Dedicated to Martha Hunt Robertson Huie (1931-2014).
In American English, to call someone a “cuss” was always to say they were stubborn, cranky, intransigent; that they wouldn’t go along. It was also an idiomatic alteration of “accursed,” a dated expression applied to one deemed ungodly and unsociable. Let the word be justly applied to William Bradford Huie, an American writer who risked ostracism and danger from the very communities that, had he gone along, would have most embraced him. A white Southerner, he reported the evils committed by white Southerners; a Cold War militarist, he hounded the military on questions the military didn’t want asked; an advocate of personal and public accountability, he placed blame and named names.
Absorbing, tenacious, eye-opening, Huie’s nonfictions are adventures in investigation, angry commentaries on democracy, rueful essays on post-war American culture, and affirmations of a beleaguered humanism. You feel not that he has caught every conceivable truth, but that he has put as many conflicting truths in play as any single searcher could; that he has shown each perspective straight, but from different angles; and that the force of his summation is earned by insight, work, and an interrogation of prejudice—his own as well as others’.
All but forgotten today, he was, in his time, something like a superstar. He emerged from the Deep South of the 1920s and ‘30s to distinguish himself as a war correspondent, television personality, pioneer of post-war intellectual conservatism, and chronicler of American injustice whose books and by-lines sold as fast as they could be printed. Hollywood bigwigs hot on “adult themes” scrambled to film his racy, tough-talking novels, while the more socially-conscious stars snapped up his nonfiction. He searched, dug, discovered, and let facts be submitted to a candid world. And inevitably, he was marked for death: his sallies in the race wars were damaging enough to necessitate his sleeping “with one eye open and one hand on my automatic shotgun.”
Born in Hartselle, Alabama, on this day in 1910, he was a seventh-generation Southerner whose ancestors had fought in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Inquisitive and indefatigable, he was made to be a journalist. From the Birmingham Post to Life magazine, he spent the 1930s and ‘40s reporting the great battles of the time—the Depression, the New Deal, labor, race, Communism, war. He witnessed the trial of the Scottsboro boys and analyzed FDR’s social programs; infiltrated Bugsy Siegel’s gang and lampooned racist mountebanks; landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day and saw the flag raised at Iwo Jima. Along the way he made dire enemies of Dixiecrats, Navy admirals, and Harry S. Truman.
|Huie on Longines Chronoscope, 1952.|
Then, in 1953, Huie lost financial control of the Mercury—he was forced to sell it to machine-gun tycoon Russell Maguire, who turned it into a Jew-baiting rag—and quit Chronoscope. At loose ends, he got interested in a dead American soldier named Eddie Slovik, and in 1954 he traveled, at the behest of his friend and colleague Zora Neale Hurston, to Suwannee County, Florida, to look into the case of Ruby McCollum, an imprisoned murderess.
A year after that, Emmett Till was killed in Mississippi. Huie wrote an article about it, and the article became a sensation.
It was a historic time. The lid was coming off race in America, and Huie was there with a crowbar. For the next 15 years, he devoted most of his writing to the civil rights struggle in the South. From there through the end of the ‘60s, his controversy rose in proportion to his profile, for he was a bringer of bad news, a voice of reproach—and so, despite his monetary success, accursed. But he never forgot where he lived; never cried outrage at inspiring the murderous loathing of his neighbors. Rather, he chose his curse, and wore it in the brim of his hat, next to his press pass. “Meddling,” he learned early on, “has its occupational hazards.”
“Thousands guilty—one man shot.”
It may be empathy that makes The Execution of Private Slovik (1954) Huie’s greatest book and an American classic, for Eddie Slovik too chose his curse. This nervous, fearful reform-school kid was rejected by the military in 1942 for his criminal record, then—after he’d married and established a home—drafted as a replacement rifleman during the barrel-scraping European campaigns of 1943-44. Frustrated and heartsick, he twice deserted or was “separated from” his unit under fire; he promised his superiors he would flee again if placed on the line. Rather than give him the chance, the Army court-martialed Slovik and sentenced him to death. He was executed on January 31, 1945, in a secluded courtyard on a snowy French hilltop, “shot to death by musketry,” as the order specified—among thousands convicted, the only American executed for cowardice since the Civil War.
It was a strange story for Huie to have taken on. He was no peacenik. He’d seen his share of combat dead as a war correspondent, and he was hawkish on Cold War matters. Far from condemning the Army for its action, he commended its representatives for their procedural rigor, sound reasoning, and moral qualms. Nor did he sob for Slovik, the “dishonored Polack private from Detroit.” What Huie did was sadder, stronger, more moving: he listened to Slovik. Read his letters and wondered at his thinking; extended the respect of unprejudiced audience even to this self-confessed coward. Huie’s compassion for Slovik gives the book the grim warmth of a farmhouse stove on a cold gray morning.
“Thousands guilty—one man shot”: that was the oddity, and the hook, of the case. Slovik chose the certainty of execution over the uncertainty of death, madness, or dismemberment in battle: the coward defeated cowardice by choosing his curse. Huie had to respect that. He had to recognize, among all the other failures and nobilities in this sad story, the final rebellion of he who had chosen to be that one man.
We’re asked throughout Huie’s work to confront, in American contexts, essential questions about the individual and the community, one man versus the mass. He was fascinated by the isolated figure punished for violating the logics and mechanisms of a community—be that figure a white boy who wouldn’t fight, or a black boy who whistled at a white woman.
|Mamie Till at her son's funeral.|
Huie believed he could get the men to confess. Through one of their defense attorneys, John Whitten, he offered Milam and Bryant $4,000 in return for their “portrayal rights” should a film be made about the case. He stipulated that they were to give sufficient detail to enable him to verify their story independently. “If I find them telling me a lie,” Huie told Whitten, “I won’t pay them a damn thing.”
The four men met, late at night, in the library of Whitten’s law firm. Huie questioned the men through their lawyer; “Milam did most of the talking,” he recalled. And Milam told of how they beat and stripped Till, making him carry the gin fan they’d tie around his neck after he was dead. Milam also confessed that it was he who had fired the bullet. The intention, he said, had been not to kill Emmett Till but to “scare some sense into him.” But Till refused to break even after Milam and Bryant began beating him with a pistol, at one point shouting, “You bastards, I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are.”
It wasn’t Till’s wolf whistle alone that had made it necessary, in the minds of these men, to murder him; it was also the recent Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, desegregating public schools. It was the supremacy of the white race, whose embattlement by civil-rights agitators Milam likened to a war; and it was Till’s final cussedness in not affirming his own degradation.
Printed in Look magazine on January 24, 1956, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi” frightened readers across the country. Pervaded by raw nerves and exhaustion, by poverty and fear, the piece is relentless in driving to a consummation of fates. Details flare up like matches struck in the dark. Huie calls Emmett Till by his nickname, “Bobo,” throughout. He demonstrates how a simple recitation of facts (“Carolyn and Roy Bryant are poor . . . They call Shane the best picture they ever saw”) can make anyone, even a killer, sound human; and how the highlighting of an insignificant tic (Milam’s “lower lip curls when he chuckles”) can bring a face alive.
It was a groundbreaking piece of civil-rights reportage, and an act of moral initiative on Huie’s part that went beyond a canny reporter’s grab at a hot story. But not everyone was, or is, convinced by either the killers’ account or Huie’s endorsement of it. Was the extent of Emmett Till’s defiance plausible? Or was this the scenario the killers needed to justify their actions in their own eyes? Stephen J. Whitfield, author of A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (1991), challenges Huie’s rendering of Bobo as “impervious to the danger he faced,” continuing his bold disobedience to the very moment of his death; to him, this “invites skepticism if not incredulity.”
Other misgivings arose from what Huie neglected to tell his readers. Craig Flourney, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Texas reporter and journalism professor, suggests the article has two serious omissions: “First, [Huie] makes no mention of having paid the killers to talk. Second, the article includes no quotes from blacks.” (No quotes, he must mean, responding specifically to the killers’ abduction scenario; black witnesses are recorded in other contexts.) Whitfield is troubled by Huie’s elision of courtroom testimony, given at enormous personal risk by local blacks Mose Wright and Willie Reed, that others besides Milam and Bryant were involved in Till’s abduction; he also refers to a letter from Huie to his editors, in which he claims to know the identities of four killers. Whitfield concludes that Huie’s account “was only partially true, which means at worst that it was partially false and at best that it was quite misleading.”
These caveats taint the veracity of Huie’s account, at least to the point that we must characterize the Till confessions as part fact, part outlaw myth crafted by the outlaws themselves—which makes Huie, in this instance, as much folklorist as journalist. But whatever the vagaries of the killers’ story, Huie at least got their story. And he may have seen something in the enraged rednecks’ picture of Emmett Till that resonated with his own values, something he recognized and admired.
“He looked like a man,” Till’s uncle said of Bobo, who was big for his age. One man, Huie might have added.
Anyone dealing with Huie’s transgressions, real or ascribed, must deal with what is called checkbook journalism. The ethical standard has always been that a reporter never pays for information. That may be a sound working principle, and it may be a homily reporters recite every night at bedtime. It’s well-known that it has always happened; that publications that don’t pay invariably follow the leads and scavenge the scoops of those that do; and that journalists often will lie to get through the door and into a source’s confidence.
|Roy Bryant (left) and J.W. Milam (center) at their 1955 trial.|
It is more interesting to consider how the exchange of money contributes to an overall sense of Huie. He was obsessed with justice as reality, a thing of gradients and kinds. He saw, in the South and elsewhere, justice denied where it ought to have been most assured—in the light of the courtroom, under guard of the law; and he concluded that sometimes justice, or its nearest alternative, had to be hunted up on a back road, or purchased in a law office. For some, it was a classic ends-versus-means debate. For Huie, it was the sacrifice of an implacable principle in pursuit of information he knew would break the racist South wide open.
Milam and Bryant, meanwhile, failed to foresee the consequences of their arrogance. Exactly a year later after his first piece appeared, Huie did a follow-up entitled “What’s Happened to the Emmett Till Killers.” It turned out their confessions had cost them friends and business; the community of small, interlocked Mississippi towns that had sanctioned and freed them now made pariahs of them, shunned them as reminders of a shameful notoriety.
“The Shocking Story of Approved Killing” closed with an indictment that reached far past the crimes of two men acting in their own behalf. “The majority—by no means all, but the majority—of the white people in Mississippi 1) either approve Big Milam’s action or else 2) they don’t disapprove enough to risk giving their ‘enemies’ the satisfaction of a conviction.” Huie got his confessions, but he pinned the larger crime where it belonged—on the community.
And checkbook journalism? “I’m a staunch believer,” Huie wrote, “in paying one sonofabitch to catch ten.”
Though he critiqued consumerism and detested the public-relations mentality, Huie respected money. He had, that is, a healthy capitalistic perception of what dollars can do to alleviate suffering, offer pleasure, and prolong survival. “Fools and hypocrites,” says the Huie-esque narrator of The Americanization of Emily, “low-rate money.”
In August 1952, Ruby McCollum, a gambler’s wife in Live Oak, Florida, shot her white lover, C. Leroy Adams. Adams was also the town’s doctor, and a newly-elected state senator. The prosecution claimed McCollum murdered Adams because he demanded she pay an overdue bill. But that scenario was complicated by the fact that the doctor had not only fathered one of Ruby’s children, but was taking pay-offs from her husband, a local gambler.
Zora Neale Hurston covered McCollum’s trial for the Pittsburgh Courier, the foremost black paper of the day. But she couldn’t obtain an interview with Ruby, nor penetrate the chambers of white power. Citing his skin color and Dixie pedigree, Hurston asked Huie to snoop around Live Oak. He quickly uncovered the proverbial rat’s nest of small-town corruption, papered over by civic PR and mass bereavement upon the death of a rising political star and “rock of Americanism” who’d been killed, evidently, in the course of robbing everyone blind—and even, Huie began to believe, plotting the demise of his black mistress.
Despite his feelings of kinship with Judge Adams (“We are both Yellow Dog Democrats—we’d vote for a ‘yellow dog’ before we’d vote for a Republican”), Huie knew the community was hiding something. He persisted in his efforts to see Ruby. Then, as he put it, “the axe fell.” Judge Adams hit him with a contempt citation, claiming he’d interfered with the case by speaking to a psychiatrist whom Adams had asked to examine Ruby for her second trial. Huie’s quite reasonable defense was that the psychiatrist was A) not an officer of the court but an expert witness, and B) unlicensed in Florida, and so nullified as a witness by the judge’s own restrictions on expert qualification. The judge, unsurprisingly, ruled against Huie, who then used his contempt hearing to read into the record many previously suppressed facts of the case. Rather than pay the $750 fine the judge imposed, Huie chose to spend the weekend in jail—the same jail where an increasingly delusional Ruby McCollum lay wasting under a blanket, trying not to breathe for fear her jailers had poisoned the air.
Cussedly, Huie fought Adams’s contempt citation all the way to the Florida State Supreme Court, which upheld it. In the end, an enraged Huie paid. But in the meantime he’d written Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail (1956), a scalding exposure of the double life of a segregated American town.
We’re told by historians C. Arthur and Leslie E. Ellis that Ruby lived to a ripe age after her release from the Chattahoochee State Mental Hospital, and that, beyond a minimal daily allowance, “her other needs were taken care of from what remained of a $40,000 trust account funded by Huie in exchange for the movie rights to her life story.” The movie was never made, but an old, abused, forgotten woman was provided for. Fools and hypocrites low-rate money.
Far from being a bleeding heart, Huie was, at his peak of visibility—the Cold War years of The American Mercury and Chronoscope—easily mistaken for the smug imperialist, intent on spreading Americanism like mayonnaise, forcing the glories of democracy and whitebread on a grateful globe. But that doesn’t square with this pronouncement, made in the context of a 1959 piece on Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian and Marine who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima, and who died in an alcoholic stupor less than a decade after the war’s end: “White men have been movers, and movers must conquer. Conquering is evil, so there is more evil in the hearts of moving men than in the hearts of homestaying men.”
|Ira Hayes and the Rosenthal photo. (Photo: Valery Sorokin)|
Meaning that, despite principles often indistinguishable from those of a liberal, he hated left-wing propaganda as much as any other kind. This antipathy showed up early, in Huie’s personal verdict (guilty) in the case of the “Scottsboro boys”—nine black youths charged with raping two women in an Alabama train car, whose trial became a cause célèbre for the Communist Party in particular. Some of Huie’s harshest later writings focused on liberal crusades that sought to correct generations of injustice by elevating criminals and demeaning their victims—criminals like Caryl Chessman, the California “red-light bandit” sentenced to death for forcing “unnatural sex acts” upon two women, the man whose 12-year death watch ended in a 1960 execution opposed by an unprecedented number of celebrity and civilian protesters. In “Myth of the Martyr Rapist,” Huie examined the prosecution’s evidence and found it solid; analyzed Chessman’s character and found it sociopathic; interviewed the victims and found them scarred; and concluded that the milk of liberal kindness was curdling in a “wave of sick sentimentality.”
Similar dynamics, he felt, lay behind the sensational case of Mack Charles Parker—“The Rape-Lynch That Rocked America,” as Huie’s report was (sensationally) titled. Parker, a black man, raped a white woman in a stalled car on a stretch of dark Mississippi road in 1959, while her seven-year-old daughter cowered on the floor inches away. Parker was identified, abducted, and lynched by a gang of white men. The atrocity of mob justice was, to Huie, so manifest as to obscure another injustice—namely, the martyrdom of the rapist and revictimization of the victim via slanders from the left. Huie condemned those who sought to twist the facts of the case, even in righteous cause. (See Howard Smead’s 1986 Blood Justice: The Lynching of Mack Charles Parker for a fuller, but not contradictory, treatment of the case.)
Huie was prepared to correct himself when elegant myth did not survive prosaic evidence. In 1968, he wrote a series for Look tracking James Earl Ray’s shadow through a maze of back alleys, boarding houses, and bus stations, all the way to Memphis and a view of Martin Luther King’s walkway at the Lorraine Motel. Initially, he found it likely that Ray had had conspiratorial aid in his journeys, sources of money and safe passage. But by the time his full report was published in 1970 as He Slew the Dreamer, he was convinced Ray had acted alone. Conspiracy was key to the liberal critique of the times; but here it was one man’s fantasy of reaching the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List that best fit the facts.
This was almost a mirror reversal of an earlier case, in which one man really did lead Huie to an international conspiracy. The Hiroshima Pilot (1964) is an investigation into the various realities of Claude Eatherly, who as an Air Force major in 1945 flew a weather-scouting mission in advance of the Hiroshima bombing. Post-war, Eatherly committed a string of petty crimes, and spent time in jails and asylums. His case was seized on by ambitious pacifists and a lazy press; a mythology was generated to explain the crimes as manifestations of “survivor’s guilt,” with the result that Eatherly was transformed from a small-time criminal and peripheral historical actor into a key symbol of modern mass trauma. Edmund Wilson, not usually so credulous, devoted a chapter of 1963’s The Cold War and the Income Tax to Eatherly, calling him a significant case of the “revolted technician”; and Richard Avedon’s looming portrait of the mournful ex-pilot was included in Nothing Personal (1964), the artful study in modern alienation he produced in collaboration with James Baldwin.
Huie, for his part, considered the bombing of Hiroshima little more than “a deliberate demonstration of terror,” and acknowledged with some tenderness “Eatherly’s personal tragedy … his terrible need to exaggerate—to present himself as something other than he was.” But he was disgusted by the myth—its exploitation, primarily of Hiroshima’s dead and deformed, secondarily of the neurotic pilot himself. In a review, sociologist Edgar Z. Friedenberg wrote, “I share [Huie’s] disgust at Mr. Eatherly’s willingness to allow his life story to be distorted and misrepresented … But indignation on this point is beyond me.” It was not beyond Huie. His anger here may be excessive, but it is genuine—and certainly consistent. For him, the one man, however pathetic, was also autonomous, and fit to be judged on his choices.
If Huie’s liberalism was a call for justice and equal protection, his conservatism was a call for clarity in a day when ideologies of right and left had staked out narrow plots of acceptable, discussable truth. We needn’t abrogate our own skepticism as Huie lances pieties for “those who prefer truth to propaganda.” Far from it: he assumes critical judgment of his readers, just as he assumes moral accountability of his subjects.
|Huie and Elia Kazan during the filming of Wild River (1960).|
Yet none of that matters so much in the end. Huie’s subtleties more than defeat his sensationalisms, and if his journalistic preference for the hard image over the soft implication means a deficit of poetry, it also means his narratives have inexorable pace and that his perceptions strike with the suddenness of a heart attack.
Take this image of the individual as human garbage: “Because I had studied her life, I could think of Ruby as a human being … To everyone else in the courtroom Ruby McCollum was a corpse which long ago should have been buried, but which, because of ‘outside interference,’ had persisted above ground, a community disposal problem.” That’s good writing, and good rhetoric—brutal and unanswerable.
Or take this, Huie following the trail of James Earl Ray: “If you are in New Orleans on a cold Saturday night, walking through the French Quarter with the ghosts of assassins, you find it easy to believe in conspiracy.”
Or this, a jab at Hollywood to make Ben Hecht grin: “Nightmares are always effective in films. There is ACTION. The tormented guy is SCREAMING and writhing and sweating. Then his beautiful wife bounces out of the other bed, terrorized, in her shift, and the ‘production value’ of sex is added to the scene.”
Or this, on the “disposal problem” presented by the corpses of the white Michael Schwerner and the black James Chaney: “Rita Schwerner and Schwerner’s parents had wanted him buried in Mississippi with Chaney. But this proved impossible. There is no way to bury a white man with a Negro in Mississippi—unless you bury them at night in a dam.”
Huie saw things. Things like tobacco juice. His Southern chronicles mention it many times: the act of spitting, the ubiquity of chaw. Investigating the McCollum case, he noses around the county courthouse and notes the “tobacco-stained courtrooms,” with floors “safeguarded from termites by generations of tobacco-chewers.” Later he will describe Judge Adams, self-appointed protector of the community, “chomping his cud.” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; and sometimes, a quid of tobacco symbolizes violence and terror: it’s the judge’s spit covering that courthouse floor. The bigot’s contempt for justice is the sealant protecting his community against “termites”—i.e., outside agitators.
Huie recorded these observations in 1954; today, they can’t help but evoke an infamous photo taken 10 years later. The accused killers of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman sit at their arraignment in the Neshoba County Courthouse. All are laughing. Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Cecil Price are in front, Rainey’s cheek bulging with tobacco from a pouch of Red Man Plug. This is the picture that in the late ‘60s was distributed as a poster with the legend, “SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL POLICE.” Look at it long enough and you can hear the laughter, see the floor covered with spit.
Huie is drawn back to the community that leads a collective double life as Christians and murderers, patriots and terrorists. Such a community is a kind of suborganism, a thing both within and apart from the body politic. It depends on the body while despising it, and so grows ever inward, nourishing itself on resentment and isolation. Inevitably it breeds cancer, and woe unto those who would attempt a cure.
Huie does what he can. He anatomizes the sick community, takes an X-ray of it. He identifies and loathes the race-baiting pol, and the money bigots who leverage the white-power machine from hidden perches. He is more conflicted in his feeling for the rank-and-file Klansman, the “raw racist” who has never been shown any other means to self-respect. He too is a kind of American cuss, and Huie strives to understand him as he would understand Eddie Slovik or Emmett Till. But Huie goes harder on the “peckerwoods,” as he calls them, because he knows them better. “These men are my folks, the snuff-dipping, weak-livered, red-necked, half-witted Anglo-Saxon bastards whom I alternately love and fear. They are capable of magnificence that waters a man’s eyes … Yet, dammit, they are also capable of heart-crushing cussedness, and they may one day surrender [their] liberty to some sweet-talking sonofabitch who persuades them that he has their interest at heart and who promises to put them in the high cotton.”
That’s fascism Huie’s talking about. Fascism depends on the mob, and the mob depends on the individual’s refusal of moral responsibility. Huie equates the KKK with the Nazis—an obvious comparison now, but one that few in the white press were then willing to draw. The Nazis, Huie writes, “acted illegally by assaulting and murdering their opponents. The state, or local agents of the state, failed to act against these terrorists, thereby giving effective approval of the illegal actions and encouraging other such actions. As could have been predicted, the Nazis took over the state itself. … The murderers of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney acted like the Nazis in the Weimar Republic.”
Cussedness is admirable to Huie when it asserts individuality, however unfathomable, but not when it entails crushing another’s windpipe. The suicidal cuss may be some kind of martyr; but the homicidal cuss is only another terrorist.
Did you mark that last word? Reading Three Lives for Mississippi (1965)—Huie’s account of the Freedom Summer murders that, even more than the Birmingham church bombing (two of the victims were white) soured America at large on the laissez-faire treatment of psychopathic rednecks—one is impressed by the author’s repeated and deliberate use of “terrorist” to describe the race-killers of the South. The word, though its origins lay with Robespierre, was not so often used in Huie’s day, and came into general parlance only with the guerrilla actions of ‘70s groups. Then it was most commonly applied to radical left organizations; even post-9/11, we’ve had trouble agreeing whether or not such right-wing patriot moves as Klan bombings and lynchings qualify as “terrorist” in the Al-Qaeda sense.
We needn’t wonder where Huie would have stood on that: Three Lives ends with his proposal of a federal anti-terrorism statute that would cover race murder. More sensationally, it begins with a lengthy, horrifying account of a black Mississippi man’s castration by Klan members. Alter details of geography and speech, and it could be a scene from any interrogation room in any global horror spot of the last 60 years: Manila, the Congo, Santiago, Baghdad. But this is American terrorism, on American soil—and parallels with foreign terrorism are disturbingly easy to draw. The “cell” is the small pack of Klan mad dogs; the “prophet” is George Wallace, whom Huie calls “a hate-filled little man … sick with ambition”; and the “sponsor nation” is the community that approves the crime, and whose morality perpetuates it.
A key pendant to Huie’s racial investigations is his 1967 novel The Klansman. Written in the residual heat of those brutal summers, it’s a crudely styled, punishingly graphic mural of the sick community, Southern division: a racial-sexual Peyton Place. There’s little art to it, but more than many well-written novels, it illuminates the inside of its author’s head.
Its central character is Breck Stancill, a war hero and Klan-hating social outcast faced finally with either giving up on humanity or committing himself, at great cost, to the fight for its redemption. There are rapes, shootings, mangled bodies, and much obscene, unfettered commentary from both sides of the racial line. The Klansman amalgamates everything Huie knew of rural Southern psychology and the racist pecking order; it fictionalizes figures from earlier investigations, with Breck clearly representing Huie himself as the reluctant crusader, both insider and outcast in the community. Breck’s debate with an idealistic FBI agent is a dialogue between two Huie voices—the cynic who values justice but despairs of seeing it done, and the pragmatist seeking to achieve ethical ends within a wretchedly flawed system.
“From the long view,” Breck says, “nothing looks so ridiculous as an individual effort to change the nature of man. … The fighter always loses in the end.”The writing in The Klansman is some of Huie’s worst. But if you care about a writer, you care about his issues. Through the FBI agent, Huie is affirming his faith in the fight, the fact, the investigation—and the power of cussedness to either kill a man or save him. Through Breck, Huie is describing his dilemma as a white Southerner who hates racism, and—since no one in the novel, black or white, escapes racism’s crushing vice—compounding his guilt by creating characters whom his alter ego fails, despite heroic extremes, to help.
“That’s right,” the agent replies. “He suffers disillusion and death. Cussedness takes over until another fighter comes along.”
Huie would have disdained this reading. He would certainly have denied feeling “guilt” in the liberal sense. And besides, he’d done more than any white writer to expose racist violence in the South—to reveal its mechanisms and name its perpetrators.
What did he have to feel guilty about?
Roosevelt Collins was a young black man tried, in 1930s Birmingham, for raping a white woman. Against the advice of his own indifferent, court-appointed counsel, he testified in his own behalf, claiming the sex had been consensual. Apparently everyone in the courtroom, from judge to jury, knew this was true. Yet protocol was to be served. Collins was duly convicted and sentenced to death by electrocution.
Huie reported the trial for the Birmingham Post. His remembrance of it was printed in the American Mercury of November 1941, under the title “The South Kills another Negro,” with Collins’s name changed to Wilson. This account was recycled as fiction, though with scarcely a word disturbed, in Huie’s first novel, Mud on the Stars (1942); and it reappeared, again virtually intact, in the memoir Huie was writing when he died, back in Alabama, in 1986. Clearly, he never forgot it.
“The South Kills” is narrated by a Huie who presents himself as contemptible—smirking, cynical, accepting of corruption, empty of outrage at the rigged game before him. He speaks with “Wilson” during a recess, although “it was no noble motive which inspired my intervention. I only wanted to blow up a dull news story.” Huie encourages Wilson to take the stand and defend himself, and sees “something I didn’t want to see”: humanity behind the black man’s eyes. “He showed me all the loneliness and fear of his wretched life. The loneliness of the cotton patch and a dog howling under the moon. The loneliness and fear of the swamp with bloodhounds baying. The loneliness and fear of a jail cell and a thunderbolt exploding in your body.”
But Huie finds it impossible to accept this frightened wretch as a human equal. So he takes refuge in coarse, degrading language, equating Wilson with a dog, “a scurrying black animal.” Several times he refers to him blandly as “that nigger”; sometimes, as “that burr-headed nigger.” It is hard stuff, even though Huie’s aim is plainly rhetorical. If the white, or black, reader of 1941 carries the word “nigger” in his head, Huie will give the word weight and repetition, force the reader to hear it, truly hear it—just as he will use the word “terrorist” 20 years later. He will take the muffler off the word, the lid off the thought, with no “N-word” euphemisms. But the rhetoric is risky, because it succeeds only if one stays with Huie, and with Wilson, all the way to the end.
The end comes in the death house. Huie is there to see another criminal he has covered take the juice, and spots Roosevelt Wilson in the night’s line-up of “black meat.” The two talk; reminisce on their first meeting; read from the Bible. Huie assures Wilson that everyone knows he is innocent.
“Den why is dey killin’ me, boss?”
Huie has nothing to offer but bromides, a cryptic remark—“There’s a bigger and more awful reason that I haven’t time to explain”—and the empty assurance that death by exploding thunderbolt will not be painful.
Wilson asks Huie to witness his execution. “My folks don’t shake hands with Negroes,” he says, “but I took Roosevelt by the hand and we walked down the corridor.” The condemned goes to his death stoically and alone. No one comes for his remains: “They buried him in the prison plot for unclaimed bodies.”
Some of “The South Kills another Negro” might be factually true. Certainly, much of it is dramatized. But one Roosevelt Collins, convicted of the crime of simple rape, was executed by the Alabama Department of Corrections on June 11, 1937, and Huie’s mea culpa—with which he implicates himself in his community’s betrayal of justice—is real enough: “Whenever I try to feel that I am an honest and self-assured supporter of the American Dream, Roosevelt Wilson perches on my shoulder, laughs sardonically, and reminds me that I am just another lousy compromiser; that once when I had my chance to strike a blow in defense of the Great Dream, I turned aside with the Pontius Pilates and whimpered: ‘What the hell can I do?’”
Roosevelt Collins and Eddie Slovik: they are spectral twins in Huie’s American Gothic, so alike, so different. One black, one white; one rural Southern, one industrial Northern. Both about the same age, both dead by execution. One was legally lynched for his color, one lawfully executed for refusing to fight in a time of war; each execution was, by the community standard of its time and place, legal, justified, and correct. Each was one man, and to each Huie felt a responsibility—to ensure that the graveyard of unclaimed American bodies had earth for their bones, and our history room for their stories.
“Community power, because of its tendency to arrogance,” Huie wrote, “must always be suspect among free men. Free men create community power fearfully: there was not a patriot at Philadelphia who did not fear the United States even while he was helping create it.”
Those are remarkable statements, yet any American will know what Huie meant. Like Tocqueville, he saw democracy as a beautiful idea that also threatened to make a tyranny of the majority. We sing hymns to rugged individualism, yet to stand alone, truly alone, may be the single hardest thing for an American to do. As a country made up of often antagonistic communities, we guard our tribal prejudices and enclave hostilities—our “community standards”; yet we imagine that we are united. In practice, we tend to hate those who defy the standard and refuse the prejudice. We hound those who defy and then, when they’re dead, call them great Americans.
A lot of us thunder the right ideals at a restaurant table, or deliver the mot juste from an easy chair. Huie went out, got the story, and did his thundering in public. Few writers of the last century did more to translate ideals into action, and action into writing. Few did more to engage in the hardest, most dangerous fights of his time; to extol the individual while sustaining the sense of a larger America both ideal and real, an aspiration and a fact, a miracle and a monster.
Huie never forgot where he lived. America, he told us then and reminds us now, is a dangerous place—especially for those who choose their curse, and defy the country they see.
This is a revised version of an article that appeared in much shorter form in The Oxford American in 2007.