A Sin By Any Other Name
By Robert W. Lee
Convergent Books, Apr 02, 2019
Hardcover: 192 Pages, $25.00
The Tarboro Three
By Brian Lampkin
128 Pages, $18.00
Two new works of racial activism from North Carolina provide meaningful insights into ways white Southerners might confront their history in order to participate in a national movement to seek reconciliation, understanding, and reparations. A Sin By Any Other Name and The Tarboro Three demonstrate two different kinds of courage: the first is a young Christian minister’s personal tale of emerging progressive activism within a conservative region; the second book offers a historian’s unflinching gaze at a miscarriage of justice from the 1970s, an account that navigates a dangerous path through competing claims of racial and sexual politics.
In A Sin By Any Other Name: Reckoning With Racism and the Heritage of the South, Robert W. Lee, IV, collateral descendant of that other Robert Lee, tells how he came to reject his region’s idolization of his famous ancestor and the white supremacy that fuels the South’s Confederate zealotry. Part conversion narrative, part indictment of white Southern Christianity, and part history of a cultural moment, A Sin begins in Lee’s childhood and moves toward his emergence as an important social activist.
The first half of the book revolves around lessons received at the hands of several black women who played important roles in his religious education and who helped reveal to him the sins of racism so pervasive in his white world. He begins with memories of his black nanny, Janie Bowman. While acknowledging the bad optics of this common southern scenario of a black nanny and white child (56), he depicts how this relationship taught him early lessons in equality and in the absurdities of Jim Crow segregation. Next, he moves on to Mrs. Bertha Hamilton, his mother’s colleague and the woman he asked to serve as his church-school confirmation sponsor. During one of their meetings preparatory to his confirmation, his newfound sponsor challenges young Robert to rethink his family history and to commemorate his change of heart and mind by removing the Confederate flag from his bedroom wall. Throughout the rest of the memoir, Lee chronicles similar moments when black friends risked their own security in order to trust him as an ally, challenging him to take up his cross in a battle for racial justice. By the end of his story, Lee shows his mettle by speaking out against the status quo of his church and community, even when his views elicit death threats and demands from parishioners that he resign his pulpit. He comes to see how inaction turns into complicity, as well as the injustice of expecting African Americans always to bear the burden of being the first to point out the racial sins of America’s past and present.
In addition to its inspiring message, A Sin By Any Other Name has value as ethnography, providing readers with troubling evidence regarding the limited progress that has been made in the everyday attitudes of white Southerners expressed toward their black neighbors. Lee chronicles negative responses of his church members to his activism in support of Black Lives Matter and in opposition to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Looking back to 2009, his senior year in high school, he recalls casual use of racial epithets toward African American members of his Statesville High School marching band. Such unpredictable outbursts of racism resulted in the school’s decision to protect the largely African American band by not allowing it to travel to away games, which were typically held in more rural (and white) areas of the county. Lee shows how racism is hardly limited to rural areas; in his recounting of a Statesville Christmas parade, then drum major Lee’s impromptu decision to exchange his Santa outfit for the elf costume of a fellow band member who happened to be African American resulted in a “controversy” that prompted the parade organizers to inform the band director that no Santa costumes would be allowed the following year. According to Lee, “the intent was clear: In Statesville, Santa Claus is white” (103). Lee musters abundant evidence of such casual and systemic racism in the contemporary South; then, offering his own name and family history as a locus of this sin and himself a model of repentance, Robert W. Lee points to the long road of work ahead but gives us hope for redemption.
Lee ends his memoir by recounting his participation in a recent MLK celebration at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King, Jr., and his father served. Echoing Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Lee offers a full-throated indictment of the contemporary southern white Christian church as “at best . . . complacent in the quest for racial justice” and “at worst . . . downright hostile to it” (184). Despite the white church’s failings, Lee continues to turn to the Bible as a source of strength and guidance. Referencing the book of Psalms, he declares that “weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. The sun is rising on a new tomorrow, a new American dream, a new Southern way of life” (188).
If A Sin By Any Other Name soars with a triumphant vision of the clear path to salvation from the white South’s sordid history of racism, Brian Lampkin’s The Tarboro Three wades into a history as murky as the Great Dismal Swamp, with every step leading to deeper strata of trauma. The Tarboro Three revisits the 1973 trial in eastern North Carolina of three black men accused of raping a twenty-three-year-old white woman, a trial that pitted the woman’s accusation of rape against the men’s declaration that the sex was consensual. Lampkin does an admirable job of navigating the landmines implicit in such a story. His deep archival research, extensive interviews, and his previous experience working for the Seattle Rape Prevention Center lends his account thoroughness, balance, and sensitivity. His background as a native of upstate New York provides the objectivity of an outsider’s perspective, and his work as a journalist for Tarboro’s newspaper, The Daily Southerner, provides him with insights into the bias that too often skews local history.
Lampkin never actually weighs in with a verdict about the Tarboro Three, other than to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt how if the three men had been white the outcome of the trial would have been very different. For example, Lampkin reminds us how, in the century following the Civil War, 405 black men in the South were legally executed for rape, and how in North Carolina 85 black men and only 8 white men were executed for the crime. The Tarboro Three case arose around the time that the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment for rape convictions that did not also involve murder. In 1973, after nine days of deliberation, an Edgecombe County jury, comprised of eleven white jurors and one black juror (in a county with a majority black population) found Bobby Hines, Vernon Leroy Brown, and Jesse Walston guilty of raping “Mary Ann Womack,” and the three men were sentenced to execution in the state’s gas chamber. In 1975, on an appeal that resulted in a plea bargain, the three men, who continued to plead their innocence, were released to freedom.
“Mary Ann Womack” is the fictive name employed by Morris Dees in the two chapters he devotes to the trial of the Tarboro Three in his 2001 memoir A Lawyer’s Journey. Brian Lampkin uses this same fictive name throughout most of his extensive updating of that history—until ultimately revealing “Womack’s” identity, an anguished decision he finally makes in response to what he sees as her “unethical behavior—her willingness to let three men die to protect her own interests” (76). Lampkin arrives at that decision “with the floor shaking beneath” him (76). After exhaustive debate about the handling of the trial and the historical context in which it happened, he continues to feel that he is “not on solid moral ground” (76). Nevertheless, after weighing more than a century’s evidence of Tarboro’s racist practices, Lampkin makes his decision. He tells us, for example, about two previous lynchings that occurred in Edgecombe County, in 1875 and as late as 1930. He notes how in 1973, between the alleged rape of Womack and the trial of the Tarboro Three, the Presbyterian Church hosted a screening of Birth of a Nation, which features among other blackface atrocities, the dramatic centerpiece of a nascent Ku Klux Klan lynching a black predator following his attempted rape of a white woman. He recounts the community’s struggles to accommodate desegregation of its public schools—accomplished finally in 1970, sixteen years after Brown v. Board of Education.
At the center of this struggle for desegregation is an interesting figure, to whom Lampkin devotes an entire chapter: In 1957, at the age of twenty-six, John Shelby Spong moved to Tarboro to serve as rector of its segregated Episcopal church and to help integrate the community and its schools. The long eight years of activism that followed culminated in 1965 with Spong’s resignation from his pulpit, an episode eerily similar to the events Robert W. Lee recounts in A Sin By Any Other Name following his 2017 denunciation of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the statue of his kinsman the neo-Nazis had come to defend.
Though Lampkin’s history may differ in method and tone from Robert W. Lee’s memoir, the two works do share common assumptions about the need of the white South to dismantle its Confederate monuments and the false view of history that supports them. One of the most troubling episodes from The Tarboro Three involves the lack of white support for a historic marker in Tarboro honoring George Henry White, the African American congressman who represented the Tarboro district from 1897 until 1901. After White’s departure from Congress in 1901, following the post-Reconstruction disenfranchisement of black voters, no other African American would serve in Congress until 1929; the South would not send another African American to that legislative body until 1972, following the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and North Carolina would not send another African American to Congress until 1992, fully 94 years after George Henry White’s second successful election in 1898. When in 2011 nearly 80 black Tarboro residents gathered to celebrate the unveiling of a marker honoring this historic representative to Congress from North Carolina’s 2nd District, Lampkin reports that only a handful of white dignitaries were present (82-83). Meanwhile, white Tarboro was busy launching a fund-raising campaign to restore a local plantation to its antebellum splendor, assured that such historic restoration would bolster tourism. Lampkin notes prominent historical markers and monuments in Tarboro commemorating the Confederate dead, including one that celebrates Colonel William Lawrence Saunders without mentioning Colonel Saunders’ tenure as Grand Dragon of the KKK (84). With sad irony, Lampkin ends his interrogation of one Southern community’s persistent struggle with racism and its inadequate reckoning with its past by pointing our attention to the billboard at the edge of town and its sunny welcome of arriving motorists: “Tarboro: Take A Time Out For History” (89).
Both The Tarboro Three and A Sin By Any Other Name demonstrate just how far we are from living in a post-racial America. And both works make abundantly clear that before the white South can hope for redemption, it must be ready to confront a long history of racial sin.