It’s emblematic of American racism: mutiated black men hanging dead from trees as delirious white people gawk and grin. The lynching photograph at the center of former Voice writer Cynthia Carr’s Our Town could have been taken anywhere in this country during the Jim Crow era, given how wanton and widespread white terror against blacks blacks was. In a 1929 report NAACP executive secretary Walter White noted that lynching had become so commonplace that it was “almost an integral part of our national folkways.”
But the tragedy of August 7, 1930, documented in the infamous photo wasn’t just any lynching. It occurred in Marion, Indiana, and indelibly branded as a bastion of bigotry the town Carr came to cherish as a child. The evening before, two white people, Claude Deeter and Mary Ball, were parked on Lovers Lane when three black teenagers—Tommy Shipp, Abe Smith, and James Cameron—robbed them at gunpoint. The botched job left Deeter mortally shot, but it was the cry that Ball had been raped that galvanized the mob. The next morning, flyers posted throughout the county invited surrounding towns to a “necktie party,” with up to 15,000 white citizens turning out for the macabre carnival and returning home with souvenirs: pieces of rope, tree bark, clothing, body parts.
In Our Town, as part of a singular race-relations effort, Carr renders this national narrative of “the last classic lynching north of the Mason-Dixon line” into a painfully personal one. Usually, she says, white Americans engage race in one of three ways: with fear of African Americans, with guilt that objectifies “black people as ‘those we have wronged,’ ” or as the “noble Caucasian who shows the rednecks a thing or two.” Here, Carr suggests a new approach: “acknowledging the wages of racism in some personal way.” Picking up an argument first articulated in the 1994 Voice article from which this memoir evolved, Carr asserts “that there can never be a real dialogue in this country between white people and black people until those of who us who are white begin to tell our terrible stories.” And most white people “come from something,” she writes: “slaveowners, Klansmen, dissemblers, dehumanizers, averters of eyes.”
On the night of the lynching, her grandfather, Earl, received a cryptic phone call alerting him that a late-night walk by the courthouse might reveal “something you don’t want to see.” The ensuing laughter suggested he may have been in on the cruel joke, but it was only after his death that Carr’s family discovered his Ku Klux Klan membership, one of many shameful secrets he kept until his dying day. Our Town is the courageous chronicle of the year Carr lived in Marion owning up to this difficult yet defining history. “A grandfather I loved in the Klan. A town I loved responsible for the lynching,” she writes. “I couldn’t just anoint myself . . . the ‘good white person.’ Racism survives on such complacency.”
This first half of the memoir sets out to solve mystery of that August day: Who organized the lynching? The local Klan? “Hillbilly” hoodlums from surrounding towns? Did Earl participate in the deed? To piece together the far-flung and fading facts, Carr weaves family lore, interviews with eyewitness and Klansmen, scholarly histories, and her own dogged archival research. Of course, time and trauma have warped memories. And the conundrum of a grandfather who joined the Klan yet married a woman with “Indian blood” and named his son after radical socialist Eugene Debs unleashes even more confounding realities, making her self-appointed task unrealistic: “So much had eluded me here, or else seemed to crumble in my hands.” Thus in the second half, the narrative shifts, charting how the lynching shaped contemporary Marion race relations—from the dawn of civil rights and black power in the 1960s to interfaith reconciliation services and the election of the state’s first black sheriff in the 1990s.
What eventually ties this expansive memoir together is the theme of “unharmonic convergence”in race relations. Throughout Carr notes dishearterning paradoxes, like the fact that the site of “the county’s worst racial tragedy . . . was once its antislavery stronghold”; or that white men’s race-mixing hysteria over Ball’s purported rape almost disappeared Claude Deeter’s murder from the story. Her increasing sense that “the unfortunate arc of the civil rights movement” leans toward futility—an allusion to Martin Luther King Jr.’s more optimistic view that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”—raises questions about the impact of race relations efforts like this autobiography.
Carr toys with the notion that, given the limits of apologies and the inability to heal all racial wounds, the stories she calls on white America to tell may be simply “symbolic gesture[s].” But the memoir’s end, in which Carr discovers that the truth she’d sought had been staring her in the face all along, persuades that freedom from America’s racist past means confronting it, even though “you might see something you don’t want to see.”