Laughing at racism

The Scotsman, February 9 1991

It was the day after the crime. Everyone in Conroe was talking about the report in the Courier: “Girl found slain at Conroe High. Police say teenager strangled.” Politicians and church ministers were pleading for calm. The captain of detectives was on television, disclosing that the girl had been raped by her killer. Her body had been taken to the morgue down in Houston.

It was a hot day, the kind of heavy humid weather when young kids and old men like to take their fishing lines out to the nearest water and swat the flies and talk a bit, and that is just what John Henry Faulk was doing that day, a little to the north of Conroe.

Faulk was a household name in Texas, famous both as a radical and as a stand-up comedian who took his one-man show from town to town, playing out the parts of dozens of different Texans he had met over the years, satirising them and teasing them even with their ugliest weaknesses. As a young man, he had been in the frontline of the fight against McCarthyism, had often been on national television and was renowned now as a social philosopher who used comedy to make his point. Many of the characters he played on stage were modeled on people he had met round Conroe.

This particular Sunday afternoon, Faulk was down by the river with an old friend of his who had lived all his life in that part of east Texas and who had become the raw material for one of Faulk’s most popular stage characters. Faulk looked on him as a living symbol of a certain kind of white Texan. Soon enough, the conversation turned to this dreadful killing at the high school.

“When they catch him,” his friend said in his slow drawl, “when they catch the man who did that thing, it’ll be a nigger.” Faulk looked at him and sighed. “Sure as you’re born,” continued his friend. “That’s a typical damn nigger crime.”

John Henry Faulk nodded slowly, not because he agreed with one word of it, but because he knew that that was the kind of thing that his friend was bound to say. Faulk had been listening to it all his life. But back then, on that Sunday morning in August 1980, Faulk had no way of knowing how his friend’s words would stay with him, like a scar on his memory.

It was not long before he began to see what his friend meant. Within a week, the captain of detectives had arrested the only black man near the scene of the murder, a 28-year-old school janitor named Clarence Brandley. Within six months, Clarence Brandley had been convicted and despatched to Death Row to await death by lethal injection. Conroe was satisfied that justice was being done.

For a while, Faulk had no more than the echo of his friend’s words to stir his anxiety, but as time passed, the truth slowly began to seep out around the lid that Conroe had slammed down on the murder. First, it was just rumours; but soon, they hardened into evidence. New witnesses spoke out. Hidden facts were uncovered.

It was a long, bitter struggle. Witnesses who tried to help were beaten up. Evidence which might have helped went missing. But eventually, in the autumn of 1987, Brandley’s attorneys succeeded in dragging his case into an independent court, 100 miles from Conroe, with a judge who was free of the town’s politics.

Faulk watched in sorrow and anger as Brandley’s attorneys displayed the evidence they had collected and showed how two white men were the real murderers, and how judges, detectives and a burly Texas Ranger had worked together to twist the rules of justice and stifle the truth. The independent judge now declared Brandley an innocent man, the victim of brazen racism. But Conroe still fought to keep him on Death Row.

It was at that stage, in November 1987, that I first went to Conroe, drawn by reports of this conflict which appeared to have revealed a bedrock of racism, as solid as ever, beneath the surface of American life, apparently untouched by all the changes that had been secured by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I heard about Faulk and about how he had been fighting racism since his youth when he had seen the rise of fascism in Europe, and I went to him for an explanation.

John Henry Faulk was not surprised at the way Conroe had fallen on Clarence Brandley. He had seen this kind of communal fever before. There was one time, he recalled, when, as a child, he had seen a white girl being knocked off her bicycle by a young black boy running across the street in front of her; the girl had gone home and complained that some ‘nigger’ had hurt her and the next thing he knew, there were groups of white men prowling round the streets looking for the boy. They even had a rope to string him up with. It was Faulk’s father, a liberal lawyer, who went out with the sheriff and told them the truth, and persuaded them to let the boy live.

Faulk helped me to find the truth about Conroe which had a history of unashamed racism. Until the 1950s, it had its own chapter of the the Ku Klux Klan which used to meet in the town hall for oyster dinners and to burn crosses down by the San Jacinto River. The schools were segregated. So were the restaurants, the cinemas, the public toilets and the water fountains.

The town’s newspaper, the Courier, used to run a column called “A Little Fun – Jokes to Make You Laugh” in which black people were regular targets, caricatured as criminal and stupid. There was the black maid who was about to get married and asked her mistress to keep her savings for her because “ah hates to keep all dat money in de house wid a strange niggah man”; or the black ‘mammy’ who always signed her name X, then started signing with a Y because “Ise done got married yistidy an’ changed mah name”.

Conroe’s past was littered with black victims: young Tommy Goffney, who was fined $100 in January 1951 because he had written to a white girl asking her for a date; Marshall Waters and Zeke Rollin, who were shot dead at a road block by police who had heard rumours that black people were getting drunk on whisky and planning an uprising; the student who had been caught hitch-hiking outside the town in 1985 and ended up tarred and feathered.

Faulk had grown up with all this. By the time I met him he was aged 68 and his health was failing but as he started to explore the origins of this racism, his energy flooded back into him and, sitting in his arm chair in his home in Austin, Texas, he started to act out the monologue which he liked to use on stage to expose its roots. It was all about blacks and whites, seen through the eyes of a typical Texan racist.

“You gotta unnershtan’,” he started with his voice creaking out of the side of his mouth in a parody of an east Texas accent. “There’s good niggers and there’s bad niggers. You gotta know how to treat ’em right. Take for example, if you got a good nigger and you gotta whup him, don’t go haulin’ him out in front a his wife and children and humiliatin’ him ‘cos that’s how you turn a nigger bad, see? You can run a nigger off doin’ a thing like that. No. You gotta treat a good nigger with respect – take him down the woods and give him a whuppin’ there where no-one can see!”

Then he laughed and explained how, even in a place like Conroe, he would get his white audience laughing with him, prodding them with the truth about themselves, and he would speak a few more of their hidden thoughts. “Y’see, if a nigger keeps his place, he’ll get no trouble. No trouble at all. He can sit there in his little ole shack and eat his corn and play with his old nigger woman and no-one’s gonna pay him any mind. But, you know, once a nigger’s gone bad, there’s no helpin’ him and he’ll cause nothing but trouble till you get shot of him. And nothing makes a nigger go bad quicker than thinkin’ ’bout white pussy.”

If they were still laughing with him at this point, Faulk could go deeper, right into the heart of their hatred. He would talk about his old aunt, Ole Miss Waters, who reckoned little black boys tried to spy on her in the toilet “because they develop their sexual urges young, the little stinkpots” and who would never let her children go swimming down by Grogan’s Mill because of the black men who worked there: “They got the biggest ole organs you ever seen and they just love to catch a little white girl and the first thing they’d do is just rape you, just get you and there’d be an orgy of violence right there.”

Then he would talk about one of his earliest confidants, old Mr Brodie, who explained the other side of the story in his parched voice. “You know one of the greatest wonders in the world? Is why God put all the best pussy on the nigger woman. You ever think of that? ‘Cos it’s the truth.”

If his audience was really good, Faulk could spell it out, how he discovered as a boy that as a white man he would be allowed to take any black woman he saw. Just like the old slave masters who had had their way with the slave women and who offered a little black girl to any white man who came to stay as a house guest. It was not so different today, he would say.

No white man was ever going to get into trouble for raping a black woman. No white woman could sue for adultery if her husband was playing round with a black woman. Everyone knew that. A white man could do what he liked with a black woman.

But a black man better not even look at a white woman – not even look – or he would touch a nerve so bare, so vital that every white man in the area would only be doing his manly duty if he helped to hunt that black-assed ‘nigger boy’ down and taught him a lesson once and for all. There was no other way to deal with a ‘bad nigger’.

Faulk sat back in his armchair, shaking his head sadly. “What they’ve done to Clarence Brandley is nothing unusual. The only unusual thing is that that haven’t got him under the ground yet. They just see it as doing their manly duty. Lynching and killing has always been seen by whites as part of the punishment for someone being black, a way of keeping the niggers in their place.

“Back in the 1930s here, they tried to introduce an anti-lynching law and there was a whole lot of argument about it, and they said they couldn’t have a law like that because they had to have some way to keep the niggers in line. Uppity niggers and trouble makers – they’ve got to be put down. It’s part of the white culture in these parts.”

In theory, all that had been swept aside by the civil rights movement more than 20 years earlier. Faulk would have none of it. “Racism is rampant in this country. Anyone who says it’s all been resolved simply doesn’t know this country.”

In Conroe, I had no trouble finding evidence to support his view. Twenty three years after the death of Martin Luther King, the whole town is still split by a railway line which separates the neat, brick-built, air-conditioned world of the whites from the crumbling shacks of the black people. In Conroe’s one hundred years, there has still never been a black doctor, or an architect or an accountant or any other middle-class professional who was born and bred on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.

The most powerful black person remains the man who owns most of the shacks. He has the same role as the black foremen who used to be picked out by the old slave masters to whip the other slaves into line. I went to his house (brick-built, not a shack); his teeth were stuffed with gold and he assured me that black people in Conroe are equal with whites and just as happy. Like his forerunners, he is known as the ‘Head Nigger’.

The civil rights movement ran a gauntlet of abuse in order to secure a place for black children in white schools. In Conroe, too, the schools are now mixed. But a group of 50 black parents had recently formed a committee in the town to protest about the racism in the classroom. They point to a shortage of black teachers and guest speakers. They complain that there is ‘an unwritten code’ which works against their children and that, for example, their sons and daughters are encouraged to play sports but never allowed to become cheerleaders.

The Mayor of Conroe is white. So is the city administrator, the fire chief, the librarian, the tax assessor, the president of the chamber of commerce, the newspaper editor and all his reporters. There are white churches and black churches. Even the graveyards are segregated: Oscar Johnson who runs the funeral parlour in the black part of town told me he has never buried a white body, even though his prices are the cheapest in town, and he still buries black bodies in the same two cemeteries that have always been reserved for non-white people.

The new civil rights laws sliced straight through Conroe like a knife stabbing the wind and left it unchanged. Over and over again, black people found that their poverty still trapped them. Suddenly, they had the right to go into white restaurants, but they still didn’t have the money to pay for their food. Finally, they were allowed to live in white neighbourhoods, but the houses there were way beyond their price range.

And whatever the law might say, black people were just not welcome on the white side of town. An elderly white woman with pearl earrings told me proudly how she and her white friends used to run a civic society which went round teaching housewives how to cook and sew. When the law changed, they were told that because they received a grant from the local college, they would have to admit black members. The white women simply cut off the grant and re-wrote their rules so that they were a members-only club. “Coloured people are different,” she explained.

Faulk believed that racism was so tattooed on the American psyche that it was almost impossible to wipe it away. “I have a good friend who is a university professor, who feels just the same way as I do about racism, that it is a disease eating the heart out of American society. But you don’t know how deep it is.

“He was telling me that he came back home one evening and found a young black man prowling around in his house, and he surprised him and the young man ran out the back door, and my friend said he stood there and shook his fist and shouted after him, and he heard himself shouting ‘you damned nigger, nigger, nigger!’ I can do that, too. I could explode in the same racist fashion. I’m ashamed of myself, but it’s the truth.”

Eventually, the Texan courts forced Conroe to accept the truth about Clarence Brandley and in January 1990, he was released from Death Row. Soon after he had been declared innocent, John Henry Faulk found himself once again by the riverside north of Conroe with his fishing rod and his old friend and, once again, they fell to talking about these sad events. Faulk was pleased to hear his friend admit that it looked like Clarence Brandley might be innocent after all.

The two men waited a while, watching the water, and then his friend spoke again.

“Yep,” he sighed, and scratched his chin. “Ah reckon it must a bin some other nigger done it.”

** White Lies’, the true story of Clarence Brandley, presumed guilty in the American South. By Nick Davies. Published by Chatto and Windus February 11 1991. Price £14.99.