As the Alabama June sweltered in 1997, the Ku Klux Klan was working on something big in the swamps north of Mobile.
Little River was a community with one paved road and a handful of religions on the edge of the Tensaw Delta, a swamp the size of Weld County, if Weld County was full of alligators. Beneath a canopy of towering pines, a dead deer left in the road signaled the turn off from the pavement.
The day before I told a province goblin — not making that up — I’d be there, and he said I could try but there might be trouble. I’ve been whupped for less, I thought.
There was, as promised, trouble. Not 50 yards down what barely was a dirt road, a half dozen klansmen, some in robes and some in military garb, came out of the woods.
A couple of guys came chest-to-chest. I said it was a public road. It wasn’t.
I got shoved a bit and called some names, but nobody had the guts to throw the first punch, including me. About then, a Baldwin County sheriff’s deputy stopped his cruiser on the road, and everybody backed away. He called me to his vehicle, and I explained the situation. He said I should go, “unless you’re just wanting an ass-whooping.” I was not, and I was ill-equipped to explain the authority of a province goblin.
Hurricanes, blizzards, plane crashes, floods, wildfires, and mass shootings in a movie theater and classrooms — I‘ve covered them all. I run as hard as I can toward the fire, then dig in my heels and skid to a stop.
People live in the flames, and it’s a world far removed from the sympathetic edge.
I drove around Little River until dark to talk to people in their yards. The delta is half black, and some trace their family to the Clotilda, the last slave ship to America. That history is never lost, on either side. Old times here are not forgotten.
Snapping beans on a porch, a group of black women agreed that if you paid hate no mind it would move on, making it sound like being mauled by an animal.
As rattling as it had been to be shoved around by horse manure in white robes, it was the sanitized version of the world lived in every day by people who can’t pass for either white, straight or Christian.
Stay with me in Little River.
The Tuesday after that, I was back there asking questions in the parking lot of Ferguson’s Grocery. The night before, two black churches were burned to the ground. They arrested four local teenagers, a girl and three boys, all of whom had watched the crosses burn at the Saturday night Klan gathering.
What attracted the hate group to Little River was the beating of Peanut Ferguson, whose family had operated the community's only grocery store since the 1920s, three weeks earlier.
Ronald Hines, a 32-year-old black man, was passing through when he bought a dollar's worth of gas at the pump and used a hammer from the store to attack Peanut, who survived massive injuries to his face. When he couldn’t open the cash register, Hines took cartons of cigarettes and sped off in his bucket of junk, an aqua blue Chevy Cavalier.
Deputies picked up Hines walking away from his broken-down vehicle in the neighboring county. They took him back to the store to be identified by a witness. A mob of locals, black and white, had formed. One person reportedly called Hines "buddy-boy” and told him he was lucky the law caught up to him first.
There was a posse to avenge the death of the Rev. Joe Dees' son five months earlier.
Dees was pastor of one of the burned churches, St. Joe Baptist, on Tommy John Earle Road. The January before, his 24-year-old son, Tim, was home from the University of South Alabama after five years in the army, including Desert Storm.
It was a bitterly cold night sometime after 10, when Tim locked the church and began the walk home. He had to pass the mobile home of a white family, Jerry and Audrey Maddox and their three grown children.
The Maddoxes said Tim was naked when opened their screen door, and Jerry Maddox shot him with a shotgun, blasting him off the porch.
Pastor Dees identified his son’s body from a Polaroid. Blood was everywhere, he told me. The clothes were never recovered, and there was never an arrest, given the witnesses, albeit all named Maddox.
Joe Dees knew this kind of trouble. His brother Frank was shot dead at County Line Beverages, killed by a white man, Raymond Cumbie, who was acquitted by an all-white jury in 1975. The pastor went by that trailer and liquor store every day and surely must have wanted them to burn, if not for his faith in the justice of God's judgment.
Those women snapping beans had it wrong.
Hate doesn’t go away if you ignore it. People kill and buildings burn. Hate leads to hate, and violence leads to violence. If that cycle isn’t clear — I don’t know why it isn’t — or why society feeds its own destruction.