The tragic death of Trayvon Martin has triggered memories of a similar incident that occurred about twenty-five years ago. Mary Robinson, an African American social activist born in 1943, and I were working on a book about her home community in rural Alabama. She was raised there as part of a sharecropping family during the time of segregation. In the process of writing the book, we uncovered several old crimes committed by whites against the African Americans they kept in virtual slavery. The findings resulted in our book, Moisture of the Earth: Mary Robinson, Civil Rights and Textile Union Activist. (2009)
Late one afternoon in August 1998, we talked to a retired African American deputy sheriff in Wetumpka, Alabama, the largest community near Mary’s childhood home. He talked about the electrocution of a fifteen year boy because of a suspected rape, then said, “Earl Varner’s mother’s still alive. Somebody should talk to her.” Earl Varner, he explained, died after being stopped and questioned by Sheriff Holley, the feared white sheriff from Mary’s childhood.
He told us how to find Earl Varner’s mother’s house, and we drove through Wetumpka’s African American neighborhood, down side streets lined with trees and broken sidewalks. Finally, we came to a small, white framed house with a front porch. It was late evening and insects hummed. African American children with bikes stood in the street watching us, and Mary asked them where Mrs. Varner lived. They pointed to the house.
We went to the front porch, and Mary knocked on the door but no one came. The children said Mrs. Varner was at home so Mary went around to the side door and knocked on it. “Miss Varner, are you in there? We’d like to see you for a minute.” No one came. I knocked on the front door again as Mary looked in a window. A graceful wooden rocking chair and potted plants sat on the front porch.
Finally, the side porch light was turned on, and an old African American woman opened the screen door. Mary said, “Mrs. Varner, don’t be frightened. My name is Mary Robinson and this is Fran Buss. I grew up here and Willie Townsend gave us your name. We’ve been trying to figure out some things that happened when I was a child, and we’d like to ask you about your son Earl.”
The old woman was large boned, but not heavy; her face was broad and strong; she had few teeth; and she wore a hair net and a loose fitting, stripped dress. She was barefooted.
“Come on in. I’ve been sick,” she said and motioned us inside. She left the door open and night insects buzzed outside.
I looked around the room. A bust of a cement angel with delicate hair and wings was centered on a chest on the wall to the left, and photos of young people in military uniforms were arranged around the angel. Mary established connections with Mrs. Varner. Mary had been in Mrs. Varner’s daughter’s class in school; her dad’s girlfriend lived a few blocks over. “If you’ve been sick, we don’t want to make you feel bad,” Mary said, “but we’re writing a book and wondered if you could tell us what happened to Earl.”
The old woman silently started to cry, then spoke a sentence or two, sniffed and wiped her hands across her face, spoke another few sentences, and did the same again. She repeated this as long as we spoke. “He was my oldest boy and he was so sweet. He kept saying, ‘Mama, you work so hard. I’m gonna take care of you.’ But the sheriff and his people in Wetumpka was upset with Earl because he be dating a girl who was half-white and looked white. Then Earl be coming home one night from work in Montgomery, and he was stopped by Sheriff Holley. Holley accused him of drinking. Earl said he didn’t have but one, and according to the story, Holley bashed him ‘cross the head. He crushed my Earl’s skull.” Mrs. Varner told us that Sheriff Holley then transported Earl to jail, charged him with resisting arrest, and gave him no medical care. Earl died in jail that night and Mrs. Varner knew nothing about the arrest until someone came to inform her that Earl was dead.
As we spoke the dark seemed to envelop the rest of the world until it seemed only the still grieving mother, Mary, the angel, circling moths, and I existed. A little later Mrs Varner’s other adult son came home and confirmed the story. He stated that he was only fourteen when it happened so he does not remember the details clearly, but after Earl’s death, civil rights groups attempted to prosecute Sheriff Holley with mixed results. Holley and his supporters continued in power.
I think now about Mrs. Varner’s grief, which lasted decades. What part was the despair of loss of a child and what part the impotent frustration of living in a culture where whites regularly got by committing crimes against their black neighbors? Surely, the civil rights groups’ protest must have given her some sense of solidarity, but she must have felt so outraged and impotent when Holley was ultimately sentenced to one year’s probation.
Now what will happen with Trayvon’s killer? Will the South get away with its old habits of covering up white-on-African American crime? His mother will grieve for the rest of her life, like Earl Varner’s mother. Will the rest of us stand by?