News & Updates

The Dept. of (my) History

In 1998, Penthouse Magazine sent me to Las Vegas to interview Bodacious, the meanest rodeo bull that ever lived. He’d been retired for three years, and I arrived to find him in a Home Depot parking lot, looking surly while his manager, Big Bob Tallman, sold photos for ten bucks. What could go wrong? Nothing that a weekend of drinking with Big Bob and auctioning off bull semen couldn’t fix. (I still have the belt buckle that he gave me!)

When Your Beat Cop Talks About Wanting A Race War

I awoke this week to find that three policemen in my adopted home of Wilmington, NC, had taken perverse glee in fantasizing about a new “civil war” in which African Americans would be “slaughtered.” A 23-year veteran was recorded as saying a woman he’d arrested “needed a bullet in the head.” Another was heard fantasizing about an insurrection where “we are just going to go out and start slaughtering them ***s.”

My first visit to Wilmington came in 2016, while I was reporting another story about race. It was based in a town called Bladenboro, about sixty miles away, where an African American high school student had been found hanged from a swing set in a mobile home park. Police called it a suicide; most who knew the area’s racial history couldn’t help suspect it was a lynching. It ended up being a complex story about poverty, drugs and boredom in small-town America. The FBI “found no evidence to suggest that [the] death was a homicide.” Everyone moved on.

I moved to Wilmington soon after that. It’s a fast growing city of 120,000 people on the Cape Fear River with a historic district that has the cobblestoned feel of Charleston. It’s home to tech incubators, a film industry, and plenty of tourism. As of this week, it also has a brand new African American police chief who spent his first day in office dismissing the three officers who were caught on tape inveighing for a race war.

For all its azalea-covered charm, Wilmington has a James Lee Burke undercurrent to it. A month ago, an armed band of white vigilantes, led by a uniformed sheriff’s deputy who was looking for his sister, stormed into the home of an African American teen-ager who was celebrating high school graduation. After an uproar from mostly white neighbors, a lawyer for the deputy explained that he was acting on erroneous information — as if that justified a warrantless entry.

There are plenty of proud progressives here who park their Priuses on the cobblestoned streets and hope to change Wilmington’s image. But it’s hard every time we get thrown into the news and the media brings up our “troubled past.” It’s a reference to an 1898 insurrection where white supremacists killed an untold number of African Americans while disbanding a democratically elected bi-racial government.

Folks here are weary of the reference. But current events keep making it stubbornly relevant. I’m not just talking about Wilmington’s Lie, the recently-released book about the coup that was reviewed in the New York Times and the New Yorker. I’m talking about what my wife’s friend asked when she visited not long ago with her multi-racial daughter: “Where are all the black people?” The answer, as a black physician said during a talk about the coup, is endlessly sad: “We leave because we know this is no place to raise our kids.”

A month ago, I might have protested that doesn’t describe today. But the cold truth of police caught on tape talking about killing BLM protesters shows otherwise. And, of course, there are the two Confederate monuments that have spent more than a century welcoming — or warding off — visitors to our downtown.

Writing recently in Politico Magazine, John F. Harris tried explaining the dissonance of progressives who’ve accepted such statues in places like Richmond, where Monument Avenue marked a zenith in Confederate fetishism. He concluded that they “believed the racist past evoked by the statues no longer mattered much because it had been defeated by racial progress, by modernity, by the Winning Cause.”

I thought that was true, too, until a few months ago, when I was filming a short video next to a Wilmington monument honoring George Davis, the attorney general of the Confederacy. A man in a pick-up rolled by and yelled out his window, “You ain’t stirring up trouble, are you?”

I was in front of the statue again this past Wednesday. This time, it was sheathed in police tape and a protester was standing vigil with a sign that read,“Fuck your heritage and hate.” Drivers passing by honked and shouted their approval. Nine hours later, at 3 a.m., city crews removed it.

North Carolina is one of six states that have monument protection laws. (There used to be seven, but Virginia’s newly elected Democratic majority recently overturned that state’s law — in what may be a bellwether for the coming election.) And these laws have been a particular thorn in the side of progress. After student protesters toppled a statue the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, members of university’s Board of Governors quietly went to the Sons of Confederate Veterans — a fierce political force on this issue — and encouraged it to lobby North Carolina’s legislature for a stronger protection law.

The SVC’s effort foundered. Still, UNC was so scared of raising the ire of conservative donors that it struck a secret deal with the SVC to take the monument off its hands in exchange for $2.5 million. The university called it a relocation fee. Others called it hush money.

The whole thing became public when an SVC leader wrote a letter to his members, crowing about the deal. And even though a judge ultimately voided the arrangement, the spectacle shows the lingering power of what might be called the Heritage Front. It’s only going to get worse if President Trump follows through on his promises of retribution for those who try to take monuments down on their own.

In many ways, Wilmington is a microcosm of what cities throughout the South are facing: The collision of the BLM movement with a carefully orchestrated legislative bulwark. I’ve been living through the changes here. Protests where students have been tear gassed. Neighborhoods divided. Neighbors divided.

Wilmington may yet become the place that the progressives moving here, students learning here, and people of good conscience who live here want to see. But if it takes catching police officers inveighing for a race war to do it, we’re still a long way from progress.

On Sonny Liston, Non-Sports Sportswriting & Confederate Monuments

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



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


Off The Ball: Was foul play involved?

I joined Off The Ball in Dublin, Ireland, to discuss the life and death of the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, beginning at the end.

Show date: January 14, 2020.

Listen: Ring Tones

Episode 2: Award-winning author, journalist and investigator Shaun Assael joins the pod to discuss “Pariah: The Lives and Deaths of Sonny Liston,” a documentary developed from his book “The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin and Heavyweights.” Immerse yourself in latter-day Las Vegas, learn how the infamous heavyweight champ shuttled between two worlds and delve into the craft of storytelling.

Ring Tones

Southern Journeys

I am thrilled to be in the Summer 2019 issue of the Oxford American with this piece about segregated tennis in the South.

It is Green Book, told through a tennis lens.

Set at the start of the 1950s, it tells the story of an African American civil rights pioneer from Wilmington, N.C., named Hubert A. Eaton, and a tennis court that he built in his backyard.

The court is where a 19-year-old tennis prodigy from Harlem named Althea Gibson found international fame. It is also where a five-year-old named Lendward Simpson watched history being made — on the court and off.

The story chronicles Lenny’s lifelong connection to The Court, and how, at the age of seventy, this former pro is going to astonishing lengths to make sure its important history is told.

You can read the piece here, or even better, buy the whole issue here.