December 24, 2020 KELLEY KIDD Prologue to The Story It is time to write the most important story of my life. I will refer to it as The Story. And it is time to try to make some sense of it, or at least try to. People who know me well have usually had to listen to me tell this story in some form. I have written it down a few times, but never published it. My hope as I set out to record it here is that I will finish this writing by Christmas day and publish it here then. The telling is affectionately dedicated to Briton Bradley, the young nurse and beautiful lady I call “Baby Girl”. I am in South Georgia and she in Birmingham Alabama this Christmas. This dedication is the only real Christmas present I can give her this year, so I will try hard to tell it true.
Before recounting the events of the story, I will be writing a little about a few matters which the story illustrates dramatically. This moment in American history is intense partly due to the seemingly intractable attitude of President Trump’s supporters, many of whom refuse to accept the results of the November election, which their candidate clearly lost. While the loss has been measured in counted ballots, and the ballots verified by recounting and court decisions, the President and his followers have continued for weeks to cry foul and to deny the results. I have recently come to the conclusion that Trump’s core followers still believe he won the election of 2020 mostly for reasons that are as understandable to me as their conclusion is wrong and dangerous. In part this story is about the difficulty of changing fixed assumptions and attitudes. But the story is also about the possibility of such change. For it is the story of the first and most important such change in my own life.
We go through our lives believing that we see and hear objectively and reasonably. We believe that we usually at least operate by rational choice and that our choices are not determined by forces far beyond our conscious control. For me the explosion of trust in my own judgement comes as I am shown the error of my thinking by new experiences. In 1968 these experiences came mostly through my exposure to Black folks, particularly a young woman who seemed to have taken upon herself the job of educating who she must have seen as the well-meaning but ignorant young man I was. And the story I will tell here had laid a foundation for revelations of the kind I had in 1968. There have been several instances of new experiences changing me since. But I doubt any of those changes could have occurred until the events of this story.
The events of The Story happened in April of 1954. I was 11 years old and parked for the week in Milledgeville Georgia. My Father’s family was prominent in that small town. Milledgeville had been the capitol city of Georgia from 1804 until 1866. We were celebrating the city’s 150th anniversary then and a week of that month was scheduled to be the time of the maximum celebratory activities. All of the story’s events fall between the Saturday before the main scheduled events and the following Thursday or Friday–I can never remember exactly. I can not remember the events of this story without the strongest sense that I was part of a drama so powerful that I am often inclined to think of it as a great drama that turned from pageant to horror story and tragedy, then ended in epiphany.
The stage for the drama was Milledgeville at aged 150. It had been founded in the first decade of the 19th Century by the Georgia legislature’s selection of its ground as the spot for the site of the state capitol. In the political thickets of that time Savannah’s heritage as the founding place of the colony of Georgia and its much larger population counted much less than the power of those who sought to replace Indian lands with prosperous plantations worked by crews of slaves. During its ascendancy as the capitol city, Milledgeville had been the site of the scandalous selling of most of Alabama for pennies to rich land companies with propensities for bribing Georgia legislator/sellers.. In Milledgeville the state government had actively cooperated in the forcible removal of the Cherokee to make room for more rapacious white men. The slave codes that justified and enforced the world’s most oppressive slave system had been adopted in Milledgeville, and the state had seceded from the union in 1861 to assist in the active destruction of the United States in order to save slavery from real or imagined Republican politics. After Sherman’s union army marched through Milledgeville and the union prevailed in 1864, more powerful forces had moved the capitol to Atlanta.
Soon after the war, the distinguished public role of policy making was replaced by the Milledgeville State Hospital, which had the far less prestigious role of trying to restore the state’s poorer citizens with mental illnesses. This restoring function was usually unsuccessful, pitifully underfunded and as unglamorous as watching imprisoned criminals, which the hospital also did.
Our municipal celebration that week did not include any of the ugly or sad or “crazy” parts of our heritage. The plans were to focus on the beauty and splendor of the old governor’s mansion. the other surviving antebellum mansions and homes, the colorful costumes of the residents who would dress up in historic garb for the week, the unique architecture of the building that had served as the legislature and supreme court building, and such. This week was going to include a speech by the Vice-President of the United States, the attendance of many dignitaries, and the recognition that Milledgeville was not an historical has-been with a now long-standing identity with “crazy people”. After this week maybe most folks would not greet your confession of being from the town with sarcastic grins and cracks about your own mental health.
The weather looked promising for the week. Al forecasts were for parade and ball and reception perfect spring weather in April, after the chills of winter and before the heat of summer.
The people who play prominent roles in the drama include two lawyers, a judge, and a businessman who traded in groceries and expensive cash credit. But these are removed early in the action as you will see. Those who remained as role players were my Father John Kidd, a middle aged owner of a small men’s clothing store in downtown Milledgeville, Joe Moore, the elderly owner and principal operator of the town’s main mortuary and his middle aged son Frank. And me–an eleven year old white boy with a strong middle class southern upbringing in protestant churches and segregated public schools.
My devout Baptist Mother and equally devout Methodist Father had raised me to be what I was in belief and attitude. Jesus had saved me from sin, and that kind of saving applied to all or virtually all “good people”. Bad people needed saving and then they would quit being bad. If they kept being bad they ought to be punished. and severely. Success would come to me and to anyone else who worked hard and played by the rules. Evil was the product of laziness and selfishness. Ambition was good and greed was bad. Kindness was admired and unkindness hated. My moral universe was clear and simple and never a cause for personal regret as long as I played by the rules and loved Jesus. Then that week happened. I have never been the same since.
The story I waked up on the Saturday morning before the first big parade on Sunday, and the day after my arrival from my Mother’s home in an Atlanta suburb. The trip on the Greyhound bus took four hours, but I never minded, even when the stay in Milledgeville would be only the usual monthly weekend. Always every recognizable landmark was celebrated in my mind; Milledgeville, the town of my birth and the home of my beloved Father was like no other place in my affections. And this trip was special. It would be for a whole week and would be filled with opportunities to renew older acquaintances and make new ones, watch memorable speeches and speech makers, miss school with the blessings of my teacher who appreciated that this celebration would be “good for him”.
So my Saturday morning rising could scarcely have been happier or more optimistic. Before noon I heard the horrible news. i was probably at home reading one of six volumes of Carl Sandberg’s “Abraham Lincoln”. That biography sat on a decorated shelf in the living room alongside a four volume biography of Robert E. Lee. It was my favorite preoccupation in Milledgeville for months that year. and its portrait of the man had begun to shake my views on the Civil War and the myth of the virtue of Southern heroism in that period. But the shaking was gentle and gradual. The news was like an explosion. Someone had shot two men to death only a few blocks away in downtown Milledgeville. My Father called to tell me to stay at home. The situation seemed dangerous, inexplicable.
Several hours passed before I heard from him again. The slain men had been a prominent judge and a well liked young lawyer. They had been shot to death by a businessman named Marion Stembridge. A short time after the second killing the murderer had turned his gun on himself. All three had died. In 1954 the shootings were national front page news. The era of such killings becoming frequent was far in the future. Our Sesquicentennial plans were off and the whole week ruined.
Two or three days later there was an auction of the personal belongings of the murderer. I went to the auction with my father. I think it was there that I heard men telling each other about how evil Marion Stembridge was. In addition to being some kind of grocer he had been what was referred to as a loan shark who made improperly large profits from short term cash loans to rather desperate people. One of his debtors, a black man, had borrowed money to buy a car. When he left the car at the hotel where Stembridge stayed, the lender went to the debtor’s house and demanded the borrowed money. The debtor’s reply had enraged Stembridge, who began pistol whipping the black man on the man’s porch. And the man’s wife and her sister tried to pull the enraged man away from her husband. In response Stembridge had shot the wife to death and seriously wounded the sister. Although later convicted in a trial, he escaped punishment after the Georgia Supreme Court threw out the conviction “on a technicality”. The men who told me this story at the auction hastily added that of course no white man in Georgia was ever going to be severely punished for killing uppity blacks. One of the items sold at the auction was a handgun whose sights the murderer had painted carefully with florescent. I heard it said that this proved Stembridge had planned to use that pistol for nighttime assassinations. The auction itself had the flavor of a kind of purging by the town of every trace of this hated killer and destroyer of our planned civic celebration.