This blog is dedicated to Kendrick Johnson, the 17-year-old 3-sport athlete and sophomore at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia whose body was found January 11, 2013 head-first in a rolled up cheerleading mat. It is also dedicated to the state of Georgia, in particular, since I have been privy to its very particular brand of justice, or lack thereof, since I was a child tagging along with my reporter father.
Even though I was only a few blocks from where he was buried and a short bike ride from the courthouse where daily protests were being held, I had been oblivious. Although I’d taken after my father and was a professional writer, I had chosen to freelance and write about the world, not just home. I, as so many do, had fallen prey to the dangers of taking for granted what is most familiar. By assuming important things were happening elsewhere, I almost completely missed one of the most staggering crimes in our nation’s history. That’s a mouthful, and I mean it – for many varied reasons; this is an epic tale, of tremendous proportions. This is history as raw and slicing as any, and it will resonate for as long as open discourse persists.
Kendrick Johnson is gone and he will never be forgotten; his family, too, have immortalized themselves without even knowing it, as have the undaunted supporters – and even the culpable conspirators, numerous and web-like throughout this tight-lipped community. A place of shadows and secrets, a yank of the curtains have exposed its naked horror and the effects are only just becoming visible.
This has been a volatile and disruptive year in ways we will as a civilization revisit and comb through for ages. I found myself reflecting more and more – was also going through my father’s work archive in order to prepare it for inclusion at the UGA library as a repository. Memories of racially-fueled subjects filling the world around me rushed back as I plundered through hundreds of files and clippings my father had written. As a maverick investigative journalist in Southwest Georgia during the 70s and 80s, he blazed a controversial trail in what he called “virgin territory,” referring to the never-before spotlighted corruption of this mostly-ignored by the world-at-large Deep South niche. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) agents who hounded my father, and their cronies, like a sheriff from Mitchell County in particular….these old “bad guys” came back, everything was brand new enough for me to see in stark relief who I had become and why – that I had generally considered the “bad guys” to be GBI and local law enforcement because they had threatened our family, while the black “suspects,” and “criminals” who the public tended to believe were wrong and dangerous, were the victims. As a kid, barely out of kindergarten, these roles were reversed and my child’s eyes saw truth, not the illusions adults will accept without question – often without even realizing they are doing it.
The sheriff of my childhood waged a very public war with my father, calling our house frequently – good and soused – describing how he would murder and rape my mother, sister and me. He’d make my father watch, as I recall hearing my parents discussing with each other and his publishers, their attorneys, other reporters. My father made a point of telling everything, making a record quickly, recording everything. Backed up, he’d reinforce it by splattering the front page of The Albany Herald with bold headlines screaming the details of whatever the sheriff or whoever else was doing, had done, or planned on. That’s how it used to be done. When the law was rotten, the newspapers would air out the community.
It would keep things and people in check, this system. That system has failed and must be rebuilt.
While reviewing his notes and articles from those two decades, I felt instantly compelled to do something, whatever I could, to shed light on what goes on in these nether-regions of the South. I was nearly sick with grief feeling like a failure because I knew if my father had been living and on his beat, whoever had been responsible would have been exposed within weeks or days – not a year. Where have I failed? And how can I redeem myself?
This part of the South, and Georgia in particular, gave birth to the Civil Rights movement, with some of the most seminal characters from that era rising from the same simmering angst which today continue their low boil. Sometimes as a community member you forget, until something like this happens – then you read the comments left by mostly-anonymous people, spewing vitriol and hatred freely and with obvious pride, and you are reminded of the ancient dark beasts crawling still in the hearts and souls of those parading in broad daylight behind their white facades. And white though you may be you start realizing why the term “white devil” is on the lips of many throughout the world. Church deacons and choir members more common than pagan heathens, it becomes hard to tell the difference between good, bad, good, evil.
Times like these, with a teenager’s life cut short by vicious means, and extensive measures to cover up the crimes spotlighted by the world’s sudden glaring eye, make you take an inventory. Who are you and who is your neighbor, your best friend, your co-worker? People are waking up and getting fidgety, under-the-breath commentary gets exchanged in social media forums (and if you know what to look for, it can be very revealing). Civic-minded leaders and Church-going righteous men and women are thrust into the microscope of strangers instead of family and friends and the bar is raised, standards must be reconsidered. The talk has to be not just talked but walked, too – and if not, then the whole world is going to know the truth.
The truth. Those responsible for keeping secrets, who have turned the other way and allowed what by the day looks worse and worse – looks downright evil – is a frightening kind of new world to wake up in by the everyday folks you ordinarily would consider “good people.” The racial divide between white and black might be stark, but everything else – truths, fears, facts – are neon blazing through a thick muddy fog. Truth is obscured with flagrant, boldly insolent disinformation campaigns, as well as the typical willful ignorance of the followers and believers, the mimes and the trolls of our everyday lives. Not everyone is a hero. Not everyone is villain, either.
The “in-betweens” are as culpable or redeeming – the glue and the keystones, the I-beams that hold the whole together: the “swing voters” of collective social thought and action are the troops – a dangerous front depending on which side you are on.
Had the national and international media remained blinded to the story I can barely handle imagining how rife this area would be with tension; hostility mixed with the deadly bitter bigotry of generationally-empowered privilege and unreasonable, intellectually-abhorrent bias. Ugly, ugly stuff.
So here we are, almost a full year (Saturday January 11, 2014 will mark the first anniversary) after Kendrick Johnson’s body was found on the nearly 3,000-student school campus – and what has happened? The parents and supporters of Johnson have daily gathered at the Lowndes Judicial Complex to protest and demand answers, through the hottest days of summer and now the coldest wintry days (last night temperatures plummeted to 21 degrees, a full 30 degrees below the average for this time o f year) – with no investigation, no indictments, barely a glance from the D.A. or any other prominent member of the local judicial chiefs. The lack of respect is jarring, and it is only barely revealed and even less so articulated to the extent it eventually must be…
When a popular student is killed, quite plausibly and probably murdered, in plain sight in the middle of a school day on a thriving busy campus, and his body rolled into an upright gym mat so that students and faculty could easily find it…..?
The effort to hide the body was not made – and apparently deliberately. What does that say? There is a boldness to this kill never seen before and must not be seen again.
If this was the work of a serial murderer, it would rival Ted Bundy’s Florida sorority house strike – even Bundy crossed a line with that one. Kendrick Johnson represents a class of criminal gone unchecked too long.
The time has come to get rid of this bad seed. The harvests from it will yield nothing but ill.