Sunday, May 22, 2011

Are We Murderers? My Meeting with Frank De Felitta

I am forewarning you that this post is full of ideas that are so overused that I fear they've lost their meaning.  I use phrases here that are at best clichés and at worst a joke.  Why?  Because today I met a truly great man and I want to tell a small part of his story as honestly as I can.  

The truth is that I will probably never see him again, so I have absolutely no motivation to puff him up.  I am not writing this piece under duress, but I am writing it from a state of great admiration and respect. 

Before this afternoon I knew that a national news crew went to Greenwood in the hopes of finding the “true” story of race relations in 1965.  I didn’t know that the vision for this film was really born of one man’s eagerness to literally change the world. 

The phrase “change the world” is itself a cliché.  It sounds both too big and yet, too simple.  It is bright-eyed and overly idealistic.  But this simple idea is the heartbeat of this story.  Regular people can make a difference. 

Booker Wright boldly told the world what was really in his heart.  Frank De Felitta made it possible for him to do it.

Today, when I sat down with Frank I asked him why he wanted to make “Mississippi: A Self Portrait” in the first place.  I wanted to understand what it was that made him interested in the plight of blacks in the Deep South during the civil rights movement.  If you haven’t seen the whole film, you can find links for each part here, here, here, here, and here.

Frank fought in World War II as a flyer.  When the war was officially over, he was asked to tour the concentration camps and assist in collecting data.  What he saw horrified him.  Seeing the bodies and realizing how the Jews were tortured and murdered shocked Frank into a lonely depression that took years for him to climb out of.  He found himself questioning religion and humanity.  Eventually, he rebuilt his life one move at a time.  He had no experience working as a writer and no formal writing training, but he decided to start writing anyway.

He wrote and wrote and wrote, submitting pieces here and there.  Eventually a piece that he penned was picked up by The Whistler.  In the years to come, Frank would go on to write both novels and screenplays.  He would produce, and direct for the stage, for TV, and for film.  We can thank Frank De Felitta for two classic horror flicks The Entity and Audrey Rose.   We can also thank him for numerous other works of thoughtful filmmaking that his son is bringing to the masses on his YouTube channel.   

During his early years as a filmmaker, Frank had a good friend who traveled through the southern states collecting music for Folkways (which is now part of the Smithsonian).  Frank has a gift for knowing a good story when he hears one and he thought that this man’s travels would make an interesting film. 

So, Frank traveled through the south and made a film about jazz.  The film is called “They Hit a Blue Note: Music of the South” and it’s excellent.  This film can be viewed on YouTube.  It appears there in six parts.  It was tricky for me to find all the links so here they are: one, two, three, four, five, and six

This film is about the music, yes.  But it dives deep into telling the story of the slave traditions that gave birth to jazz.  The film clearly shows Frank’s interest in exploring the evolution of black life in the south.  He tells this piece of the story with a curiosity that’s underscored with tenderness.  The best description of “They Hit a Blue Note” is on Frank’s son’s blog, here

When Frank was in the south making "Blue Note" he said that what he observed made him feel like he was being confronted once again with his experience in the concentration camps.  He was conflicted by the way blacks in the south were living.  He wondered, “Why does it have to be like this?”  One of his companions told him that this is the way of the world and that you can’t change it.  Frank simply said, “Well, maybe if we do something we can change it.” 

Not long after this trip Frank read an article in the New York Times that was written by a man named Hodding Carter.  Not only did the article address the way that blacks in the Deep South were fairing, it also put forth the idea that people who saw the atrocities in black America and then did nothing about it, were themselves like murderers.  The question, “Are we murderers?” simply would not leave Frank. 

This article, coupled with Frank’s own experiences in the Deep South, drove him to make “Mississippi: A Self-Portrait.” 

I know what you’re thinking.  Can it really be that simple?  Yes, it can be.  Frank De Felitta was a filmmaker.  When he was faced with an opportunity to confront injustice he didn’t go out and run for office.  He picked up his camera and told the story. 

Booker was a waiter.  When faced with an opportunity to confront injustice he sang his menu and told the world what it felt like to be a black waiter in the south.  He didn’t become a leader in the NAACP.  He stood in his restaurant and simply told the truth. 

Hodding Carter was a newspaper man from a small town.  When he was faced with an opportunity to confront injustice he wrote story after story that illustrated the horrors that blacks experienced every day in Mississippi

Sometimes we can feel that we’re not in a position to do something big enough to change the world.  Maybe that’s the great lie.  The truth is that each of us gets that opportunity once or even many times in a lifetime.  It doesn’t have to mean selling all that we own and moving to a war-torn country to provide aid for the newly impoverished, although it could for some.  Maybe we all are meant to “change the world” around us in one very specific way.  We might have very real and very tangible opportunities float right past us as we move through our daily lives.  We just need the eyes to see them.  

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Was Black Life Cheap Life?

I'm speechless.  For those of you who think that blacks just need to get over it or that the only problem we had before the civil rights movement pertained to voting...read this excerpt from pages 14-15 of "I've Got the Light of Freedom" by Charles Payne.

"In 1944, the Reverend Isaac Simmons was farming 295 acres of land in Amite County.  For a couple of years, a group of white men had been trying to get him to sell the land, but he had no interest in that.  Simmons, sixty-six years of age, went to a lawyer to make certain that there would be no trouble transferring the property to his children.  Word of his visit to the lawyer got out.  On the morning of March 26, six armed white men picked up Simmons and one of his sons and drove them to a thickened area where Simmons was told to get out of the car. He tried to run, but two shotgun blasts caught him in the back.  The killers then reloaded the shotgun, walked over to where he had fallen, and shot him a third time.  His son, who had been forced to watch, was beaten and given ten days to get off the land.  When the son returned with friends to reclaim his father's body, he found that all of his father's teeth had been knocked out with a club - presumably after he was already dead - and his arm broken and his tongue cut out.

Such mutilation - parading dead bodies around the town, shooting or burning bodies already dead, severing body parts and using them for souvenirs, using corkscrews to pull spirals of flesh from living victims or roasting people over slow fires - were as much a part of the ritual of lynching as the actual killing.  They sent a more powerful message than straightforward killing would have sent, graphically reinforcing the idea that Negroes were so far outside the human family that the most inhuman actions could be visited upon them."

Wow.  In 1944 a black man was murdered in front of his son because he had too much land and too much money.  I think I can confidently say that the men who murdered him were never brought to justice and probably never even arrested or questioned.

Years ago I heard someone say that "black life is cheap life."  I think this account does an excellent job at illustrating the way that some people valued black life in the Delta during the 1940's.

There are several societal problems that this account illuminates.  I think one of the most interesting aspects of these events is that the men who committed the murder had the audacity to do it in the first place.

Also, Reverend Simmons had no place to go for help.  Imagine living in a world where the police will not protect you because you're black.  You can't trust your attorney to keep your business confidential because you're black.  Your interests and your concerns are like moves on a board games...incidental and not a part of real life or the life that society is willing to acknowledge.

How could you wake up every morning knowing that all that you're working for could be ripped away from you if the wrong person gets wind of your success.  Imagine having no laws to protect you and no one to care about your story.

The time in which these events took place is also telling to me.  So much of what many people know about saving, wealth building, and the like tends to come from our families.  I wonder if some blacks purposely avoided wealth in order to avoid harassment or even death.  Maybe they understood that if they appeared to have more than the average white man, they would have a target on their back.

My father was born in 1950 not more than a few hours from where these events occurred.  Then men who committed this murder may still be alive.  Even if they're not, their children certainly are.  If they had so little value for black life, what did they teach their children?  Do those children run companies?

These issues are not dead because these people are not dead.  There is a legacy of hate, fear, and oppression that still lingers with us.  It stains us and colors our interactions.  We can deny it, but it will defy and confound us.  We must tell the truth and embrace all of its terrible complexities.  The idea that we are post race is a naive joke.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Lloyd Cork Murder Trial

A few days ago I received the Lloyd Cork court transcripts in the mail.  Lloyd Cork is the man who murdered my grandfather, Booker Wright.  The murder was committed in 1973 and Cork is still in prison today.

I thumbed through the file when I received it Monday night.  There were two documents in there that contained copies of handwritten notes from Cork.

I found myself studying his handwriting.  It didn't look like the handwriting of a murderer.  I guess I thought it would be sloppy with each letter a different size than the one next to it.  Maybe I was expecting his writing to be sinister and scary like random letters pulled together in a ransom note.  Instead it was slanted.  His penmanship seems slow, deliberate, and somehow effeminate.

I woke up early this morning so that I could read through the entire file before my day got going.  There were some things about this file that really bothered me.  Here's the email I sent to David, the producer, after reading it.

"A few things about this case are giving me pause.  

The defense didn't call a single witness.  After the state was finished with all of their witnesses, people who actually saw Blackie shoot Booker, the defense made a motion to have the judge declare Blackie Not Guilty on the grounds that: 

'the State has failed to make out a case against this defendant and there is no evidence in the record from which to sustain a conviction on the charge for which the defendant has been indicted, and that the evidence adduced in this Court does not show that the defendant is guilty of any charge whatsoever.'

Really?  

I wonder if Blackie had Atticus Finch defending him if anything would've been done differently.  Is he also a "victim" (it turns my stomach to use that word) of the times.  My dad said about Blackie that he 'came from a family that had let him down.'  Is it possible that his attorneys just have phoned it in.  I know that's a huge accusation, and I know so little about law.  Should I even care about this?  He did kill my grandfather.

On Sunday when I met with my mom we spoke just briefly about Blackie.  I told her that he was coming up for parole again, immediately she said that he needed to stay in jail for the rest of his life.  

I don't know why, but the more that I read this the sicker I feel. "

Monday, May 16, 2011

Dinner with the Experts

Last week I went to a graduation dinner for my good friend Dr. Sherry Rankins-Robertson.  She finished her PhD in English Rhetoric and invited a small gathering of family and friends to celebrate with her at a Italian restaurant in Tempe.  Sweet Sherry strategically placed me next to Dr. Keith Miller, an expert in the rhetoric of the civil rights movement.  I was seated across from Dr. Duane Roen, an expert in family history writing.  Dr. Roen has actually written about his children every single day for longer than I can remember...30, maybe even 40 years.  Anyway, I took the opportunity to pick their brains about the book I hope to write and about this research.

Dr Miller recommended that I read "I've Got the Light of Freedom" by Charles Payne.  He also recommended a few other biographies like "Coming of Age in Mississippi" by Ann Moody.  I ordered "I've Got the Light of Freedom" and it was delivered within a few days.  The entire book, over 400 pages, is about the civil rights movement in Greenwood, MS.  It's about the people who didn't make it into the history books, the ones who weren't martyred on a national stage.  It's a close examination of a true grassroots movement that was pushed along by the efforts of everyday people.  I can't believe that an entire book was written on civil rights from the perspective of Greenwood, MS.

The moment I realized that this book was so closely connected to Greenwood, I immediately flipped to the appendix to see if there was a mention of Booker's Place or Booker Wright.  Nothing.  But hopefully, the book will provide some good sources.

I explained to Dr. Roen and Dr. Miller that I feel daunted by the idea of writing a solid non-fiction book about Booker Wright that would read like good fiction.  I feel limited by the truth and the difficulty I'm having corroborating some of the stories I've heard.  Dr. Roen expressed that there was still so much research to be done, that I was really at the tip of the iceberg.  He asked me if I'd seen the court transcripts from the trial.  This hadn't even occurred to me.

The very next day I called the courthouse.  I told the woman on the phone that I wanted to look into getting a copy of the court transcripts from the trial of the man who murdered my grandfather, Lloyd Louis Cork.  She put me on hold for a few brief minutes.  When she got back on the phone she told me that she remembered the trial.

"This was Booker Wright's murder, wasn't it."

"Yes, my grandfather was Booker Wright."

"Well, are you asking for this or is --- (M.W.) asking for this?"

Again, my legitimacy is questioned because everyone in this town associates him with her.

"No, she's not asking.  I am Booker's granddaughter from a woman he was married to before (M.W.)  I've been in contact with (M.W.).  Do I need her to call you to make this request?"

Thankfully, she agreed to send it to me.  I guess my acknowledging that I knew M.W. was enough to convince her that I am who I say I am.  I really hope that we can get M.W. on board with this project.  I get the feeling that people from Greenwood will question the authenticity of this work if we don't have her buy in.

I made the call on Thursday, today is Monday and the file is sitting on my desk.