In mid-September 2019, we, The Carpetbag Theatre Inc., ran our final production of six re-imagined plays from our 50th Anniversary Celebration Series, Red Summer. This story, penned from first-hand accounts of witnesses, detailed the stories of African-American lives experiencing the tragic outcome of a wrongfully accused and executed Knoxvillian, Maurice Mayes, in the year 1919.
The newspaper’s racially biased reporting of Mayes’ arrest subsequently fueled a race riot played out in the streets of, majority African-American-owned, downtown Knoxville, as European-American citizens looted stores, stealing goods, liquor and guns, arming themselves with weapons and ammunition in order to enforce their own twisted form of justice upon Maurice, storming the jail only to find Mayes was not being held in that particular location. The mob decided to burn it down and take to the streets, hunting any black body they could find. Eventually, the National Guard was directed to intervene, and more black bodies were murdered in a hail of machine gun fire in what was disguised as an order to restore peace.
This horrific event was not peculiar during that summer of 1919, as cities around the country – Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Elaine, Arkansas; Omaha, Nebraska; and others, burned as a result of rising racial tensions in the United States. Black southerners had organized and fled the more violent brand of racism of the south in droves to benefit from the presence of opportunity in the north, and black soldiers returned home from World War I expecting to be treated as equals after fighting for their country, winning the first war against Fascism. However, instead of welcome parades, these veterans were spat on, cursed, beaten and even murdered, for their audacity to expect equality from a country they had fought to protect.
Our country’s president, at this time, Woodrow Wilson, a documented segregationist, racist and vocal defender of the Ku Klux Klan, did nothing to dissuade the catalyst for these riots, nor display competent leadership to ease the rising national tensions during a time when American cities were being burnt to the ground and American citizens were being hunted down in the streets solely because of the color of their skin.
Fast-forward: Nearly 101 years later, as we tune in to our news stations and open our social media apps, tragically familiar headlines flood our timelines and it almost seems that nothing has changed. The way the news is reported and consumed is different, but the irresponsibility remains the same. Our president’s name is different, but his sentiments are the same. The victims’ names are different; however, their skin color remains the same. A century still hasn’t been enough time to change the reflection in a mirror held to the face our country. There may be no one on the planet left alive old enough to remember those events first-hand, yet they would not surprise us if they happened tomorrow.
In the weeks leading up to the opening night of our play, Red Summer, as promotional efforts somehow reached the lowest of us, we began to receive threats of violence from cowards solely for going forward with this production containing these true stories; one even claimed they would start “another Civil War,” in response to our telling these stories. We chose not to go public with these threats at the time in an effort to dilute their power. Our staff met to consider calling off the production for a brief moment, yet we recognized our own power in what we were presenting to our city and remained in agreement that hate would not be allowed to win and Red Summer went forward. We saw the largest audience welcomed to one of our shows in decades, and the beauty of what was presented on stage is still enough to give us pause. Hate did not win.
By keeping these important stories, like Red Summer, alive, we understand that we reveal some of the ugliest truths our community has to offer. Yet, we cannot allow to pass the opportunity to reclaim the memories of the beauty in those who stood against injustice. If we fail to shed light on the darkest histories of our community, we will also fail to move in the direction that leads us away from the community we no longer wish to be.
For the past week, we, along with the majority of our nation, grieve the murder of George Floyd; taken from us, in an all too familiar fashion, at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve the citizens of this country. Cities around the world show solidarity in the form of protests demanding fundamental change to this system, one that is built on the foundation of racism. Although we cannot and do not condone looting or violence, one must be able to objectively understand these centuries of voices screaming for change have not been heard. It is evident because we are still battling anti-black sympathizers in a fight that is older than the inception of this country.
We shout Black Lives Matter. To those who may not understand why this phrase has been chosen, it is not that black lives matter any more than any other life. It is a vocalized reminder to those ignorant enough to believe that a black life could be worth anything less. We stand together to say to those in power that they have a moral obligation to understand, enough is enough.
The time has come for an end to the violence, physical and institutional, constantly perpetuated against black bodies. It is time to move forward. We will not allow another 100 years of not being heard. It is time to listen. We, The Carpetbag Theatre Inc., petition our local elected officials to stand with those of us demanding change, not in opposition; to speak to us before you speak for us. That is the definition of democracy, the language of change.
(Editor’s Note: On Feb. 13, 2020, Larry Van Guilder featured Jonathan Clark in our series, Our Town Leaders. Clark is demonstrating leadership with this open letter, sent June 3 to supporters of The Carpetbag Theatre.)
Jonathan Clark is executive/artistic director of The Carpetbag Theatre Inc.