Good stories can make bad history

Published 10:16 pm Thursday, June 4, 2015

By Alston Fitts
Special to the Times-Journal

Sometimes good stories about historical figures become popular even though they’re very poor history.  Claude Grayson’s Memories of Selma offers a lovely example. According to Grayson, during reconstruction Judge Jonathan Haralson ran for Congress against his former slave, Jeremiah Haralson, and lost. It’s a good story, illustrating how topsy-turvy politics was in that era.

The only problem is that it’s not true; the race was between Jeremiah Haralson and a “Liberal Republican” from Mobile, Frederick Bromberg. Judge Haralson’s only involvement in the affair was to write a letter to the Democrats in Congress, urging them to seat his former slave.

Recently another “good story” has become popular: the assertion that Edmund Pettus was the grand dragon of Alabama’s Ku Klux Klan. You can see why people would want to believe that the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which has become a symbol of racial oppression, was named after a leader of the Klan.

There is a problem with the story. There were no contemporary references to Pettus being associated with the Klan. And in fact, there was no Klan activity in Selma during reconstruction.

This may be hard for some people to believe. The Southern Poverty Law Center published an article a few years ago identifying Selma’s John Tyler Morgan as the Grand Dragon of the Alabama branch of the Klan.

The SPLC made this charge as part of its vilification of Morgan Academy, suggesting that the school had chosen its name to honor a vicious Klansman. I suppose they would think the same thing about the University of Alabama, whose English department is located in Morgan Hall. Of course, the University had other reasons to honor Morgan; as senator he secured federal money to help the University rebuild. And we Selmians remember that Morgan Academy was first set up in Morgan’s old home on Tremont Street, which was reason enough for the fledgling school to take his name.

Even Selma’s friends find themselves caught up in the negative image of the city. Judge Val McGee is one of our city’s best friends, who wrote a novel called SELMA about the city’s travails during the Civil War and reconstruction. He and I both attended a historical conference at the Alabama State Archives in Montgomery at which the major address was being made by a Birmingham historian who has written a book on the Alabama Klan. At the conference Judge McGee stood up and reported on his plans to write the novel, which would have as its climax a dramatic confrontation with the Klan on the streets of Selma.

But to his dismay, Judge McGee’s research had turned up no evidence of Klan activity in Selma during the period in question.  When the historian confirmed this, Val exclaimed in dismay, ‘WHY NOT?”

It may be hard for some people to believe, but the contemporary evidence is hard to deny.

In 1867 Selma became the first city in Alabama (with the possible exception of Mobile) to hire African American policemen.  Alabama historian John Witherspoon DuBose asserted that many communities would have risen up against such a “premeditated wrong and deliberate insult,” but the whites of Selma did not. Why not? “John T. Morgan, N.H.R. Dawson, Charles M. Shelley, Edmund W. Pettus … and their peers lived in town and their wisdom and courage prevailed” (pp. 262-63, Alabama’s Tragic Decade).

Jean Martin put it more neatly than DuBose: “Why didn’t we have a Klan during Reconstruction? Because General Pettus wouldn’t let us.”

When the Klan was riding across much of West Alabama in 1868, Selma’s Democratic newspaper laid down the law: violence was the last thing the city needed. Instead of driving blacks from the polls, the Democratic leaders would seek to win their votes.

They didn’t succeed that year, but in 1870 they succeeded in electing a Democratic mayor of Selma, James M. Dedman, even though the city was majority-black. Their success provoked an attack by the Mobile Register, that was outraged that Selma whites would stoop to asking blacks for their votes. One suspects that the Register also disapproved of Mayor Dedman’s not firing the city’s black policemen.

In 1870, of course, Selma elected Ben Turner Alabama’s first black congressman. How did Pettus and other white leaders react to this “insult”?

Pettus paid public tribute to Turner as “a man of brains and will.”  (Of course, the fact that Turner was fighting to get amnesty for the old Confederate leaders no doubt made a difference.)

The congressional committee that investigated Klan activity in Alabama in 1871 found a lot in North Alabama but none in Dallas County. The only incident that turned up in Selma was an attempted lynching of a white criminal by a black mob — a lynching that could have precipitated a race riot had Pettus not joined forces with our Republican sheriff to restore order.

A Mobile carpetbagger wrote in 1874 that there were only a few places in Alabama where you were safe from the Klan — and named Selma as one of them.

His notion was that Selma had too much valuable property to afford violence. After all, much of the city had been burned to the ground in 1865.  Leading carpetbagger General Datus Coon once blustered that if a single Union man was killed in Selma, the city would be reduced to ashes once again.

Congressman James T. Rapier, testifying before Congress in 1878, confided that the Democrats of Dallas County had used “Sunday school methods”to regain political power, not the violent methods

used in some other counties. The Democratic majority in the Alabama Legislature simply abolished the positions held by black leaders (like Alabama’s first black judge, R.B. Thomas) and created new positions that would be appointed by the governor instead of elected by the people.

Edmund Pettus was a leader of Alabama’s conservative whites; but there is no evidence that he was a Klansman, much less a Grand Dragon.