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In Banished, the Brown family exhumes their great-grandfather's remains from a cemetery in the all-white town of Pierce City, Mo.

Strange fruit 

Political violence and the complex racial legacy of the South

See also: Ten years after | Friend or Coe? | Of time and Charleen | Strange fruit | Capsule reviews

click to enlarge The South that just won't die in Banished - PHOTO COURTESY OF FULL FRAME DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL

In Banished, the Brown family exhumes their great-grandfather's remains from a cemetery in the all-white town of Pierce City, Mo. Excavators pile dirt beside the hole, emblematic of a community that is digging up, albeit reluctantly, its soiled past: In 1901, whites violently expelled the town's black citizens, including the Browns' ancestors, and seized their land. Virtually no blacks have lived in Pierce City since, prompting the Browns to move their loved one to a friendlier resting place in Springfield.

Nor have they lived in Forsyth County, Ga., site of the largest racial cleansing in America. Nor Harrison, Ark., where in the 21st century, resident Bob Scott lauded the "lack of blacks" as the overwhelming reason he considers it a retirement paradise.

As Banished and the other films in the Southern Sidebar series—Adam Zucker's Greensboro: Closer to the Truth and Indy film critic Godfrey Cheshire's Moving Midway—poignantly illustrate, the past informs the present. When some whites, such as community leaders in Greensboro or Forsyth County, exile the history of racism to newspaper morgues or library stacks, they are perpetuating discrimination. By minimizing whites' rolebe it tacit or overtin that history, they are denying blacks their right to not only their land and heritage, but also the truth.

Banished director Marcos Williams visits families in the three Southern communities that were among dozens of places, including several in the North, where from the 1860s to the 1920s, white residents embarked on pogroms against blacks. In each community, black families raise the issue of reparations, which most of the whites quickly dismiss, and try to reclaim their property, even if it's merely their ancestors' bones.

"I hope that audiences get from Banished an awareness of a little-known part of American history," Williams says. "I want them to reflect on the impact of history on contemporary society."

In Forsyth County, descendants of Morgan Strickland trace their original 37 1/2 acres to an upscale subdivision where McMansions now command upward of $300,000. A biracial committee meets to address the issue of reparations for blacks who lost their land but accomplishes little.

"We had to turn in a segregated report to the governor because they could never admit there was any problem," said the Rev. Elisabeth Omilami.

Ironically, the head of the county's biracial commission, Phil Bettis, who is white, is the title attorney responsible for researching transactions involving the Strickland's original land.

"You don't feel a legal responsibility or obligation to make it right?" asks reporter Elliott Jaspin.

"I feel compassion," Bettis replies, "but it's been a long time."

click to enlarge A scene from Greensboro: Closer to the Truth - PHOTO COURTESY OF FULL FRAME DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL

It has not been a long time—28 years—since white supremacists killed five members of the Communist Workers Party in the streets of Greensboro one sunny Saturday morning. TV cameras captured the Nov. 3 shooting, which occurred at an anti-Klan march that started in a black neighborhood.

As we learn in Greensboro: Closer to the Truth, although Greensboro had a reputation as an anti-labor town, the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party were disturbed not only by the CWP's union organizing of textile workers at the Cone Revolution plant but also its racial makeup, which was split between whites and blacks.

A subsequent civil trial confirmed survivors' suspicions that Greensboro police colluded with white supremacists, none of whom went to prison. The cops knew armed Klan and Nazi members planned to confront protesters, including black leader Nelson Johnson, who helped distribute "Death to the Klan" flyers. Yet, officers, who had harassed protesters at previous marches, were conspicuous by their absence, lollygagging two blocks from the shooting.

Filmmaker Adam Zucker asks Virgil Griffin, imperial wizard of the KKK, why no Klansman was shot that day. His reply: "Maybe God guided the bullets, I don't know."

Years later, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission forced Greensboro citizens to examine their city's complicity in the killings. "The Greensboro Police Department was backed up by the citizens of Greensboro," said Signe Waller, who survived the shooting. Her husband did not. "How did it let it happen? Greensboro has to confront this to cleanse its soul."

However, a quarter century later, city leaders, afraid of tainting Greensboro's genteel image in the eyes of corporate America, are less eager to reconcile the events of 1979. "We don't have much time for these people," said Jim Melvin, who was mayor from 1971-81. "We're trying to recruit companies to Greensboro. We're worried about how resurrecting this will affect our image."

Banished will be shown Saturday, April 14, at 3:45 p.m. in Civic Center Two. Greensboro: Closer to the Truth will be shown Sunday, April 15, at 4 p.m. in Fletcher Hall, in a free screening. Moving Midway, which was not made available for press review, will receive its world premiere on Saturday, April 14, at 12:15 p.m. in Civic Center One.

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