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Buried: The Conclusion of ‘The Bodies of Walton County’

I was looking online for a photo of the flag my husband Ben designed for Walton County (see “The Bodies of Walton County: The Trailers,” Dec. 12). The best photo I found was on the Sputnik website. Sputnik is Russian state media, created and funded by a law Putin enacted in 2013. “What’s Walton County doing in Sputnik?” I hear you exclaim. “Did Jody Hice finally defect?”

No, no, it’s nothing like that. The fact is, the Russians using our racism against us has always been a thing. Truman called it a national security threat; part of the reason he enacted the first civil rights legislation was because all the murders were giving the Soviets powerful propaganda tools. One of the events that spurred Truman to act was the murder of four people on the Moore’s Ford Bridge, in Walton County. Sputnik’s still using it against us 50 years later, and using the flag my husband designed as the article’s illustration.

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Hestertown Road is one of the most beautiful byways in Walton County. Rolling, fertile land, highly photographable cows, gracious farmhouses. But I can’t think about Hestertown Road without thinking about the map at the start of Fire in a Canebrake, a book about what happened right down the road from here. In this book, we learn about the four Americans who were murdered by a mob of their neighbors. The 20 or so white townsmen who did this were never identified, much less convicted.

Knowing what happened here means that the landmarks I navigate by are different now. It’s no longer the gracious farmhouse, the church barbecue park and the library that comprise my mental map of the place. Instead, it’s the bridge where they shot them, the tree where they found him, the lot where the school used to be. I feel like I’m stuck in a horror movie where something is off, and people may or may not be monsters. When the lady I bump into at the grocery store tells me about her mission trip or the mayonnaise-based salad she’s shopping for, I’m not really listening. Instead, I’m thinking, “Was it your grandfather who murdered those four people? Was it mine?”     

“Lighten up!” I hear you say, “This is the worst play date I’ve ever been on. It’s different now. We don’t usually hang people from trees.” But chronic unemployment, bad health care and no justice will kill you just as dead as lynching will. It will just take longer.

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Here’s a story Sputnik doesn’t know: In 1947, all the black churches and the black school in Loganville burned down. What would you do if your neighbors burned down your family’s church and your child’s school?

Sadly, Monroe was not the best place for a newly homeless black person to flee to in 1947. The mill, the main employer in town, gave its living-wage jobs to whites only. The biggest mass lynching in decades occurred there the year before. You best hunker down, Loganville refugee. Stay with family, get work when you can.

You will never own that house you live in. The move after the fires cost you whatever money you had, plus your job. You’re two legs down already. You live hand to mouth, like a sharecropper. Eventually, you’ll move into public housing, or rent a house on Stokes Street.

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For a county with “repent” signs nailed to all its pine trees, we sure are an unapologetic lot. Repenting would mean turning away from murder and idolatry toward atonement. It would mean listening, talking and praying, if you’re like that. But we don’t acknowledge what we’ve done, much less repent for it, and so the violence persists, a constant thrum.

There are bodies everywhere in Walton County. The deeper we try to bury them, the more stubbornly they refuse to rest.