Mob Rule: Part 36
Jack lands in the heart of Klan land where the air smells of smoke and cordite, and the Civil War apparently never ended
By John Armstrong
It had been a long, hot muggy ride from Baton Rouge to Montgomery and by the time we arrived I felt like I might as well have swum. I could have wrung my shirt out like a bathing suit. Redcaps at the station loaded us into cabs and I climbed into one with Otis and Vanessa. When I gave the driver the name of our hotel he looked at me with saucer-sized eyes in the rearview mirror and said, “All y’all staying at the Hampton?”
“That’s right. Why?”
“’Cause your friend going to be the first colored to spend the night there.”
“Shit,” Otis said. “I wondered when Jim Crow was going to show up.” He said to the driver, “Thanks for telling us. Where would you suggest as an alternative?”
The driver pulled us out into traffic and said, “I favor the Hotel Sapphire. My sister works the desk and it’s close enough to the Hampton. You won’t have any trouble there and it’s a nice, clean place.”
“The hell with that, “ I said. “If Otis can’t say with us at the Hampton, we’ll all stay at the Sapphire.”
They both laughed and the driver said, “I really wouldn’t recommend that, suh. They wouldn’t go so far as refuse you but I can guarantee you wouldn’t enjoy your stay, and I certainly wouldn’t eat there if I was you.”
Otis put a hand on my knee and said, “I appreciate the thought, Jack, but you can’t change any of this, at least not today. Just let it go and let’s concentrate on doing our job.”
The driver said, “You listen to your friend. This is no place to be saying and doing whatever you please. Best to just go along and get along.”
They dropped us off first and we made arrangements for Otis to call us at the hotel when he’d figured out a place we could all meet without causing an incident. While we were being checked in I told the others what had happened and Sydney shook his head sadly. Lyndon’s face got tight and his eyes hardened. Nobody said anything and two black bellhops carried our bags over to the elevator.
That should have prepared me for my introduction to the Dixie League but it didn’t.
The meeting was in the Hampton’s ballroom and by the time we arrived back downstairs (without Otis; we’d known even before arriving this was one event he needed to be absent from) the liquor had been flowing for several hours. Several people stared and a few scowled and looked away but none spoke to us as we made our way through the crowd. In fact, conversations seemed to die out as we approached.
“I’m sensing a real lack of southern hospitality,” I said to Vanessa when we got to the bar. The bartender made us mint juleps, which I had yet to try. I’ll spare you the experiment – you can get the same effect by chewing a stick of Wrigley’s spearmint gum while drinking bourbon on ice. I nibbled at mine and we headed towards the stage.
There was what we northern types would call a hillbilly band onstage, tearing it up with guitars and fiddles and a big standup bass. The men at the tables were drinking and clapping, cheering on another who was up on top of his own table with his arms out like he was walking a high wire, doing something much like a tap-dance except that instead of tapping he stomped and slammed in time with the soles of his shoes and his audience stomped and clapped right along with him accompanied by, of course, intermittent shots in the air. If the preacher chose a particularly rousing text, I don’t doubt they ventilated the roof in church on Sunday, too.
When the song ended, the bandleader stepped up to the microphone and called for quiet. One of the musicians put down his instrument and brought a snare drum on a stand over from the side of the stage and picked up a pair of sticks. The clapping and cheers settled down.
“Thank you neighbors – the meeting is about ready to commence and we’d like to ask you all to join us in this next song, just to get in the spirit. It’s one we know you all recognize.” Behind him the drummer began a brisk, military beat and the guitar and fiddle joined in. The audience began to cheer as they recognized it and the singer waited for quiet again, then cued them for the first line:
Oh, I’m a good old Rebel,
Now that’s just what I am;
For this fair land of Freedom
I do not give a damn.
I’m glad I fought against it
I only wish we’d won.
And I don’t want no pardon
For anything I done.”
They were all standing now and when they got to the part about “we killed 300,000/ with steel and Southern shot/I wish it was three million/ instead of what we got” they really cut loose and every gun in the room was out, and the air filled with gunsmoke and the smell of cordite. Then they got to the last verse, which ends on “I hate their nasty eagle, with all his brag and fuss” and “those lying, thieving Yankees, I hate them even worse” and that called for more shooting and stomping and shouting, and the Rebel yell in full cry, like some lunatic choir. It kept going as the band headed offstage and the crew began setting up the podium.
Vanessa and I looked at each other and she said, “I’m afraid the only encore you could follow that with is lynching some Yankees.”
“Don’t get smug,” I told her, “I don’t think they’re crazy about the English, either.”
“I’ll just tell them I’m from south London.”
While all this was going on man in a wheelchair rolled up to us and stuck out his hand. He was wearing a dark suit with a striking gold pin on the lapel, a stylized cross with a red blood enamel droplet in the center. It was the same image on one of the banners hanging above the stage, along with the portraits of Jeff Davis and Robert E. Lee.
“Mr. Kennedy? I’m George Wallace, Exalted Cyclops.”
I wanted to shake my head. Something had obviously crawled into my ears.
“Pardon me, sir?”
He smiled good-naturedly, the light shining on his heavily greased hair. “That’s my title. I’m the Alabama chapter chairman of the Dixie League, and also the current Klanmaster for this region. But jus’ call me George. And is this Mrs. Kennedy?”
“No, sir,” I said. “This is Miss Vanessa Hilliard, my fiancé.” I don’t know why it came out that way. “Girlfriend” just didn’t seem right and for some reason I was bothered about what Wallace might think about her travelling with us.
“A pleasure to meet you, Miz Hilliard. How do you like our state so far?” Before she could answer Lyndon appeared.
“Well George, your wife hasn’t pushed you in front of a bus yet, I see.” I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not but Wallace kept smiling.
“Good to see you, Lyndon. How’s Bird?”
“She’s well thank you, and Cornelia?” They obviously knew each other so we excused ourselves and went to join Sydney and Bobby at the bar. They’d been tied up with their usual locked-door pow-wows most of the day and neither looked happy. I thought they were concerned about the general anti-Northern mood in the place and said something to that effect. But Bobby shook his head.
“No, that’s nothing. We’ve got bigger problems.” He finished his drink in one gulp and pushed the glass toward the bartender. That was unlike him when there was work to do.
“I saw you talking to Wallace over there,” Sydney said. He crushed a cigarette and lit another. “What about?”
“Not a lot – by the time we’d introduced ourselves, Lyndon came over and they’re catching up. I take it they’re friends?”
Bobby said, “Not exactly friends, but they know each. They’re both in cotton trading.” He looked around and saw no one was paying any attention to the three of us, but he leaned in anyway. “Someone’s putting it around that we were at the colored church supper, and that we’ve got Otis on staff. That shouldn’t matter, and normally it wouldn’t, even with the League. But someone’s stirring up the natives about it, saying we’re promising the blacks all kinds of things. And that’s a big problem. We’ve been putting out fires all day, trying to mollify some very angry and upset ol’ boys.”
“What kind of things?”
“Forty acres and a mule,” Bobby said.
I didn’t get the reference and looked at Sydney.
“At the end of the Civil War the government offered the freed slaves forty acres and a mule to plow the land with. Not many got it, but for those who did it came from what the Union seized from white plantation owners. They’re saying that if we get control, we’re going to pay the blacks back by taking from the whites. Redistributing the wealth, as it’s called by the Bolsheviks.
“You don’t want to say that kind of thing too loudly down here. There’s no future in it. People like Wallace and his gang like things just the way they are.” He dumped his butt into the ice cubes at the bottom of his glass. “You could say that they resist change, vigorously. There was a colored reverend here a few years ago, preaching integration and equality and leading protest marches. Bringing his people in and sitting down in the whites only-section of lunch counters. He didn’t get far. ”
He stopped and picked up his glass, saw what was in it and put it back down. “And what happened?”
“One Sunday when his flock showed up, he was hanging from the steeple, and nobody tried ordering coffee and a sandwich where they weren’t welcome anymore after that.”
“Just selling the idea of black enfranchisement is enough to turn half the state against us.” Bobby said, finishing his drink again. “We need to find out where this stuff’s coming from and stop it, if it’s not already too late.”
I wondered exactly what we were offering the negroes, knowing as I did that what we said on the podium didn’t necessarily dovetail with what was discussed backstage and behind hotel doors. But there was no use in asking – I’d tried and the answer was always, leave the details to us. Lyndon came over just then, and I saw immediately he’d dropped the perpetual smile he wore during these events.
“Wallace says we have trouble,” were his first words, then he looked around then group and said, “but it looks like you already know about it.”
Bobby said, “We do, and the first question I have is, is Wallace the one spreading it?”
Lyndon nodded. “Probably is. I don’t think it’s George’s own idea, but he’d go along with it, happy as a pup following a boy to school. I’d say it’s more likely his partner, Connor.” Lyndon pointed out a lumpy, bulldog-faced man in black glasses talking to a group near the stage. “George is like a cannonball – Bull’s the one that aims him.”
I was having trouble following this latest bit of intrigue. So was Vanessa. She said, “So they rile people up with this story, then they tell us about it? I don’t know whether it’s pure arrogance or stupidity.”
Lyndon said, “This pair would piss on your boots, smile, and tell you it’s raining, if you’ll pardon my language. It’s their way of showing how much they much we need them, which makes a good case for giving the League whatever it wants.”
He swirled the last inch of bourbon in his glass and then set it down without drinking. “You know, George is a genuine tragedy.”
“Because of whatever put him in the wheelchair?” I said.
“Hell, no,” Lyndon answered. “He had spinal meningitis as a kid. He’s been in the chair since high school.
“I meant this Klan bullshit. He was a decent man but he wanted power and prestige as well as money, and the place to get it was with these assholes. ‘Scuse me, Miss.
“Exalted Cyclops, my ass. What a load of horseshit.” He finished his drink and stood back.
“I’m going to make one more circuit and see if I can’t smooth the water some, then I’d suggest we get to it sooner rather than later. These boys are already well-liquored and it won’t get any better as the night goes on.”
He went off into the crowd again, his big hat bobbing above their heads like a cork in an angry sea. I could see more than a few white hoods out there on the bounding main, too.
The rest of us went to the backstage dressing room to get organized. What we should have done was get the band back onstage and run like hell while they distracted the audience. Bobby suggested Lyndon and I go out together, and he and Sydney cobbled together a short version of the stump speech that we could deliver as a tag-team, hitting hard on the evils of the bosses and the shining day of freedom that was coming. There was no mention of race, but that didn’t matter. We didn’t need to bring it up. They did.
We’d just been introduced and Lyndon was pulling the mike up to where it was some use to him when a loud voice rang out:
“Goddamn Nigger Lovers!”
The hall immediately filled with catcalls and shouted insults and threats, louder than anything the stage mike could compete with. There were more shots in the air – at least, I hoped they were fired into the air. A bottle flew past my head and broke on the stage. Another smashed against the lectern and I felt glass splinters hit my face. Bizarrely I remembered an old movie I’d seen about Edwin Booth, the brother of Lincoln’s killer and also a famous actor. He’d gone out onstage the night after the assassination and been met with a hail of rotten fruit and vegetables from a mob who’d bought their tickets for that reason only. Booth stood there silently and endured it with such grace and nobility that the barrage slowed and then stopped, turning into a standing ovation. As the ballroom erupted around me I had a momentary vision of likewise standing my ground, and seeing the crowd fall silent, ready to hear what I had to say.
Then I came to my right mind and got off that stage as fast as humanly possible. Lyndon pulled me the last few feet as I got to the wings, hauling me in with his big mitts. I felt something sticky on my face and thought I was bleeding, then tasted the sour mash running down from my hairline.
Lyndon still had hold of my jacket and he swung me in front of him and pushed me toward the door, shouting at Bobby and Sydney, “If you don’t want to leave town wearing feathers and riding a fence rail, get the car around here and head for the station.” Vanessa was beside me dabbing at my face with a hanky, which seemed a bit like stopping to tie your shoes during an earthquake. I opened the hall door and made to hustle through it and nearly landed in George Wallace’s lap. Connor was behind him, pushing the chair.
“Mr. Kennedy, I cain’t tell you how sorry I am for the reception you got tonight,” Wallace said. “But it just goes to show how touchy about these things we are when outsiders become involved in our affairs, and to be truthful, I suppose we could have been more help in vouching for your credentials.
“But we don’t’ really know what your plans are, specifically. I’d suggest we should be working more closely together to alleviate these concerns.” His tone was as oily as his hair. “Improve the lines of communication, best way to quiet down all this upset, in my view. All kinds of stories get started otherwise.” He looked like a cat with a mouthful of feathers.
“That’s for another day, though. Right now, the least we can do is see you all off to the station safely,” Wallace said. ‘Your colored friend Mr. Bird is already there waiting for you. We’ve sent someone ahead with your luggage.”
Connor was smiling, his little pig eyes shining behind the glasses.
None of us replied. We followed them down the hall and through the service entrance out to a station wagon waiting in the alley. The driver lifted Wallace into the car, then stowed his chair. Connor sat up front and we rode silently, listening to the radio play gospel songs until we stopped at the rail station, where Otis was sitting on a bench with bags piled around him.
‘You mind what I said,” George said as we climbed out, his voice pleasant and warm. “We’ll smooth all this fuss over and give it another try, once we’re all singing from the same hymnal. And Lyndon, please remember me to Bird.”
Connor stuck his big head partway out the window, spit out a stream of tobacco, bared his teeth and said the first words I’d heard from him all night.
“Y’all come back now, hear?”
Mob Rule is a work of fiction, serialized exclusively in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.