day, Green’s younger sister Betty Smith, now eighty-five, tells me she also has little memory of her departed sibling. She recalls that Mattie dearly loved her family, but she politely ends our phone call after a few minutes of questions.

The bombing’s effects hit the family hard, especially Anna Ruth. As the second-eldest child and eldest girl, she had to step up and care for her younger siblings. The afternoons and evenings she spent babysitting and cooking came at the expense of her childhood. The loss of her mother made her family very close, she says, but she personally spent years bitter and angry with the town and with white people. Although her religious beliefs and friendships saved her from the resentment, she remains on guard.

We talk more about how she and her family pushed forward after the bombing, and about the lives they led, details too often omitted in accounts of that horrible night and its aftermath. She notes that her brothers married white women, an observation she delivers as a punchline. She tells me she and her siblings all drove Dodges and Plymouths because those are the kinds of cars Jethro sold as a car salesman. The city is so small and tight-knit that when she mentions her dad’s former car lot, she points in its direction, a tic she repeats as she refers to other relatives and local events.

When we discuss the bombing and Ringgold’s race relations, the intimacy continues. When she says all the cops who investigated her mother’s killing were Klansmen, the Klan she invokes is not a cadre of especially villainous bigots. It’s the neighbors who tolerated robed and masked men gathering regularly at Chickamauga Creek when she was growing up. It’s the vandals who plucked up Obama signs from her yard in 2008. It’s the 1987 murder of Kimberly Croft, another Black Ringgold woman whose killing remains unsolved. (When I run into Randall Adams at the cemetery the next day, he makes the same observation about Mattie and Croft.)

Sociologist David Cunningham, who has studied violent white vigilantism, also described white terror in this ambient way. Focusing on the Klan alone, he said in a phone interview, obscures “the broader acceptance of violence and oppression and injustice from citizens’ councils, business owners in general, school boards, city councils. All these official bodies were oftentimes perpetuating these kinds of patterns, or opening up space for vigilantes.”

“Obviously, the Klan are doing some of these things, but they’re operating in this ecosystem that really is violent whether they’re present or absent,” Cunningham said.

The Klan no longer rides, but Anna Ruth still navigates this environment carefully. She says things have slightly improved. A relative on the city council is in the process of getting the city to recognize a segregated school she attended with a historical marker. And in lieu of formal recognition by Ringgold, she has told the story of her mother’s death to her children, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren sparing no detail. I silently wonder whether the details will change by the time her great-granddaughter hears it. Anna Ruth’s adult grandson has heard it; when I meet him in passing, she notes with pride that he walks the city armed.

The derelict segregated cemetery where Mattie Green rests is a final indignity, Anna Ruth feels. She wants her mother, who is buried in the town of Graysville a few miles north, closer to the family, and hopes to one day have her exhumed and brought to Ringgold. She assumes she’ll have to pay for the effort herself, but she accepts the responsibility. Just like her father.

No event appears too small or tangential to the town’s history to go unmentioned. Which makes the absence of a marker at the site of the bombing that killed Mattie Green more pronounced.

Monument in Lafayette, Georgia. Photograph by Cameron Kunzelman

“BECAUSE THEY WERE BLACK”

 

 

 

 

“Personal grudge” remains the standard explanation for the killing. When asked in a phone call about race relations in Ringgold, local historian William “Bill” Clark, a member of the Catoosa County Historical Society and a constant source in the footnotes of the town’s many historical markers, echoed Sheriff Stewart: “Looking back at it, I don’t think Mattie’s death was a race problem. I think it was probably somebody’s personal problem.”

His evidence? “Just gut feeling. Just the fact that...there was no tension in the air that would create something like that. There was no reason for it.”

Eerily, his wording echoes the headline of the single story the local newspaper wrote about the bombing. “No Race Tension Here,” the Catoosa County News declared on May 25, 1960, just over a week after Green’s killing.

Racial violence recurs in reporting about Ringgold and the surrounding area in the 1950s and ’60s. Although the 1960 U.S. census shows the Black population of Catoosa County numbered a paltry 307 of 21,101 residents, the historical record abounds with racist terror. In 1957, Ringgold resident and World War I veteran Phillip Huggins found seven sticks of unexploded dynamite under his porch, two months after men showed up to his property and told him to leave the county. That same year another Black Ringgold resident, Jim Reynolds, was a victim of arson and was also told to leave the county by a group of robed men.

Across the county line, in Rossville, Georgia, in January 1957, a crowd of three hundred people descended on a farm that employed a Black worker and set fire to a shack. Months later, a home in Chattanooga owned by R. H. Craig, a Black labor advocate, was shot into, bombed, and subjected to cross burnings. Later that year, a two-week period produced three bombings of Black areas in the city, which was about twenty percent Black at the time. This is just one year in one stretch along the Tennessee-Georgia border.

And these are just the accounts that rose to the level of news. In 1959, Dan, a Black dairy farmhand in the Catoosa town Wood Station, was kidnapped by Klansmen and chased out of the county. Author Janie Watts, now seventy, whose family owned the farm, recalled in a phone interview the Ku Klux Klan being highly active at the time, an account supported by NAACP records, FBI surveillance records, and other Catoosa residents. When she and her sister would visit the farm from their home in nearby Chattanooga, they’d pass blazing crosses. “Oh, that’s the Klan,” her father would explain matter-of-factly.

Similar accounts continue annually into 1960, a year in which the Chattanooga area would see at least eight bombings, including that of the Greens, by August. And that’s just bombings. In February 1960, the homes of Hattie Calhoun Adams and Vivian Grogan, residents of Chickamauga, Georgia, another Catoosa County town, were rocked by shotgun blasts in the middle of the night.

Nationwide, violence against Black people at the time often followed Black-organized boycotts and protests, as well as acts of Black mobility such as integration of neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools that challenged the foundational premises of Jim Crow communities. This was the case in February 1960 in Chattanooga, when lunch counter demonstrations led by students from a Black high school were met by violent white mobs. “At almost every point when some change in the Negro’s status in the South has been proposed” reporter George McMillan wrote, “the reply of Southern officials has been that the change would bring on ‘trouble.’”

It’s tempting to attribute the Chattanooga area’s stretch of carnage to a specific group. Dixie Klans, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc.—a loose network of Klan chapters based in Anniston, Alabama; Rossville, Dalton, and Lafayette, Georgia; and Chattanooga—are listed in the original FBI file as suspects for Mattie Green’s death. Congressional reports from the 1960s note these Klansmen had a reputation for bloodthirst, and their trigger-happiness caused them to be ousted from a larger Klan organization. One 1960 FBI report, unearthed by Courthouse News in 2019, quotes a confidential informant as having heard the leader of the Dixie Klans praise the bombing of the Greens. The mention offers no hard evidence, but the story suggests a link.

Veazey said he did not have access to this particular file during his investigation of Mattie Green’s death. Using it might have opened up a “plethora of options,” he speculated, but he was still working against the tide.

I was able to obtain the trove of FBI reports from which the Courthouse News find came. The documents detail the FBI’s surveillance of splinter Klan groups during that time. The Dixie Klans was one of many small offshoots planning to consolidate to compete with the Atlanta-based U.S. Klans, one of the period’s dominant Klan groups. The surveilled Klansmen do mention acts of violence, but the Klansmen knew they had been infiltrated, so there’s a chance their statements were fabrications, misdirects, or elisions. There’s also no way to know the reliability of the unidentified informants or whether the FBI coerced them into being moles. As is the case with the unresolved bombings before and after that of the Greens, the documents widen rather than narrow the story.

Nonetheless, I do keep wondering about Sheriff Stewart. I asked Veazey if Stewart, who died in 1986 and remains venerated in Ringgold, was a Klansman, a rumor two sources had offered without prompt. “I really can’t say,” Veazey said, reflecting on his findings during the investigation. “Would I be surprised if he was? Probably not. Would I be surprised if he wasn’t?...I really don’t know. I know this: The Klan was there in Ringgold. And I know this about the Klan. It hides in plain sight among people that you don’t really know or think would be involved in that.”

Numbers listed for Stewart’s son were disconnected when I called. Although he was ultimately unable to collar anyone, Veazey said he has no doubts about the core facts of the case. “I do know this, and you can quote me on this,” he said. Whoever bombed the Greens “put dynamite under that house because they were Black.”

The battlefield’s scope gloms to my brain for weeks, my imagination working overtime to conjure what a park commemorating the forever war on Blackness might look like.

GRAND DESIGNS

 

 

 

I think often of Anna Ruth’s dutiful guardianship of her mother’s legacy as Cameron and I leave Ringgold and visit historical sites in nearby Walker and Chattooga Counties. Ringgold’s love of local history is shared by its neighbors, especially when it comes to the Civil War. Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park sprawls for miles and evokes the scale of the battleground in granular detail. Markers and statues pepper the landscape, arranged with pointillist detail among the oaks and pines. Placards relay the minute movements of flanks and troops. Cannons peer across cleared plains. Even when I see a maintenance cart weave through the props, the grandeur holds. Chickamauga presents local history as world stage: panoramic, spectacular, momentous.

Cameron recalls relatives dragging him to the park as a kid. For hours, they’d look for the graves of distant kin, someone, usually an uncle, waxing about war. Although the site commemorates a Civil War battle, locally it functions as a memorial for all American wars, Cameron says, its sweeping vistas invoking trenches and fronts oceans away. The battlefield’s scope gloms to my brain for weeks, my imagination working overtime to conjure what a park commemorating the forever war on Blackness might look like.

Chickamauga turns out to be the outlier among the many sites and markers we visit, most of which are small and nondescript, planted at the edges of parking lots or in random nooks of side streets. A few placards and statues bear the marks of federal and state agencies like the Department of the Interior and the former Georgia Historical Commission, but most are the product of private local groups. The predilections and blind spots of this distinct breed of history buffs—folks who are equally eager to assemble hyper-local knowledge, attend municipal budget meetings, and fill out grant applications—play an outsized role in what gets commemorated and what gets obscured. But I hesitate to scapegoat them. Although I stifle a sour laugh when Clark describes a bomb placed under a Southern Black family’s house in the middle of the night in 1960 as a personal conflict, his view does not exist in a vacuum.

The Ringgold city website ends its narration of the city’s history at Reconstruction, a common punctuation point in stories of the South. Beverly Foster, president of the nearby Walker County African American Historical and Alumni Association, formed her group two decades ago after being baffled by the limited understanding of history in the county. Meeting with other historical groups, she was tickled by their fetish for the Civil War and its bookends, she told me over the phone. “I said, look, you all concentrate on thirty-something years. And you done forgot about the other one hundred and fifty years that Walker County been in existence. Not only for the Black community, but the white community. They don’t tell the history of what the white folks have done in the last one hundred and fifty years either! It’s funny. Everything, even on church property, they got a mural and it’s all about the Civil War.” She paused for comedic effect before saying it again. “On the church property.”

As I stand in the segregated graveyard, my eyes keep drifting toward the fence. It radiates power despite its obvious weakness, despite its outright stupidity. There’s no reason for it. It’s so short I could hop it without a running start. It’s so rusted I could kick it down. It’s so goddamn old it would probably topple if I leaned on it. I don’t do any of these things, though. I just glare at it from afar, the way a dog eyes a stranger. It is not the feeble relic my wrath wants it to be. It is here, in this era, strong as ever, flexing. Removing it, I realize, is a task for us all.





Stephen Kearse

Stephen Kearse is assistant editor at Spotlight PA and a contributing writer for the Nation. He’s from Riverdale, Georgia.