The Charlotte News
Friday, July 4, 1941
Site Ed. Note: "False Report" details, through Tim Pridgen's quoted story, the April lynching of a young African-American in Cherryville, North Carolina. The editorial takes issue with the Tuskegee Institute's labeling the incident a lynching and thus counting it in their annual lynching statistics.
Of the four perpetrators, two drew sentences of 14 to 20 years and the other two, 18 to 25 years--fair sentences under even modern standards for first degree murder. Indeed, white citizens, friends of the deceased's family, raised a fund to enable the victim's father to hire a private attorney to assist the prosecutor in the case. So the editorial is not concerned with the justice of the matter; it is concerned with the overall impact on lynching statistics which the murder might have if labeled a lynching.
This editorial is similar to others written during Cash's tenure, whether by Cash in all instances is hard to say--but given today's editorial, likely not--regarding this same general issue, the labeling of a non-racially motivated murder or, in some cases, even a negligent homicide, as a lynching because the perpetrator happened to be white and the victim black. (See, for instance, "A Word Misused", October 14, 1938, responsive Letter from Walter White, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, November 6, 1938, "One Touch of Novelty", April 3, 1939, and "Much Alive", August 7, 1939.) In some instances, though Walter White's letter certainly dispels the notion in the cases set forth in "A Word Misused", the point was to some degree well taken.
But to our eyes the facts set forth in the case examined by the editorial of this date, that of young Robert Melker who only sought to protect his family and died in a hail of gunfire in his parents' doorway, offer no doubt of its classification as a lynching. It was a cold-blooded murder undertaken out of racial prejudice, from an earlier unprovoked altercation, stirred itself by random racial prejudice exerted on Easter morning--a Sunday--whereby the four assailants got drunk and went about shouting racial epithets in black neighborhoods, trespassing on private residential property in the process, deliberately engaging in the old practice of "nigger-hazing", eventually resulting in a rock-throwing melee between the Melkers and the assailants, a shotgun blast from the father to frighten them off his property, and their subsequent return with guns, followed by the killing then of young Robert as he exited the house with a gun in his hands without firing a shot. (We underscore that it was a Sunday, as many lynchings and race-hazing episodes of the type occurred on Sundays, including the killing of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi in June, 1964, two of whom were white. It was fundamentally often a hallmark of this stripe of person that they somehow intermixed religion with race, just as the KKK proclaimed itself a Christian organization. It wasn't hatred for Christianity, per se, which motivated this tendency, but rather an emotional attachment to the symbol of Jesus, their "personal Savior on the Cross", as a white man by whom no entry to heaven might be had, fully at least, by anyone who wasn't white, that it was their religion, their exclusive province, and a promise to be fulfilled on earth in an earthly existence, a literal existence, because Jesus, a Jew, with possibly Ethiopian origins, was white and Aryan and had promised them this new life. It was, in sum, in fact, however conscious or unconscious, an expression of hatred for their own ignorance, for themselves and their frustrations with life.)
In some ways, of course, it makes no difference what the act is labeled. Murder is murder, no matter the motivation, no matter the means. A person is murdered one time. The brutality of the act is as insidious whether accomplished in particularly brutal, torturous, lingering form or quickly with one shot to the head. The result is the same both to the victim and the loved ones of the victim. Murder is murder.
And of course to be a lynching, the race of the victim is of no consequence. It is the vigilante motivation for the crime, an informal court by mob action, and the manner by which it is accomplished, that is a deliberative, cold-blooded act, outside mere passion of ordinary homicides, which causes it to be designated a lynching.
Strictly speaking, as Walter White pointed out in his 1938 letter to The News, it was defined as a conspiracy by three or more persons to cause the death or physical injury to another--the classic cases having typically resulted from prisoners being released by sheriffs into the hands of men bent on killing them out of those self-loathing, fear-thriving, racial emotions, or kidnappings based on the same frail, emotive conjurings with the same aim. The manner of lynching was not always or necessarily even usually by the rope.
As Cash recounted in The Mind of the South, "nigger-roastings" were common enough in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in the Deep South, literally cooking a man as a mob watched. Castrations were also common as part of the torture, especially when "rape" was the excuse for the vigilante action.
The crime of course meriting this treatment was typically in fact only that of being a nigger, or, in some rarer instances, a nigger-lover--someone standing outside the established norms of society, unreachable by the normal means of the law. It had nothing to do in most cases with rape or other actual crimes in fact, at least crimes no more serious than a minor theft. Else, the mob would have left the matter to the justice system which would have been quick enough to dispatch the offender for them. The action was by way of example to keep the population generally, including uppity whites, in check when rumblings may have stirred to demand equality of rights, an attempt to step out of the social castes into which a person was consigned by birth, such as asserting the right to vote without encumbrance by poll taxes or literacy tests or other like machinations to deny that or other similar basic rights.
"Rape" was merely a code word, only requiring the slightest variation from the socially accepted norms of caste separation to be invoked as excuse--such as the wolf whistle of 14-year old Emmett Till in August, 1955 which served as excuse for the two men who brutally murdered him. Sometimes, no excuse was necessary. Sometimes, the nigger or nigger-lover simply wasn't liked, was too uppity, needed to be put down. Liquored up, the nigger-baiters would accomplish their goal, no matter what it took to get a reaction from the nigger. A wrong word, a wrong uppity look of slight perturbation or anger, a failure to accord proper obeisance to the white trash lord and master, or their captains, was sufficient. The thusly dehumanized "nigger" had to die.
And since the criminal justice system could do nothing, the vigilante, whether in concert with one, two, or twenty others, would, to make the matter right, and to serve the standard by which others would desist in their stubborn insistence on rights and resume with their heads bowed in obedience to the masters of commerce and chains, fulfill the charm by the elm.
The issue, especially in the times at hand, 1941, of what to label the murder was therefore of course deeper for its impact on society at large than mere technical nomenclature, in the hope of raising sensibilities to the evil of lynching and racial violence generally, to obtain tougher legislation and tougher, Federal enforcement than was extant--something which did not succeed until after more sacrifice was laid barren in blood and flesh before the eyes of the country on the dusted roads, in the fields, and among the pines of the shadowed forests of the Southern landscape, including finally the bodies of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy--in the end, these finally raising the consciousness and conscience of the entire country to the seriousness of the disease of violence in the land, violence especially by the gun, violence by vigilante action.
For no one but the lunatic fringe ever accused any of these three men of any crime involving sex, though even as to them, the lunatic fringe in each case tried both before and after their deaths to do just that, and without shame even in the yellow press less than a decade afterward. Indeed, some still do it, in predetermined pathological antipathy toward anyone who tries to do the right thing, the simple thing, which our Constitution demands, equality among the citizens living under it.
Installment 29 of Out of the Night is here. Jan may impart to us something about the method used to murder Cash in Mexico: spies to gather information on alleged spies inimical to the Party; manhunters, kidnappers and killers, to track the spy and dispatch him or her--unless, that is, you might adhere still to the suicide theory.
If so, check yourself. Is it because, deep down, you do not want someone like Cash telling you that the land was sick, that some of the land still is sick at times, that there are many good things about the land--but that violence of the sort the land would see again in the 1950's and 1960's was emblematic of the very thing Cash illuminated in his book? Is it that no one man should be able to write or say such things and get away with it with his life? That, even should you agree with him, still, because you reside in fearful silence over the issues he raised, accepting of some or most of the conditions which spawn the trends, it is vale! to Cash and his like, as they pass on down the road, yet still, to be regarded as the sacrificial lamb, much too good for this life, much too ideal to be regarded as realistic example fit to live a normal life, and so--the grand rationalization?
Is such a person, at least now in the face of the fuller panoply of facts surrounding this particular death, not saying something more profound about themselves than of W. J. Cash?
At one point in time, confirmed and assured in the security of the official report, confirmed, albeit without factual basis, by numerous accepting scholars, scholars dedicated to their overall research, and thus assumed to be worthy of acceptance of that confirmation without too much question, therefore not inclined to question the suicide theory, we had to ask ourselves the same hard questions. So we do not address the issue scornfully. They are simply questions. The only fools are those who refuse to ask such questions, who refuse the mirror of self-examination at all.
Today marked the last day in Mexico for Mary Cash. Her stateless predicament, because of her passport being locked away in a safe deposit box by Cash on the morning before his death, required the intervention of Josephus Daniels to obtain a special State Department document. Until that time, she was stuck there. She would fly home Saturday, the funeral in Shelby to be held Monday.
Mary would be feted this day by Mr. and Mrs. Daniels as a guest of the Embassy. Mrs. Daniels was a distant cousin. As Mary put it in the Red Clay Reader article in 1967:
On first meeting the Danielses in Mexico City I was in emotional shock and unable to cry. Mrs. Daniels was concerned, and fretted, "You should have the relief of tears, Mary Bagley." With an understanding far advanced for their generation, they undertook to divert me. They sent me to a Villa-Lobos concert at the Bellas Artes where I had the Ambassador's box in appreciated solitude. They had Patrick, their Spanish-speaking Mexican-Irish chauffeur, drive me around on a private and final sight-seeing tour, and, when I went down to police headquarters for the last official questionings, they cannily sent me in the prestigious official limousine, so inescapably embossed with the great seal of the United States. I think their wisest and most charming gesture was to seat me among the orchestra musicians--in plain view and therefore invisible--at the Embassy reception for the global diplomatic corps and Mexican officialdom on the evening of the Fourth of July.
On the morning of the Fourth the ambassador had telephoned Washington about extricating me from my "stateless" predicament; I could not leave Mexico without my tourist card, and I could not get it from the safe deposit box without having been declared Cash's executrix by a U. S. court. Through Mr. Daniels's maneuvers a document was cooked up to get me across the border, and when one of the Consulate showed it to me we both laughed. With its gaudy rosettes and inordinately fancy script it looked like my idea of a diploma from a barber college.
It is worth noting that which Mary stated, in response to a request by an English teacher, whether college or secondary school not having been stated, in a prior composition of her thoughts concerning the week, prepared, as she contemporaneously admitted, somewhat fragmentedly on May 6, 1957:
He was ill, then, continually, and badly disturbed by his inability to learn even a word of Spanish. The height bothered me too, sapping all energy. We took a "bijou" apartment (built for midgets, that is) just off the beautiful drive leading to the hilltop place of Maximillian and Carlota and with what energy we had we went wherever we could, gasping for breath. Awed, fascinated and sometimes downright scared. In the night the police whistles played eerie little tunes in a minor key.
And one night Cash became completely irrational. He heard the voices of Nazi spies plotting against us. At first, I listened hard to hear them. All that night we stayed up with every light turned on and, between the audile hallucinations I read to him. He asked for Ecclesiastes. Next morning he was himself again and I went to ask for an American doctor at the apartment of Americans living immediately above us, telling the story. When I returned Cash was gone. Two hours later he returned pale and trembling with the news that the Nazi spies were closing in to kill us, and that he had put our tourist cards and passports in a safety [sic] deposit box. I persuaded him to go with me to the doctor who realized his condition and gave him an injection which Cash thought was poison. It should have been a maximum tranquilizer instead of B-1. The doctor testified later that he knew Cash's mental condition at the time, too.
So, we went to a hotel instead of the apartment but Nazis located us there at once and we had to leave and go to another. As soon as we were alone in the room there he located the voices just outside the window and we had to escape again. At the fourth hotel I persuaded him to let me go for help.
We had called at the offices of the Associated Press the week before so it was to them that I turned rather than to the Embassy, as I still hoped and believed that he would pull out of it, as he had done that morning. Two of those kind men returned to the hotel with me but Cash had gone, alone.
The police were called then, immediately, and it was about four in the afternoon. At ten that night, during the second search of hotels, it was found that he had registered in the first hotel which had been called that afternoon, possibly soon after the call had been made. By then a great many people had become involved. We went to the huge fashionable place in several cars, and there a number of the hotel people swelled the fantastically large crowd. The manager refused to open the door of Cash's room but after being guaranteed of my identity he gallantly offered me the key. I unlocked the door and saw the shadow of Cash hanging from the bathroom door. He had been dead several hours [since approximately 7:00 p.m., according to the death certificate].
There was then an unreal night with the police and the Mexican Intelligence, trying to answer questions as courteously as they were asked. Mexico at that time was actually a focal point for Nazi spies, a source of great worry to the neutral government, and it had to be proven that they had not cleverly murdered him. Representatives from the Embassy took me back there and I was there a week before I could get back to this country.
The autopsy required by law revealed a pituitary tumor of the brain and I was sure it wasn't operable so that "it was all for the best".
[Here followed two paragraphs about the funeral which are included in the 1967 piece.]
Married, he was the happiest person I ever saw and the most surprised. Beforehand I think he was not highly in favor of it, but he was law-abiding. The surprise came with finding out that what he would have been the last to call Romance did not wither and die five minutes after the ceremony, and with discovering that he was the Compleat Average Man. It was the marvel of all time that he was no longer alone--that "there's always someone on my side." And, at last, he had a perpetual audience. An audience who could relieve him of his great daily burden by merely butting in to remark "There's your lead editorial for tomorrow".
On the day the book was published, because it had finally got into the stands after all those years, I made him a present of four books, including "Dracula" which he had somehow missed. He "just glanced at it" as I was going to bed. At two A.M. he woke me--he was just plain scared.
Perhaps in that one little incident lay the explanation of his power with words. They could convey so much to him that, in putting his own thoughts into words, he almost instinctively chose the best to convey his meaning, without much thought for nuances, and--I swear it--none at all for style. But I may be muddled. I seem to be saying that if writers can reach you, you can reach readers, which ain't necessarily so. Perhaps he just had a peculiar talent.
The only material variations between this earlier account and the one published in 1967 are the detail on the visits to the four hotels prior to settling on the Geneve and the statement regarding the brain tumor, included in the first report, absent completely from the later one, as well as the addition of considerably more detail in other respects in the later account, such as the episode in the back of the cab while heading to the Geneve when, Mary claims, Cash demanded she get down on the floor of the cab because her red hat would draw attention from any Nazi spies who might be following.
These variations do not necessarily suggest dissembling by Mary, but we must admit of its possibility at least regarding the tumor. (As we have before stated, the red hat episode, for instance, is simply nonsensical; why wouldn't Cash have simply asked her to remove the hat? It appears more as Mary desperately trying to convince us that Cash was unhinged than any likely reality which occurred.)
But of the brain tumor claim, Professor Morrison made short shrift in 1967 in his Red Clay Reader piece, "A Biographical Detective Story", also available at the above link:
The second myth, that of the "incurable brain tumor," is so much alive and kicking that Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution, who picked up the story quite innocently, repeated it in a recent letter to me. I learned that the story gained currency at Cash's funeral, where it was spread by word of mouth, because Mary Cash had wired home--thinking to spare Cash's parents further pain--a white lie: "Doctor thinks brain tumor may have been responsible." I learned, furthermore, that the same story was invented independently at the funeral by Cash's old friend, Everett Houser of Shelby, who told me as much. There was no "incurable brain tumor." In an autopsy performed upon Cash and required by Mexican law--as explained by U. S. Ambassador Josephus Daniels to Cash's father in a letter of July 3, 1941--there was no report of a brain tumor.
Yet the problem with Morrison's conclusion in this regard is that it is based on Daniels's statement, not fact from the original autopsy report, which Morrison never examined. And Daniels, as Morrison knew from Mary already, did not have all of his facts straight--notably the deliberately concocted story, which Mary admitted to Morrison in 1965, to override the objections of Cash's parents to the cremation, that the cremation supposedly had already occurred when it hadn't, a story which, according to Mary, Daniels had suggested as a means to avoid the long train ride with the body back to North Carolina.
Moreover, Daniels had stated, for instance, that Cash had become greatly disturbed over the Russian invasion and was pacing the floor for a week before his death, increasingly emotional with no editorial page on which to vent his frustrations, a supposed fact which he imparted to his family in his weekly report to them of July 7, 1941, (which we shall reproduce for you in the next three days). This claim, however, Mary stated to Morrison, was the contrary of the fact, that instead Cash showed relief at the invasion as taking heat off the British and potentially encouraging America's entry to the war. And Daniels had claimed to have received that information from Mary, as indeed there would have been no other source.
So, as to the claim of stress over the Russian invasion, either Mary changed her story on the point, or Daniels simply misunderstood or misinterpreted it. Daniels, remember, was 79 years old at the time. That is not to say he was not completely lucid, but memory, especially short-term memory, becomes somewhat impaired with advancing age. In any event, Daniels's version of the story does not track with Cash's editorial tendencies before he left The News, does not track with his general astuteness on the war and the impact the invasion would likely have on Britain, the fall of which Cash feared as spelling inevitable doom as well to America left to fight the Axis alone on two oceans. Mary's version thus makes more sense.
Thus, if Daniels, as we know he did, fabricated certain aspects of the story, even if for valid reasons at the time--as we believe they were--nevertheless, how can he be trusted on any of the story? Thus, the brain tumor claim cannot be so easily dismissed as Morrison made it sound in 1967. His logic was severely flawed in accepting Daniels's uncorroborated account--though not surprisingly as Morrison had just finished one of two biographies he authored on Daniels when Morrison began research for the Cash biography in 1962.
Or, was the 1957 statement of Mary on this point the result of the wish to maintain the "white lie" she told Cash's parents in 1941? Both of Cash's parents were still alive in 1957. Neither were in 1967.
Of itself, it is not a great issue, in our estimate. For, while a brain tumor might have heightened stress provoked by actual Nazi agents seeking out Cash, even provoked auditory hallucinations in some manner, it would not inevitably provide any explanation for Cash's death. Brain tumors and suicide do not go hand in hand, obviously. And, as we have stated, the suicide theory simply has no plausible basis. It is a conclusion searching for a premise--which is precisely why one comes out baffled when trying to explain it as such. Murder, as we have elucidated herein amply before, is a conclusion based on logical deduction from numerous circumstantial facts.
Suicide by a Southern intellectual who criticized his own time and place, however, in certain respects, tends to lend itself more romantically as an explanation, we suppose. There were others who had preceded Cash in that blind alley of discontent at self-examination.
But at the end of the day, that tendency is as sentimental a thing, as self-denying a thing, as Cash sought during his life to disabuse Southerners of doing in the first place; it is as emblematic of that displacement of emotion for thought, indeed, fear to think in depth about anything, as that which he saw as the first characteristic of the Old South.
Instead, as he counseled, the instructive thing is to embrace and look at the facts, head-on, without fear, and in that find the true joy of life, though heartbreak might one endure along the way in reaching that inner truth from such an examination.
But the very journey through this particular case, we posit, has a zen to it which by its taking nurtures that very inner look which is necessary to reach at least a glimpse of that truth Cash sought to give us. So the conclusion is far less important than the journey itself. But never let anyone convince you that the inevitable result of such a journey is suicide, as, we believe, some, bent on convincing of Cash's death as such for their own selfish motivations, still try to do, as in the past--the Old South tendencies toward unreality. It is not that; but rather it is. For, inevitably, the question to which it boils down comes back 'round very simply: to be or not?
In any event, Superman finally destroyed the ray-gun, with a ray from itself to its own power source. And it's about time. For those ray-guns can be terribly dangerous, especially when aimed at the train carrying all the gold.
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