My feelings about The Madison County Journal’s founder, Frank Gillispie, who died in 2019, are not simple. When I remember him, I think of small-town journalism. I also think of the South and the narratives we accept or deny. I think of the Confederacy and how it seems to live with many people long after its time.
Frank left behind two legacies: the newspaper and the Confederate monument in Colbert. Both were his passion projects.
There’s something really endearing to me about Frank’s newspaper story. His mom died in a wreck at the Highway 29 intersection and years later he started a newspaper, The Dogsboro Journal, a four-page pamphlet produced in his bedroom. He wanted to call attention to the need for a traffic light at that intersection.
To say this paper had modest beginnings is an understatement. It was born out of a son’s grief and a need to make something better in his community. I think of this fact all the time. I feel deep kinship to Frank Gillispie in that spirit. I remember seeing Frank bring all the money he could scrape together, including coins, to the MainStreet Newspapers office in Jefferson to have The Journal printed there before MainStreet owned it. Later, I became the editor of that paper. And Frank continued to write a weekly column and cover some meetings for this paper until his health declined several years ago. I never worked in an office with Frank, but for several years, I talked with him by phone about once a week. I would often have fairly long talks with his stepmother, Cleo, who would often answer the phone. Frank took care of her until she passed away. He seemed very kind to her.
There is a kind of Southern, country ingenuity that I think a lot of people don’t understand about the rural South. I certainly didn’t until I moved to Madison County. There is a know-how that some have that I just don’t, because I’ve seen it and felt my shortcomings next to it. It’s a generalized knowledge, an old farmer’s mentality, a self reliance that ties back to having a smokehouse, an outhouse, a lack of money, but a do-it-yourself ethic that will pull you through. I think most of you who live here can understand what I’m talking about. And most people who have lived in urban settings their whole life likely don’t understand it.
The lack of understanding from the outside world toward this old, rural ingenuity is indeed one version of ignorance, an irritating one, a belittling one. But there’s also a kind of mythology that builds up around it, almost like a religion. Actually, I think it is a religion, one fueled by the feeling of disrespect. Frank would talk non-stop about this, about being a self-sustained, proud redneck. Whenever I was on the phone with him, I would try to steer any conversation away from his feelings about redneck pride or the South, because there’s an ocean of terrible pain on the other side of that old coin. And why couldn’t he see this? Inside, I would just think, “Whatever. It’s not my business.” When he talked and talked to me about putting up a Confederate monument in Colbert, I simply sat silent and thought, “Whatever. It’s not my business.”
When I was a teen and in the backseat of a carful of guys who pulled up to the Burger King on Forsyth Drive in Macon, the driver of the car, a friend, hollered that worst of words at the middle-aged woman working a nightshift who gave us our food. She had done nothing but give us our food and change. Why did he do that? And why did I cower in that moment and stay silent in the car? Do any of you relate to such a moment? What do you think about it now? Does it trouble you like this memory troubles me? Ultimately, my 16-year-old self just opted to look the other way, “Whatever, that’s his deal. It’s not my business.”
For my whole adulthood, I’ve thought about what that evening was like for the poor woman who had such bile slung at her from a car of hungry teenage boys. I feel shame for that moment and that silence, and I always will. Talking about it in this space feels shameful to me, but necessary in a way.
Oftentimes, I don’t want to talk to people about the South or race or a lot of touchy subjects. All of my inner desire leans heavily on “whatever.” Let me just skate by. I don’t want to deal with it. Can you relate?
So many things are strange this year, including the fact that there was no Fourth of July parade in Colbert. That’s sad, but this virus is legit. And I think Colbert leaders were right not to hold the parade. I think they took unnecessary heat for the right decision as well, but that’s what happens when leaders make hard calls.
But I’m also thinking about that parade and how I used to see the strangest thing each year until about 2006. Confederate re-enactors in gray used to march a Union “prisoner” in blue around the parade route. His hands were always tied by a rope. At the end of the parade, he would “escape,” then be “shot” in the back by the Confederates, whose loud “gunshots” would leave a trail of smoke before the wide-eyed parade-goers, who would watch as the Confederates stood over the “dead” Union soldier with their flags.
I thought this was really strange and out of line with the celebration of Independence Day. Should a Union soldier be shot dead as we celebrate America?
Ultimately, I shrugged. “Whatever.”
But you know what? I’m tired of whatever. I’m tired of passing Frank’s Confederate monument in Colbert and saying “whatever.” I want it to go. I’m sorry. I do. It was put up in the 2000s. It has the Confederate battle flag and underneath, it recognizes the Company “D” 16th Georgia volunteer infantry, the Danielsville Guards, with 105 members. I’m a descendant of Confederate veterans, too. I can soberly and somberly think of the difficulty of their days without celebrating the greater cause, which pushed to continue reducing humans to property and machinery. I don’t agree with that cause and all the moral and mental penalties it put into the white soul, which is itself a form of spiritual slavery. I don’t want any of those chains on me.
Not that I have any power in the matter. I don’t. I feel like I only stand to lose in this community by voicing such a thing. But inside, I think of the woman at Burger King that night. I do. I don't want to be that cowering 16-year-old I was that night. I didn’t realize how much was at stake in that moment of scared silence. But I understand it now. And if this paper, Frank’s other legacy, is hurt by this personal proclamation, then honestly, whatever.
But I firmly believe as I type this on Independence Day 2020 that Americans need to pick a flag: American or Confederate. They are two opposites. Disagree? Well, the evidence of that difference was written in the blood of over 600,000 war dead. They didn’t have the option to fly both flags. No, they were forced to pick one.
I want to be under the flag that tries to uphold, not just in words but in practice, that “all men are created equal.” And I don’t want that to ever be America’s “lost cause.”