I grew up in Chambers County, Alabama, in a family of poor farmers and cotton mill workers. We were as poor as the only African-Americans whom I knew. The Brown family lived approximately five hundred yards from my house. My siblings and I grew up playing with the Brown children, so socializing with African-Americans was something that came easy for me.
I was not aware of bigotry, deep-rooted hate, and overt discrimination until I entered high school, which was the beginning of the 60s. I became aware that the South, especially Alabama, was giving birth to hate and racial tension. I was ashamed of Alabama, as I became painfully conscious of the bigotry and discrimination that existed in my state. A desire for justice and a deep resentment for racism and discrimination took root inside of me, giving me strong convictions about justice, equality, and the positive role that government should provide.
As the 60s unfolded, one violent episode after another occurred in Alabama, from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa, from Huntsville to Montgomery, from Notasulga to Mobile. I faced horrible truths that racism, discrimination, and injustice existed in my state and that the very governor, who should have been a peacemaker, was part of the problem. I realized that too often it is the leaders of the government and of the churches who keep fanning the flames of hate, racism, and discrimination.
My historical fiction, TROUBLING THE ASHES (Woodson Knowles Publishing Group, 2016), is a novel that is set in the 60s and 70s in a small, rural town in Macon County, Alabama, a town divided by racism and hate. It is a story that reveals how anger and fear can bring out the worst in people, how the brutality of the police and the KKK can keep the flames of anger and fear alive, which can product violence and create division of races, families, and churches.
In TROUBLING THE ASHES, I attempted to present real-life events that happened during the 60s and the 70s, when the desegregation of schools in Alabama was taking place. I lived in Notasugla and worked at Notasulga High School (Macon County, Alabama) for fourteen years, from 1967 to 1981. I saw first-hand the results of anger and fear, which can lead to racism, injustice, discrimination, and violence. I witnessed the aftermath of the burning of a school to prevent six black plaintiffs, Lee v Macon County Board of Education, from graduating from what was once an “all-white” school and to prevent further desegregation of the schools in Notasulga.
The history of Notasula is unknown to many people throughout Alabama and America; yet, it is a story about the burning of a school and a fight for desegregation that needs to be told, because it deals with racism, which is as much alive today as it was in the 60s and 70s. Today, racism wears a different mask and speaks a different language, but it is still racism. Also, I point out in the novel that the people of Notasulga united to a degree and that they began to respect one another’s opinions, even if they disagreed, which is not something that I see happening in America today.
In TROUBLING THE ASHES, I give factual information about the police brutality that took place in Alabama in the 60s. Jim Clark, the sheriff of Dallas County (Selma, Alabama), used violence against African-Americans over and over again. He brought his “mounted posse” to Notasulga the day that the school was desegregated; he pulled Vernon Merritt, a now well-known photojournalist off the bus that the six plaintiffs were on and almost beat Merritt to death.
In Birmingham, Bull Connor allowed and encouraged police violence. He ordered that fire hoses be turned on—full force—peaceful demonstrators; he was responsibility for the violence against the Freedom Riders. The degree of police brutality and the turning-of-heads of local and state leaders resulted in the death of young girls in a Birmingham church.
Sitting in the governor’s office in Montgomery, George Wallace encouraged police brutality, anger, hate, racism, and discrimination; he denied justice for any African-American in Alabama. His rhetoric fanned the flames of hate and racism. The racists in Alabama cheered him, while many whites throughout the state supported desegregation and justice. Those people stood up and spoke out. The KKK turned on them. The churches abandoned them.
In horror, I watched as church leaders remained silent about racism and injustice; I watched as they engaged in discriminatory practices and demonstrated that they were prejudice, as they locked the church doors to prevent any African-Americans from entering the church. Racism in the United States could not have thrived in the 60s and the 70s if institutions, such as churches, schools, and government, had not perpetuated discrimination against people of color. The church played a role in maintaining slavery and segregation
Today, many churches and government leaders demonstrate, once again, that they are still prejudice, that they still do not practice justice for all, that they do not practice the teachings of Jesus Christ, that they do not respect the Constitution of the United States. This is evident in the attitudes that they take toward racial issues, immigration, minorities, homosexuality, and transgender people. A moment of silence is not enough. It is time to stop using religion as a Christian excuse to discriminate. It is time to do the Christian thing, to practice what you preach.
TROUBLING THE ASHES is a story that reveals how politicians can lead a state or a country into discrimination that results in violence and injustice. In the novel, I attempt to convey that it is the responsibility of leaders to maintain equality, justice, and peace.
Shirley A. Aaron is a retired Alabama English teacher and a Georgia media specialist, with forty-two years of experience in education. She didn’t attend college until her son and daughter were born. Afterwards, she received a Bachelor of Science in Education degree in 1977 and a Masters of Education degree in 1980 from Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, where she also obtained certification as a media specialist. Teaching allowed her to present to her students important values through literature. Aaron was widowed in 2007, when her husband Charles O. Aaron passed away from cancer. She has published a book of poetry, DROPS OF LIGHT, and has recently completed a second novel, SWEET TEA WITH LEMON, which deals with friendship, cancer, and drug addiction.