Today we welcome a guest post from Jessica Ingram, author of Road Through Midnight: A Civil Rights Memorial, available now from UNC Press.
At first glance, Jessica Ingram’s landscape photographs could have been made nearly anywhere in the American South: a fenced-in backyard, a dirt road lined by overgrowth, a field grooved with muddy tire prints. These seemingly ordinary places, however, were the sites of pivotal events during the civil rights era, though often there is not a plaque with dates and names to mark their importance. Many of these places are where the bodies of activists, mill workers, store owners, sharecroppers, children and teenagers were murdered or found, victims of racist violence. Images of these places are interspersed with oral histories from victims’ families and investigative journalists, as well as pages from newspapers and FBI files and other ephemera.
In this post, Ingram considers how we remember victims of racist violence when their killers have never been brought to justice.
Road Through Midnight is now available in print and ebook editions.
When Justice Will Never Come
In 1966, Klan members firebombed civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer’s home in Kelly Settlement, near Hattiesburg, Mississippi, gravely injuring Dahmer and his wife (Dahmer died a few days later). Dahmer’s murderer, Samuel Bowers, was tried five times in the 1960s without a conviction; he was convicted in 1998 on new evidence gathered by investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi. Though the delayed justice is at the least bittersweet, there may be some benefits in obtaining contemporary guilty verdicts. In a conversation I had with Vernon Dahmer Jr. in 2009, he said, “In a way, that may have been better, because if he had been convicted in the 1960s, he never would have served any time. He would have walked in the front door and right out the back door.”
Over the years, several cases have been reopened and the perpetrators sentenced: the killer of Medgar Evers; the killers of Vernon Dahmer; of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner; and of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee. Journalists and the Department of Justice turned back to cold cases that had the possibility of resulting in a conviction and often put aside the cases with murkier files, double-jeopardy restrictions, and murderers and witnesses who had died.
One such case that has little such hope is the 1964 murder of Frank Morris, the owner of a shoe repair shop in Ferriday, Louisiana. Stanley Nelson, an investigative journalist at Ferriday’s local paper, the Concordia Sentinel, writes about local victims of civil rights–era racial violence in an effort to keep their memories alive in the community. Nelson has written often about Frank Morris, specifically about who Morris was and his importance to the community. When I interviewed him for this project, he said, “I felt that it was important to put a real face on Frank Morris, because he was admirable. He was a kind of guy you are supposed to embrace in your communities and protect. We had not lifted a finger for Frank. So I wanted people to understand who he was, and you have to write about that a lot to get them over the nervousness of this race issue or anything involving civil rights.” He emphasized, “I also felt that if the newspaper, and at this newspaper, me, if we didn’t try to find out what happened, who would? Nobody else was in a position to do it . . . . I felt like it was our responsibility. It would have been immoral to walk away from it.” Nelson is now doing the same for Joseph “JoeEd” Edwards, a porter at the Shamrock Motor Hotel in Vidalia, Louisiana, who disappeared on the night of July 12, 1964, and whose body has never been found.
For individuals who lost their lives to racist violence and resistance to that violence whose cases cannot be brought to justice, the imperative is how do we remember them as a society and within communities. I was always amazed that family members of those murdered during the civil rights era would share their stories with me and open up these wounds. What stays with me still is their generosity in sharing what they experienced. There is a continued sense of urgency to share this knowledge. While the urgency to convict the killers from civil rights–era cases has lessened over the last decade as so many have now died, the need to visit archives, talk to people, and share knowledge lives on.
The violence must be named and the systematic elements of that violence must be understood if we are to understand how these legacies persist today and work against them. We must do the work of remembering. The last line on Vernon Dahmer’s memorial program inspires me and runs through Road Through Midnight like a road: His sacrifice on the altar of freedom should inspire us to finish the task.
Jessica Ingram is assistant professor of art at Florida State University. Visit her website.