The South is the bathroom of American history. Saturating the otherwise picturesque rolling landscapes is the oppressive stench of a history of lynching, bloodcurdling beatings and African-American bodies burned and ruthlessly mutilated. This is the room that America doesn't want visitors to see. Keep this door shut because if opened, threatening to spill out is a truth cold and heartless, vicious and numbing. It is better to infuse the truth with perfumed tales than it is to air it out.
Way down those small roads and through those tiny close-knit communities of easy chatter and lazy porch nights, way back past trees where dark bodies were hanged like broken branches, is a black history raw and infected, oozing with secrets at once calloused and quaking to the touch.
On Sunday, TV One will begin airing the four-part documentary series "Murder in Black and White, Moore's Ford," narrated by the Rev. Al Sharpton. The story chronicles the brutal beating and mutilation of two young couples ambushed by Ku Klux Klan members in the 1940s. The account has everything a Hollywood drama would need: vicious killings, corrupt politicians and good old boy Southern politics. And, to date, no one saw anything. No jury has found anyone guilty of anything. All that is certain is that four young black lives were taken on a bridge in broad daylight.
The documentary opens in with Gene Talmadge setting the climate while he was campaigning for governor of Georgia. It was well known that Talmadge had ties to the Klan, and he ran on the campaign promise that if elected, no black would vote in the state of Georgia ever again. The pledge proved persuasive enough for him to be elected. The story that unfolds after that is about what happens when a Klan-connected governor turns a blind eye to racial injustice.
It begins with a 27-year-old black man named Roger Malcolm, who stabs a white farmer in self-defense. Malcolm is then jailed for 10 days while his wife pleads with her sharecropper bosses to bail out him out. The sharecropper posts the bail, and Roger's wife Dorothy, her brother George and his wife Mae all ride in the back of the sharecropper's pickup to see Roger home. On the ride home—a longer route than normal—the pickup is ambushed. All of the occupants, with the exception of the sharecropper, are killed, so savagely, in fact, that their bodies are barely recognizable.
Intertwined in this one incident is America's long history of violence and death and the sharp demarcations along color lines. It is the story of knowing your place and staying there. It is a history so inscribed on the American psyche that nearly seven decades later no one will say what happened on that day. No one knows what happened when four black people rode home in a sharecropper's pickup. Some people won't even allow their face to be seen as they speak about that day. But that is the good ol' small-town way that keeps the tide calm and the breeze even. Today, those dark days are considered bathroom talk, and, well, it is impolite to talk about the bathroom. Ahh, this is the South where comedian Tommy Davidson once joked that a black man got mad at him because he looked at the menu when ordering in McDonald's.
"What are you doing?" the man asked.
"Ordering my food," Davidson replied.
"Yeah, but don't look at the menu. Then they know you can read."
"Murder in Black and White" is also the story of the black press. For years, black newspapers carried the injustice to the forefront of mainstream America, causing President Truman to speak about the atrocities and bluesman Champion Jack Dupree to pen a song about it. The documentary chronicles the power of the black voice to move people to action, and shows how maddening that process can be when pitted against Southern history.
The documentary comes at a time where the climate is pitch-perfect for this style of storytelling, on the cusp of this historical election where a black man actually has a shot at becoming the president, proving once and for all that TV One is not BET. And for this, we are all grateful. Sure, I will turn back to BET to catch NAT rapping in front of a white trailer expounding on his six Cadillacs and his dislike for ladies with "ashy knees." But it seems with a small market and a good push, TV One is at least trying hard to offer another kind of black entertainment television.
The only problem with these kinds of documentaries is that they make you want to flip over your desk and grab the closest white co-worker by the collar and ask him in a non-office voice to explain Moore's Ford Bridge. And then you would loosen his collar, straighten your hands and realize two things: that you don't feel any better than you did before, and that no matter how hard you tighten your knuckles and swing your fist, all of it still happened. Four beautiful, young people are beaten to death, and the people who know something about it will not talk, bound to the Southern bathroom policies of America.
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is a regular contributor to The Root.