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Dept. of (my) History

Last night, PBS aired a documentary about a tragedy that has drawn national attention and comparisons to the notorious case of Emmet Till — the death of an African American teen-ager named Lennon Lacy, who was found hanging in the open in a trailer park in Bladenboro, North Carolina in 2014.

I covered the story for ESPN’s Outside the Lines, and it was difficult not least because our crew kept getting chased out of Bladenboro by suspicious locals. Still, we were able to raise substantial questions about the coroner’s finding that Lacy had somehow strung himself up on a jungle gym in the middle of a trailer park and staged his own suicide. 

Now, the filmmaker Jacqueline Olive is taking up the subject again with Always In Season. And it is still urgent. Old questions mix with new ones, such as why an investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division “found no evidence to suggest that Lacy’s death was a homicide” when the 17-year-old was surrounded by a cast of characters that ooze suspicion. 

For instance, Lacy, an outsider to Bladenboro until his mother moved him there to be closer to her extended family, spent a lot of time around a drug-addled neighbor with three kids who let him think that he was her boyfriend, even as she saw men at all hours of the night. In fact, according to our reporting, Lennon watched a visitor with a rap sheet that included violent crime go into her home shortly before he left his own house at 10:30 pm on the night he died. 

There were sundry other characters — residents who’d been in and out of jail, figures in a rural Southern pot boiler. But Bladenboro, the town where he was thrust, was the most suspicious character of all. In the early 1950s, it was paralyzed by rumors about an evil monster — The Beast of Bladenboro — that supposedly rampaged through its fields, disemboweling livestock. Through the years, locals have learned to laugh about it, even host a festival celebrating The Beast. 

Less funny were the charges of vote tampering that put Bladenboro back in the headlines recently, and led to a special election for the state’s District 9 in September.

The character in the Lacy case who always seemed most curious to me was a high school friend who lived half a football field away. His parents were well known in the neighborhood for letting him invite buddies to brawl in the back yard until someone passed out— even cheering them on. I’d heard that there was video of that friend putting choke holds on his friends in front of his parents. Olive, to her great credit, found it. It’s utterly riveting.

Did Lacy die of an accidental strangulation on the night he left his house? And did someone string him up to make it look like a hanging in a small town that is still trying to escape the shadow of its past?

That’s a deeply disturbing question. But it’s one that the film muddies with a provocative pairing.

The first half of “Always In Season” concerns the phenomenon of African Americans who stage brutal reenactments of lynchings — in particular the 1946 quadruple hangings in Monroe, Georgia, where the victims were chased by a white mob. 

It’s hard to argue with the concept Never Forget. And the reenactments are purposely hard to watch. What troubles me is the connection between that part of the film and the Lacy case, which makes it seem as if hangings are alive and well in the South.

Lynching itself is a complex word. While some associate it strictly with hangings, a wikipedia page devoted to it defines it as “the practice of murder by a group of people by extrajudicial action.” A landmark study from the Equal Justice Initiative tracked 4,000 lynchings since 1877 and stopped at 1950. Supplemental research moved the timeline up to 1959.

A spokesperson for the EJI has yet to respond my inquiry about more recent cases it tracked. But wikipedia lists the 1981 murder of 19-year-old Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama, as one of the last in this country.

Olive, however, uses the Lacy case to suggest otherwise. The text on her film’s website, which includes a noose, reads: “When 17-year-old Lennon Lacy is found hanging from a swing set in rural North Carolina in 2014, his mother’s search for justice and reconciliation begins while the trauma of more than a century of lynching African Americans bleeds into the present.”’

In a recent talk in Wilmington, NC, Olive conceded that she was knee-deep in a film about reenactors when she heard about the Lacy case. Her decision to pair them must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

But I fear the final product, which was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Moral Urgency at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, is misleading. We have enough racial trouble in America these days — the emergence of a white supremacy underground that is getting bolder and more technologically sophisticated by the day — without giving the impression that African American teen-agers are still dying by the noose in the South. 

I hope Lennon Lacy gets the justice he deserves. I also hope viewers will not be confused by the message of this celebrated new film. The story I reported involved poverty, drugs and lack of education in a small town — not, as suggested, a new rise in lynchings.

I’m curious to hear what you think…

(A version of this appears on Facebook.)

Dept. of (my) History

In November of 1982, when I was 20 and the editor of the student newspaper at NYU, I wrote about AIDS for the first time. The eeriest line in the story is this: “As of January, 958 cases have been reported worldwide.” According to the World Health Organization, 74.9 million people would go on to get infected with HIV, and 32 million would not survive. I reprint this story, which I recently found in a stack of old files, as a little bit of history to show — in real time — what it was like to be in Greenwich Village at the dawn of the epidemic.

To Bruce, Or Not To Bruce


I’m tired of Bruce Springsteen. There. I said it.

His show on Broadway dragged on for so long that even he seemed bored by himself. His concerts are getting repetitive. And if you’re looking for someone in his seventies still making great music, grab some Paul McCartney. Bruce’s Western Stars is middling by comparison.

BUT … and there had to be a but … I just bought an MP3 of a concert known as the Pièce de Résistance that Bruce released on his website, and it reminds me why I stuck with him for all these years. It’s a show held on September 19, 1978 at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ.

I remember it vividly — not because I was there, but because it was Bruce’s first live appearance in three years. After being sidelined by legal fights, he’d just come out with Darkness on the Edge of Town and WNEW-FM, the cool station in town, was broadcasting the show live. 

I was 16 and listening in my room in Queens. Everyone I knew was tuned in that night. It was like Elvis’s ’68 comeback special. The E Street Band was chomping at the bit to tear through the new material — future classics like Streets of Fire — for the first time live. They played like they might not get to play for another three years.

I got chills hearing Bruce break out of an eight minute version of Spirits in the Night to ask the standing room crowd, “How’s everyone been out there? Long time no see.”

That was forty-one years ago. I was welcoming him back. Weirdly, listening to it fresh after all these years, I feel like I’m welcoming him back again. It’s worth a listen here.

On Sonny Liston, Non-Sports Sportswriting & Confederate Monuments

CoastLine: Shaun Assael On Sonny Liston, Lennon Lacy, And Confederate Monuments

By RACHEL LEWIS HILBURN & RACHEL KEITH  JAN 2, 2020

CoastLine

Sonny Liston, heavyweight boxing champion in the early 1960s,  died near the beginning of 1971.  The reason listed on the death certificate:  natural causes.  But nearly 50 years later, the question of whether he was murdered is an open one for some.  It’s a question Shaun Assael set out to answer with his book, The Murder of Sonny Liston:   Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights. 

Lennon Lacy, a 17-year-old West Bladen High School football player was found dead, hanging by belts from a swing set four years ago.  Local authorities determined Lacy’s death a suicide.  But family members and the NAACP alleged it was murder in the style of a lynching.  Shaun Assael set out to investigate the story.  Two years after Lacy’s death, the U.S. Justice Department issued its own determination – affirming the conclusion of local officials. 

Just last month, Glamour Magazine published a story entitled, The Secret Fight to Save Confederate Monuments.  The byline:  Shaun Assael.  There are a few threads here with which one could weave a theme, but we’ll leave that bit of business to Shaun Assael himself, award-winning investigative journalist, reporter for ESPN for 20 years, author of four books, and a man who describes his instincts as always leading to crime and politics, despite his twenty years in the investigations unit at ESPN.

Read more at Coastline

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