'Booker's Place': Exploring the South's Troubled Legacy of Race

Recently I was asked if I thought the tragedy of Trayvon Martin's killing would cause more people to take an interest in my new documentary, Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story. The film is about the deeply racist conditions that existed in the southern United States in the mid-1960s and the bravery of an African-American waiter named Booker Wright, who spoke out on national television about what it was like to be a servant to the white upper-classes at that time. Wright was murdered several years after his speech appeared on NBC in circumstances that remain murky at best.

The question of whether or not Trayvon Martin's fate would provoke interest in the story of Booker seemed to me, upon first hearing it, to have put things in the wrong order. Assuming that the answer is yes, I would still much rather have Trayvon Martin alive and fewer viewers of my film than the reverse. But upon further reflection, the question is a provocative one as it speaks to the long-standing, deeply embedded racism that still exists -- albeit not as openly or vehemently -- in the south. For the fact is that Trayvon Martin was killed as a result of a mentality which believes that to provoke suspicion is to be guilty of enough to provoke action. Life in a world where such a belief reigns is not life in a free world. It is life in a terrorist state.

And that's the link that I see between Trayvon Martin's killing and the story of Booker Wright, a man who was murdered twenty years before Trayvon Martin was born. Booker Wright lived in a Mississippi that was a terrorist state. The town he lived in, Greenwood, was ruled by a police force that suspected that black residents were guilty of something, no matter the lack of evidence. As one of our black interview subjects told us about living in the town back then, "If they wanted you, they just come and got you" -- 'they' being the police. He also described a Saturday night ritual in which the police would arrive in the black part of town and randomly pick out a handful of black revelers to beat, arrest and haul into jail. So typical was this sort of thing that it became part of the evening's activities for the rest of the crowd. "We'd just stand around seeing who was gonna get it that night," he told me. In other words, when justice is perverted to such an extent, the ability to fight back disappears and acceptance sets in. Humans have amazing coping mechanisms. Everything, on some level, can be appreciated as entertainment. It's what prevents us from breaking down completely.

A terrorist state doesn't ask questions of those who are suspect and Trayvon Martin died as a result of that mindset. I spent a good deal of time last year in the South and didn't feel for a minute that the past and its attitudes were still alive. Southerners truly are unfailingly gracious and deeply interested (and somewhat puzzled) by their troubled legacy. It's almost impossible to have a conversation with a Southerner that doesn't circle back to race as its core issue. Perhaps this is more the case when a Southerner is talking to a Yankee such as myself. The Southerners I met were eager to explain their culture, to take stock of their history and to openly and freely discuss the need to atone for the darkness of the past.

But I'm talking about a specific sort of Southerner. The white, educated, thoughtful Southerner. My interactions with black Southerners were very different. If they were middle-aged or slightly older, they tended to be angrier and more suspicious of the sentiments of the other side. And if they were much older -- and I met and spoke with people who grew up on plantations, subservient to the authority of the white planter class -- they behaved in a way that I found haunting: they spoke reticently, somewhat reluctantly revealing their feelings. Clearly the fear of speaking out of turn and offending the white man was still inside of them. And they almost never discussed the past in strictly emotional terms. Instead they'd quietly -- sometime impassively -- recollect things they'd witnessed, events that were still burned upon their minds.

One man told me the story of his having said hello to a white woman and being hauled into jail and beaten with leather straps for a full day. "I still have dreams about that," he said, of an event that happened some sixty years prior. A woman in her eighties remembered her cousin, who was retarded and employed as a cleaner at a local restaurant, being shot to death for touching a white woman's shoe with his mop. That moment, which is in my film, is for me all the more chilling for the lack of emotion with which she recollects the incident. She lets the everyday-ness of such an occurance stand in stark contrast to the vileness of the act itself.

And since I didn't meet the less evolved white Southerner, the people who are still capable of killing a black man because he arouses suspicion, I was as shocked as anyone at the news of Trayvon Martin's shooting in the south. Has nothing changed? Is the mindset of a terrorist state still prevalent there? Or is this a freak occurrence having nothing to do with the location it took place in? Plenty of other race-based crimes happen in other areas of the country, after all.

But it's that moment on the tape where Zimmerman says that Trayvon Martin is "just walking around looking about" that links him to the south of the past for me. No crime was necessary as any behavior was suspicious enough to provoke action. The terrorist states of the south no longer exist. But the terrorist mindset does.