Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America

Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America

by B. J. Hollars

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Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America by B. J. Hollars

Normal0falsefalsefalseMicrosoftInternetExplorer4Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America recounts the story of three innocent victims, all of whom suffered violent deaths through no fault of their own: Vaudine Maddox in 1933 in Tuscaloosa, Sergeant Gene Ballard in 1979 in Birmingham, and Michael Donald in 1981 in Mobile.
The death of Vaudine Maddox—and the lynchings that followed—serves as a cautionary tale about the violence that occurred in the same region nearly fifty-years later, highlighting the cowardice, ignorance, and happenstance that sustained a culture of racial intolerance far into the future.
Nearly half a century later, after a black bank robber was acquitted for the murder of police Sergeant Gene Ballard, two Klansmen took it upon themselves to exact revenge on an innocent victim—nineteen-year-old African American Michael Donald.  Donald's murder—deemed the last lynching in America—reignited the race debate in America and culminated in a courtroom drama in which the United Klans of America were at long last put on trial. 
While tracing the relationships among these murders, B. J. Hollars's research led him deep into the heart of Alabama’s racial, political, and legal landscapes.  A work of literary journalism, Thirteen Loops  draws upon rarely examined primary sources, court documents, newspaper reports, and first-hand accounts in an effort to unravel the twisted tale of a pair of interconnected murders that forever altered United States' race relations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817317539
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 09/06/2011
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 947,416
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

B.J. Hollars is the editor of You Must Be This Tall To Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside The Story. He received his M.F.A in Creative Writing from The University of Alabama and has published in North American Review, Ninth Letter, and The Southeast Review, among others.  He is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2011 B. J. Hollars
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1753-9

Chapter One


Tuscaloosa, June–August 1933

I asked the Lord to bring me back to Tuscaloosa.

Vaudine Maddox walked with a pail of flour. The early morning sun crept through the trees as the twenty-one-year-old white girl shuffled along the clay road in Big Sandy, twelve miles outside of Tuscaloosa. Situated an hour south of Birmingham and on the border of the Alabama Black Belt, 1930s Tuscaloosa, as described by author Philip Beidler, was a "sleepy, middle-sized city distinguished mainly by the dual presences of the state university and the state hospital for the insane." Clarence Cason, a native Alabamian and the head of the university's journalism department from 1928 to 1935, noted the city's "serene and comfortable beauty," calling it the type of place "where one may look forward with happiness to spending the rest of his days." His contemporary, Carl Carmer—a Northerner who accepted a position in the university's English department in 1927—offered a similar assessment, acknowledging Tuscaloosa's "picturesque quality," describing afternoons spent on the golf course and evenings "alive with small impromptu parties." He also noted the town's oppressive heat, how "swimming parties on the Black Warrior River [were] frequent"—a momentary respite for citizens to stave off the swelter.

The weather on Monday, June 12, 1933, was no exception. The day started off cool, though by noon, temperatures reached a stifling ninety-one degrees, sending Alabamians sprawling beneath the shade trees.

Vaudine was the oldest of four siblings. After her mother's death nine years prior, she took charge of the house and began caring for her brothers and sisters, as well as her father and twenty-five-year-old cousin.

All seven shared a run-down, two-room shack on the outskirts of a plantation. Though the Maddox family was white, they were poor, and so lived in a predominantly black community.

Across the woods from her family's shack lived an elderly white couple whom Vaudine assisted with odd jobs, tasks their brittle bodies could no longer perform. As Vaudine and her neighbors discovered, when supplies ran low, it was easier to share from their own reserves than make the dust-filled trip into town.

And so, that morning, Vaudine woke early, slipping into the pantry to fill a pail of flour for her neighbors.

They never received it.

* * *

The day after Vaudine's murder, the Tuscaloosa News reported, "Tentative theories in the inquiry indicate clearly that someone 'friendly' to the Maddox girl either actually committed the crime or possesses guilty knowledge in connection with it. A small pail of flour which the girl had been carrying to the neighbor's house was found beside a tree trunk at the side of the road."

The sheriff's department concluded that the untouched pail pointed to the possibility that Vaudine had placed it down of her own accord while taking a seat on a log alongside an acquaintance—proof enough for Tuscaloosa Sheriff R. L. Fayette Shamblin that Vaudine knew her murderer.

Monday and Tuesday passed with no sign of Vaudine, though her father didn't appear overly concerned, assuming she'd "just gone off with somebody." But by midafternoon on Wednesday, June 14, Vaudine's younger sisters, Gladys and Audis, proved their father wrong—stumbling across their eldest sister's bloodied body in a ravine a quarter mile from their shack. Vultures circled overhead, small animals gathering around the three-day-old corpse in the woods. The sheriff's department was contacted, though before facts were in place, rumors of a young white girl's rape and murder caused the citizens' blood to boil.

Vaudine's body was taken to the coroner for further study, though the late stages of decomposition made securing additional information difficult. Still, facts began emerging, most importantly, the discovery of the murder weapon: two bloodstained rocks.

The officers crouched over the rocks in the Big Sandy wilderness, shifting the focus of their investigation from how she was murdered to why.

But Sheriff Shamblin had another question as well: Had Vaudine Maddox been raped prior to her death?

Shamblin anxiously awaited the coroner's results, though after a thorough examination, the coroner offered more questions than answers, citing that the body's three days in the woods made any signs of rape impossible to determine with certainty.

* * *

On the morning of the murder, a witness stated that an eighteen-year-old black man named Dan Pippen Jr. was spotted walking past a field near where Vaudine's body was later discovered. A second witness reported that earlier in the day, Pippen had picked up a rock, boasting that he was planning to kill somebody with it.

Neither the police nor the newspapers could confirm these allegations.

Nevertheless, despite an alibi from his employer—African-American landowner Will Jemison—Pippen was taken into Sheriff Shamblin's custody by noon on Friday, June 16.

The Tuscaloosa News reported that Jemison wasn't alone in having seen Pippen at work during the time of the murder. In Pippen's defense, several fellow employees confirmed his whereabouts on that early Monday morning, and no physical evidence linked him to the murder. Even the newspaper acknowledged the flimsiness of the case, calling it "inconclusive and based principally upon circumstantial evidence."

Sheriff Shamblin ignored the criticism.

"Dan Pippen, Jr., was without court record;" claimed one report, "he had finished the course at the local one-teacher school; he took a very active part in church work, and had sung in a quartette and read a paper at the local church service on the Sunday before the Maddox girl was murdered."

Still, Shamblin remained unmoved.

Regardless of character testimony, a strong alibi, and a dearth of physical evidence, the Tuscaloosa authorities had all the proof they required.

After all, Pippen did live within half a mile of the Maddoxes' shack. And further, Pippen and Vaudine were known to have been acquaintances, one report even claiming that they had recently bickered over whether or not to shear a dog. His proximity, in conjunction with his and Vaudine's knowledge of one another's existence, was, in Sheriff Shamblin's eyes, sufficient for the arrest. The unverifiable testimony that he had supposedly threatened to kill someone with a rock seemed only to further solidify the case against him.

Within days of the murder, Shamblin assured Tuscaloosa that he was confident he had successfully apprehended Vaudine Maddox's murderer.

At least he was confident he had one of them.

* * *

Two days later, on Sunday, June 18, fifteen-year-old African-American A. T. Harden was taken into sheriff's custody as well. While no physical evidence linked Harden to the crime, either, after a day behind bars, the young black boy was more than willing to confess that he had witnessed Pippen raping and murdering the girl.

Despite his cooperation, Sheriff Shamblin decided to keep Harden in custody as well, at least until the conclusion of the trial.

Finding himself still behind bars after offering the story he believed would exonerate him, Harden quickly retracted his tale. While he initially claimed he and Pippen had crossed paths with Vaudine on the morning of June 12—that Pippen had told him to "stand aside" while he thrust her into the brush and out of view—Harden quickly recanted.

"It's all a lie," he admitted to the sheriff, claiming he'd simply been intimidated by the questioning.

But Shamblin refused to budge. The inconsistencies in Harden's testimony were all the more reason to keep him locked up. Just for good measure, later that day, Sheriff Shamblin also arrested Dan Pippen Jr.'s father for supposedly interfering with his son's investigation.

While there were now two black teenagers and a grown man behind bars in less than a week, the citizens of Tuscaloosa found themselves continually dissatisfied with the slow speed of justice. Two black teens and Pippen Sr. behind bars weren't enough. They required sentencing, and if the courts couldn't find the time to do so, the citizens knew men who could.

* * *

On the night of June 21—exactly one week after the discovery of Vaudine's body—a mob of "unattached young men and teen-age boys" began collecting on Greensboro Avenue. Just before midnight, they gathered at the county jail.

Let's see the prisoners, they demanded. We want to get a look at 'em.

Sensing trouble hours before, Sheriff Shamblin agreed to transport Pippen Jr. and Harden to the Birmingham jail just before nightfall. Meanwhile, in Tuscaloosa, the mob continued to grow.

While the mob was informed that Harden and Pippen Jr. were no longer being held in the county jail, Walton Morris and Bernard Marler demanded to see for themselves. The sheriff agreed, and it was only after Walton and Bernard concluded their examination of the county jail and were denied entrance to the city jail that they grudgingly informed the crowd to disperse.

While the Tuscaloosa News refused to call it a mob—preferring the term "jail gathering"—it did note that the "gathering" consisted of approximately one hundred onlookers, along with a few dozen cars lining up and down Greensboro. The semantics were important, particularly for a Southern newspaper during this time period.

"It appeared less like a mob than any group I have ever seen gathered for a similar occasion," remarked Judge Henry Foster. "It was not an inflamed spirit and was easily and peacefully dispersed after the curiosity of the boys had been satisfied."

Less than a week later, three young men, including Walton Morris (a Tuscaloosa High football player) and Bernard Marler ("a former star halfback" according to the Tuscaloosa News) were arrested and required to pay $1,500 bonds for conspiracy to commit a felony and unlawful assembly, a steep fine for simply gathering around a jail as had been reported.

Yet on the night of the first mob, not a single person was arrested. The judge's tempered words cooled the high tensions and encouraged the young men to return home, seemingly satisfied.

As the days wore on, their satisfaction wouldn't last.

* * *

The summer sweltered on, tensions as high as the temperatures, with Tuscaloosa reaching triple digits the day prior to the third and final arrest.

On Friday, June 23, twenty-eight-year-old Elmore "Honey" Clark—a black man described as having a "shriveled and practically useless" arm—was found hiding beneath Big Sandy Bridge. Harden and Pippen had supposedly mentioned his name in connection with the murder, and as a result, he was taken into custody soon after. Despite the difficulties a man with a shriveled arm might have lifting a rock above his head and murdering a healthy twenty-one-year-old girl, representatives from the Tuscaloosa sheriff's department did not hesitate in confining him to a jail cell.

You Elmore Clark? a deputy called, cutting his way through the brambles, handcuffs in hand.

Yes, sir, I am.

Well, get out from that bridge then. We need to talk with you.

The following day's court proceedings more closely resembled an elaborate game of finger pointing than a courtroom. While fifteen-year-old Harden swore to have witnessed Pippen and Clark drag "the Maddox girl into a clump of bushes by the roadside" and "to have heard noises which convinced him that they raped and murdered her," Pippen denied the claim, placing the blame squarely on the newly arrested Clark.

Meanwhile, the sheriff's department had their own theory—that Clark and Pippen raped and murdered Vaudine while Harden functioned as a lookout at the side of the road. But despite their great efforts, the prosecution couldn't cobble together that particular version from the various versions at their disposal. The blame continued to pass from one to the next until eventually all three were indicted for murder.

The news of their indictments traveled north, and soon after, the International Labor Defense—a New York–based liberal-leaning defense organization—headed south, offering Pippen, Harden, and Clark a full arsenal of defense lawyers.

It's debatable whether or not the defendants requested their assistance, but it didn't matter.

The Northerners were invading.

* * *

Just months prior, in March 1933, the International Labor Defense legal team represented the nine black men charged in the Scottsboro case. The men were charged with brutally raping two white women while on a train from Chattanooga to Memphis, though much like in the Maddox case, the evidence remained spotty and circumstantial.

While the fear of black men raping white women had long struck a nerve within the white consciousness, the frequency with which it occurred was actually quite rare. "It is true that the actual danger of the Southern white woman's being violated by the Negro has always been comparatively small," wrote author W. J. Cash in 1941, arguing that it was far more likely for a white woman to be "struck by lightning."

Historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown agrees, noting, "The charge [of black men raping white women] was often patently fraudulent and other motives, such as fears provoked by black tendencies to independence, refusal to be servile, or signs of economic advance, were involved." In short, a rape charge was a catch-all that was sure to incite riotous behavior, and the I.L.D. fought to expose these fraudulent charges in the courtroom.

Despite their legal support, the Scottsboro Boys were initially found guilty and eight were sent to death row, though their death sentences were later reduced. Journalist Paul Peters, who was present in the courtroom when the verdicts were read, reported that, "At each death verdict, the court room burst into cheers. A band outside blares: 'There'll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight!'"

Despite what initially appeared as a loss for the I.L.D., their role in the Scottsboro case granted them great notoriety within the legal world, and upon hearing of Harden, Pippen, and Clark's legal troubles, three representatives made their way to Tuscaloosa.

It would be understatement to say that the Northern lawyers were not welcome. In fact, Southern whites were wholeheartedly repulsed by the idea, refusing to allow Northern "Communists" to infiltrate their city and corrupt the sanctity of their courtroom, despite the fact that one of the three "Northern" lawyers actually resided in Birmingham. Citizens began establishing watch groups and writing letters to the Tuscaloosa News to express their frustration. Equally averse to the outside lawyers was the African-American community itself. So adamant, in fact, that over a dozen prominent African-American reverends addressed the problem in the July 31 issue of the Tuscaloosa News.

Perhaps fearing that the International Labor Defense—which actually did have clear ties to the Communist Party—would only litter the road to equality with greater obstacles, the reverends publicly decried the interference, claiming that they, too, didn't want "outside influences" intervening in the courtroom, believing that the "Christian integrity of the citizens of this community will see to it that justice is given in these cases."

I.L.D. organizer Louis Harper was said to have convinced the three accused men to consider outside lawyers affiliated with his organization, and while they initially agreed, Harden and Clark quickly recanted, though some sources note that Pippen remained firm in his desire for outside legal assistance.

The Southern Commission on the Study of Lynching reports that on July 31, Birmingham lawyer Frank B. Irvin informed Judge Foster that, "he and two New York lawyers, representing the International Labor Defense, had been retained by the defendants and would appear in their behalf when court convened next morning."

As promised, the International Labor Defense representatives arrived the following morning, gallivanting into a Tuscaloosa courtroom, perturbing all involved. Immediately, representatives for Harden and Clark testified that they hadn't requested I.L.D. assistance and, quite to the contrary, much preferred their current counsel. Pippen, as well as his parents, quickly agreed.


Excerpted from THIRTEEN LOOPS by B. J. HOLLARS Copyright © 2011 by B. J. Hollars. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction: Braiding the Rope....................1
First Loop: A Pail of Flour Tuscaloosa, June–August 1933....................13
Second Loop: A Challenge Tuscaloosa, August–October 1933....................30
Third Loop: A Motel Swimming Pool Birmingham, November 29, 1979....................49
Fourth Loop: A Flower in the Forest Birmingham, November 29–December 4, 1979....................55
Fifth Loop: A Pack of Cigarettes Mobile, March 20–21, 1981....................71
Sixth Loop: A Domestic Disturbance Mobile, March 20–21, 1981....................82
Seventh Loop: A Beating in Baldwin County Mobile, March 17, 1981....................96
Eighth Loop: A Klavern in the Woods Mobile, March 18–21, 1981....................102
Ninth Loop: A Cross, a Dummy, a Phone Call Mobile, March 21, 1981....................122
Tenth Loop: A Confession Mobile, June 1983–February 1987....................133
Eleventh Loop: A Verdict Mobile, February 1987....................145
Twelfth Loop: A Date with Yellow Mama Holman Correctional Facility, February 1984–June 6, 1997....................168
Thirteenth Loop: A Retelling Mobile, Present Day....................185
Conclusion: The Rope Unraveled....................201
Bibliographic Essay....................211

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