This post by Andrew Toler is an addition to our series of Alabama book notes. Toler is a 2020 graduate of the University of Alabama School of Law and worked with Litera Scripta editors as a research assistant in the special collections and archives of the Bounds Law Library.
Review of Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
By Andrew Toler
Before the publication of Go Set a Watchman—only eight months before her death—the literary community had come to accept the fact that Harper Lee would likely publish only one book. Upon hearing the news that Lee would, in fact, publish another book, many residents of Alexander City, Alabama assumed that it would be the one that she had worked on for decades about one of the Tallapoosa County city’s most infamous residents.
The book, which Lee abandoned for good in 1987, would obviously never see the light of day—under Lee’s name, at least. In her first book, Casey Cep brings to life both the story that Lee wanted to tell in The Reverend (Lee’s working title for the unfinished book) as well as the story of Lee: her life, struggles, relationships, and complexities. In three parts and 23 digestible chapters, Cep brings to life the story of three main people: the Reverend Willie Maxwell, his attorney Tom Radney, and Harper Lee, the famous author who attempted to write a true crime story about the Maxwell case.
The story that Lee wanted to turn into a true crime book in the style of In Cold Blood—which she helped research with its author, her longtime friend Truman Capote—is chillingly told by Cep in the first part of Furious Hours. Born in 1925, the Reverend Willie Maxwell was a tradesman and lay Baptist minister in Tallapoosa County, Alabama. Although at first respected in the small communities of Tallapoosa County, suspicion began to swirl around Maxwell after several of his relatives and associates—five before he was through—died under suspicious circumstances. The suspicion in the community included allegations of voodoo practices: unfounded allegations that were likely rooted in racism against African-Americans, but which the media—both local and national—devoured. Instead of voodoo, the most likely cause of the deaths was the dark power of life insurance, as Maxwell had life insurance policies on every single victim of the suspicious deaths. As a matter of fact, Maxwell was often in dire financial straits during the time of the deaths—which ranged from 1969-1977. Although the story is better told by Cep, the string of deaths of those close to Maxwell finally came to an end in 1977 with his own abrupt demise—shot to death at the funeral of his last victim.
Before his death, however, Maxwell needed his insurance money. And many life insurance companies refused to pay him, given the suspicious nature of the deaths of those on whom the Reverend held insurance. So the Reverend turned to the courts to get the money that he felt he was owed. Tom Radney, the lawyer that helped Maxwell sue the insurance companies—and also successfully defended him against charges of homicide related to the deaths—is the centerpiece of the second part of Cep’s work.
The Bounds Law Library has published its ninth Occasional Publication, titled Law and Miscellaneous Works: The Lives and Careers of Joel White and Amand Pfister, Booksellers and Publishers. The book features biographical essays by David I. Durham and Paul M. Pruitt, Jr. and an essay by Michael H. Hoeflich analyzing Pfister and White’s printed catalogs. In addition, the book contains facsimile images of White and Pfister’s catalogs and other documents, including White’s correspondence with publishers. Emigrants to antebellum Tuscaloosa, White and Pfister separately operated bookshops, built up clienteles, and began to publish books. When the state capital moved to Montgomery in 1846 they moved with it and soon established a partnership. Following Pfister’s death in 1857, White continued in the business of bookselling and publishing; his most notable author was Tuscaloosa lawyer and politician William R. Smith, author of The History and Debatesof the Convention of the People of Alabama (1861). After secession White undertook a clandestine mission to acquire large quantities of high-grade paper for the Confederate government. Following his own personal Reconstruction, White served as publisher of the Alabama Reports (vols. 50-83), working with the clerks, lawyers, and reporters attached to that institution. All the while he continued to operate his bookstore until shortly before his death in 1896. Law and Miscellaneous Works reveals a little-known world of nineteenth-century southern booksellers and small-scale publishers and places it in the context of regional and national affairs.
Take the opportunity to visit our exhibit “Alice in Court” located in the main hall of UA’s Law Library before it is replaced. The following post, “Alice in Court,” seeks to describe the legal aspects of one of the world’s great fantasy stories–Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. The exhibit includes works in a Lewis Carroll collection assembled by Litera Scripta co-editor Paul M. Pruitt, Jr.
Summary and Commentary:
On the afternoon of July 4, 1862, Charles Dodgson of Christ Church and Robinson Duckworth of Trinity, young Oxford dons, rowed three miles up the river Isis. They were accompanied by three young daughters of Christ Church dean Dr. H.G. Liddell and by Miss Prickett, the girls’ governess. By most accounts it was a golden afternoon.
Certainly it was golden for Dodgson—for in the course of rowing and picnicking he spun a long story in which the ten-year-old Alice (his particular favorite) followed a White Rabbit down a rabbit hole into the realm of Wonderland.
At her request he wrote and rewrote the tale, publishing it in 1865 under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It has since appeared in many editions, not to mention some three dozen films or tv shows.
Carroll’s purpose, to be sure, is to entertain, yet his Alice must deal with a series of animal and human characters who are self-willed, indifferent to her well-being, even dangerous—just like certain types of people who inhabit what we are pleased to call the real world. At the same time Alice’s new acquaintances may be poignantly bizarre, relentlessly and wrong-headedly logical, and (more often than not) determined to recite poetry or hear it recited. Beyond the inspired nonsense that Alice hears and speaks, there are grown-up dimensions to several of these encounters. Many of Carroll’s episodes summon up topical issues (of law, psychology, and social class, among others) that are very much alive today.
It was Carroll’s genius to place the challenging scenes of Wonderland in a dreamlike setting and to seed his story with rollicking puns, jokes, and verses. All of these elements are heightened by Alice’s childlike candor and inquisitiveness. The story is told from her perspective, which allowed Carroll to make excellent use of the “real” Alice Liddell’s independent-minded personality. Surely, Carroll was a pioneer in following a child’s path through a satirically informed world. Mark Twain (another pseudonymous writer) would not perfect his master creation, Huckleberry Finn, for another twenty years.
Carroll was acutely aware that children, more than the rest of us, experience abrupt physical transformations. In the course of the narrative, Alice must cope with sudden changes in her own size, beginning with her first explorations at the bottom of the rabbit hole. There she experiences sudden shrinkage after drinking from a bottle labeled “DRINK ME” and rapid growth after eating a cake marked “EAT ME.” After shedding copious tears, she shrinks again (the result of holding the White Rabbit’s fan) and finds that she is swimming in a pool of her own tears. There Alice meets number of animals, including a Dodo—widely assumed to be a self-caricature of Dodgson. They all dry off by means of a “Caucus Race” (a jab at Parliamentary politics), at the conclusion of which the Dodo announces: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”
The editors of Litera Scripta have taken pleasure, over a number of years, in talking about Alabama’s Civil War and Reconstruction with University of Alabama Law School alumnus Christopher McIlwain. Throughout many conversations and exchanges of emails, we have been impressed at the range of Chris’ knowledge and astonished at the all-inclusive scope of his research. It was clear to us that his book, when published, would be an original contribution to Alabama history. Specifically, Civil War Alabama is a long-overdue assessment of Alabama Unionists, a surprisingly numerous group whose fate has hitherto been either to be maligned or to be ignored. In this connection we are delighted to publish a second book note by G. Ward Hubbs of Birmingham-Southern College, author of Searching for Freedom after the Civil War: Klansman, Carpetbagger, Scalawag, and Freedman.
Civil War Alabama
By Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr.
Generations of Alabamians have had but one account of the Civil War in Alabama: Walter Lynwood Fleming’s 1905 Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. While those steeped in the Lost Cause found it reassuring, even uplifting, modern readers and especially historians blush. Oddly enough, the war itself is but the opening act for Fleming’s real interest: Reconstruction. The first 57 pages of Fleming’s tome are devoted to the sectional crisis and secession; the war engages 186 pages; and an extraordinary 552 pages, the rest of the book, is spent painstakingly detailing the atrocities said to have been committed on white Alabamians during Reconstruction. Fleming’s topical approach—which highlights certain events while de-emphasizing, obscuring, or even omitting others—allows him to pick and choose how the former Confederates (nearly all the white population, according to him) endured those years at the hands of an oppressive occupying government. That Alabama’s citizens were overwhelmingly united in supporting the Confederacy is taken as a given. Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama may be the most emblematic example of the Dunning School (named for William A. Dunning of Columbia University, Fleming’s graduate-school professor) that held sway nationally during the first half of the twentieth century. And it held sway in Alabama for even longer as no one has published a comprehensive study challenging Fleming’s interpretation.
After over two decades of careful research into primary documents, Chris McIlwain’s Civil War Alabama could not be more different from Fleming’s Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. To begin with, McIlwain does not present the war topically but rather as a narrative—warts and all—from William Lowndes Yancey agitating in Montgomery to Mayor Robert Slough surrendering in Mobile. The result is more complex, even, than we might have expected. McIlwain, himself a lawyer, points to the crucial role that Alabama’s bar played in moving the state towards disunion. He also amasses indisputable evidence regarding the centrality of the institution of slavery in the decision to secede. McIlwain’s narrative approach becomes especially important in tracing the war itself because it allows him to integrate political, economic, social, and military events in ways that Fleming never could or would. We see repeatedly, for example, how home front morale fell with battlefield reverses and economic losses. But lukewarm support for, and even antagonism towards, the Confederacy did not begin with battlefield losses or the confiscation of crops.
This point is crucial and represents the book’s main contribution. McIlwain wisely refuses to estimate exactly how many Alabamians were committed to the new government and how many were not. Support and resistance was constantly shifting. About 40 percent of the Secession Convention were Unionists—a fact disguised by their adoption of the name “Cooperationists.” While Fleming and others insist that Cooperationists were mostly just go-slow secessionists, McIlwain reminds us that the term had been used by those who in 1850 resisted secession and that in 1861 the out-and-out secessionists saw no difference between Cooperationists and Unionists.
Confederate fervor soared after the bombs fell on Fort Sumter, yet early Confederate victories did not kill Unionism. Far more than previously acknowledged, a significant portion of the citizenry consistently opposed those who took over the state government and held power for those four years. And that opposition was not confined to isolated Winston County farmers. Dissenters were to be found throughout the state, from the Shoals to Mobile Bay, from the Tombigbee to the Chattahoochee. They were to be found in every profession, from farmers to judges. And they were to be found in every economic stratum, from poor to wealthy. At times it was as if two civil wars were being fought in Alabama. The campaigns would be led in the newspapers by the “generals of the press” as well as on the battlefields by the generals of the armies; the battles would be waged with ballots as well as with bullets. Pleas for peace were made privately as early as 1861 and became increasingly public as the death toll mounted and Union victories in Alabama’s sister states created intense fears of destructive invasions. “The war was very popular,” remembered a west Alabama minister, “until the coffins began to come back from Richmond.” After McIlwain places Alabama’s peace movement in its proper context, he explains its failure to extract Alabama from the war. And he posits the multiple lost opportunities open to Confederate leadership that might have averted destruction of the state’s industrial base and railroad infrastructure—opportunities that came even after Confederate independence had obviously become a hopeless cause.
In discussing the many factors that raised and lowered Alabamians’ morale, McIlwain deftly integrates military events, shortages, inflation, and human loss with passages from letters, diaries, and newspapers. His detailed documentation, which amounts to over a third of the book, represents only a part of what he originally included but had to edit out in order to make the book accessible. A great many of the extant sources about Alabama Unionists have never been used. These new sources generally fall into three categories: articles in out-of-state newspapers or other publications, letters written to individuals living in the North, and materials republished (in southern or northern journals) from Alabama newspapers that were not preserved.
That others have not used these sources raises a tantalizing question. Why, if Unionism was as strong as McIlwain makes it out to be, did it take this long for the evidence to emerge? Although McIlwain does not discuss it in his book, he is convinced that former Confederates intentionally eliminated materials that criticized the Confederacy, the war, or Democratic government. In-state newspapers during the war scarcely mention the Peace Party or troubles with motivation. And I myself have yet to find copies of Republican newspapers printed in Tuscaloosa during Reconstruction, although they probably enjoyed a healthy readership at the time.
If indeed the lack of in-state sources for Alabama Unionism are largely, as he believes, the result of deliberate acts of elimination, then that raises yet another question: Why? Why go to all the trouble of suppressing the record? The answer: To avoid Responsibility. Surely blame for those dead, the untold suffering, and the state’s disastrous economic downturn should not be directed at the Democratic Party and its hothead lawyers? All white Alabamians were in it together, surely? And indeed the defense of the state was a noble, if lost, cause. When all are guilty, then (in practical terms) none is to blame.
But Alabamians were divided, and not united, in leaving the Union and fighting the war. And they would reconstruct Alabama as a state no less divided. Responsibility cannot so easily be cast off.
This post by Dr. G. Ward Hubbs is an addition to our series of Alabama book notes. Hubbs is an archivist and professor emeritus of Birmingham Southern College. He is the author of several books, including Guarding Greensboro: A Confederate Company in the Making of a Southern Community (University of Georgia Press, 2003). In this post he sets forth the salient points of his most recent work, Searching for Freedom After the Civil War: Klansman, Carpetbagger, Scalawag, and Freedman (University of Alabama Press, 2015).
Searching for Freedom recounts the circumstances surrounding the most widely known political cartoon of the post-Civil War era, an image that is commonly found in American history textbooks today. The book presents the lives of the four individuals depicted in that cartoon as they struggled with the great issues of their times. Instead of remaining satisfied with four short biographies, however, the book reconstructs the very different notions of freedom that drove each of the characters.
Searching for Freedom begins with a vivid description of a hot, dusty Alabama afternoon in August 1868. That was when four individuals crossed paths in Tuscaloosa. Dr. Noah Cloud, the newly elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction, was a scalawag (a white native-born Republican) committed to establishing a public school system open to both black and white. The Reverend Arad Lakin, a Methodist minister sent to Alabama to reestablish the national Methodist Church, had recently been elected president of the University of Alabama. Raised in New York, a Union veteran, Lakin was thus a carpetbagger. The editor of the Tuskaloosa Independent Monitor, Ryland Randolph, was also the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan. And Shandy Jones, a black barber and dabbler in real estate, was the leader of the town’s freedmen. Cloud and Lakin were in the City of Oaks, as Tuscaloosa was familiarly known, to reopen the University of Alabama, which the state had been struggling to rebuild since Union cavalrymen had burned it to the ground in the last week of the Civil War. When their attempts to assume leadership of the school were rebuffed, the two turned back and returned to their homes in Montgomery and Huntsville.
Four days later Randolph’s Independent Monitor printed a brutal political cartoon. Entitled “A Prospective Scene in the ‘City of Oaks,’” the stark woodcut depicted Lakin (with the carpetbag) and Cloud hanging from the branch of an oak tree with a donkey (standing for Randolph) emblazoned with the letters “KKK” walking out from under them. Printed two months before the presidential election of 1868, “A Prospective Scene” laid out “the fate in store for those great pests of Southern society—the carpetbagger and scalawag—if found in Dixie’s land” after a Democratic president took his inaugural oath. Although not depicted in the woodcut, the extensive caption threatened Shandy Jones with lynching as well. Here in one cartoon were the four iconic characters from Reconstruction: a Klansman, carpetbagger, scalawag, and freedman.
What led these four to this moment?
The Klansman Ryland Randolph (1835-1903) had an unusually disruptive upbringing, but two episodes stand out: the time he spent with his genteel agnostic uncle and the extended Caribbean tour he took with his father, a high-ranking Navy officer. The former left the young Randolph convinced that the whole idea of God was ridiculous. The latter reinforced his belief that the natural and proper station of the black race was slavery. Back in Alabama, Randolph rubbed elbows with many secessionist firebrands. His role in the Civil War was unexceptional despite serving under Nathan Bedford Forrest, who would later found the Ku Klux Klan.
The end of the fighting left Randolph without prospect or purpose. He found both when he purchased a newspaper in Tuscaloosa, which he immediately turned into a mouthpiece for opposition to social equality and the Republican Party. The newspaper’s motto, “The White Man—Right or Wrong—Still the White Man!” said it all. Every issue printed editorials urging citizens to stand up to the freed people. And Randolph did not limit his invective to print. On the streets he confronted any black man who refused to defer to a white man, and backed up his words with bullets.
Reopening the University of Alabama was a critical partisan issue, for in the hands of the university’s professors lay the state’s hopes for its future—as well as responsibility for assigning blame for the carnage of the 1860s. Cloud and Lakin embodied a nightmarish future, to Randolph’s way of thinking. Upon their arrival he summoned the Klan and published his cartoon. But Northern newspapers reprinted it by the hundreds of thousands, warning readers of what would happen if the Republicans lost the November presidential election. Democrats tried to dismiss it as a joke, but the damage had been done. The Republicans won the 1868 presidential election.
Ryland Randolph’s violent behavior in defense of former Confederates would be easy to dismiss as the unrestrained outpouring of an unprincipled racist. But Randolph’s behavior exhibited a consistency that flowed from his rejection of God and his concept of the People’s (read white people’s) freedom. Without the constraint of religious principles, he viewed the post-war as a brutal time of trials, in which freedom was the endpoint of a zero-sum game. Thus Randolph and his allies believed that they had to be ever vigilant lest their freedom be lost to usurpers. To them, that meant carpetbaggers, scalawags, and the freed people. Randolph was convinced that these opponents were trying to impose an unnatural order on the People—and he concluded that he was empowered to resist them by any means.
While Ryland Randolph was born into Southern wealth, the carpetbagger Arad Lakin (1810-1890) was born into rural poverty. And while Randolph renounced God when he came of age, Lakin embraced the Almighty. He even entered the ranks of the Methodist clergy and during the Civil War served as chaplain to an Indiana regiment.
After the war, the Bishop of Ohio (hence the “Ohio” on the carpetbag portrayed in the cartoon) sent Lakin to Alabama as a missionary for the national Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC). The latter had been excluded from the state since the 1840s, when the denomination had split over slavery. He plunged into his work establishing churches all over north Alabama. His primary constituencies were the poor upland whites and the freed people—those, in other words, who had remained loyal to the Union. In the process, he became active in Republican politics.
The Ku Klux Klan targeted Lakin, not only in the political cartoon but literally. He spent months in the mountains eluding their grasp. On several occasions he barely missed being shot or captured. His long and detailed testimony before the congressional committee investigating Klan activity provides an unparalleled look at these events.
Meanwhile, Lakin’s efforts to establish a biracial MEC in Alabama met with mixed results. He did succeed in creating the Alabama Conference of the MEC in 1867. But white Methodists resisted worshipping alongside black Methodists, and the latter were increasingly drawn to all-black denominations, where they could have a stronger voice. Lakin’s funeral would be preached in a black church that he had founded
Like Randolph, Lakin was empowered by his understanding of freedom; but in this case it was Christian freedom. Protestants often trace their understanding back to Martin Luther’s 1520 essay, On the Freedom of a Christian. There Luther makes an extraordinary statement: “We are free, subject to no one; we are servants, subject to all.” Christian freedom, in other words, involves severing certain bonds—to self and material goods—and appropriating new bonds—to serve God and others. Man was born in chains—to sin—but can be freed to liberate others. Lakin’s life embodied Christian freedom.
Having earning his M.D. in Philadelphia, the scalawag Noah Cloud (1809-1875) nonetheless gave up medicine to plant cotton in east Alabama. One day he observed that his neighbor’s cotton was far superior to his own. The reason was obvious—more fertile soil—and with that, Cloud dedicated his life to promoting scientific agriculture to skeptical Southern planters.
Dr. Cloud began publishing articles and attending agricultural conventions with the fervor of a convert. He started his own journal and rose to become the South’s most renowned scientific agriculturalist. In the process, his efforts won praise from many who would become leaders in the Confederacy. Yet Cloud, a Whig, showed no signs of supporting secession. His Confederate military service consisted of being a member of a “board of examining surgeons” in Savannah.
Dr. Cloud ran for political office after Appomattox—but as a Republican. This was entirely consistent with his Whiggish background but entirely at odds with his former Democratic contemporaries. He won office as Superintendent of Public Instruction and proceeded to create a modern public school system open to all children—black as well as white. This, of course, enraged the former Confederates even more and explains why his arrival with Lakin in Tuscaloosa provoked the cartoon.
The key to understanding Dr. Cloud’s pursuit of scientific agriculture and his later entry into general education lies in his Whiggish intellectual and moral roots. Whigs believed that the educated, prepared, and self-disciplined—free individuals, in other words—could escape ignorance, hidebound habits, and the limitations of birth. Whiggish freedom is thus ordered, purposeful, and placed in our own hands. Whiggish freedom is a ceaseless task of self-creation. Whether pushing for scientific agriculture or an educational system open to all, Cloud preached freedom as liberation from the shackles of ignorance.
Born a slave but freed as a child, Shandy Jones (1816-1886) made his living as a barber, the most lucrative and prestigious profession in which free blacks in the South could engage. He did well in Tuscaloosa, not only raising a large family but amassing a great deal of wealth through real estate investments.
He remained unsatisfied. Beginning in the late 1840s, Jones became Alabama’s leading black advocate for colonization to Liberia. Liberty in Liberia: therein, he believed, lay hope. In Africa black people could create their own schools, worship in their own churches, come and go as they wished. No matter how well Jones did, he could never rest easy; for Jones represented the worst of white fears—proof that black people could, in fact, govern themselves. As such, Jones was under constant legal and social sanctions.
With the end of slavery, Jones became actively involved in founding churches and schools. He continued to support colonization, but black suffrage and the election of new Republican state officials turned his hopes to changing Alabama. He won election to the state House of Representatives from Tuscaloosa. The election of Dr. Cloud and the appointment of Lakin held special significance because the two had both the power and commitment to create biracial schools and churches, and Jones believed that his son would become the first black student at the University of Alabama—a century before that milestone would be reached. His dream quickly died as Ryland Randolph and the Klan forced Jones to flee Tuscaloosa for Mobile, where he ended his days as pastor of the Little Zion Church.
As a black man and former slave, freedom had an immediate and physical sense for Jones that the other three could only imagine. His bondage had been dictated by the color of his skin and the status of his enslaved mother; but his freedom depended on mere ink on paper. What had been given could be taken away. The possibility of its arbitrary cancellation must have hung over his head. Hence it is small wonder that Shandy Jones looked for freedom in another place, ultimately in the freedom of Hope.
The essence of Searching for Freedom can be found in the book’s last sentence: “Everyday life is saturated with ideas, values, and meaning.” Indeed, those deeply held convictions about freedom held by these everyday people, long forgotten, are with us still.
Born in Andalusia, Alabama, in 1930, Justice Hugh Maddox has enjoyed a remarkable career. He graduated in Journalism from the University of Alabama in 1952, having been a writer, columnist, and an associate editor of the Crimson White, after which he served two years in the Air Force before coming here to Law School. Having graduated from law school in 1957, he began a legal career which included clerkships for Judge Aubrey Cates of the Alabama Court of Appeals and Judge Frank M. Johnson of the United States Court for the Middle District of Alabama. Interestingly, he later (1964-1969) served as an advisor to Governors George C. Wallace, Lurleen B. Wallace, and Albert P. Brewer. Subsequently he served (1969-2001) as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama.
In the early 1970s, Maddox read books and told stories to his little daughter Jane. She liked his stories, so he decided to write and illustrate one for her. The subject that he chose, “crop diversification,” may not be an obvious choice for a child’s book. But Maddox was trying to dramatize a turning point of twentieth-century Alabama history, and he would do so by following the path blazed by Aesop’s talking animals. The artwork was no problem for Maddox, who had long enjoyed drawing and painting, and was known to keep India ink, a pen, and clean paper in his office.
The result, first published in 1976, was Billy Boll Weevil: A Pest Becomes a Hero. The text and drawings follow Billy in his quest to make friends with a farm family. We meet Billy’s grandfather and other creatures, including a kindly bee who tells Billy to “Do something good” for the farmer. Of course Billy and his kindred can’t very well stop feeding on cotton plants—a collective appetite which had brought the south’s economy to the verge of collapse in the early twentieth century. So instead Billy follows the bee’s suggestion and tells the farmer to start planting peanuts. The farmer takes the hint. Before long Billy is a hero, and the local people have put up a monument to him (as indeed happened in 1919 in Enterprise, Alabama).
Not many writers have made use of talking insects—apart from Lewis Carroll, who employed an articulate caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a melancholy gnat in Through the Looking Glass. Maddox pulls it off by keeping his dialogue simple, almost formulaic. “When you write children’s books,” he once said, “you’ve got to put yourself back in a child’s position.” Thus, as Montgomery Advertiser reporter Kelly Dowe observed of Billy: “He cries when he is sad. He runs when he is afraid.”
Justice Maddox has reissued Billy Boll Weevil twice (1994 and 2013), recently including information on the National Peanut Festival and on the life and work of Dr. George Washington Carver, the brilliant Tuskegee University researcher who persuasively argued for crop diversification (especially peanut cultivation) in the south.
Finally, it may not be amiss to note that the Boll Weevil is portrayed in regional folk culture in a way that echoes some of Billy’s concerns. One version of “The Boll Weevil Song” has the singer state that “The first time I saw the boll weevil/He was sitting on a square./The next time I saw the boll weevil/He had all his family there./ They were lookin’ for a home,/Just lookin’ for a home.”
Our readers may be aware that the University of Alabama School of Law is co-sponsor, with the American Bar Association, of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. The winner for 2015 is Deborah Johnson’s powerful and evocative novel The Secret of Magic, set in post-World War II Mississippi. The following is an appreciation of The Secret of Magic, contributed by essayist and literary critic Philip D. Beidler, who is the Margaret and William Going Professor of English at the University of Alabama.
“An Appreciation of The Secret of Magic”
As someone whose favorite twentieth century American novelists are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zora Neale Hurston—and who themselves, to my thinking, in The Great Gatsby and Their Eyes Were Watching God, came close to stylistic perfection—I was gripped from the first sentences onward by Deborah Johnson’s The Secret of Magic. It was a text possessing from the outset that rare thing writers talk about—voice; an author in command of a style; in this case not first-person witness, as in Fitzgerald, free indirect speech, as in Hurston, or childhood reminiscence, as in Harper Lee. Here in The Secret of Magic, we encounter the familiar omniscience of traditional realism, but with a stunning versatility—narration, description, dialogue, interior monologue, along with flashback, jump cut, interweavings of parallel texts. Altogether it makes for a completeness of what Henry James called “density of detail, solidity of specification, the air of reality”—or, to cite his fellow combatant in the realism wars, W.D. Howells, the world brought back to us “in faithful effigy.”
One more invocation, perhaps the most relevant here, might be Conrad. The task of fiction, he famously once said, was “to make you see.” Accordingly, from the beginning, for all its commingled sadness and horror, Johnson’s narrative makes a claim that the reader must not be allowed to look away. A black, highly decorated World War II lieutenant returning in uniform to his home in the fictional town of Revere, Mississippi, is dragged off a bus at the Alabama Mississippi state line, for refusing to give up his seat to a while German prisoner from a nearby internment camp, and savagely beaten to death. A young, black, female civil rights lawyer from New York is summoned to investigate the circumstances of the crime and its quick dismissal in the local courts. The author of the invitation is an aging, eccentric, white aristocrat famous for a best-seller about the childhood adventures of white and black playmates that has made her a cult author in literary circles and a political pariah banned in her own state.
Johnson’s book, meanwhile, reveals its own literary ambitions as a classic of current stylistics and textual practice. In an old phrase from high-school English, one might begin by calling it a roman a clef—a novel with a key. Thurgood Marshall is a major character. Mary Pickett Calhoun, private, reclusive author of the original Secret of Magic, bears more than an occasional resemblance to Nelle Harper Lee. The young female attorney is modeled on the pioneering Civil Rights figure Constance Baker Motley. The murder of a decorated black veteran is based on an actual incident. As to technical sophistication, this adds up to something more like what we would now call a nonfiction novel. There are imaginary conversations, out-of-life adventures, a complex dramatic structure. Meanwhile this is all combined with what is frequently called magical realism or literary metafiction. Most important is the plot whereby the titular book The Secret of Magic, by Mary Pickett Calhoun, has set the larger novel we are reading, Deborah Johnson’s The Secret of Magic, in motion. The two books then weave in and out of each other until seamlessly converging at the conclusion.
Further, this is no trick of postmodern grandstanding. This is the work of an author of intense literary authority, and of intense moral authority. I could not help thinking, as I read of Peach, Willie Willie, Mr. Lemon, and the children of the Magnolia Forest, of Toni Morison in Song of Solomon. with Milkman, Guitar, Pilate, Hagar, and the old legends of the flying Africans. On a more direct note, I thought of the blood-chilling bus trip with which the novel opens: Tuscaloosa, Gordo, Ethelsville, westward into the Tombigbee towns of Mississippi. I have traveled that road all my adult life. But I never managed to realize as a white person from outside the South just how god forsaken it could be for a black person in the pre-Civil Rights era—or the standard post World War II southern town, the white gentry, the ancient black retainers, the sheriff, the judge, the lawyers, the feral, knuckle-dragging courthouse idlers. I had suspicioned what it was like from Harper Lee, Scout, Jem, Dill, Calpurnia, Atticus, Tom Robinson, and the Ewells and the Cunninghams. I had tried to imagine it on many trips to Maycomb/Monroeville. I had wondered. Now I felt it. Deborah Johnson had made palpable the hatred and the silent terror—the dread undertone of what Houston Baker has called the Long Black Song.
Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., is rightly one of the most celebrated Federal District and U.S. Court of Appeals judges in American history. As a member of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama from 1955-1979, Johnson shaped the legal trajectory of several key Civil Rights Movement cases, including Browder v. Gayle (1956), which challenged the segregation of Montgomery’s bus system in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1961), which challenged the city of Tuskegee’s systemic plan to exclude black voters. In these and numerous other cases, Judge Johnson pioneered judicial methods to address discrimination against African-Americans in education, voting, public transportation, and jury representation. He also ruled in Wyatt v. Stickney (1971), a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case originating in a dispute over Alabama’s Bryce Hospital, which created the basis for minimum standards of care for patients residing in mental health facilities. Judge Johnson was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 1979, and then to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit after the Fifth Circuit split in 1981, where he served until his retirement in 1999.
Recently, Judge Johnson was portrayed in the 2014 film Selma, in which he is played by Martin Sheen. The film briefly dramatizes a few scenes in Judge Johnson’s Montgomery courtroom in which he approved a petition from various civil rights groups including the SCLC and SNCC, to let the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March go forward.
Jack Bass’ Taming the Storm: The Life and Times of Frank M. Johnson, Jr. and the South’s Fight over Civil Rights traces Judge Johnson’s life from his birthplace in Haleyville, Alabama, through his years as a law student at the University of Alabama, his early law practice, and his monumental achievements as a federal judge. Bass illuminates how Johnson’s approach to legal struggles over African-American civil rights came to be so innovative, particularly in his use of judicial powers to fashion equitable relief for racial discrimination. Bass also explores Johnson’s family history and upbringing in Winston County, Alabama, in order to show how and why Johnson came to defy the white South’s commitment to racial segregation.
Before the Civil War, Winston County’s predominately white population mostly worked on small family farms without slaves. The county’s residents had little interest in going to war to preserve slavery, and their representatives in Montgomery voted against secession. Many from the county, including some of Johnson’s ancestors, served in the Union Army. Partly due to this legacy, Johnson’s father belonged to the Republican Party, which in the early twentieth century was still the “party of Lincoln” to the rest of Alabama and the solidly Democratic South. Johnson’s father held a longtime patronage post as postmaster in Haleyville, and later became a probate judge, one of the few Republicans to hold office in Alabama at the time. Johnson’s political background and early life experiences led him to develop the courage, moral fortitude, and convictions that led to his dedication to upholding the law despite threats of violence and the social and political opposition of his peers.
Bass relies heavily on a wealth of primary material, including several years’ worth of interviews with the judge himself, as well as extensive interviews with Judge Johnson’s wife, Ruth, and many of his friends, colleagues, and law clerks. While this approach provides an excellent depiction of Johnson’s immediate personal and professional life, its focus limits the book to the perspective of privileged white professionals. Considering the direct impact that Johnson’s work had on the South’s African-American communities in their fight for civil rights, including voices beyond those that knew Johnson personally might have broadened the book’s depiction of his legacy and provided a more critical perspective on his work.
Bass’ work should be of use to those interested in learning more about Johnson’s life and his significant influence on legal history in both Alabama and also the United States as a whole. Scholars should also seek out Volume 109 of the Yale Law Journal, which was dedicated to celebrating Johnson’s legacy and published shortly after his death. It includes encomiums from John Lewis, a civil rights leader and longtime member of the U.S. House of Representatives; Judge Myron Thompson, Johnson’s replacement in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama; and Ronald Krotoszynski, professor at the University of Alabama’s School of Law and one of Judge Johnson’s former law clerks. Additionally, the Alabama Law Review recently hosted a symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, including an address from Jack Bass. A forthcoming issue of the review will print some of the papers given at the symposium.
In addition to exploring new acquisitions, exhibits, and collections in the Bounds Law Library’s Special Collections, we will occasionally post short book notes on works relevant to Alabama and Southern legal history. We hope to explore both classic and more recent works, from a variety of disciplines and methodologies, with an eye towards illuminating the depth and breadth of the field.
Originally published in 1969, Dan T. Carter’s Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South was the first book-length account of the now infamous story of the Scottsboro Boys. In March of 1931, nine young African-American men, ranging in age from thirteen to twenty years old, were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train traveling from Chattanooga to Memphis. Local law enforcement searched the train near the town of Paint Rock, Alabama, and the trials took place in the nearby city of Scottsboro. The case attracted a great deal of media attention due to the youth of the defendants, the speed of the trials, the all-white jury, and the woefully inadequate nature of defense counsel. With the legal and economic assistance of both the American Communist Party and the NAACP, the cases were ultimately retried three times, resulting in prison sentences for five of the nine. The Scottsboro cases came to symbolize the gross miscarriage of justice that awaited African-Americans in the Jim Crow South. Carter’s book explores the numerous trials, appeals, retrials, lynch mobs, copious media attention, involvement of various political organizations, and eventual U.S. Supreme Court cases that resulted from those events.
The 2007 revised edition of Carter’s classic work adds both a new introduction and a new final chapter, in which Carter explores further repercussions of the Scottsboro Boys cases. Though several of Carter’s sources claimed that the two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, died in the early 1960s, they were in fact both still alive when the book was first published. After a subsequent documentary on the Scottsboro Boys was aired on NBC in 1976, the two women sued the television network for libel. Dr. Carter was called as a witness in the case, which was eventually dismissed. His last chapter recounts his experiences with that trial, as well as his final reflections on the story of the Scottsboro Boys.
Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South should be of particular interest to legal scholars not only for its excellent and detailed account of the many trials, legal and otherwise, endured by the nine young men, but also for its examination of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Powell v. Alabama, that laid the groundwork for Gideon v. Wainwright and the court’s determination that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to counsel.