[18 February 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
The fable goes that, “Yes, there were unfortunate things that happened, yes, some blacks were threatened, but we bought the land from those people who left and so there really was no injury. It’s not a true story, but it’s a comforting story.
“When you start to read these things, you’re just… you’re stunned by it,” says Elliot Jaspin. “It’s so unexpected, the accounts of what took place. It says, ‘Negroes flee from Forsyth. Enraged white people are driving blacks from county.’” Jaspin is looking at newspaper headlines on microfiche, that pre-digital archival form, here put to dramatic and even musical use, as its signature whooshing sound alludes to the process of digging into history long repressed.
Jaspin’s digging is central to Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings, Marco Williams’ documentary, premiering tonight on PBS’ superb Independent Lens series. Over charcoal images of violence and David Murray’s mournful sax, filmmaker Marco Williams, who also made Two Towns of Jasper, describes the pattern of such banishments: “An alleged crime against a white woman, the lynching of a black man, and the expulsion of a black community. The land the blacks left behind was lost forever, leaving a haunting legacy, where many of these counties remain virtually all white to this day.” The film reveals that this legacy lingers in particular ways, usually unspoken and discordant, a source of frustration for blacks and whites. Even acknowledging the past can be a difficult first step, as Jaspin learned when the Atlanta Constitution Journal refused to serialize his book, Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America in 2007. But even as communities say they just want to let the past lie still, emblems of it are visible every day.
The film looks into three specific cases of expulsions during the early 20th century, in Forsyth County, Georgia; Pierce City, Missouri; and Harrison, Arkansas. For the first, Williams begins with the story of a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration in 1987, which ran into a startling display of rancor and resistance in Forsyth County. As Reverend Elisabeth Omilami recalls, the bus ride into the area (deemed “No Man’s Land” by black residents of neighboring areas) quickly turned ugly, when the vehicle was surrounded by members of the Klan, the Aryan Nation, the White Brotherhood, and other organizations, yelling at the would-be marchers, waving confederate flags and throwing what looks like rocks and mud. The footage of the event is startling even now, the fury on the white faces intimidating and fearsome.
Before you can imagine such resistance is confined to 20 years ago, Williams speaks with current Forsyth residents. Phil Bettis, one member of a Biracial Committee established by Georgia’s governor in 1987 to grapple with the problem, says even now that “our community” could not even contemplate reparations: “That was a nonstarter.” Omilami recalls that the committee, of which she was also a member, was instructed to produce “a segregated report to the governor, their side and our side, because they would never admit that there was any problem, never even acknowledge the fact that black people were driven out of the county.” Bettis insists that when he considers land ownership in 2005, he doesn’t look back to 1912, the year of Forsyth’s banishing (“That’s not on my radar screen”); as to what might be owed descendants of those who lost their land, he resists the notion that deeds issued since then are “phony” (“a harsh word for it”). Jaspin notes that Bettis “embodies the kinds of contradictions and problems that the county itself faces,” unable or unwilling to connect what happened then with the county’s current makeup.
Williams’ interviews with black descendants of those banished reveal another sort of repression, in the shame felt by those who left behind their possessions and pasts. James Brown recalls, “My dad always told me that they were run out of Pierce City [in 1901]. But his mother told him, so I never knew the reason why.” Today, white residents of Pierce City speak openly about the absence of “niggers.” Gary Kremer, Director of the Missouri Historical Society, expresses his horror that “Even the best people in town had the n-word in their vocabulary. It was part of their culture. It wasn’t necessarily a declaration of hostility, but it was there.” Williams’ interviews with white residents of a seniors’ home reveal another sort of erasure (of responsibility), a revisionist history premised on passive constructions: “They had a hanging here in Pierce City, and the colored left,” says one woman. Another woman, tearful as she seeks language that won’t offend Williams (whose long braids and dark skin certainly stand out in such situations): “We’d never seen any colored people here,” she says, her tension palpable.
The question of reparations makes almost everyone nervous. “Are their descendants owed something?” Williams asks Carol Hirsch, the self-described “first lady mayor of Pierce City.” She nods, “Probably an apology.” Speaking to the current mayor, Mark Peters, Williams puts it another way. “I have a radical solution for you,” he says to the man seated on the opposite side of the desk between them. “Put an ad in the newspaper, invite all the descendants of those who were expelled, thrown out of Pierce City: ‘We will give you your land back. Please come here because we would like to create a vibrant diverse community.’” The camera swings from Williams to Peters, his face grim. “It’s an interesting solution,” he says slowly, “that makes sense about three o’clock in the morning, when people are just getting together talking and not paying too much attention to who ‘they’ and ‘we’ are.” Peters and other white citizens insist that no amount of money can make right the wrong that’s been done.
By the time Williams arrives in Harrison, the repetition seems clear enough. But again, the legacy is daunting. Speaking with Layne Wheeler, director of the Harrison Chamber of Commerce who defends the flying of a confederate flag as a preservation of history, Williams presses the point. “If you’re an all white community, maybe that says that nonwhites are not welcome.” A visit with Thom Robb, of the White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, leaves Williams marveling at photos of cross burnings displayed prominently on his wall. (“Cross-lighting,” Robb corrects him.) Robb insists that the all-white population of Harrison is appealing to those who live there. “The majority of white people would not want minorities living here. People come here because of what it is, not because of what they think it might be someday.” Williams ponders, “The Klan is an easy target for blame, but are they really the cause of the town’s negative image or a symptom of it?”
This underlying question is crucial, not only to Banished, but also to the black and white communities who live today with the legacy of banishing. If black families have found their own ways to survive, in the white towns and cities they were forced to leave, Williams notes, “We remain invisible.” As the film makes this invisibility visible, it also leaves you with questions: How can healing begin? How can justice be imagined? And who will take responsibility for the past?