Why Self-Immolation Often Goes Unnoticed in America

The death of David Buckel, a prominent gay rights attorney in New York City, made waves a couple of weeks ago after he self-immolated at Prospect Park in New York City. His death received major attention for a few reasons: his death occurred in a populated area with heavy foot traffic (making it inherently public) and he had a clearly stated goal in his “suicide” letter, asking people to fight against the destruction of the environment.

His act was covered by all of the major news outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune.

While Buckel’s self-immolation is unique via circumstance, the choice of the flame itself is not that rare to the rest of the world and has even occurred in America a handful of times the past few years.

But these deaths often go unnoticed.

To begin, an uptick in self-immolations has occurred over the past decade. In Tunisia and much of North Africa, self-immolation became an en vogue form of protest in 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi infamously self-immolated on a Tunisian street corner to protest the police harassing him and confiscating his wages. Many experts claim Bouazizi’s death ignited the Arab Spring and sparked copycat self-immolations across the region. Similarly, in 2016, a young Iranian refugee self-immolated in Australia’s detention center, Narau, after he failed to seek asylum to Australia, which caused a national uproar in the country. However the nucleus of these self-immolations resides in Tibet, where there have been over 150 self-immolations since 2011 to protest the Chinese government’s rule over Tibet’s autonomy.

If you take all these numbers together, on average, a person has self-immolated as protest every 15 days globally between 2009-2016.

While a few of these self-immolations materialized in America over this past decade, they have not received the same attention as their international brethren.

For instance, in January 2017, a man attempted self-immolation outside the Trump Hotel in Washington in D.C. While he didn’t die, many news outlets failed to emphasize his act as protest. Similarly, an elderly man in Ohio lit himself on fire in Akron to protest then President-elect Trump but did not receive much news coverage outside of local media. Outside of these recent Trump protests, a white preacher, Charles Moore, lit himself on fire in 2014 as a way to protest racism in his hometown of Grand Saline, TX (my hometown), but his death did not garner limited national coverage until a month after the fact because people were quick to label him as “crazy.” (As a means to preserve his memory, I recently produced a documentary, titled Man on Fire, with director Joel Fendelman, that attempts to better understand why he found his fate in the flames and how Grand Saline reacted to his death.)

But do people even know about these self-immolations? It seems we can find coverage about self-immolations in Tibet, Tunisia, and India in major U.S. news publications and understand the reasons behind their deaths, but the discourse surrounding self-immolations in America focuses more on mental health than anything else.

We often don’t differentiate between suicide and suicide as protest in America, which dramatically alters the discourse surrounding these acts. While others regions across the globe see value in giving up one’s life as a means to help others, a form of solidarity, or an act of transcendence, in America, we more likely to dismiss such as acts as “crazy.”

In the research I conducted for my dissertation, Preaching behind the Fiery Pulpit: Rhetoric, Self-Immolation, and Public Memory, and the documentary “Man on Fire,” I found that labeling a self-immolation as an extension of someone being “crazy” often occurs because we as a society believe that one’s life in America is too valuable for any cause or social issue. Though many of us look to the regimes in other countries and see self-immolation as a medium for oppressed peoples to gain a voice, we assume America’s problems cannot be that bad–or could not be perceived as that bad in relation to the rest of the world. That’s why when stories like Buckel’s death garner headlines, the issues at the core of the self-immolation, such as environmental concerns, racism, and Trump’s presidency, never produce a national conversation: We believe none of these problems could ever warrant someone killing themselves.

In light of Buckel’s death, we need to reconsider how we talk about self-immolations in America. Those who choose the flame don’t often have histories of mental illness (which is too easy of an argument and too dismissive of the act anyways). They usually embody a national pain or important cause, and their deaths deserve more than sensationalized headlines and undeveloped commentary about mental illness.

In the case of Moore’s death in Grand Saline, he was quickly referred to as a “Madman or Martyr?” in the news and issues of racism in town never became the focal point in local and regional coverage. Why not reframe this conversation and question what heinous of acts of racism drove this man to light himself on fire? While the headlines surrounding Buckel’s self-immolation have been more empathetic, we still need more of a conversation around environmental destruction and how societal stagnation compelled Buckel to react. The impulse to delegitimize is easy, but if we ever want to come to terms with self-immolation as protest, to better understand what is captivating people to choose the flame around the globe, we have to reframe these conversations to look at self-immolators as products of an environment, not people who are “insane.”

Timothy Dickinson, a scholar based in Washington D.C., once noted on self-immolation: “Fire is the most dreaded of all forms of death…The sight of someone setting themselves on fire is simultaneously an assertion of intolerability and, frankly, of moral superiority….It’s not that [the self-immolator] is trying to tell me something, but that he’s commanding me.”

Instead of moving back to commonplace arguments against those who self-immolate, let’s allow their symbolic deaths to command us–to listen and reflect on the pain endured literally and figuratively–so that these deaths receive the attention they brutally deserve.



Race, Rhetoric, and Protest

I taught my first non-composition course this semester: “Race, Rhetoric, and Protest.” The course went really well (though I definitely would rework some of the sequencing in the first few weeks ofclass). Since I always want to have my documents to be accessible for others working on similar courses and ideas, I decided to share it below. Would love to hear any thoughts or suggestions.

I am teaching this again in Spring 2018.

Race Rhet Protest Syllabus

Protest Sequencing

race protest

Reconciling Grand Saline

I started my 7th grade year at Alba-Golden, a school I attended for all of my primary education years. However, entering my grade year, I became fascinated with sports, specifically football. I was already 5’9 and the size of a man (an odd experience for someone that age), and as I start playing for the 7th grade team in Alba something became painfully obvious: we were not going to be good. Alba had never had much success in football, so my family and I decided to find a better school to fit my needs.

I remember one day at the beginning of the school year, my (now former) stepfather came up to me with a question: “I think there are three different nearby schools that would be better at football: Emory, Grand Saline, or Lindale. Where would you like to attend?” That was such a hard question for a boy my age, deciding not only where to play football, but where to attend school, have friends, create a life. A friend of mine at Alba had recently transferred to Emory, which appealed to me because I would have one friend there already, and Lindale was a bigger school than all of the rest and might provide me more opportunities. While these two options enticed me, there was something about Grand Saline that lingered. I had heard stories of football glory in Grand Saline, knowing about their recent deep runs into the playoffs, so it really became an easy choice: “Grand Saline,” I told him. “I want to go to school in Grand Saline.”

I remember having a dream the day before I started school there. Though the town was home to only 3,000 people (not much bigger than Alba), I dreamed of massive Friday night lights in front of thousands of fans and being thrust into glory. The football imaginary captivated my subconscious. In my dreams, Grand Saline became a symbol of hope, a new light, the next adventure in my short life.

And I loved my hometown (yes, I claim it, though I was only there 6 years) and my upbringing there. Many of my best friends to this day are kids I met there. There was something comforting about living in a town where the front door is always unlocked and where I knew most of the townsfolk. I may have never achieved the football acclaim that I desired, but moving to Grand Saline was the right choice for other reasons, primarily a better education.

I say all this with a caveat, of course. My relationship with the town has changed greatly, as I have written about here and here. Most of this change comes down to the dissertation I just completed, where I extensively wrote on the history of Grand Saline, the self-immolation of Charles Moore, and legends of racism in town.

However, this blog post is not going to be me expressing my opinions on the town: rather, this is me coming from a different angle, from a space of reconciliation. I want to talk about how I have gotten to this point.


Over the past two and a half years, I have taken on two major projects in my life: 1) a 310 page dissertation that deals with the history and folklore of racism in Grand Saline and investigates the reasons why an elderly white minister, Charles Moore, self-immolated in town and 2) a documentary on this same subject that focuses more on interviews with town residents (and people from nearby communities). When I took up these two projects, I was met with immediate resistance. Many people felt I was trying to defame the town. I received backlash via emails, Facebook messages, and comments, which truly, honestly hurt. For awhile, these words overwhelmed me and hardened my spirit.

But I received other comments too, comments that took me much longer to process. I have had so many people come out of the woodwork, people from all across Texas and people who have moved from the Grand Saline area to other parts of America who have heard of my work or who have read my blogs and wanted to share their experiences with me. Looking back on it, almost every time I received public flak there would always be at least one stranger willing to reach out to me to share empathy. They shared the stories their ancestors told them about racism in Grand Saline, delved into their understanding of the folklore, and provided personal testimonies of racism that moved me to tears. I don’t think I valued these stories enough over the last few years but now as I reflect with a completed dissertation and film on the cusp of being finished, I realized how valuable those were in my reconciliation process: each of them, in one way or another, let me know that my experiences were not singular. There was a larger counterstory to Grand Saline being cultivated through these conversations that provided me a sense of hope.

Through writing the history of Grand Saline, interviewing Charles Moore’s family and friends, discussing racism with people in town and from nearby towns, and having people reach out to me, I have found some resolve in understanding my past mistakes and acknowledging how I, and others, can change the legacy of Grand Saline: through storytelling. Writing about this subject and having difficult, sometimes awkward conversations with people from town, provided me a voice, gave me agency. The conversations I was having with these people and with myself was a dialectic process, one where I truly believe the journey is more important than the product.

I have interviewed over 75 people for both the film and dissertation and have had so many more conversations with people on Facebook and through messaging. When I reflect on each one of these conversations, I see glimmer of hope. I see hope in people wanting to tell me about how their family has abandoned them because they have mixed children; I see hope in someone calling me a liar; I see hope in the individual who tells me my story is not too different from their’s. I see hope in that we had these conversations, and that I challenged them as much as they challenged me. There is hope in these stories be shared.

But we have to keep sharing them.

I hope others in Grand Saline will pick up the pieces of these conversations and have real, tough talks with one another (however trite that sentence might seem). It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable. It will not change you instantly, but it has the capability for systemic refinement. I think my own narrative of the past two and half years can be a testament to that.


I look forward to the release of the film and the eventual (fingers crossed) release of my book as well because maybe, just maybe, these narratives can be as transformative for others as they have been for me.

On Losing a Home (Grand Saline, TX)

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” —Maya Angelou

Growing up in the small town of Grand Saline, TX, I always felt different, especially since I could never get accustomed to the country culture. As a kid, I did not like usual activities like hunting and fishing. Driving big trucks and riding four wheelers were not on the list of hobbies I enjoyed. Actually, I remember being ready for bigger cities when it was close to my high school graduation. I had been preparing for college for most of my life, and I was ready to take on the next chapter of my life. But I never imagined having a longing for home, a feeling of safety in the streets of my adolescence, the freedom from responsibilities, the captivating moments of football on Friday nights, that came when leaving for college. One of the most interesting aspects of leaving your hometown, besides being on your own for the first time in your life, is the way that your perception of “home” changes, especially for me in rural East Texas. With each passing year away from home, I felt more connected to my hometown space, even though I felt “different” being raised there.

But all of that changed, recently.


On June 23, 2014, Rev. Charles Moore self-immolated in my hometown of Grand Saline, TX to protest racism. That truth is undeniable and affected me personally and emotionally, and arguably altered my life. I remember hearing racist stories as a kid in Grand Saline and often brushed them off. I had a strong personality, and even when people called me “Beaner” or “Wetback” I could go along with the joke and not feel uncomfortable in my own skin. When a coach made a racist remark toward an opposing team’s black player, I never thought of his intentions as cruel. When my high school football team chanted, “We’re alright, cuz we’re all white!” in front of other citizens in town, I never thought of the implications of those words. This makes me unique, in some ways, because many other people have to live with those pains on a constant basis, but I was able to play them off, until I really started racism.

I became outspoken on issues of race and racism whenever I first realized that race was rhetorical, that it was a way to position people and communities, a marker of identity, a site of pain, and was, believe it or not, epistemological. When I first read scholarship on race and rhetoric, in 2012 and 2013, I knew I found a niche in my studies, something that uniquely spoke to me in ways that no other rhetorical scholarship ever has. It led to an overwhelming response of memory, taking me back to stories and words stated in my hometown. Ultimately, this drove me to openly and publicly critiquing the culture in which I was raised, not to defame people or label the town of Grand Saline as “racist,” but, rather, to help change the town that I deeply care about.

The town’s problem, to me, is that it has oddly wrapped itself in racist folklore. This folklore ranges from stories describing lynchings that took place at the Poletown Bridge to tales that the KKK once met in the woods at Clark’s Ferry. Some people in town even believe the stories are not just tall-tales but are truths still being played out in Grand Saline today. These stories were told to me soon when I moved into town, and after completing interviews with over 50 people in Grand Saline and around the area, I can state firmly that these are stories that mostly everyone knows. Actually, I have not met a single Grand Saline resident who could not name at least one racist folklore about the town.


That fact is what makes Grand Saline exceptional: not that the town has some actual recorded history of racial violence (the history is pretty similar to most other rural towns across the South) but that they have a history of this folklore, much of which seems untrue. Yet, and this is a major point, this folklore is what some in town and many in surrounding towns believe is true. It is what makes the perception of racism in Grand Saline one of the most well-known stories in all of East Texas. Some have even declared the story of racism in Grand Saline parallels that of Vidor (a town riddled with racist events). A lawyer discussing a discriminatory lawsuit against Grand Saline in the 1980s even stated that the KKK doesn’t have to be out in the open there because the KKK’s values are engrained in the town’s culture. Unfortunately, the town’s circulation of the stories keeps the folklore intact and marks the town as racist to outsiders. While some of these stories are told by people outside of town, the fact students who have just graduated from high school there can recite this folklore is telling (I have interviewed a few of them).


This past weekend I went to town to work on my film project regarding Charles Moore and Grand Saline. I received the most hate I have had to date from town members (I will not mention all of this here). Some claim I want to defame the town; others say my film is about #BlackLivesMatter (a group I support and will defend but which has nothing to do with the film), but the outcry was real, and sudden, and…hurt me. Since my views on race and racism changed drastically in grad school, I have had many debates with friends on social media. But at the end of the day, I still felt like these people love me and understand me (most still do). However, as I went to bed on Friday night after hearing from multiple people what the town thinks about am me (some comments I had received from some people I know, some from others I don’t), I could not help but think I no longer had that “home” that Maya Angelou describes in the epigraph above. I no longer feel safe in Grand Saline (not that someone would actually harm me) because I get those stares, those stares that suggest I am not the same as the people. I am an outsider. I am different. I do not represent them.

As much as I have wanted to help Grand Saline, my relationship to it has changed drastically. Though I remember all the fond moments of my adolescence and cherish them, they are tainted by my present situation.

I hope when this film comes out and I publish my monograph that maybe some people will open up to the work I have done over the last few years. I know some people will for sure, but I also know that there are many who peg me as a “race-baiter” and will not take to anything I do in a positive light. I have become okay with that, now. But really I just want people to know that I only have the best intentions, whether they agree with them or not. This might fall on deaf ears, but it needed to be said.

Grand Saline, you may not be my safe home anymore, but I promise not to abandon you when the tides get choppy.

A post from me, about two months before Moore self-immolated, already thinking about writing about self-immolation as an act of protest. I often think of this post when considering my relationship to Moore and Grand Saline.

When Charles Moore killed himself on that fateful day, he died believing someone would tell his story. He died wanting to make change (though we might disagree with his perception of truth, he still understood part of the culture of Grand Saline). I have told people ever since that if I ever had one story to tell in my life, it was this. I feel cosmically connected to Moore and his act. And I can only hope that the story he began can be completed with me.

Reframing Project

Sometimes when I need some new air in writing my dissertation, I think about ways of reframing my project, not necessarily in changing chapters but in seeing it in different terms. This morning I was finishing up some grading and am about to talk to my adviser this afternoon about two chapters I have sent out (fingers crossed). Anyways, I have been away from writing my dissertation for about a week and a half now (I did the bus tour and worked on grading and conference papers) and really don’t feel the energy to start taking in comments he is about to give back to me.

To help alleviate this mental push-back, I jumped on Photoshop and attempted to compose my dissertation into one single image with text. This was just on a whim, but I was surprised in how much it helped.

ReconciliationMooreThis image and design is very basic, but I realized in putting all this work together that every aspect of my dissertation, the self-immolation, the exploration of myself, and the public debates in town all are attempts to form reconciliation in one way or another. I had known this implicitly, and was already thinking about including this in my conclusion in some capacity, but getting this out in a visual form has already brought some fresh air to my project.

Civil Rights Bus Day Tour–Day 5

On the final full day of the bus tour, we spent our time going around Memphis and visiting important historical sites. The rain was coming down heavy this morning as we hopped on the bus and headed to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Friends had told me how unnerving this site was for them, and I think was intensified by the rain following us this morning. We walked past the famous Lorraine Motel sign, with its pristine restoration, and in front of the motel on our way to the lobby. There, roughly twenty feet away, was the balcony I have seen memorialized in images, movies, and textbooks my entire life: the place where MLK was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. While everyone was running to get in from the rain, I stood for a moment, remembering the images I have seen in black and white my entire life. I don’t think I was truly prepared to take in everything that followed.

Screenshot 2016-03-12 at 12.14.06 PM

Inside, we made our way through the museum quickly because we only had 2.5 hours before we had to meet for lunch, but I immediately understood how visitors could spend hours, even an entire day, going through the exhibit. I will touch on a couple of these exhibits here before getting to my main point of intrigue. First, the Rosa Parks and sit-in sections of the museum stood out for their liveliness. Both had replicas of what it would be like on a bus during the boycotts and to sit at a lunch counter if you were protesting civil rights. This forced me to see the experience for what it was: a frightening, oppressing moment in American history. While textbooks often glance over these event quickly, the museum forces participants to see the reality of the pain, hear the slurs, and witness the hatred firsthand. These first two exhibits stood out for their molding of reality.

Screenshot 2016-03-12 at 12.14.17 PM.png

But I knew I had to move quickly through the first part of the museum to get to one of more intriguing, yet also icky feeling, parts of the tour: the construction and maintenance of the place where MLK died and where the sniper stood to shoot him. Towards the end of the first building of the museum, participants get to stand next to the room where MLK last stayed before getting shot. The curators reconstructed the room to represent what it looked like on the night MLK died. While I am sure the curators contend they do this to persevere history and help people see what it truly looked like on the fateful day, I couldn’t help but feel awkward. I felt as if we were staring into the intimacy of a terrible event and could not explain why people would want to see this image. But this feeling was expanded when in the second building you are able to walk to the space where the sniper stood when he took out MLK. The museum openly touts this space and even allows visitors to go to a window similar right next to the actual window (that they keep under protective glass) to see what the sniper would have seen. I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable that places choose to glorify sites like this. But it made me wonder if this was due to popular demand or if they museum knew what people really wanted to see.

Screenshot 2016-03-12 at 12.14.28 PM.png

After we finished with the museum we ate lunch on site and got back on the bus. We had two more events to accomplish: 1) visit with the sanitation protesters who helped take back their wages and civil rights in the city and 2) do a driving tour of the city. We met with three sanitation workers who took part in the famous “I am a man” strike in the late-1960s. The strikers explained the motives for taking part in the protest, the harsh conditions they worked in, and how they set the stage for better equality in the city and nation-wide as well. One of the men even stated that Obama told him that he wasn’t sure if he would be president today if it was not for the work they completed in the city. Overall, these three men represent how change can take place on the small scale, without national figures being involved directly. They brought the attention to themselves which garnered more publicity and pressure on the city to give them decent wages and benefits.

Lastly, we meet with Elaine Turner to end our day of activities, and she drove us around the city to visit important historical places like the First Baptist Church on Bealle Street, Slave Haven, and other sites. The place that stood out the most was the Mason Temple, where MLK gave his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech the night before he was killed. We walked into the temple and saw an image similar to the balcony of the Lorraine motel: a place I have seen in videos and images but have never thought about in reality. I was able to walk around and actually stand where MLK proclaimed the truth. I kept thinking about how fateful that night must have seemed to many at the time, MLK saying he had seen the mountaintop the night before he was murdered, and I imagined being in the audience cheering on with the thousands of others who were glad to see the civil rights hero among them. It was such a surreal moment, much like the Lorraine Motel, and I don’t think I will ever forget how awe-struck I was at the temple.

Screenshot 2016-03-12 at 12.14.40 PM.png

Our final full day on the tour could be defined by its harrowing nature because compared to other sites we had visited on the tour, the MLK history was the stuff we need early in our education. I remember even performing the “I Have a Dream” speech in third grade for a play. Thus, when we saw the MLK history in the material realms of Memphis hit a different nerve. I am actually glad that this day in Memphis was our final full day because I am not sure if I could emotionally handle much more days like that day. And that icky state has stayed with me, now two days removed.

Civil Rights Bus Tour–Day Four

Day four and five of the trip were long, and I spent these nights trying to have fun and resting rather than blogging my trip. Really what I have learned is blogging every single day of a trip is a tough task, and I couldn’t live up to the task. My plan, as of right now, is to blog day four of my adventure tonight (the night my trip ended) and do my blog for the fifth day and today’s adventures tomorrow. Sorry for the late blogs for those following, but I think both of these days will be more interesting with more time to reflect.

On the morning of March 9th, we awoke from Indianola and began our journey out of the Delta. Our first stop on this trip north was at the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford. In our class, we had learned about the riot that took place with James Meredith on the campus, briefly, and were going to take a tour of the campus before meeting with Charles W. Eagles, the “foremost” expert on James Meredith and the Ole Miss campus, and also student leaders on the campus who took charge in taking down the state flag (a version of the Confederate Flag). Arriving on the campus in the late morning, I was surprised by its beauty. The grove, the trees, the campus all painted pictures of the gallant South, the stories that cover our memories of the South and what it represents.

But checking underneath the surface of this superficial beauty changed my opinion of the campus quickly.

Screenshot 2016-03-11 at 10.14.03 PM

Walking around the first campus of the building I found some very disturbing wall art, art that should have been removed for its racial insensitivity a long time ago. The pictures here demonstrate Native Americans dancing like tropes and black people appearing in an unusual ways as well. This was literally the first thing I saw when looking around the campus and changed how I saw everything moving forward. Next we walked around the circle where the riots took place on campus, and I tried envisioning the hostility of the area. Maybe it was just like the Trump rally that just took place in Chicago. I close my eyes and try to picture white people screaming and yelling hatred at Meredith and officials guarding him. But I have never seen this open hatred before, and it is hard to imagine.

At the front of this circle were two Confederate shrines: 1) a Confederate statue placed by the county in the late-1800s, which calls for recondition of all the soldiers who died for the South. 2) a Confederate stain glass window still portrayed its beauty for all those entering one of the oldest buildings on campus on the circle. I was surprised both of these artifacts still stood in light of the conversations of the flag on campus and the removal of other Confederate memorabilia across the United States. But both of them stood out as stark reminders of the “heritage” argument that still calls for love of the Confederacy in the South.

Screenshot 2016-03-11 at 10.15.21 PM

With these public memories, the last object that stood out on campus was the monument to James Meredith, near the administration building. The Meredith statue is an erect, life-size version of Meredith walking towards the front of the school with quotes from Meredith and others about his inspiration. The statue is an important reminder of the history of the school, but I found it interesting how the school misconstrued Meredith’s words for their own gain. (I’m saving some of this for an article I am writing so I do not want to add much more detail here, but there is SO much analysis that can be done with the Meredith statue). After our tour of campus, we met with Eagles and the ladies who helped take down the flag, had lunch with them, and left the campus.

Screenshot 2016-03-11 at 10.15.53 PM

We took off for Memphis after leaving Oxford and first stopped at the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center before turning in for dinner and the hotel for the evening. Here we had more of a learning exercise rather than a historical one and talked about team-building, various forms of power, and the different parts of justice work that convene to create change. The two hour session allowed us to bounce ideas of advocacy, agitation, and other parts of justice work together and consider what our passions are as individuals and the power we have when we work together. The Mid-South Center does terrific work for the people of Memphis and was a great change of pace for us during the middle of our trip.

Screenshot 2016-03-11 at 10.16.12 PM

Day Four ended on a different note, one that allowed me to see the ways I should reconsider power and collaboration, but the time spent on the Ole Miss campus reinvigorated my interests in public memory and sparked ideas for future articles that I hope to begin putting together over the next few weeks. While I loved the history and sites we visited in Jackson and the Delta, it was the campus that really stood out as showcasing how gatekeepers construct public memories for individuals. I think this experience will shape my research for years to come.

TCU Civil Rights Bus Tour–Day Three

Charles McLaurin entered our small breakfast group the morning of March 8th and rotated around the group inconspicuously. Eventually I made my way to him and shook his hand. “You know,” he leaned in to tell me, “you and me couldn’t have been here in 1962. And if we were here, that would mean they were gonna hang the both of us.” So began the third day of the civil rights bus tour.

2016-03-08 16.01.50.jpg

McLaurin is a bit of a legend in the Mississippi Delta. He was a key member of the SNCC movement in the area and has been arrested over forty times in his life for agitating unjust laws and authorities. He had been a key supporter of Fannie Lou Hamer and was the field organizer who led much of the Freedom Summer registration in Sunflower County. Arguably, McLaurin is one of the most important civil rights leaders who is still living today, and it was a special honor to spend the day touring the civil rights history of the Delta with him.

Our bus drove through many small cities in the Delta today, including Ruleville, Greenville, Indianola, Drew, and Glendora. Instead of touching on each city I want to highlight a couple of important moments in the day that stood out.

2016-03-08 10.57.42.jpg

First, in Ruleville, we visited the Fannie Lou Hamer Garden and Museum. Compared to most other museums I have visited throughout my life, this place seemed much less fortunate. They didn’t have the funds to support the beautiful site that Hamer deserves, yet people in the community had still fought to have Hamer remembered. This made me realize how vital it is to have people fight for the local histories, especially when the state doesn’t explicitly support them. I felt a deeper desire to help certain museums financially and in any other capacity in my future.

But the funds the museum has raised helped memorialize the legacy of Hamer. Still to this day, you can see a twinkle in McLaurin’s eyes when he speaks of her, and as he and a curator guided us through the exhibit, I learned not only more on Hamer’s desire, but also the struggle involved in keeping her story alive. The museum also purchased a beautiful lot where Hamer is buried and built a monument to her honor there. The statue, showing Hamer in her favorite stance as an organizer, distinguishes itself from other statues. Together, seeing the history combined with local people’s efforts to maintain it, marks her museum and park as a special place that I will remember forever.

Next, we visited the museum for Emmett Till and also the small store where he was first accused of soliciting a white woman. The museum in the small town of Glendora is surrounded by the impoverished. All the houses in town are crumbling and have been left behind by modern society and state money. Yet, still this community support the Till museum in the old barn where he was actually tortured and murdered. Most amazingly at this site, the curators have constructed a coffin and a fake, disconfigured body that resembles the horrific shape of Till’s open casket funeral. It seems, rhetorically speaking, the museum fulfills the same purpose that Till’s mother wanted in having the open casket: they want visitors to feel that visceral, complex reaction in seeing the brutality of racism.

2016-03-08 21.33.40.jpg

Today taught me a lot on not just the history of civil rights but also the ways people keep memory alive. I see it in the fight for funds and grants, I see it in the unique placement of plaques and memorials, and I see it in the visual reminders of the harsh world around us. The Delta has to fight for their history. They do not have the national spotlight that places like Selma, Birmingham, and even Memphis do. Thus, the have to go through greater struggles and more hoops to remain an important part of history. Seeing how people like McLaurin and even local sites tell their stories gives me all the inspiration I need to keep researching how rhetorics of public memory affect histories and communities.

2016-03-08 21.38.56.jpg

Civil Rights Bus Tour– Day 2

Well, the wifi at our hotel is crummy, so I will be writing this post (and probably the next) from my phone. That probably means these will both be shorter because I really don’t want to write frommy phone.

Today was a long and tiring journey. We woke up and ate breakfast at the hotel and left for our first stop. Jackson is an interesting city. The downtown district and communities near Jackson State University shows how impoverished the city and state are. On one street we drove down today, we literally saw ten total houses that were all abandoned and decaying. These streets once held a vibrant a black community and we’re one of the homes of the modern civil rights struggle. Yet these failing infrastructures reminded me of how quick we are able to forget our roots. 

2016-03-07 22.42.49.jpg

We stopped on the edge of Jackson State University at was once the home of COFO. COFO was the group formed by SNCC, NAACP, SCLC, and CORE, and was pioneered by Bob Moses in Mississippi. Today we met Keith McMillan who is the COFO headquarters curator. He began by telling the history of the movement and the building. Most interesting to me was that the state of Mississippi didn’t even recognize the site with a historical marker until 2011.

2016-03-07 22.42.03.jpg

Once we finished our quick discussion, we took the short walk to the Jackson Masonic Lodge, which also housed (and still houses) the NAACP during the 1960s. Here we met Frank Figures, a local historian, who filled us in on the history of the building and it’s importance in the movement. We were actually standing in a site where the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party organized caucuses, where Medgar Evers ran the local movement, and where Freedom Riders had lessons in the early 1960s. Remarkably the bullet holes that had been shot into the NAACP offices in the 1960s, more than five of them, still remained reminders of the town’s tragic history.

Once we left the lodge, we headed back to COFO and talked to two local legends: Flonzie Brown Wright and Hollis Watkins. Both of these people had been a part of the movement in the 1960s and had stayed in the area afterwards to keep up the good fight. Most interstingly both of them were stark contrasts of the nonviolent leaders we imagine: both carried weapons and were not afraid to use them in defense. Wright even stated that she believed the whole nonviolence stance on national level was only pragmatic, most local people actually would resort to violence if push came to shove.

We finished our meeting with these two legends by singing a few liberation hymns, and Watkins led the charge in getting us involved in harmonizing. After a quick lunch in the office, we headed out on a more thorough tour of Jackson. First, we took in the Jackson State Tragedy memorial on campus. The tragedy parallels the Kent State killings, and these two events were only eleven days apart. Here, two black students were murdered (supposedly by police) and eleven were injured on campus. The crime was never solved. Again, the state of Mississippi only put up a plaque to honor these students in 2009 or 2010.

2016-03-07 22.43.37

In our last big stop for the day, we visited Medgar Evers house, the location he was shot and killed in the early-1960s, which sparked much of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. The home is now a museum, and we were able to walk through the home and still see the bullet hole from the shot that killed Evers. The visceral effect of being in the place we’re a man died for a cause was unnerving. I felt moved but also helpless. But overall, I couldn’t help but think that Evers life meant something. In dying, he became a martyr, one who has evolved into a legend in local lore.

2016-03-07 22.40.01

The day ended with a dinner on our way to Indianola. We got to the hotel at 9 and will be travelling through the Delta the next two days.

I will be posting more on our trip in the upcoming days and hope you continue to track our journey together. Thanks!


Civil Rights Bus Tour– Day One

“People ask me why I go after these old murderers in the KKK, years after their crimes,” Jerry Mitchell told a crowded room of TCU students tonight in Jackson, Mississippi. The audience was silent. “These are young killers, I tell them. They just happen to get old.”


Today marked the first leg of TCU’s civil rights bus tour through the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, and Little Rock. We left Fort Worth this morning at 9:00 am heading east and didn’t stop until we made it to Ruston, Louisiana, only a few hours out from Jackson. While Ruston was not on our scenic tour in the South, I learned from my colleagues about its history. In 1938, a 19 year-old black boy, R.C. Williams, was lynched. As the town mob burned him to death, they actually put out the flames for a moment so they could get his fingerprints. Then they re-lit the fire and murdered Williams. The story of Williams illustrates the utter ignorance of racial hatred, the idea that a mob found a man guilty without giving him a fair trial, and while killing him decide it might be best to get his fingerprints. This story, while not even an actual historical moment on our stop, sheds light on the work we are doing as a class. We are digging up old bones, histories people want to forget. And as we keep digging under new rocks, we keep finding more and more bones.

After lunch in Ruston, we made it into Jackson around 4:30 pm, giving us just enough time to get some rest before leaving for dinner at 5:30. Though I was tired after the long trip, I was interested in having our dinner with Jerry Mitchell. Reading his biography on our trip taught me that he had uncovered truths about infamous KKK murders, leading to high-profile arrests and murder convictions decades after the slayings in the 1960s. We left for dinner in northern Jackson at Sal and Mookie’s. The pizza was delicious but even more incredible was meeting Jerry Mitchell.


Mitchell, a fifty-five year-old reporter in Jackson, has had an incredible life. In 1989, he watched the film Mississippi Burning that sparked a desire in him. Mitchell wanted to actually investigate who committed some of these murders and atrocities in the Civil Rights South. First, he was able to investigate one Klansman for the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi. Next he put a KKK leader, Sam Bowers, behind bars for his involvement in the bombing of Vernon Dahmer. More recently, he has helped convict Bobby Cherry and Edgar Ray Killen for their crimes in the Birmingham church bombing and the murders of the three civil rights workers outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

His work garnered him a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” as well. In his speech to TCU students tonight, Mitchell attributed his success to his own desire for truth. Truth is what can lead us to reconciliation. Truth is not just acknowledging history but making it matter. Truth is taking these “old KKK murders” and making them pay for the crimes they committed decades ago. Even when faced with multitudes of death threats and slurs, Mitchell states that he tries to live fearlessly. “Living fearlessly doesn’t mean not having fear,” he told us. “Rather, it is knowing that you are doing something greater than yourself.” The fear only lets him know that he is on the right path.

Mitchell was a fascinating person to talk to on our bus trip and was a wonderful person to end our first day. Although we did more traveling and less site-seeing, he inspired many of the students in his talk. On the bus heading home, everyone was discussing what he said, how he affected them personally, and how his talk applies to their understanding of civil rights. I have similar a feeling. My dissertation studies why a white preacher (Charles Moore) in my hometown of Grand Saline, TX decided to self-immolate on a summer day in 2014. The preacher claimed the town was racist and he wanted them reconcile their history with their present, to move past their old biases. The town rejected his claim outright.

But truth…truth matters.

Truth matters enough to Mitchell that he has dedicated his life over the past twenty-five years to investigating KKK crimes against black people in South. Truth matters to Charles Moore and his commitment to self-immolating in hopes that it could bring some form of justice. Truth matters to me too, and that is why I believe my dissertation is so engrained in my identity. Truth is all I can ever hope for.

At the end of the evening, I told Mitchell about my work, and he graciously gave me his card and told him to email him information about the case. I am thankful that he would even consider talking with me about my work, but it also provided me with my own “truth” for the evening: people like Mitchell will always want to lend an extra hand because they understand how valuable and pertinent the hard fight for the truth is.


That wraps up the first day for our TCU trip. I hope to post again tomorrow. Please feel free to share this with your friends and family and follow our journey along the rest of the way!