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Monday, July 13, 2015

BURNING CHURCHES by Jack Random 

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: Recent events in South Carolina and throughout the old South have served to remind me that even as things change they so often remain the same. This is the first story I published under the name Jack Random. Because it seems as pertinent today as it was nearly twenty years ago, I am posting it pretty much as it appeared in AIM Magazine 1996.]





BURNING CHURCHES

By Jack Random


“It is not the temperature,” the Major said in a lazy drawl so pronounced only a fellow Southerner would lend it credibility. “It is not the temperature,” he repeated for no other reason than that he derived pleasure from the sensation as the word temperature rolled off his tongue, slow and clinging like Georgia molasses.

“It is not the temperature, it is the viscosity.”

He puffed what remained of his Cuban cigar and blew the smoke in concentric circles that hovered in the hot, viscous air. It was a vile habit and one that he embraced with all his southern pride. Hot. Damnably hot. But from where he sat on the porch of a century old cabin overlooking the Great Smokey Mountains, it might have been heaven. You could tell by the way he fidgeted in his rocker that the Major was feeling frisky.

Cousin Billy Bob, a young man of the transitional age when it was only slightly impolite to address him as a boy, stood in camouflage khakis bearing a message of good news. He could only smile in appreciation of the Major’s witticism. It was only slightly over his head.

Billy Bob was what the culture made of William Robert Moss. He was not the Major’s cousin but, then, the Major was not a Major. It was a term of endearment more or less. He was here to deliver a progress report on the organization’s master plan. His report was primarily responsible for the Major’s good humor.

The organization was neither the Klan nor Klan related. The Klan was old news, forever grounded in the past. Theirs was an organization with its eyes set dead ahead. They were well-respected men at the top of their games, collecting converts more rapidly than collecting Baptist missionaries in the Congo. They were businessmen, politicians, lawyers, civil servants, artists, artisans, writers, musicians, clerks, accountants, sportsmen, hikers, survivalists, religious zealots and atheists. In short, they were every mother’s son with one distinction: They were all white.

xxx

“We are all God’s children!” the preacher cried out in the distinctive cadence made famous by the likes of Reverend Ike, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King. “We are all God’s children – black, white, brown, yellow and red – united as one people in the eyes of our Lord and comforted in the hands of our Savior, Jesus of Nazareth.”

The Reverend William James Jackson was known as Willie Jay to his congregation of just under one hundred in one of the better sections of the small town of Waynesborough, North Carolina. They were the more fortunate of the greater community of African Americans, well respected, socially involved, and financially secure if not truly affluent. Several decades removed from the direct effects of racial discrimination, they had grounded their economic well-being in the black community and conscientiously repaid the community with job development, charitable contributions, rehabilitation centers, and active participation in the schools, local government and churches.

They were not surprised by the subject of the good Reverend’s sermon. For months it had been a dominant theme: The burning of churches with predominantly or exclusively black congregations. The latest count was in the eighties nation wide, but the vast majority were south of the Mason-Dixon line. They had established a relief fund and some of their members had traveled hundreds of miles to assist in rebuilding not only churches but also faith in the greater society of human kind.

They were not surprised but they did not expect the hateful phenomenon – a legacy of racial violence, intolerance and bigotry – to come home.

xxx

The Major was spearheading a special project for an organization that, for all practical purposes, did not exist. They had no official meetings. They elected no officers. They collected no dues. They did not publish a newsletter and their business was rarely conducted over any medium. When it was it was carefully coded. Anonymity and secrecy were of paramount concern.

It all began in the smoking room at one of the many black tie gala events to which his wife was devoted. He adored his wife and, after the expected period of pleading and protestation, he always consented to attend. The truth was his social life was severely limited since his retirement from the army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He enjoyed these formal gatherings almost as much as she did.

On this particular occasion, a very distinguished gentleman – a former District Attorney – was commenting on the crime situation, with the not so subtle implication that those of darker complexion were responsible for making the streets unsafe. He lamented at some length the exorbitant costs of adequate security – an absolute necessity even and especially in the finest of neighborhoods.

“It is unfortunate,” the Major finally replied, “that the race war of the late sixties never fully materialized. We might have exterminated half of them and sent the other half back to the Dark Continent.”

It was a shocking comment and an almost unforgivable breech of etiquette at a social affair – even when confined to the smoking room. Within minutes, of course, it circulated throughout the gathering and within days, naturally, it had permeated much of the state, giving the Major and indelible reputation as a man of integrity.

Owing partly to his virtue of drinking to excess at such affairs, he was forgiven by his social peers and he had made his first converts. In the coming months, he discovered that he had made many more. The secret society grew and prospered. It seemed the mood of the country and the south was at last ripe.

xxx

The Reverend cast his line, set his jig, and settled back on his haunches, letting the boat drift slowly in the shallows of the pond. It was well stocked with catfish and smallmouth bass, but it was not the fishing that kept Willie Jay coming back to the pond like clockwork every Monday morning. It was the time with his trusted companion, friend and the sole employee of the Missionary Baptist Church, which he valued.

Jackie Robinson Brown was a former prizefighter, a Golden Glove champion, who had once contended for the bantamweight crown. He still carried the 1949 Ring Magazine that listed his name among the top ten contenders and showed it to anyone who politely expressed an interest.

Jackie, himself, had lost interest in almost everything after the death of his wife and only child in a freak automobile accident. He was wandering the streets, begging for loose change (not acceptable behavior in Waynesborough, North Carolina), when the Reverend took him under his wing. In his younger days, Willie Jay was both a fight fan and a gambling man. He had won a fair amount of pocket money betting on the local pugilistic hero and he considered it the work of God that he was in a position to repay him with an honest job and shelter.

For the past twelve years, Jackie had been the janitor at the finest African American church in Waynesborough. He was proud of his position, proud of his relationship with the Reverend Willie Jay, and he took pride in his work. Many were the nights he would sleep on a cot in the church loft, too tired to make the trek home. Or maybe he just liked being close to God.

“Got me a nibbler,” Jackie whispered, one eye on his jig and the other on Willie Jay. He was a fine fisherman and he was proud of that too. He enjoyed Monday mornings as much as the Reverend did.

Willie Jay watched him grasp his rod with delicate touch of a surgeon. The jig darted in the still water and Jackie jerked his rod back and reeled it in with the smile of a seven-year-old who just hit a home run in little league baseball. He admired his catch briefly. It was a keeper – a fourteen-inch cat – but he released it back into the pond as was his habit. Willie Jay accused him of catching the same fish over and over but he could never prove it. In all these many years, he had kept only a handful and those he gave away to people “less fortunate than myself.”

“You haven’t mentioned the sermon.” The Reverend waited before breaching the subject. They always touched on the Sunday sermon as a starting point to general discussions on the meaning of life and the state of human affairs. It was traditional for Jackie to initiate the discussion but on this Monday morning, he fell silent.

“Not much to say,” he replied after a time to punctuate his consternation. “You been givin’ that same sermon for five weeks now.”

“They’re burning churches, Jackie! Our churches!”

They had been through this before but the Reverend never gave up trying to bend Jackie to his views, despite the immutable fact that Jackie’s opinions were set in something more solid than granite – namely, true conviction. The only individual in the county more obstinate than Jackie was the Reverend Willie Jay, himself.

“The Lord don’t see it that way.”

“You got a pipeline to the Lord, do you?”

The Reverend knew it was a mistake as soon as he said it. Jackie would not respond to the semantic traps Willie Jay so often set. He would just roll his eyes as he was doing now.

“Don’t do no good stirring up trouble,” Jackie said finally, putting a cap on their discussion of the Sunday sermon. As it turned out, it was a good day for fishing – just fishing.

xxx

The Major was preparing for a reunion of Army buddies in Detroit. As a matter of policy, he always arranged a social engagement during an operation – especially one in his region of the country.

It was carefully planned to appear unplanned: The reckless, drunken act of a couple of kids. A generous amount of whiskey would be found on the premises. None would be hurt. It was not their intention to kill. They only wanted to stir things up, to ignite the racial tension that was as much southern heritage as Old Hickory and Robert E. Lee. If it spread to the rest of the country so much the better. Unlike previous periods of unrest, this time they would be prepared for what followed.

The days of affirmative action were graciously coming to a close. The welfare nation would soon be history. Poverty was an indelible fact. That it affected more black Americans than white was a fact open to interpretation. When the proverbial crap hit the fan, two communities would be armed and ready: the drug pushers and the survivalists. Handcuffed though they might be, the Major figured he could count on the government to enter the fray on their side. It was his job to make sure his people were better armed than the enemy was.

He provided cousin Billy Bob with the names and addresses of two local boys and a map of Waynesborough. It would take place between two and three in the morning – just after the Major checked in to a Detroit hotel.

xxx

Monday was Jackie’s day off. On occasion, however, when he was feeling restless, after fishing and an afternoon nap, he would put in a few hours of work to take the edge off whatever was troubling him. On this particular Monday, he was feeling restless. Fishing could be hard time when it was just fishing. He could not quite get a grip on it – which was why it would not leave him in peace. Of course, he wanted to help. Who wouldn’t? It was something else: a sense of foreboding, unease, maybe a premonition. It was as if he had been through this before.

He was three generations removed from the scourge of slavery. He had spent his share of time in the cotton fields, on the backs of busses, and in the shantytowns of the segregated South. He had gone from colored to Negro to black to Afro to African American. He had lived through the civil rights movement, the assassinations, black pride, the Nation of Islam, Black Panthers and the first race war. He was boxing out of Chicago when the streets went up in flames and all hell broke loose. He was not then politically aware but he was caught in the crossfire and neither the police nor the National Guard was asking which side you were on. If you were on the streets and you were black, you were the enemy.

He survived but not without casualty. He spent three days in the hospital and three years paying for it. At the time, he considered himself fortunate because, if he had still been standing, they would have taken him to jail. As it was, his boxing career was over and with it his dream of a better life for his children all but died. His life was turned head over feet.

Now Jackie smelled trouble. Big trouble. The same kind of trouble he sensed way back when in Chicago. The last thing he wanted was another race war. Nothing good would come of it. He did not know, however, how to deal with the sort of people who made sport of burning churches.

It was late in the evening by the time he glanced at his watch. His mind had been racing so swiftly he did not notice the time until he realized he had waxed and polished every bench in the worship hall. He was suddenly drained and took only a moment to decide: he would not make the walk home. He turned out the lights, climbed the stairs to the loft, and quickly fell asleep.

xxx

Jimmy and Braden were the sons of good old boys. They shared a lot in life. They played sports, liked pretty girls, cold beer, hot cars and country music. They graduated from high school with mediocre grades and virtually no job skills – unless you counted auto mechanics, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the high school curriculum.

They were both well trained in the ways of good old boys by the examples of their fathers – an amazing feat when you consider their fathers were gone by the time they were seven years old. They were best friends, roommates, and they knew exactly what life had in store for them. So when they were offered an opportunity for a little off-the-road excitement, while serving a cause they vaguely believed in, forging a connection with what they considered the power source, and picking up some serious spending money, they jumped on it like fleas on a sleeping dog.

They were the grunts of the organization and it did not bother them. They were well groomed. They knew no names, no faces, and no phone numbers. They were contacted through a vendor at a traveling gun show. They knew only to expect a man wearing a Confederate ball cap near the witching hour.

Cousin Billy Bob arrived exactly at two o’clock, shook hands, and laid out the plan. Everything they needed – gloves, ski masks, two bottles of whiskey, six Molotov cocktails – were in the back of his truck. There were windows on both sides of the building. The boys would hit each side with two cocktails apiece, while he took care of the front. The structure was constructed of bricks but the interior and roofing was all wood. It would go up like a bed of dry pine boughs.

“It’s hit and run, boys. We don’t stand around to admire the work.”

The last thing Billy Bob told them was what to say in the event they were caught: They were drinking and they did it on a dare. The cocktails were kerosene with white rags, torn from tee shirts and dipped in kerosene. They learned how to make them from a TV show. The kerosene was already in the house for camping supplies. If Billy Bob was caught with them, he was just someone they met at the Sunday flea market who stayed over. If not, he did not exist. Anything else they could not remember or did not know.

When everything seemed clear enough they each took a hit of whiskey and got under way, like three secret agents on a mission in Moscow, too young, too ignorant or too dazed to see the folly of their own footsteps.

xxx

“Doggone kids!” Jackie said as he sat up, flipped on the lam glanced at the clock, and wondered if it was worth the effort.

It was unusual in this part of town but, during the summer months, an occasional act of youthful vandalism was not unexpected. He had been through it before. They’ll be long gone by the time I … That’s when he smelled burning wax and kerosene and fear gripped his gut.

He heard the front door being kicked in as he coaxed his legs to the door of the loft. He knew from the sound of erupting fire what he would see when he opened it. There was no way out. The small window in the loft was barred for security. He opened the door and confirmed the nightmare. The fresh wax acted as tinder. The entire church was filled from floor to rafters with the flames of racial hatred.

The sound of a man’s screams when his body is engulfed in flames is terrifying. It touches a raw nerve. It sends a chill down the spine and sets hair on end. What begins as horror is soon supplanted by a sickening feeling, bone deep, that makes a man want to cry and regurgitate at the same time.

Jimmy did neither. He stopped on a dime and tore off his ski mask. Braden made it almost to the truck when Jimmy cried out.

“Shit! That’s Jackie, man!”

Cousin Billy Bob was enraged, his face beet red beneath his mask. He was pissed that they had miscalculated, pissed that there was a man in the church, pissed that the Major would surely blame this on him, pissed that they had set him up with a couple of losers, but mostly he was pissed that they were still there.

“Get in the damned truck!”

Jimmy looked straight into Braden’s eyes. “It’s Jackie!” he repeated.

Jackie Robinson Brown was more than a local sports hero to the boys of Waynesborough. In a series of community outreach programs, he had taught many of them how to box. Jimmy and Braden were among them. Jackie was the one African American they liked and respected. Even their fathers had called him “a credit to his race.”

Jimmy delayed no longer. He dashed into the burning church, his tears clouding his vision and his judgment almost as much as the smoke and fire. Braden waited a few moments longer.

“Get in the goddamned truck!”

By the time Braden reached the front doors of the church, the fire and heat were so intense it nearly knocked him to the ground. It was too late. His best friend and the town’s hero were both surely dead. The truck was gone. He heard Jimmy’s scream just as they had heard Jackie’s before. He stumbled to the lawn of the church, collapsed, and wept as a baby plucked from his mama’s breast, until the firemen and police arrived.

xxx

Braden still wept when the Reverend Willie Jay arrived. When he the story and learned of his friend’s horrible death, he wanted to relinquish his theological oath and batter this boy to submission. But one look at the sobbing, stuttering youth and his tears were joined to the offender’s.
He realized that God’s punishment was swift, indeed, and that the survivor of this tragedy was the most unfortunate of all. In all the years of his still young life, he would never recover from the tormenting, haunting stain of his unwitting part in this drama.

No threats, no deals, no lengthy interrogation was required. Braden opened like a field of wildflowers in morning light and all he knew came spilling forth. He provided an accurate description of cousin Billy Bob and the Chevy pickup truck he drove. He identified the gun dealer and remembered just enough of the Chevy’s license number to track down its owner.

Billy Bob was stopped at a gas station before he could get home where one the Major’s cleanup agents was waiting. They had heard the news and they would take no chances on Billy Bob ending up in the hands of the law. They had not misjudged the extent of his loyalty but they never expected him to face a charge of murder.

After two days of questioning, two days of dealing with an unsympathetic public defender, and not a word from the Major, Billy Bob gave it up. The Major would take the fall.

The last rites of Jackie Robinson Brown were a fitting tribute to a great man who had accepted a modest role in life. It was one of the best-attended funerals in the county’s history. People from all over the country – including the families of two misguided youths – came to pay their respects to the roughhewn man who had touched so many hearts. The Reverend Willie Jay reflected that it was little compensation for the absence he felt and would always feel in the pit of his soul – but it was at least some consolation and it would have to do.

The Major took the honorable way out. His veiled wife and two members of the immediate family attended his funeral.

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