As police shootings of blacks continue, as anti-Muslim speech and violence intensifies, and as Donald Trump surfs a wave of Alt-Right bigotry toward the White House, I can’t help flashing back to the Alabama of my childhood, half a century ago. I grew up in a small town during the heyday of George Wallace and the turbulence of the Civil Rights movement, when wholesale hatred and violence from angry whites were directed against African Americans seeking equality.
I was seven in May 1963, when the police chief in Birmingham turned fire hoses and police dogs loose on Civil Rights protesters. I was still seven in September, when four KKK members planted a bomb beneath the steps of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which had played an active role in the movement. The bundle of dynamite—15 sticks say some accounts, 19 say others—went off shortly before the worship service was scheduled to start, killing four girls and injuring more than 20 other people. It was the city’s deadliest bombing, but far from the first: previously some 50 racially motivated explosions had already earned Birmingham the nickname “Bombingham.”
I was nine in March 1965, when state troopers and a mounted sheriff’s posse blocked a march by peaceful protesters in Selma. After a brief standoff, the police attacked the marchers, firing tear gas and clubbing people with wooden nightsticks. At the time, I was too young and too sheltered—I lived in a quiet town of 6,500—to grasp the ferocity of the bigotry and violence.
By the time I was in seventh grade, my school had integrated. One of my basketball teammates was a black boy named Earl—“Earl the Pearl”—who, confounding stereotypes, played as badly as I did. Earl sometimes stopped by my house after school to shoot hoops, but we both remained benchwarmers, sitting side by side: equals, judged not by the color of our skin but by the lameness of our game. Dr. King’s dream had come true, at least in a third-string sort of way.
In high school I got religion and felt called to the ministry; at 16, I landed an appointment as a Methodist lay pastor, preaching the gospel twice a month at a one-room country church whose dead, their graves adorned with dusty plastic flowers, far outnumbered the living. One day early in my appointment, I passed a hand-lettered sign beside the road, less than a mile from my church: Klan Meeting Tonight. I was astonished; I’d imagined the Klan was over and done with. I was also baffled. Who would go to a Klan meeting in this sleepy crossroads? Would Etta Mae, the church’s fifty-something pianist? Her husband, Bob, whom I never saw on Sundays because he had his own pulpit, in a fire-and-brimstone Primitive Baptist church? The handful of quiet farmers and highway-department workers scattered among my pews?
Being young and new and unsure of myself, I didn’t ask about the sign, I’m sorry to say. Over the course of my pastorate—which ended two years later, when I went off to college and lost my theological certainty—I never saw the sign again.
I remember it, though—more often than ever now, against the backdrop of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter and White Lives Matter and Charleston and a sickening rise in hate groups and Klan groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose Intelligence Project tracks extremists of all stripes, the number of U.S. hate groups rose last year to more than 1,600—a 14 percent increase in just one year. More alarmingly, says the SPLC, the number of Klan chapters rose by more than 250 percent in 2015, to a total of nearly 200.
Last fall came the mass shootings in San Bernardino and Paris, which killed dozens of people in the name of radical Islam. Those tragedies were followed by a fierce anti-Muslim backlash. Donald Trump vowed to ban Muslim immigration and called for a “national registry” of Muslims already in the country. Trump’s Muslim-bashing was mirrored by (perhaps partly responsible for) a continuing surge of anti-Muslim violence, including incidents of vandalism and arson at mosques, widespread harassment, and violent assaults—beatings and murders—of innocent Muslims.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sympathizing with radicalized terrorists who kill in the name of Allah. Their actions sicken and grieve me, just as “Christian Identity” violence—shootings and bombings at abortion clinics, or calls for the killing of every Jew in America—sickens and grieves me. Murder gives God—any God—a bad rap. You don’t have to be a former preacher boy to realize that.
I no longer live in Alabama; now I’m next door in Georgia, in the music-making, tatted-up town of Athens, home of the University of Georgia. I love it here. And yet: Two weeks after the Charleston church shootings—and less than an hour after my wife and I first arrived in Athens—a shiny crew-cab pickup rumbled past us, cruising the street that doubles as the university’s fraternity row. Two big Confederate battle flags streamed behind it, waved by jeering young white men, and my wife—a newly hired professor of social work and human rights—stopped dead, turned to me, and wept tears of sadness and fury.
Last month, in Covington, Georgia, a Muslim group’s plan to build a mosque was thrown into doubt when a militia group staged a protest at the proposed site. Some of the militia members wore fatigues and carried assault rifles. Their spokesman called the local Muslims “a future ISIS training group.”
It’s not very far to Covington from Athens. Truth is, these days it’s not very far to Covington from anywhere in Georgia. Or Alabama. Or America. The back roads of bigotry and dark alleys of violence could quickly take us all to Covington. From there, it’s only a hop, skip, and a rope back to Bloody Sunday and Bombingham and Klan Meeting Tonight.
Jon Jefferson is a crime novelist in Athens, Georgia.