Monday, October 12, 2015

Search for Video of West Tennessee Reveals a Story of Racism and Murder, Part 2 of 2

Part 2 of 2 / Part one can be found here.

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Jesse Hill Ford

While his successful novels, short stories and the critical and commercial success of “The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones” resulted in Jesse Hill Ford being heralded as “the next great Southern writer,” the film based on his novel was a big disappointment.


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Scene from "The Liberation of L.B. Jones"

To make matters worse, many in his community of Humboldt in West Tennessee had not read the book, so the movie was their first chance to see what Ford was telling the world about them. Many of his black and white neighbors were embarrassed by what they saw and many felt betrayed by this young author who had become one of their own.

The Ford family began experiencing harassment and threats that only intensified in the days leading up to the shooting that would change the course of Ford’s life.

However, the movie wasn’t the only race-related issue the Ford family was dealing with at the time.

One of his sons was captain of the Humboldt High School football team. He and the other white athletes were allowed to keep their starting positions at the recently-integrated high school. After skipping a football practice as a form of protest, every black player had been thrown off the team. If you’re familiar with small towns and their passion for high school football, you can imagine the tensions that were taking place in the community among both black and white parents and students and others for whom the sport had great importance.

The situation must have reached a boiling point for Ford when, during the school’s homecoming parade, the car in which his son was riding had rocks thrown at it and his desk at school was vandalized.

Ford’s anxiety and paranoia were only made worse by his use of a drug prescribed by a “doctor” back in Los Angeles. While working with Stirling Silliphant on the script for “L.B. Jones,” Ford met Max Jacobson, the physician nicknamed “Miracle Max” and “Dr. Feelgood.” His celebrity patients had included John F. Kennedy, Truman Capote, Mickey Mantle, Marilyn Monroe and many others. 

Jacobson began injecting Ford with B-12 shots that also contained methamphetamine sulphate. The shots were later mailed to Ford, who continued to inject them after he returned home to Humboldt. (1)

Photo/Jesse Hill Ford Documentary

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Canterfield, the Ford home in Humboldt
from documentary about Jesse Hill Ford

It was in this environment, on the evening of Nov. 16, 1970, that Ford noticed a car parked in the grass, near the driveway of Canterfield, the large home he had built in Humboldt. Possibly also feeling the psychosis and paranoia that are side effects of methamphetamine use, he felt certain his son, not yet home, was about to be ambushed. 

Ford would later testify he fired his .30-06 rifle in an attempt to scare the driver into stopping while his wife called the sheriff. As the car began to pull away, Ford fired a second “warning” shot. Moments later, the driver, 21-year-old black soldier, George Doaks, lay slumped dead against the steering wheel as a young woman holding the hand of a small child, jumped from the car and ran for her life.

Doaks was the married son of a popular Humboldt minister who, it was later alleged during the trial, had parked for a romantic encounter with the young woman who was not his wife. Ironically, she was a cousin of Dorothy Claybrook, the unfaithful wife of the undertaker on which Ford had based his best-selling novel. The young child who had also been in the car was a 4-year-old the young woman was baby-sitting.

Ford went on trial for first-degree murder, which was later changed to second-degree murder.

Ford and his wife welcomed the media before and during the trial and participated in many interviews, especially with print reporters with whom Ford felt a natural affinity. When you read the articles, you can't help but wonder what they were thinking. He later wrote in his journal, “The bar was open. Liquor and food was dished out lavishly, and the drinking and the talking drifted on sometimes into the early hours of the next day.”(2)

The trial did not disappoint those looking for sensational drama as it pitted the famous author known for writing about the mistreatment of black people in the south against the popular black family of the man he killed.

The fact that there was only one black person on the jury that eventually found Ford not guilty, offered an additional layer of irony. Many would point out that it appeared Ford had benefited greatly from the same unjust system about which he had written.

Photo/Jesse Hill Ford Documentary

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Vintage footage of George Doaks' sister commenting after the trial
from documentary about Jesse Hill Ford

After the trial, Doaks’ sister stated in a broadcast news report, “If my brother had of killed him (Ford), it would be quite different. He would have been gone a long time ago.” (3)

Ford held a press conference at Canterfield where he summed up his feelings about the killing. “A tragedy has occurred out here and we’re all changed by it,” he said. “It is something I will never forget and it’s affected my life from here on out and I’m very sorry for it.” (4)

In a post-trial interview with a great deal of foreshadowing, Sally Ford said, “This week has been just like one of Jesse’s books, but it turned out much better because Jesse doesn’t believe in happy endings.” (5)

Although he was found not guilty, a happy ending was not in Ford’s future. Much damage had been done to his career by the shooting and subsequent trial. Even more damage was to come from the long-form journalism that was published after the verdict.

Photo/Life magazine

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Article about Ford in Life magazine by Marshall Frady, Oct. 29, 1971

One story in particular, written by Marshall Frady for the Oct. 29, 1971 issue of Life magazine was particularly enlightening. Frady, born in Augusta, Georgia and the son of a Southern Baptist minister, was well known for his work as a writer in the civil rights movement. In 1968, he had published a controversial biography of George Wallace and he would go on to write biographies of Billy Graham, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, an online magazine offering coverage on books, arts, and culture, wrote that Frady’s article is one of his favorite pieces of journalism and he re-reads it every year. “Digging it out,” he wrote, “is always worth the effort. (6)

The Life magazine article, as well as others, presented a harsh view of Ford who handled the anxiety and stress around the trial in a way that could be only be interpreted as arrogant and extremely insensitive to the Doaks family and the seriousness of their loss. Reading the article, one comes away with the understanding that Ford was wrestling with some very serious internal demons and the community in which he lived was filled with the ugliness of racism, fear and hatred.

Frady wrote:
“Ford had written with an acute understanding of how literally white southern society had cursed itself with the brutalizing legacy left by its old crime of slavery. But now, it was as if he had decided that he must invest himself totally into that society, into all those old demons and dark charms of violence at work in the South and in his own nature, with which he had always been only tentatively in communion.”(7)
Ford’s literary career was essentially over. He was financially ruined and, shortly before the trial, his wife discovered that while in Los Angeles, he had been unfaithful. Two years after Ford walked out of the Humboldt courthouse a free man, he was back to watch the same judge from the murder trial grant his wife a divorce.

At the University of Memphis, where he was a writer in residence, members of the English department circulated a petition for his dismissal and he was no longer booked for lectures and public appearances. (8)
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The Raider by Jesse Hill Ford

Ford released another novel set in West Tennessee, The Raider, on which he had been working throughout the trial. A historical novel, it was “a sprawling epic of West Tennessee before and during the Civil War.” It was only moderately successful and would be his last published novel. Of course, I have now ordered one to add to my growing stack of books I plan to read when I get a chance. Although, I seem to have more books in the stack than chances to read.

Ford moved to Nashville where he remarried. Although he seemed to enjoy life to some degree, friends believe he continued to struggle with unresolved feelings about the shooting.

He occasionally wrote as a guest columnist for USA TODAY in 1989 and 1990 where “he emerged as a crotchety, outspoken conservative who defended Oliver L. North, railed against the American Civil Liberties Union and said flag burners should have their heads broken.”(9)

In the spring of 1996, Ford underwent open-heart surgery at age 66. After weeks of struggling with severe depression, he locked himself in his study with a .22-caliber pistol and took his own life. 

Ford had been working on an autobiography that was found in his office after his death. When writing about his departure from Humboldt after his trial and divorce, he provided a little insight into his feeling about the town he came to love but which figured so significantly in his downfall:
“Goodbye to Humboldt, the city with the ungainly name and the beautiful soul…Goodbye to the springtides and strawberry season, to the parades and the bands…Goodbye to our secret society parties and dances…Goodbye to Kentucky Lake, where my children learned to hunt, to camp, to fish…Goodbye to the preachers and the bootleggers, the cops and the politicians, the harmless town loony who thought he was a night watchman, and was in many ways a night watchman…Goodbye to the hot, sultry summers of that cotton climate, and to the fertilizer plant just south of town chuffing its red smoke…Goodbye to the storms sweeping up from the gulf, to the tornados, to livid sunsets streaked with long and lovely wisps of oxford-gray cloud; and to the sounds of geese in autumn…Goodbye to so much rich material for stories…” (10)
For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website.

(1) John Taylor, “The Liberation of Jesse Hill Ford,” Esquire, February, 1997, 74.
(2) Ibid, 75.
(3) Moling, Troy. writer. “Jesse Hill Ford” YouTube. Online video clip, (accessed Oct. 11, 2015)
(4) Ibid
(5) Robert McG. Thomas Jr., “Jesse Hill Ford, 66, a Novelist Who Wrote of Race Relations,” New York Times, June 5, 1996.
(6) Morris, Bill. "A Year in Reading: Bill Morris." The Millions. 18 Dec. 2014. Web.
(7) Marshall Frady, “The Continuing Trial of Jesse Hill Ford,” Life, October 29, 1971, 74.
(8) Taylor, “The Liberation of Jesse Hill Ford,” 77.
(9) Thomas, “Jesse Hill Ford”
(10) Taylor, “The Liberation of Jesse Hill Ford,” 79.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Search for Video of West Tennessee Reveals a Story of Racism and Murder, Part 1 of 2

After reading a few weeks ago that the Brownsville, Tennessee train depot was used as one of the locations for filming the movie "The Liberation of L.B. Jones," I was anxious to see if it included other locations as well.

Having never heard of the movie, the book on which it was based or the author, I discovered so much I wanted to share, I’m breaking this blog entry into two parts.

Although I was really only looking for interesting shots that would show what the West Tennessee area looked like, what I actually discovered is a story of racial injustice that took place both both in literature and in real life.

Watch the Video

As I hoped, the film does offer a really good look at the train station and some of the region as it appeared in 1969 when the movie was filmed. Those familiar with the area will notice the town square scenes were filmed in Trenton, Tennessee. I pulled out a few of the clips and uploaded them to YouTube so you can check them out for yourself.

Be sure to turn up your volume so you hear the funky score which was done by film composer Elmer Bernstein.

The film was based on “The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones,” a novel by Southern author Jesse Hill Ford (1928 – 1996).

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I finally finished the book this morning. If, like me, you aren’t a fan of the “n” word, racism, bullies, brutality and cruelty, you’ll have a difficult time getting through the book.

As one reviewer put it, the book features, “an astute study of the social stratification and power imbalance in a southern town in the early sixties.”(1)

Ford grew up in Nashville and attended college at Vanderbilt and The University of Florida, studying under the fugitive writers Andrew Lytle and Donald Davidson.

While he was a student at Vanderbilt, Ford began working for the Nashville Tennessean and became friends with another reporter, John Seigenthaler, who I actually had the pleasure of meeting. Before his death in 2014, he was a passionate supporter of the Newseum and a tireless champion of the First Amendment. In an interview for a 1997 article for Esquire, Seigenthaler said, “Jesse was a very intense young man who took himself more seriously than most people do in a newsroom. He was very conscious even then of what he wanted to be.” (2)

After a stint in the Navy during the Korean War and a short career in PR, at the age of twenty-eight, Ford decided to focus on writing a novel. He and his wife, Sally, moved to her hometown of Humboldt so he could write full time.

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"The Conversion of Buster Drumwright"

He sold a short story to Atlantic Monthly and wrote a play, "The Conversion of Buster Drumwright," which aired on CBS in 1960. With a title inspired by Indian mounds located near Humboldt, his first novel, Mountains of Gilead, was published in 1961.

Photo/Jesse Hill Ford Documentary

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Jesse Hill Ford

His writer’s imagination was then inspired when he began hearing about the 1955 murder of James Claybrook, a successful black undertaker from Humboldt. The undertaker was found shot twice in the chest and propped up against a tree on a deserted country road, right outside town. Ford’s maid speculated with others in the community that the undertaker’s pregnant wife, Dorothy, had been having an affair with a white policeman, which led to his murder.

The novel Ford wrote based on those actual events was set in fictional Summerton, Tennessee, and was about a wealthy black undertaker who insists on divorcing his much-younger wife, because she was having an affair with a white policeman. The divorce would expose the (then illegal) biracial affair in court, and the undertaker’s refusal to back down leads to his brutal murder by the policeman.

Photo/Jesse Hill Ford Documentary

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Jesse Hill Ford

Racially charged at a time when the hard-won civil rights laws of the 1960s were being tested and integration was just beginning, the novel was a cultural, critical and commercial success for Ford. It was nominated for the National Book Award in 1966 and selected for the Book of the Month Club, exposing it to thousands of readers around the nation. Ford was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction writing.

As the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Ford seemed destined to take his place among the pantheon of Southern writers.”(3) He was compared elsewhere to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner.
“This is a novel which no American can disown but which only a Southerner could have written. The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones is a realistic narrative of racial crisis, set in a small Southern town that far transcends its local setting. Perhaps only once a decade does a work of fiction so completely enter and embody current conflict…he gives life and breath to the men and women the headlines and television reports of the civil rights revolution have failed to make us understand.”
"The Liberation of Lord Byron James" book jacket
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Stirling Silliphant

Stirling Silliphant, the Oscar-winning screenwriter for "In the Heat of the Night," bought the movie rights and Ford began working with him on the script in Los Angeles. With fame and fortune came a lifestyle filled with temptations that Ford apparently found difficult to resist.

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William Wyler and Audrey Hepburn
on the set of "The Children's Hour" in 1961

The movie, "The Liberation of L.B. Jones" was directed by legend William Wyler. It starred Roscoe Lee Browne, Barbara Hershey, Lola Falana and the six million dollar man himself, Lee Majors.

This would be the last project for Wyler, whose body of work included "Ben-Hur," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Roman Holiday," "How to Steal a Million," "The Children's Hour" and "Funny Girl."

William Wyler: The Authorized Biography by Axel Madsen, gives a little insight into the filming in West Tennessee:
“In February of 1969, Wyler went to Tennessee to scout locations and to meet Ford in his hometown of Humboldt, eighty miles northeast of Memphis…Tennessee was another world, flat cotton country with acreage set aside for raising strawberries or feeding Black Angus and Hereford cattle.

Driving up to Humboldt, he first saw the quarry ponds where they cut rocks for buildings, then the swamp where cypresses rose from dark stained waters. South of town, were the Indian mounds known as the Mountains of Gilead, which had been the title of Ford’s first novel. On the city limits were the cemeteries—one for white folks and one for blacks.

Spending over $200,000 in Humboldt and the environs, the company filmed in half a dozen small towns—Humboldt, Trenton, Gibson and Brownsville, and all eighty-odd members of the cast and crew stayed at the Holiday Inn.” (4)
Unlike the novel, the film was neither a financial nor critical success. What worked in a novel, didn't translate well to the movie theater.

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"The Liberation of L.B. Jones" movie poster, 1970

"I'm sure that Wyler and his screenwriters, Stirling Silliphant (who adapted "In the Heat of the Night") and Jesse Ford Hill, were out to make a suspense movie that would also work as contemporary social commentary. In the interests of melodrama, they have simplified the characters from Hill's novel to such a degree that they seem more stereotyped than may have been absolutely necessary—a problem that is aggravated by some of the casting." The New York Times 
"This story of a glossed-over Negro’s murder by a Dixie policeman is, unfortunately, not much more than an interracial sexploitation film." Variety 
"The cast gives some strong performances, ultimately the film is an empty affair. The questions of racism and southern prejudice had been well handled by other films long before this. Had it been made 10 years earlier it would have been a landmark, but in 1970 it was no longer fresh material." TV Guide 

The negative publicity and tone of the film brought even more notoriety to Humboldt, angering both whites and blacks in the community. By this time, the Ford family was living at Canterfield, a large home in Humboldt built by Ford. They began receiving death threats, obscene phone calls and other forms of harassment including garbage dumped on their massive lawn.

When the Humboldt black and white high schools were integrated by court order in 1970, the white players maintained their starting positions, which of course, angered much of the black community. Ford’s son, Charlie, was a starting running back and was shocked one morning at school to find “Kill Charlie Ford” carved into his desk.

Always a bit paranoid, Ford’s anxiety continued to increase with each threat.

Photo/Jesse Hill Ford Documentary

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Ford’s life would soon take a turn that would be considered too ironic if it were written in a novel. The writer, who made his fame and fortune writing about crimes against black people, would soon end up murdering a black man himself.

Part two

(1) Christa Buschendorf, Astrid Franke and Johannes Voelz, eds., Civilizing and Decivilizing Processes (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), 230.
(2) John Taylor, “The Liberation of Jesse Hill Ford,” Esquire, February, 1997, 74.
(3) Robert McG. Thomas Jr., “Jesse Hill Ford, 66, a Novelist Who Wrote of Race Relations,” New York Times, June 5, 1996.
(4) Axel Madsen, William Wyler: The Authorized Biography (Open Road Distribution, 2015), 100 - 112. 

For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website.