Merrill: A Journey of Privilege
My family arose from a line that defines white privilege and power, in a place of authority that has twisted the lives of many. Over generations, my family helped shape the Jim Crow laws in Alabama, convict the innocent and protect the guilty. They profited from slavery, racial terror, the labor of hired convicts, the prison leasing system and took full advantage of all the other perks that go with wealth and easy access to the powerful.
This is not a story of the past. My distant cousin, John Merrill, is the current Secretary of State of Alabama (2018). He helped craft voter ID laws to disenfranchise people of color, immigrants and the poor from their ability to vote. You most likely saw him interviewed on national TV-- CNN and FOX during the special senate campaign of 2017. Thankfully, Doug Jones, the moderate and sane Democrat, won the vacant senate seat. John Merrill had to go on TV and certify the vote.
My great-grandfather was an officer in the cavalry of the Confederate States of America under General Jeb Stewart. He fought at the battles of Gettysburg, Yellow Tavern and others. He came to Alabama after the Civil War, to set up the Pinetucky goldmine and a law practice in Anniston. From this the family gained influence in politics that has lasted well over 100 years.
My grandfather, Hugh D. Merrill was a state judge and once the Lieutenant Governor. He was also the judge in a very famous trial in 1918 that ended with the “legal lynching” of an innocent Black solider, Sergeant Edgar Caldwell.
The trial, a mockery of justice, inspired prominent leaders to call on the Judge and Alabama’s Governor for clemency. W.E.B Dubois, one of the founders of the NAACP, and President Woodrow Wilson wrote the Alabama Governor directly. Thousands of others tried to stop this act of racial terror and save the life of Caldwell.
To no avail, my grandfather (Big Daddy) sentenced him to death in a trial that was a sham, with hardly a veneer of due process. So that the centuries old practice of violent intimidation might assume the patina of legality. “legal lynching” was simply a more socially acceptable way to enforce the south’s cultural of segregation and white supremacy. Lynching had moved from the streets and mob to exist as false judicial procedure dished out under the direction of the State.
Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, has supported the treatise, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror. EJI has tied the decline in lynching to the emergence of capital punishment.
The decline of lynching in the states relied heavily on the increased use of capital punishment imposed by court order following an often accelerated trial. That the death penalty’s roots are sunk deep in the legacy of lynching is evidenced by the fact that public executions to mollify the mob continued after the practice was legally banned. A process that continues today in Alabama and other states, especially those from the old confederacy.
My uncle, long time State House Representative Hugh Merrill, was a friend and close advisor to Governor George Wallace. (famous for standing in the door of the University of Alabama to prevent the enrollment of James Hood one of the first Negro students to attempt to break this racial barrier.)
Uncle Hugh, defended the KKK terrorist that burned the Freedom Riders bus in Anniston Alabama in 1961. On May 14, Mother's Day, in Anniston, a white mob marched on the bus terminal, many still in church attire, and attacked one of the buses carrying civil rights protesters. The Freedom Riders were attempting to enforce the federal law Boynton v. Virginia that outlawed racial segregation in the restaurants and waiting rooms in terminals serving buses that crossed state lines.
The bus driver tried to leave the Anniston station, but was blocked and KKK members slashed its tires. The mob forced the crippled bus to stop several miles outside of town and then firebombed it. As the bus burned, the mob held the doors shut, intending to burn the riders to death. Either due to an exploding fuel tank or a state investigator firing and waving a revolver, the mob retreated. The Freedom Riders then escaped the bus, but the mob attacked and severely beat them. Only warning shots fired into the air by a highway patrolmen prevented the riders from being lynched.
That night, the hospitalized Freedom Riders, most of whom had been refused care, were removed from the hospital at 2 AM, because of the danger posed by the mob outside the hospital. The local civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth organized several cars of armed black citizens to rescue the injured Freedom Riders in defiance of the KKK. The KKK defendants were tried and received only a slap on the wrist from the court and were set free.
After World War II my father, James W. Merrill, left Alabama for Washington D.C. he became a major player in the Agriculture Department in Washington DC. He was in charge of peanuts for the Southeastern United States. His decision to leave the South stemmed from hints of abusive behavior—most likely sexual in nature. A theme that would continue for the remainder of his life. He would return to Alabama over the years to screw his brother’s soon to be wife and produce my half-brother David, an act he bragged about, even in front of my mother. I was called “dratsab” as a nick-name, which of course is bastard spelled backwards.
As a child, I grew up traveling through the violent segregated south of the 1950s and 1960s. I saw the southern apartheid system. I visited many small towns with their confederate monument. I saw the signs on the drinking fountains and bathrooms, on hotels and in café and stores. I saw the poverty of the share-croppers and drove by chain gangs cleaning ditches and repairing roads.
My father and mother were part of the upper crust of the Democratic Party and worked with and were known by their first name by folks like Senator John Sparkman of Alabama, Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Werner Van Braun the Nazi scientist, Hubert Humphrey and the list goes on and on. My childhood was like a Forest Gump narrative, only darker and true.
I am all of my ancestors and they are me, there is no separation. It is from them that I come to exist, from my mother’s side, from my father’s side, all adds up to be me. A line of existence, a stream of life, that goes far beyond a written history and family tree. It continues back beyond our ability to trace family lines. I accept all of them and all are less than perfect, I connect to them all because of my own shortcoming and weaknesses. I am no different than them. Like them I am human and always striving toward something, striving to understand, and failing along the way. This history is to my knowledge factual, and it is only through truth that we reach a deeper understanding of self and reconciliation with the world.