- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

OUR TOWN: A HEARTLAND LYNCHING, A HAUNTED TOWN, AND THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF WHITE AMERICA

By Cynthia Carr

Crown, $25.95, 488 pages

REVIEWED BY ROGER K. MILLER

If Cynthia Carr deliberately borrowed the title of Thornton Wilder’s most famous play, it surely was meant as irony, to contrast the assumed geniality of the play and its town with the dark events within her book and its town. As it happens her choice was apt as well as ironic, for as the play’s final act reveals, the world, while wonderful, is also a complex, contradictory and often frightening place.

And so is Marion, Ind., the hometown of her father and grandfather that she often happily visited as a child. Over two days and nights in 1930, it was the scene of a murder of a white man (Claude Deeter), the alleged rape of his white companion (Mary Bell), and the lynching of the two black men held responsible for the crimes, Abe Smith and Tommy Shipp.

A third black man, James Cameron, narrowly escaped the noose. (Mr. Cameron, whose help and inspiration Ms. Carr particularly acknowledges, later founded the Black Holocaust Museum in the author’s hometown of Milwaukee.)

The lasting notoriety of those events of Aug. 6-7 resulted from an infamous photo taken of the two mutilated black men hanging from a tree in the center of town as a white crowd mills around. “The white people posing with those bodies looked so pleased with themselves,” Ms. Carr writes, “so confident that they’ve done the right thing.”

The author, a former Village Voice writer, was driven to write about this affair by several things, the immediate catalyst being the discovery that her beloved grandfather, as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, might have been involved.

She writes as both journalist and a kind of participant, since she thought of Marion as her place. So, in August 1995, she moved there for 14 months, not to become “a superior white person by finding worse white people to look down on,” but to investigate what had been going on for, at that point, 65 years.

The problem with reviewing that George Orwell identified — that it involves “constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feeling whatever”—does not arise for even a second with “Our Town.” Reading it prompts only words of praise.

The author has thoroughly immersed herself in her subject, becoming part of it, just as she once was, and still feels herself to be, a part of Marion. The book is not linear, but circular. It circles around its core and related subjects, gradually arriving, like the repetitive and concentric stains of “Bolero,” at its conclusion, which is: For three-quarters of a century, down to this day, the populace and officialdom of Marion and surrounding Grant County have refused to face the issue head-on.

“From the beginning,” the author says, “Marion authorities behaved as if they just wanted the whole thing to go away.” The result has been “a town with self-inflicted wounds” that never heal.

Ms. Carr tackles her assignment from a dozen different angles, interviewing scores of individuals, including witnesses to the lynching or its immediate aftermath and friends or relatives of the principals. In an attempt to discern the past and present role of the Klan-during the 1920s Indiana had more members than any other state-she spends much time in trailers with “broken white people” for whom the Klan is a refuge.

Truly bizarre religious ideas and apocalyptic worldviews emerge from these Klan trailers and rallies. You could almost be reading V.S. Naipaul’s “Among the Believers,” minus that book’s peevish tone, or British journalist Jon Ronson’s “Them: Adventures With Extremists,” minus that book’s larkish one.

Ms. Carr says it took her a long time to realize the obvious: “[I]n 1930, at least, white Marion didn’t merely regard the lynchings as justified — they were totally self-righteous aboutit.”Perversely, because Marion and Grant County had been relatively tolerant and progressive in race relations, for some whites there hadn’t been enough bigotry. The lynchings, in other words, were “a grisly form of backlash.” She also concludes that the lynchings were not spontaneous, as widely believed, but planned, though not necessarily with direct Klan involvement.

Finally, she learns of the supreme irony: The entire matter had been “settled” immediately, within hours of the murder, among the mothers of those involved. Deeter’s mother went to the mothers of Smith and Shipp to say that her son, on his deathbed, had forgiven their sons. So far as the Deeter family was concerned, it was over.

But this was information that the Marion newspapers suppressed, thus initiating a local policy that would continue for 75 years.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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