Sometimes we forget that we have been part of history making, or that we stood side by side with the great ones of our generation. The waves some of us made were very small ripples in tiny ponds, but they were important, though I know I never took thought for the history of it back then. We were driven by the ideals of youth: justice, equality, a better world for all, regardless of our color or background.
I knew the movie Blood Done Sign My Name would be good because it was written and directed by Jeb Stuart, the same screenwriter for such blockbusters as Die Hard and The Fugitive; what surprised me was how much I enjoyed it.
Few films have taken me back to my North Carolina youth as this one did with its nuanced blend of acting and documentary. When leaving the theater I blinked in the March afternoon sun, wondering how it is possible to have started out with such hopes and arrived to the puzzling and still-divided place I now call home. For, though South Carolina has seen a lot of water over the dam since the days when Carroll Campbell was said to have toppled a bus full of blacks and Strom Thurmond denied his daughter Essie, I left my native state believing that the tide was turning and found that I had stepped back in time.
My very first night in Columbia I drove down Assembly Street, heart racing with anticipation about this big new place. The State House was beautiful in the early spring night, but the Confederate flag on top of the dome made me gasp in disbelief. Weeks later I was embarrassed to notice elderly black men avoiding eye contact when we passed each other on the Main Street sidewalk. But in 1986 these were only the surface symptoms of a malaise which slowly revealed itself over the years that I uneasily settled into my new city. Layer upon layer of dysfunction nearly convinced me that racial harmony was not possible in this state.
But back in high school I still believed I could help make a difference. In our junior year a much-loved black male senior was unjustly (I am convinced) accused by a vindictive white female student. There were no witnesses, and he was expelled just two weeks before he would have graduated with honors. A star athlete, I feel sure he must have had college scholarships waiting on him. Much of our small town, Gastonia, was incensed and rumors began to fly about black unrest and violent repercussions.
My good friend and classmate Jeb Stuart invited me to attend a community meeting that week at a local black church. My parents were frightened for my safety, but Jeb’s father, a Presbyterian minister, called to reassure them that this would be a good experience for me and promised we would be safe. Jeb and I sat in a room filled with angry, shouting people, the only whites present, at least to my memory. It was my first time being a minority with no voice, sitting near the back, being politely ignored.
That night I had the good fortune to witness grassroots activism at its best; in that room emotions were vented, ideas discussed, and leaders reminded the group that they must set a peaceful and dignified example. No doubt someone referenced Dr. Martin Luther King, though I would not at that time have recognized his words or appreciated the power of his nonviolent philosophy.
Just before graduation the expelled student turned up at school, slipping in to tell friends goodbye. I was confused and hurt when my happy greeting and hug were shunned. Eventually, when he saw that I refused to leave the room, still dabbing at my eyes a good half hour later, he came over and told me his side of the story. He was black, she was white, the principal was never going to hear him, and so he could never again, the rest of his life, speak to a white female. He explained that he should not be seen speaking to me and that he wished me well.
That was the last time I saw him. We did not have cell phones or email at that time, and I’d never even seen the homes of my black classmates. At a high school reunion in 2004, I was unable to learn what had become of him. I have never been able to forget that young man. His name was Michael Davis. I speak it now to remind those of us who remember, that justice was not done.
After high school we went different ways, my path taking me to the mountains and a rural, isolated life for some years. I lost touch with all my old friends until the past year or two. One I never forgot was 17-year-old Jeb, who showed me another world, one from which my parents had carefully shielded me till then. Jeb had been paying closer attention to the news, though, for years before our adventure. Troubled by the 1970 Oxford, N.C., racial killing, Jeb never forgot that there was another story that needed to be told, and he came back home to Gastonia last year to shoot the film Blood.
Here where the Civil War started, where so many are the descendants of former slaves, there has been virtually no publicity about the movie, and my husband and I were the only two people in the theater. Perhaps there just wasn’t the budget to promote it outside of North Carolina. I am afraid it may pass on before others can be inspired by its message.
The New York Times has praised Blood as moving beyond the white-dominated themes of films like To Kill A Mockingbird. The story is focused squarely in the black community, and the primary white character, Methodist minister Vernon Tyson, mainly looks on anxiously at the events unfolding around him. Although he causes a stir in his congregation by inviting in a black minister, and teaches his children to stand against racism, Tyson, no Gregory Peck, does not provide the solution. Rather, a young Ben Chavis emerges as a nascent community leader under the encouragement of out of town activist Golden Frinks, “Mr. Civil Rights,” and the people start their own small revolution.
This is the lesson I learned after moving to South Carolina. It was time for whites like me to yield the floor to those blacks I wanted to help. They didn’t always need my help, after all. The Ben Chavis’ and Golden Frinks’ of this world blazed new paths for the younger ones who came behind them.
But I feel the bitter aftertaste still lingering here where the Confederate flag has flown since integration. We live with the sad legacy of having avoided change for so long – people who feel defeated and tired, whose anger has simmered down into grudging daily half-participation in our still-flawed, still-racist society; young adults who don’t remember that their grandmothers and great-grandfathers were not allowed to vote and don’t bother to do so themselves; and growing ranks of disenfranchised youth who channel both their anger and their ennui into gang activity.
Blood Done Sign My Name reminded me of a time when hope drew us to our feet, made us march, made us reach for a hand which looked different from our own. I was never so happy as last November 10th when I stood in line for hours to vote, a wave of young black men and women all around me. We grinned at each other foolishly during that long wait, sensing that we were about to make history. I hope some of them will go stand in line to see Blood Done Sign My Name.
(Originally published by The State newspaper, March 10, 2010.)