Last weekend I headed to the car dealership for a play date between my car and the dealership’s mechanics with my copy of the latest issue of Texas Monthly in tow. I feared I’d be limited to bass fishing tips or “Astronaut/Paris Swap Love Secrets/Diapers” if I left my magazine choices to chance. Once I made my way into the lobby I nestled into their couch and began flipping through the February issue. The first article that drew my attention was titled “The Beating of Billy Ray Johnson”. As I read through, one word stuck out “Linden”.
You don’t know Linden, Texas, but I do. That’s where a small part of my family comes from. In fact, we still have family there along with an old family church and the Corinth Cemetery – where we all go to be buried. There’s not much to note about it; it’s your typical small East Texas town. Nothing is going to drive you to go there, unless it’s my funeral.
Most days I’m proud to be a Texan and although my family originally comes from S. Carolina, Georgia and Alabama we’ve been in Texas for multiple generations. In fact, some of our family fought at the Alamo. You could easily call me a proud daughter of Texas, until I read a story about the racism that’s still rampant in some parts of our state and of that, I’m decidedly not proud of our state or some of its people.
I was born in Dallas, actually just outside of it, but it’s the Dallas Metroplex. We moved to Austin when I was 8 and so my Texas experience has been in larger cities. My first exposure to the Deep South attitude prevalent in East Texas came when I decided to knock out my first two years of college at a smaller university. At that time, the information I read about The University of Texas at Austin said that there was a 50% drop out rate among college freshman so it made sense to me to start small and finish big.
I arrived in Nacogdoches and spent the first two weeks in tears. Nacogdoches was no Dallas. Nacogdoches was no Austin. It was an alien environment where the stores were closed on Sundays and the color I was used to seeing on a daily basis was washed out by a sea of white and thick accents. I still tell the story of the time I went to a convenience store when a black woman was shopping. She got to the cashier first but refused to step in front of me and the cashier refused to wait on her until I was assisted first. He was becoming more irritated when I kept insisting she was there first, but since he wasn’t going to assist her until I left and she wasn’t going to take her place before me, I had to purchase my things and go. Just one of many stories.
My second year there, after suffering from mild culture shock when I returned to Austin, I headed up the speakers committee. My committee and I brought speakers to campus – people like Dr. Ruth. That same year, the Black Student’s Alliance contacted me and together we brought Bobby Seale. On the way to pick up Mr. Seale from Shreveport, the students in the van exchanged their stories about living in East Texas. …and that’s when I first heard about Vidor along with some of the most shocking tales – stories completely out of my realm of experience. In Austin, you just don’t typically get shot at for simply attempting to get gas and being the wrong color.
As I read the story, I was becoming more outraged. A couple of “good [white] boys” took a local mentally disabled black man to a tail gate party where things got “out of hand”. With one punch, one of those “good boys” knocked the man out and he remained unconscious for two days. The man suffered brain damage, which has left him more severely retarded, he’s lost his ability to speak and the ability to control his bodily functions. Just one punch… They dumped his body on the side of the road, hosed out their truck and then came back and called the sheriff “we found this guy on the side of the road.” That’s what “good boys” do. The events drew a lot of negative attention to Linden, that town you don’t know and people from those parts didn’t particularly take a shine to it. Their “good boys” didn’t do anything really wrong and that black man should have known better. When the whole thing went to trial, the defendants were given light sentences that went from 30-60 days – meanwhile the victim of the crime, Billy Ray, now has to be institutionalized. An irony the Texas Monthly noted – a black man dumped some old tires near the same road and received 6 months in jail.
My favorite quote about this incident came from one of the defendant’s mothers. “These boys’ names are ruined for life, and [Billy Ray] is better off today than he’s ever been in his life. He roamed the streets, the family never knew where he was. Now in the nursing home he’s got someone to take care of him.” Maybe it’s me, but I’d rather serve 30 days in jail and work at the Dairy Queen, but then again my idea of “better” may be skewed.
I read this article and felt tremendous shame for Texas. For all the Vidors, Jaspers and Lindens that continue to act as a blight to the state and the nation – that remind us that while we’ve come far, we haven’t come far enough. And then I pause and think of people like the son of James Byrd, Jr and am amazed at his inspiring capacity for forgiveness as he fights to overturn the death sentence of one of the men who murdered his father.
As for this small city called Linden, this town you don’t know, you will never have to know it – my bones will not rest in its disgraceful soil.