On Friday, April 23, 1965, a rally was held just off of U.S. 82 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I have the picture to prove it. The photograph reveals no face-covered hoods, just robes, conical hats, and crowds of folks jutting their chins toward the speaker out of frame. It is nighttime—the crosses always burn brightest at night—and the row of white-robed men emerge like snowflakes against the dark. Some fold arms while others prepare to clap. One man wears a wedding ring, but he is just some poor, dough-faced boy—twenty at most—and looks much too young for all that. The left side of his robe reveals a circular patch embossed with what appears to be a cross. A closer examination reveals that it is actually the Mystic Insignia Of A Klansman (M.I.O.A.K.), though the patch traditionally has an X—not a cross—in its center. The more I study the picture the more I wonder if it actually is an X, and if so, if maybe the married boy’s mother simply stitched it on crooked, or his pretty young wife, or the boy himself armed with a needle.
To the left of these men is a buzz cut cigarette smoker who has left his robe at home. Still, he listens intently to the out-of-frame speaker, his right hand balancing the droop of his cigarette. Though the perspective of the picture makes it appear as if the fiery cross is sprouting from the back of Buzz Cut’s head, it’s actually far behind him—two pieces of plank board caught in a white flame, the horizontal burning faster than the vertical.
There are others, too, trapped in that picture. Like the college boy who has taken a study break to observe the rally just a few miles outside of town. In the breast pocket of his black shirt, one can make out the outline of a pocket protector. He is a scholar. Surely he will ace his test.
And let’s not forget the young man who rests his arm against the arm of his date. They have made a night of it, their eyes pointed directly ahead. He appears stoic, satisfied, and wholly unaware of the grimace that graces the pale girl’s face.
I dedicated so much time to perfecting this perm, she thinks, and still ended up in this field.
All around them, the men remain in sharp focus. They are gentlemen with wives and children and jobs. They are men who pay taxes and vote, men who are mindful to remove their hats upon entering a building. They pull out chairs, open doors, say, “Thank you, ma’am” every chance they get. They are chivalrous, mannerly, pillars of the community. And come Sunday morning they will forget Friday night, tucking their families into their cars and filling every pew in the church.
In his 1934 book Stars Fell on Alabama, author Carl Carmer—a Yankee sent south to teach at the university—describes his transition into the small, college town of Tuscaloosa. Though the locals were initially skeptical of the New York native, Carmer soon proved his allegiance.
“…[I]f not born Southerner,” he wrote, “[I was] born to be a Southerner.”
He shed his northern skin and tried to hide the scent. And he did, mostly, describing the place as his neighbors wanted: a land of leisurely afternoons dedicated to tennis matches and swimming pools. His portrait was mostly accurate, though he failed to note that those courts and pools were only open to some.
When describing Tuscaloosa’s “picturesque quality,” Carmer recounted the “husky deep laughter” of the “crowd of negroes come to town to shop…”
But there were others, too, just out of frame.
Like the white farmers and their “soberly clad wives…”—many of whom peered silently out with a flicker in their eyes.
There is sobriety in this land, but also drunkenness; restraint, but also action.
Such as the act Klansman and newspaper editor Ryland Randolph engaged in on March 28, 1868—66-years-prior to Carmer’s book. When a street brawl developed between two black men and a white man, Randolph allegedly flung himself into the fray, evening the fight by taking his knife and stabbing African-American Balus Eddins. He called the act the proudest of his life. There are no photographs to commemorate it.
Three years prior, another act—this one performed under the orders of Union General John T. Croxton. Just before midnight on April 3,1865, Croxton led a detachment of 1500 soldiers across the Black Warrior River and onto Tuscaloosa’s shores. Meanwhile, just up the hill at the University of Alabama, 150 cadets woke to drumbeat. The young boys rubbed the sleep from their eyes, then tripped over their books on the way to their guns. For several minutes, they poked around their darkened dorm rooms in search of the enemy. Shots were fired—eruptions of sound and light—and upon realizing that they were up against a force ten times their size, those boys retreated to the woods while the Union troops set their campus aflame.
It would take generations for Tuscaloosans to forget how the Union fire transformed their library books into flame-crinkled moths. And even once they forgot, they remembered. No one needed a picture to prove it. How is one to forget the way the embers pricked the pre-dawn sky like miniature crosses, how the burning served as a signal fire for the sheeted-men soon to come galloping through.
Over the next hundred years, the Klans’ crosses continued to burn bright. In 1961, Tuscaloosa tire salesman Robert Shelton was named Grand Wizard of the United Klans of America—a Klan faction often credited with the Sixteenth Street Church bombing which killed four little girls, as well as the murders of Civil Rights worker Viola Liuzzo and nineteen-year-old Michael Donald.
In 1956, when African-American Autherine Lucy first attempted to desegregate the University of Alabama, Klansmen and students alike emerged in protest. The local paper printed a photograph of the Friday night rally, in which a crowd of white students pressed their hands to a car with African-Americans inside.
Look closer. There is more for you to see.
Like the fear on the faces of the black men inside, and the rage of the whites peering in.
For four years I lived in this wilderness, one in which citizens’ emotions were continually on “hair triggers beneath the smooth veneer of charm and gentility.” At least that’s what Carmer wrote of this land nearly 80 years before. In the in-between, time has done little to diminish his observations. To the outsider, Tuscaloosa remains a God-fearing place where the steeples always soar skyward, a place whose population is plucked strictly from the salt of the earth. These virtues extend to children as well, Carmer noting that in Tuscaloosa, even “little boys are trained to be gallant,” and that the ambition “of every daughter’s mother is that her girl shall be a belle.”
Every Friday night in Tuscaloosa, a cadre of swooped-banged, dough-faced boys don Polo shirts and march gallantly down the university strip. They are always met with reinforcements—a bevvy of belles glittering and ghastly. There are no longer any X’s stitched to shirts, no crosses left burning in the sky. But sometimes there is a hint of a flicker in their eyes, leading one to wonder: Where have I seen that before?
What is a photograph but a refraction of a reflection of a place—or a people—we used to know?
On April 23, 1965 the night was so dark that the film hardly had room even for shadows.
Or perhaps it was not the night that was the trouble, but the camera itself. The aperture was simply too large or too small to capture all that gallantry, the F-Stop too fast or too slow to properly preserve a belle. Blame it on the shutter speed or the focal length and the people in that photo will smile.
Just know better than to blame it on the place—such a glorious place—where once the stars fell down.