A Brookhaven, Mississippi, lynching

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.

[The End]

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.


Two cars sold and one car bought, all in ten days

Our '93 Chevy and '98 Toyota Camry sold on the spot for the full asking price to the first people who looked at them. Peggy sobbed when she looked out and saw that the Camry was gone because she didn't get to say goodbye. I don't know how much good that would have done her, but I too feel wrecked. Given how fast they sold, I'm wondering if we could have gotten more money for our vehicles, but if we had traded them in, we would have received a total of $1,500, but by selling them on Craigslist, we got $5,000, so I guess I can't complain too much, and even if we could have done better, it would have prolonged the misery.

I was completely forthcoming about every little thing that was wrong with them, even sharing information that made no difference and that the buyer almost certainly wouldn't have discovered had I kept my mouth shut...

We got twelve responses within hours of putting the Camry online, and I had the thought that of all the cars on the road, a Camry was probably the easiest to sell (the Japanese sure kicked American ass on that one). One man wrote that his daughter is a veterinary student who needs a good car for the 40-mile commute to Oregon State.  He went on to describe what a sterling student she was and ended with a plea that I "help her out" by dropping my price $800, which was all he could afford. I thought about not responding, but instead turned him down very courteously. I thought that would be the end of it, but he immediately wrote back offering more money. Someone else offered $400 less than the asking price without even having seen the car. I'm fine with people bargaining for something they know they want, but am offended when they do it on speculation.

It's sad to have sold cars that we  owned for so long and loved so much (cars are like pets in that we humans are totally responsible for their welfare, so it feels like a betrayal to sell them), but at least's it's over, and I feel more relaxed for it. We ran errands in the RAV4 yesterday for the first time since bringing it home, and took turns driving it. When the car belonged to the dealer, our goal was to see how we liked it, but now that it's ours, our goal is simply to avoid wrecking it. We know our unease will diminish every hour that we drive, but it sure was pronounced yesterday. I especially hated that dealer's tag announcing to all the world that it's a new car because I wouldn't be surprised but what some moron would ding it with their door out of envy. Am I more paranoid that most?

Tim said that when he started working as a car salesman, his biggest fears were damaging a car and learning how everything worked on the many models that he was trying to sell (he was also intimidated by having to dress nicely and work with people who were shopping for cars that cost way more than he could afford). His words put our fear of our new car into perspective, but why is it that we didn't used to worry about damaging a car? Is it age-related, or is it because this car is more complex, luxurious, and expensive, than anything we ever owned? Just the instructional manuals make a stack four-inches tall, and being surrounded by all those buttons that we don't know how to use makes learning to drive a RAV4 a bit like learning to land a jet on a carrier. I'm joking, of course, but there is a lot to be said for simplicity, and by our Model T standards, this is not a simple car. 

I've been counting up all the cars we've owned in our 44-years together (I owned others before we met, and then there were the ones that I bought to resell). The list comes to two Fords, two Chevys, three Datsuns, and four Toyotas. Of these, three were trucks, and one was a van, and one a station wagon, leaving a total of five sedans and the new SUV. I'll forever miss most of them, partly for what they were, and partly because they marked epochs in our lives. We're now a one car family for the first time in years, and the sale of our van means the end of our camping days. Will this be our last car or our next to last car? Life can be measured in many ways--time, cars, pets, houses... My mother used to say things like, "Well, this will be my last vacuum cleaner." I thought it was a bummer of a way to look at things, but now I too am doing it. For instance, I know that if our cats live a normal lifespan, we'll never have another baby animal because it would be cruel to get a pet that would outlive us.

The job is done

The photo is of me, salesman Tim, Peggy, and our new car. After an intensive two and half week search, we finally brought home a Toyota yesterday (it's not the prettiest car we looked at, but I don't want to be stranded on the side of the road in a pretty car). Peggy wanted to celebrate by going out to eat, but I am so deficient in the emotional and physical ability to deal with the stress of car-buying, that I just wanted to go to bed. 

Tim was our final salesman, and Peggy quickly trusted him. Because Peggy doesn't trust easily, and because I have confidence in her discernment, I paid attention to that and started looking for the good in Tim even while trying to find a better price elsewhere and wondering if we shouldn't wait for the end-of-year rebates. Tim soon won me over to the point that Peggy and I decided that we would buy from him even if we could get a better price elsewhere, this based upon our belief that he was caring and had integrity in a field where such virtues are little found. I'll give you an example.

We initially worked with another salesman at the same dealership (Lithia of Springfield). The man's name was Rodney, and he and I had spoken on the phone, so when Peggy and I went to the dealership, we asked for him, and only started working with Tim when Rodney wasn't available. After talking with Tim for at least an hour, Peggy came down with a migraine about the time that Rodney appeared. I found him dour and aggressive, an observation that was confirmed when Peggy said that she really needed to go home, only to have Rodney continue trying to sell her a car. We went home anyway, and I wrote to Tim that I didn't want to work with Rodney anymore because he had shown no concern for Peggy's welfare. Because I had let him get away with it for several minutes, I was also mad at myself for not taking care of my wife when she wasn't in a good place to take care of herself. As Peggy later said, "I was too sick to think clearly, and I really need to think clearly when I'm buying a car."

I like to believe that Peggy and I work as an effective team, but when it comes to anything having to do with numbers, she's better than I because she's more detail oriented, and, as skeptical as I am, I don't know but what she's also quicker to spot bullshit. For example, when we were in Jack's office (Jack being the guy who has you sign all of the many papers that it takes to buy a car even when you're paying cash for it), Peggy expressed interest in the "lifetime oil change" for $649. I wasn't keen on this--I've always done my own oil changes--but she was, and I was willing to give in. The problem was that your first two years of oil changes are free anyway, so I asked Jack why we shouldn't wait and buy-in after the two years were up. He said we could, but that it would cost $200 more. I said, okay then, we'll get it now. Only later did it occur to me that he was almost surely lying (prices tend to go down rather than up when it's the last chance to sell something to a customer), but Peggy recognized it right away and rolled her eyes at Jack. The question I had to ask myself was why I didn't catch-on. Is it because people are more easily taken in the older they get? I think that was probably the reason, and it's why I feel the need to run my decisions past Peggy. The leads me to regard myself as moving in the direction of ever greater helplessness, of being a burden as it were.

When I was young, I could be cheated due to a lack of experience, whereas I am now more vulnerable to being cheated due to a lack of quick thinking and discernment. It's also true that society operates on the premise that, in most situations, most people are going to tell us the truth, so when we get into a situation in which we're blitzkrieged by lies, we're not prepared to deal with it other than by dismissing everything we're told as just another lie, but doing this leaves us with no basis upon which to make an intelligent decision. At some point, we have to believe someone, and our job became easier when we started to believe Tim, although it didn't keep us from learning all we could from sites like Consumer Reports, U.S. News and World Report, and Kelley Blue Book.

When I was a young man, I worked in a series of funeral homes, and found them like car sales in that they relied upon tricks and misinformation at a time when their customers (who were, of course, referred to as the bereaved) were vulnerable. For instance, the customers would be slowly guided through two well-furnished rooms of expensive caskets before reaching the small, unadorned room which contained the poorly-lit cheap ones, and as a final indignity, the funeral home would try to sell the shipping crate that the casket came in. Burying a casket in a pine shipping crate that offered no protection from anything and would soon collapse entirely was just too stupid for words, but it happened more often than not in situations where the customer didn't purchase a steel or concrete vault. I never doubted but what the sales of shipping crates was nothing more than an acknowledged scam within the funeral industry until I overheard two funeral directors trashing a man who refused to buy one, saying, "I guess he didn't care much about his old mama." My god, I thought, they believe their lies. Maybe that's how it is in car sales too, but it doesn't look that way. It just looks like an assault by at least two salesmen and a backroom manager who are out to wear the customer down to the point that he'll do whatever they say just to go home. Every time we buy a car, I tell myself that, this time, it's going to be fun, but with every passing day, I feel a little more worn down.

Tim, though, went out of his way to be helpful, never pressured us, never teamed-up against us (except in the case of Rodney, which he couldn't help), and answered our questions fully. Since I asked a few questions that he could have found insulting (i.e. why is it that so many car salesmen are unethical bullies who are oblivious to people's feelings?), I came to regard him with affection. Even Tim's appearance was non-threatening, due to his being on the elfin side with a magnificently expressive face that portrayed not only his own feelings but his awareness of the feelings of others. He also had striking blue eyes, and I considered him a handsome man. Oddly enough, he was also a bit of a motor mouth, and while I usually find such people tiring due to their self-absorption, Tim was not only a talker, he was also a listener, and I soon came to find his talk soothing because the more he talked, the less I had to. If nothing else, it showed that he had things on his mind other than pressuring us into buying a car. Tim is the kind of person who is so good at what he does that I wish I had a job for him so I could hire him away. And as I said, Peggy trusted him, and this alone was reason enough for me to trust him. 

My biggest problem with Peggy in such situations as buying a car is that the older she gets, the more willful she gets, and once she says that such and such is very important to her, I give up even trying to discuss it. So it was with the lifetime oil change. It probably will save us money, if Lithia honors its word, but only time will tell. Only today did Peggy tell me all of the reasons that she was so set on it: (1) Her father will pay for it if we buy it now (he's buying this car for us); (2) I might become frail or die, making it necessary for her to take charge of car maintenance;  (3) The service includes tire rotation and various inspections; (4) The car requires synthetic oil, and synthetic oil is expensive, so the cost of doing it myself would be higher than with the conventional oil I've always used. I could have added two other considerations: I very much hate doing oil changes during winter when it's raining and so cold that my Raynaud's Disease makes my fingers turn yellow and lose feeling. Also, Toyota will have less excuse to deny warranty-related work if they're the ones doing the servicing.

In all fairness to Peggy, I'm not immune to putting my own foot down, my do-or-die issue being the color of the car--it has to be white. It's also true that I have other go to the grave defending values. For example, at my insistence, we've painted three of the four houses we've owned the same colors (soft blue with beige trim), and I can be equally adamant about other work we do and things we buy. Even agreeing on a new doormat can turn into a major decision for us because we are both (a) strong-willed about home decoration, and (b) we have different preferences; and these factors oblige us to find acceptable compromises no matter how long it takes. I attribute our difficulty to the fact that I have better taste than Peggy, not that she's astute enough to admit it.

This talk of color brings to mind the paper-signing at the dealership. Jack put a blue mark everywhere I was to sign and a pink mark where Peggy was to sign. The funny thing about this was that I prefer pink to blue (my room is pink), and Peggy prefers blue to pink. Although I'm not effeminate, and she's not masculine, there are many ways in which we fit the stereotypes of the opposite gender.

When Frugal People Go Car Shopping

Peggy and I have owned a total of ten cars (not counting 20-30 that I bought specifically to resell) including two new cars. Our first new car was a '73 Datsun truck (with air, mirrors, AM radio, a rear bumper, taxes, tag, and title, the price was $3,300.75--see photo), and our second a '84 Ford Tempo that turned out to be a piece of crap despite its Consumer Reports recommendation.

Yesterday, at my urging, we went shopping for a new car, partly with the thought of cutting back to just one vehicle. Peggy demurred, saying she loves her '98 Camry, and that our '93 Chevy van (which we use for camping and hauling) is bigger than what she would want if we just had one car. But the issue for me isn't just about how many cars we own; it's about the assumed safety and reliability of a new car. I was thinking about this anyway when Peggy's father said he was so worried about us breaking down that he would contribute money toward a new car. Still, Peggy hesitated, saying that if I simply must have something different, why not settle for a newer used one. "Because I want the safest and most dependable thing I can get, and if your father will help pay for it, the expense won't feel like such a kick in the groin" (we are not the kind of people who can cheerfully spend a lot of money).

All those many years ago, after test driving that Datsun truck, we went across the street to a Dodge dealership where Peggy fell in a love with a Colt station wagon. The salesman couldn't say enough about what a lovely young couple we were, and he even offered to take us to dinner. We were happy; he was happy; and all was sweetness and light except for the fact that I didn't like that Dodge. With Peggy's support, he ever so graciously persisted, putting his hand on my shoulder, and speaking to me like a loving father whose only concern was for my well-being. Then, as if the idea had suddenly popped into his head, he said that he wanted us to meet his partner because he just knew that his partner would like us as much as he did. So, his partner came in, and his partner was not impressed. In fact, his partner was pissed. He said we were acting in bad faith by coming into his dealership, saying what we needed in a car, and then refusing to buy, at the very best price, the very best car for our needs. He practically went into in a rage about how badly we were behaving while his partner stood in the corner looking at the floor and softly clucking in shame and mortification. Finally, the bad guy left, and the good guy worked on us, but then, to our horror, the good guy left, and the bad guy came back. And so it went.

We were stunned, and the more abusive the bad guy got, the quieter Peggy and the "good" guy got, and the more cornered I felt. I didn't know what their routine was called, or even that it was a routine; I just knew that there was no way in hell I was going to knuckle-under and buy a car that I didn't want just to get some asshole off my back. If I had been braver, I would have walked out, but as things stood, all I could do was to keep saying no and offering the best excuses I could until the two of them finally gave up. I felt as if I had survived a beating. I told Peggy that I could have used a little help, and Peggy told me that it had been a case of shit or get off the pot, but that I had done neither. Imagine my delight when that dealership got into all kinds of trouble for abusive sales practices. It wasn't I who ratted them out, though, because I didn't know enough to rat them out. It's sad how ignorant young people can be, but since it was our first car buying experience, we just didn't have a clue. Walking into that dealership felt like entering an alternate universe, and it fully enabled me to understand how cops can pressure a young person into confessing to a crime he didn't commit. After all, I was college educated by then and had only been under pressure for a few hours. What if it had lasted for a few days during which I couldn't even use the bathroom without permission?

A few years later, I bought a used Datsun car at the same dealership from which we had gotten our '73 truck. The sales lady's name was Patty, and she was hot in a sophisticated, older woman sort of way that left me slobbering. I was melted by her smile, and my heart beat faster and faster as she moved in closer and closer, and her baby blues burned further and further into the back of my skull. I haltingly pointed out a few problems with the car, and Patty readily agreed to have them fixed. I said, fine, but just so there would be no misunderstanding, maybe we should put everything in writing (I had read that this was a good idea). Patty looked like I had slapped her. She said that, in a world of jaded and suspicious men, she had felt something special with me, and that it hurt her deeply to think that I was no different from anyone else. "Don't be just another cynic," she begged, and I promised I wouldn't, even though it did feel a little strange to be arguing like lovers with a saleswoman. When I took the car back a few days later to have the work done, I learned that not only had Patty never made the appointment, Patty was gone, as in for good, as in I was her last customer. She hadn't gone far, though, because she soon opened her own dealership, and it's still there.

Most car salesmen are not nearly so entertaining as Patty and the good cop/bad cop Dodge boys. Most car salesmen are content to keep saying things like, "What can we do to put you in this car today?" even when I tell them that nothing is going to put me into a $30,000 car without a lot of thought and study. When I went shopping for our last car, I told one salesman that I wanted something that would fit into the garage, and he assured me that I didn't need to park in the garage! I thought, come on you idiot, do I look like someone you can snow, and then I left. I'm simply not going to stand around arguing with a car salesman because choosing a car is hard enough without the pressure.

Given how little Peggy and I drive and how well we take care of vehicles, this could be our next to last car, or even our last one, which is another reason for buying something new. I just want us to be safe. More importantly, I don't want Peggy to ever find herself sitting alone with her hood up (assuming she could figure out how to raise her hood) on the side of I-5 (Interstate 5 goes from Mexico to Canada, making it the major West Coast highway) because my main purpose in life is to protect Peggy. Another troubling possibility is that we would break down so far into the woods that we would have trouble walking for the half-day it might take us to even see another vehicle. When we go camping in our 23-year-old van, this is a real possibility, not because the van isn't in good shape but because when cars get old, everything that can crack, leak, dry out, and disintegrate tends to crack, leak, dry out, and disintegrate (which is what happens to people too, come to think of it). Peggy says that, since she's in better shape for walking, she could go for help alone, and I think, yeah, right, what could be wrong with that idea! Me sitting in the van and her getting raped, murdered, and hidden in a canyon. The cops would probably pressure me into confessing that I killed her, so that would be the end of both of us and the cats too since they would probably starve to death without someone to give them their three-squares a day plus a midnight snack.