When I was a teenager, my father told me about a lynching that occurred when he was an adolescent during which two black youths were dragged to death behind cars. I remember the very spot on the street where he told me this (it was about a block from the above sign), and I still associate that spot with the blood, flesh, and screams of dying kids. This week, I decided to find out what I could about the crime. I didn’t know the year, and I could find no single authoritative source for lynching history, so it took me awhile to sort through a dozen or more sites before I found the boys’ names—James and Stanley Bearden—and the date they were killed—June 29, 1928. I also discovered a 1989 oral history in which the lynching was discussed.* The interviewee was a white man named Sam Jones whose father was mayor in 1928 when the murders occurred. His interviewers were Bob and Betsy Jones. I have no idea how—or if—the three were related. I just know that Jones’ Meat Market was a prominent family-run business when I was a kid. I delivered the local newspaper to the store and was always treated with great kindness by a woman whose name I remember as Betsy Jones. Here is a partial text of the Sam Jones’ interview:
Bob Jones: In 1928 you recall there was a double lynching in Brookhaven of two blacks who had gotten into an altercation with K.B. [?] Burns and his brother and had shot and wounded K.B. Burns and the two blacks were arrested and put in the jail and very quickly the word spread about the problem and an angry mob assembled around the jail from the county and from nearby counties. Quite an angry crowd had assembled within a few hours after they had been put in jail. I believe you told me once you were working in Brookhaven at that time; you were off from school, or something…
Sam Jones: It was the summer time and I was working at Hobbs Drug Store at my usual job as Soda Jerk and I went over to the courthouse to see the crowd, but I didn’t stay to see the lynching and all that happened. But the sheriff had not done anything to try to quiet the mob and my father told him, “You’ve got to call the governor. If you don’t call the governor and ask him for the National Guard to come down here I’m just going to beat the hell out of you.” And those were his words, and he never said anything like that. But it was too late. The sheriff called the governor and they were going to send help but it didn’t get there in time. But my father was the only man in Brookhaven, the only decent man in Brookhaven who was there. He got up and tried to quiet the crowd, but they would have nothing to do with him, they just pushed him out of the way and they got the men out of jail, did all those horrible things, I don’t need to go into what they did.
Bob Jones: Somebody later saw you at the store and made some remark…
Sam Jones: Oh yes, a dentist. He just came in just laughing, what was going on over there, and said, “Son, that mob just pushed your dad out of the way like nothing. It really made me mad.” I said something I shouldn’t have said, it was out of character for me at that time because I was just about 17 years old, he was an old man and at that time you treated old men with respect. But I never had any respect for him after that.
Bob Jones: He was a dentist?
Sam Jones: Yes…[break] They dragged them, tied them behind a car and dragged them. [break] These were kids; they were always picking on them, the white men. At this time something was said, I don’t know what they said to him but he got angry, he shot K.B. The other man was innocent. He was just in jail for some other reason. But the mob took him too.
Bob Jones: I didn’t know that, I thought there were two of them had been involved…
Sam Jones: No, only the one Negro boy. But you know the streets of Brookhaven were absolutely empty of anybody. Everybody went home, didn’t want to get involved in anything.
[female]: You mean after it was all over?
Sam Jones: No, before it was over.
Bob Jones: Except for the mob.
Sam Jones: Yes, the mob. Yes.
Betsy Jones: Were the stores all closed? Nobody tried to stop them, is what you’re saying.
Sam Jones: Nobody except my father tried to do anything.
[male]: Did anybody get into trouble eventually?
Sam Jones: My father was mayor at that time, too. And was still mayor. He got a lot of hate letters from all over the county. Anonymous letters, most of them were anonymous letters.
[female]: I thought the lynching; because of the lynching…
Bob Jones: He caught it from both sides.
Sam Jones: Yes.
Reading this probably had a stronger effect on me than you might imagine because you didn’t grow up with the people who lived through those violent times. You might envision them as frothing beasts who went through life doing one hateful thing after another, but I knew them as my kindly elders. I would at least hope that most people had opposed lynching, but they knew what lynchers were capable of, so they had to choose between putting themselves and their families at risk or keeping quiet, and they kept quiet. I very much wish they had done differently, but I don't even know what I would have done. I just know that if I had kept quiet, I would have hated myself for my cowardice.