Waking the Ghosts of Alabama
Sometimes, journalists are like priests. We hear confessions.
I met the woman years ago. She was old beyond her years, one of the rural poor who collect in small towns all over the country. She lived in the little Alabama village of Loachapoka. The woman was destitute, seeking aid because her old trailer, the only thing she owned, had burned.
I worked for the local newspaper in a nearby college town, and she hoped I could help. She told me her story, then paused. Tentatively, she told me something else.
“You know, my husband was in the Klan,” she said. “On his deathbed, he confessed he was one of those who made that boy jump off a bridge in Montgomery.”
At the time, the information meant nothing to me. I wasn’t an Alabama native, I didn’t know much about Alabama’s Civil Rights history, and I wasn’t familiar with any such case. I tucked the information away in the back of my mind.
I remembered the conversation several years later, when I ran across a news article about the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. The center was turning the names of 74 men and women who died between 1952 and 1968 over to the the FBI for further investigation. All died under circumstances suggesting they were the victims of racially motivated violence.
I wondered if this woman’s victim was one of the lost ones, the ones whose stories had never been told. I wasn’t the only person the woman told, though, nor the first person. Alabama is haunted, and this woman — her name, I learned, was Diane Alexander — was haunted, too.
When she spoke to me, Diane Alexander may have been seeking attention. I don’t know. I prefer to think that her husband’s crime and his shame weighed upon her. And I like to think of him as a poor, redneck Raskolnikov, a man who couldn’t escape his own conscience.
I learned the whole story from an article that first appeared in the New York Times in 1993, almost a decade before I met Diane. Her husband was Henry Alexander, and his victim was a young black truck driver for the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain by the name of Willie Edwards Jr. Henry Alexander and three other Klan members falsely believed that Edwards had insulted a white woman.
The year was 1957, during the most violent phase of the white reaction to the civil rights movement in Alabama. Henry Alexander was a tough, wiry young man, seeing himself as an underground crusader against integration. He kept clippings of his misdeeds, his White Citizens’ Council membership card, the pattern for his Klan hood used by a local seamstress, and a braided leather whip he carried in Klan marches, Diane told the New York Times. He did not want his children to see these artifacts, but he preserved them.
The four men drove Edwards around, shouting at him and slapping him, and one of the men threatened to castrate the terrified young man. Finally, they stopped on the Tyler Goodwin Bridge, an old truss bridge over the Alabama River outside of Alabama’s capital city of Montgomery. They told Edwards to jump. Screaming, he leapt into the dark water 50 feet below. Three months later, two fisherman found his body 10 miles west of Montgomery.
The bridge is gone now, removed in 1980 after being rammed by a runaway barge. Edwards smiles at me from a black and white photo, a good-looking young man with a broad grin and dimples. The photo is part of an article about the Equal Justice Initiative’s effort to memorialize Edwards and other victims at the Peace and Justice Memorial Center in Montgomery.
A few months before his death of lung cancer in December of 1992, Henry Alexander told Diane about his crime.
“I don’t even know what God has planned for me,” Henry said when he walked into Diane’s beauty shop two days after Thanksgiving. “I don’t even know how to pray for myself.”
Henry told her that Edwards would not have been dead if he had not mistakenly identified him as the man who made an offensive comment to a white woman. According to the NY Times article, the supposed culprit was a black truck driver for the supermarket chain on the route between Montgomery and Sylacauga, about 40 miles to the northeast.
Unfortunately for Evans, he was just filling in on the route. He needed extra money to support two children, his pregnant wife, and two sisters. He had just stopped at a store to get a soft drink on his way home when the four Klansman accosted him.
The murder was investigated by the Montgomery police, and in 1976 a crusading Alabama attorney general, Bill Baxley, brought charges against three of the men. The charges were thrown out twice, once because FBI agents begged Baxley to do so. Alexander was their best Klan informant, they said.
I like to think that was the remorse taking hold. Clearly, Diane Alexander was deeply troubled by her husband’s deathbed revelation. She wrote to Edwards’ widow and others, and she was still telling the story almost a decade later when I met her.
“His remorse and her shame for his role in a murderous history illuminate a larger transformation in Alabama’s tortured race relations,” The New York Times opined in 1993. There has been a transformation, I can attest. But the memories cannot be erased.
In his final week, Diane Alexander told the newspaper, Henry’s torment seemed to increase. “He ‘just worried and worried,’ Diane said, and she ‘constantly had to touch him and say, ‘Henry, everything is going to be all right.’ ‘He had himself baptized. It didn’t calm him. Four days before he died, he sat out in the front yard and cried.
“‘I had no business hating the blacks,’ he mumbled. ‘They’ve never done anything to me.’”