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James Baldwin’s book about the Atlanta child murders speaks best to the era of Black Lives Matter.
Editor's Note: This essay is adapted from James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. Copyright © 2018 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
Few have inspired the Movement for Black Lives as much as James Baldwin. His books that plumb the psychological depths of U.S. racism, notably Notes of a Native Son (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963), speak to the present in ways that seem not only relevant but prophetic. However, Baldwin’s renewed status as a household name, cemented by the critical success of Raoul Peck’s 2016 film I Am Not Your Negro, makes it easy to forget that for several decades Baldwin fell from public favor.
No single work by Baldwin is as connected to the issues animating Black Lives Matter as The Evidence of Things Not Seen, written long after Baldwin had lost the public’s affection and attention.
Although Baldwin continued to work through the late 1980s, his canonical works were all published during the 1950s and ’60s, and he is seldom associated with the post–civil rights era. Some ascribe this abrupt decline in his reputation to a falling out with the white literary establishment, who believed Baldwin sacrificed his promise for political and moral commitments to Black Power. Others felt it had to do with Baldwin’s insecure role in black America. According to Hilton Als, when Baldwin became the official voice of black America, he compromised his voice as a writer. Others argued just the opposite: Baldwin lost his place precisely because he refused to identify with the essentialist logic of identity politics and any of its associated movements.
Still others believed his diminishment resulted from becoming bitter. Baldwin, they said, refused to acknowledge the progress the United States had made since the 1950s. As the New York Times’ Michael Anderson wrote in a 1998 review of Baldwin’s collected essays: “Little wonder he lost his audience: America did what Baldwin could not—it moved forward.” In a world of Black Lives Matter activism and the Trump administration, this triumphalist narrative of the United States’ racial progress looks especially naïve. And it is not surprising then that Baldwin’s words resonate for us yet again.
Arguably no single work by Baldwin is as connected to the issues animating Black Lives Matter as his final nonfiction book, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), but the work was written long after Baldwin had lost the public’s affection. Perhaps as a result, The Evidence of Things Not Seen remains little known and awaits the recuperation that many of his earlier works have experienced.
The Evidence of Things Not Seen offers a corrective to simplistic gloss-overs of the New South—and, by extension, post–civil rights America.
Written in response to what came to be known as the Atlanta child murders, Baldwin’s book is a piercing examination of anti-black violence in the United States, why it persisted after the “gains” of the civil rights era, and why it would likely continue unless deep-rooted structural and psychic changes occurred.
The Evidence of Things Not Seen offers a corrective to sensationalist media accounts of the Atlanta child murders and simplistic gloss-overs of the New South—and, by extension, post–civil rights America. The “Terror in Atlanta” was a national media sensation. “Black death has never before elicited so much attention,” marveled Baldwin. Baldwin saw himself as a witness—and the book as a lasting document—against the media accounts that dominated headlines for years. In doing so, he not only provided one of the most penetrating portraits of urban America in the Reagan era, he also traced its historical context and presciently anticipated the “post-racial” violence that continued in the Obama era and beyond.
• • •
Between 1979 and 1981, no fewer than twenty-eight black children were murdered in the city of Atlanta. Except for their race, youth, and the fact that they all lived in the city, the victims had no obvious connections to one another, nor were the method of their execution consistent. Nonetheless, the cases came to be seen as the work of a serial killer. Their grisly nature, and their continuance for years while police struggled to find the killer, caused the crimes to become a national media sensation.
Baldwin’s original reason for revisiting Atlanta at that time was an assignment from the New Yorker in which he was to assess the New South and reflect on the legacy of the civil rights movement. Baldwin’s New Yorker piece never materialized. Instead, after working on a documentary about the post–civil rights landscape with Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley (1982’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine), he switched assignments, agreeing to write an article for Playboy about the murders—although in some ways, he was still on the same beat. The child murders, it turned out, were inseparable from Baldwin’s answer to what he thought of the New South.
Baldwin would make multiple trips to the city in the ensuing months and years as his Playboy article morphed into a book. Even after the media interest died down, he returned to Atlanta, grappling with its contradictions, its troubled history, its changing economic apparatus and spatial shifts, and its attempts to brand itself as progressive.
The media spectacle of black death induces in the viewer a confused sense that sympathetic watching is the same thing as doing something.
In spite of the media hype about progress, color-blindness, and integration, Baldwin warns, “Do not come down here looking for it.” That South did not exist. The New South, for Baldwin, was as much a myth as the Old South. Only now its tactics and propaganda were more subtle and sophisticated. In place of overt racism was a Reagan-era fantasy in which all the gains of white America seemed earned, and the pains of black America deserved. In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, Baldwin states unequivocally: “I would like to have this on my record, that the Reagan vote was an anti-Black/Black vote.”
Baldwin had first visited Atlanta in 1957; at the time, he felt a deep connection to the city. Yet he also sensed the city’s heavy burden. “Atlanta,” he reflected in the title essay for Nobody Knows My Name (1961), “is the South.” Its “bitter interracial history” is “written in the faces of the people and one feels it in the air.”
In the 1950s, Atlanta was just beginning to establish itself as the capital of the Deep South. The 1950s and ’60s saw a flurry of construction—hotels, convention centers, and malls, as well as an elaborate new freeway system. The city also approved funding a new, world-class airport and rail system. In the 1960s, public schools were integrated and housing restrictions loosened; by 1970, more than half of the city was black. Soon after, in 1974, Maynard Jackson became the city’s first African American mayor. Changes in key leadership positions throughout Atlanta followed. Such changes were offered as evidence that Atlanta had “overcome” the South’s troubled past. Many believed, with its growing African American presence, Atlanta would soon transform into the United States’ best example of post–civil rights success and possibility.
Baldwin was skeptical. He saw integration as a trap. Whatever its intentions or ideals, it “attacked and began to unravel a tightly woven social fabric” in the black community. “Integration,” writes Baldwin, “was never considered a two-way street. Blacks went downtown, but Whites did not come uptown.” Moreover, he asserted, power was (and would be) still firmly within the hands of the state of Georgia (and therefore white and conservative), regardless of demographic changes, or even leadership changes, in the city. “The optimistic ferocity of this cosmetic job is the principle, if not the only reason for the presence . . . of the Black Mayor,” writes Baldwin. “It is a concession masking the face of power, which remains White.”
As Baldwin put it, the terror of the Atlanta child murders ‘did not so much alter the climate of Atlanta as reveal, or, as it were, epiphanize it.’
The black wealthy and middle class were making inroads, to be sure. But their standing was still precarious: “they are not safe, really, as long as the bulk of Atlanta’s Negroes live in such darkness. On any night in that other part of town, a policeman may beat up one Negro too many, or some Negro or some white man may simply go berserk. That is all it takes to drive so delicately balanced a city mad.” Against this backdrop, then, came the terror of the Atlanta child murders, which, as Baldwin put it, “did not so much alter the climate of Atlanta as reveal, or, as it were, epiphanize it.”
• • •
“No degree of imagination or disciplined power of rehearsal,” Baldwin writes, “can prepare anyone for the unspeakable; and there can be nothing more unspeakable—nor, alas, very probably, more common—than the violence inflicted on children.” Baldwin did not have children of his own. But he spent considerable time helping raise siblings, nieces, and nephews. In Atlanta, he listened to black children describe the terror in their own words. “Sometimes I think . . . that I’ll be coming home from (baseball or football) practice,” one boy told Baldwin, “and somebody’s car will come behind me and I’ll be thrown into the trunk of the car and it will be dark and he’ll drive the car away and I’ll never be found again.”
For Baldwin, the horror was magnified by his identification with these children. “That child,” he writes, “was myself.” Baldwin remembered all too clearly what it meant to grow up black in the United States—particularly black and poor.
If I say that the poor are strangers to safety, it is not only because others look on the poor with such defensive disdain, it is also because the poor cannot bear the condescension and pity they see in the eyes of others. . . . You smell your odor, as it were, in the eyes of others. And this is intolerably compounded if you are poor, young, and black. . . . To be poor and black in a country so rich and white is to judge oneself very harshly and it means that one has nothing to lose. Why not get into the friendly car? What’s the worst that can happen? For a poor child is, also, a very lonely child.
This reality is something the predominantly white media had difficulty comprehending. “The missing children were, for a while, lumped together as runaways, or ‘hustlers,’” observes Baldwin. Such designations, he believed, were euphemisms for poor black children whom society simply did not value or understand. If they were “street kids” from “broken homes,” with histories of illicit behavior, middle-class Americans could still feel relatively safe—and dismiss the horror as a problem of the poor inner city’s own making.
Camille Bell, mother of nine-year-old Yusuf Bell, took exception to this narrative. Her son was well behaved and bright. He was simply running an errand for a neighbor when he was kidnapped and killed. Labeling such a child a hustler or runaway only further compounded the injustice of his death. “It takes twenty-eight blacks to make up one white boy,” claimed Bell. “No one cares if [black] children die.”
The authorities were tipped off that the KKK was responsible for a series of slayings of black youths in Atlanta that began in the late 1970s. But they chose to ignore it.
Yet the strange paradox was that, after the story of the Atlanta child murders finally broke, the “interest” was significant. It was not a coincidence that the “Terror in Atlanta” coincided with the birth of cable news. CNN launched in the summer of 1980, becoming the United States’ first twenty-four-hour news network. It marked a new era—and new approach—to news media. Ted Turner, CNN’s founder, conceived of it as an alternative to the limitations of the major news networks: on cable news, events could unfold live. It was not scripted—the unpredictable might happen. A story could be followed day after day, week after week, like a television series. It was tailor-made, that is, for high-drama, human-interest stories such as the Iranian hostage crisis, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, and the Atlanta child murders.
Until the 1980s, many assumed that problems such as racism, poverty, and crime persisted because they remained invisible. Indeed, one of the biggest criticisms of Reagan was his refusal to even acknowledge the so-called “reign of terror in American cities,” instead presenting a wholesome, prosperous United States in which drugs, violence, AIDS, and poor people did not exist. Yet the 1980s saw a transition from invisibility and neglect to occasional bursts of media-driven national obsession.
Following the story of the Atlanta child killings in its early stages from his home in Saint Paul de Vence, France, Baldwin was initially confused by all the interest. Why did the United States suddenly care so much about black death? Certainly, as he wrote in his Playboy article, there was “nothing new in this city or state or nation about black bodies floating finally to the surface of the river.”
One of his primary concerns in The Evidence of Things Not Seen, then, was the meaning and impact of this transition from invisibility and denial to saturation and exploitation (a pattern that would proliferate in the 1990s and 2000s with the advent of the Internet, handheld video recorders, smartphones, and social media). The Atlanta child murders turned out reporters in droves. “Many of those out-of-town reporters,” writes Los Angeles Times journalist Howard Rosenberg, “popped into Atlanta for ratings-sweeps quickies and stayed just long enough to form capsule impressions, which distorted the meanings of the slayings and the image of a city known for being coolheaded during the civil rights violence of the ’60s.”
In this way, the media coverage is not unlike that surrounding the tragedies of the Black Lives Matter era, in which death is often presented as a spectacle that thrives on inducing in the viewer a confused sense that sympathetic watching is the same thing as doing something.
Despite all this attention, for nearly two years there were no serious suspects, leaving motives and identities to the imagination. The response from the police and city was slow and tepid, in part out of a desire to protect the city’s image. Mayor Jackson was in his second term when the murders began in 1979. By then many black men and women occupied leadership positions in the city, including Public Safety Commissioner Lee Brown. The presence of black authority became a key part of the narrative surrounding the missing children. It was, in the eyes of many white Georgians and white Americans, a black problem. Black parents did not watch out for their children; black police botched the investigation; black leaders proved unable to make the city safe. Such oversimplified narratives allowed whites to conveniently avoid any responsibility or culpability for the tragedy and added to the sense of spectacle.
Wayne B. Williams placated the public’s anxieties. He was enigmatic, black, thought to be gay—in short, a freak. To this day, he remains in prison and maintains his complete innocence.
It was not until June 1981 that a suspect was arrested: a twenty-three-year-old African American man named Wayne B. Williams. A month earlier, Williams had been pulled over near a bridge after a police officer reportedly heard an unusual splash in the Chattahoochee River. Williams said he was on his way to audition a singer, Cheryl Johnson, whom police subsequently discovered did not exist.
Two days later the body of twenty-seven-year-old Nathaniel Cater was found less than a mile downriver from the bridge. The evidence that Williams murdered Cater was compelling. Central to the prosecution’s case against Williams were green carpet fibers and dog hairs found on Cater—and several other victims—that seemed to match those from Williams’s parents’ home. Williams also failed a polygraph test in which he was questioned specifically about Cater.
Baldwin was uncertain whether Williams was innocent, but he felt the case against him was circumstantial and deeply flawed. What disturbed him most was that, although Williams was only indicted (and eventually convicted) for the deaths of two adults (the other was Jimmy Ray Payne, a twenty-one-year-old black man), he was assumed to be responsible for the deaths of more than two dozen children. This belief—that because Williams may have killed two adult men, he must have also killed twenty-six children—was profoundly revealing to Baldwin.
It is the emotional climate of Atlanta . . . that creates, permits, this ‘link.’ For, without this ‘link,’ it is perfectly possible—indeed, it is likely—that the last two murders, of two anonymous drifters, would not have been noticed at all, especially, I must repeat, in the Deep South. Hence, the connection of the two murders with the previous twenty-six has absolutely no legal validity. No one has been tried for these murders and no one, therefore, can be condemned for them.
What exactly was the “pattern,” Baldwin asked. Some of the children were shot, some stabbed, some strangled. None, as far as could be ascertained, were sexually assaulted (an important point, since Williams was assumed to be a pedophile). What, then, connected the victims? All were black, all from the Atlanta area, and mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds, but did these facts point obviously to Williams or even to the notion of a single killer?
There were plenty of other potential suspects. At one point, police narrowed in on a “Vietnam veteran type.” In the case of thirteen-year-old Clifford Jones, five eyewitnesses identified a suspect who was the manager of a local laundromat. According to FBI records, the suspect failed two polygraph tests. That suspect, however, was not arrested, and Jones’s death was eventually charged, without evidence, to Williams.
Years after Williams’s trial, the Associated Press broke the story that Charles T. Sanders, an Atlanta-based white supremacist whose brother was a KKK leader, told a Georgia Bureau of Investigation informant in 1981 that “the KKK was responsible for a series of slayings of black youths in Atlanta that began in the late 1970s.” On since-destroyed tapes, Sanders reportedly told the informant that the killer had “wiped out a thousand future generations of niggers,” and that they planned to continue to kill one more each month. More specifically, two police informants claimed Sanders admitted to killing or threatening to kill fourteen-year-old Lubie Geter, who went missing outside a mall near Sanders’s home in January 1981.
Descriptions of the truck witnesses saw Geter enter closely matched that of Sanders’s truck. A police report by a University of Georgia veterinarian also concluded that dog hairs found on the victim’s body came from a Siberian husky or an Alaskan malamute. Sanders owned a Siberian husky. While the public had no knowledge of this evidence in the early 1980s, the police did. An internal police memo referred to Charles Sanders as “the main suspect” during much of the investigation.
Police interest in Sanders waned, though, and soon they had Williams, who was, in many ways, the ideal scapegoat: he was black and queer (at least by perception). He was also seen by many as arrogant, narcissistic, and defensive. The prosecution suggested that Williams was gay and a pedophile (labels that were used almost interchangeably) and that he had a deep contempt for his own race. These two claims—both of which Williams denied—became central to the prosecution’s case. Crucially, the judge in the Williams trial decided to allow “prior acts” to be admitted, meaning Williams’s entire life before the murders could be scrutinized for “patterns.”
Baldwin was fascinated by Williams, seeing in his public image the embodiment of so many of the United States’ contradictions, hypocrisies, and failures—“the creation and object of a racist civilization.” “He struck me,” Baldwin writes, “as a spoiled, lost, and vindictive child.” Baldwin refers to Williams as an “odd creature,” less likely to be gay than simply an isolated man who had bought into the American Dream of success and dominance over emotional (or sexual) intimacy. None of Williams’s perceived character flaws, or failed relationships, or personality quirks “proved” he was a serial murderer. “The State has failed,” Baldwin writes, “to prove Wayne Williams guilty. But this archaic incompetence cannot be said to prove him innocent. For the State, his guilt or innocence is a matter of convenience, but for us, this question—involving, as it does, complicity—must be more urgent and more personal.”
‘Another man done gone; and one clicks on the television set.’
For Baldwin, then, what we perceived in Williams—what role we needed him to play in the Atlanta child murders—was of utmost significance. “Patterns” are inevitably poisoned by expectations, assumptions, prejudices, and power. “There is nothing,” writes Baldwin, “that won’t, under pressure, establish a ‘pattern,’ and, once one begins looking for a ‘pattern,’ this ‘pattern’ will prove anything you want it to prove.” Ultimately, Williams placated the public’s anxieties. He was enigmatic, black, thought to be gay—in short, a freak. The evidence that he was a prolific serial murderer might not have been strong, but he had already been damned by his character.
On February 27, 1982, after eleven hours of deliberation, a jury of eight blacks and four whites determined him guilty on two counts of first degree murder, effectively ending the Atlanta child murder saga. To this day, Williams remains in prison and maintains his complete innocence.
Baldwin begged his readers to look deeper. We—all of us—who followed the story were implicated. “The circus and the audience are absolutely indispensable to the hygiene of the state,” he asserted. Our interest, that is, could be—and was—exploited for particular purposes and manipulated into particular narratives. “The cowardice,” he wrote, “of this time and place—this era—is nowhere more clearly revealed than in the perpetual attempt to make the public and social disaster the result, or the issue, of a single demented creature.” That creature—in this case, Williams—offered a kind of relief and closure to middle-class Atlanta (and the U.S. middle-class more broadly). The national media left, conventions continued, and the “magic of the marketplace” hummed on. The crisis was officially over. But two dozen child murders remained unsolved.
• • •
Baldwin’s book was met with a mix of poor reviews and silence. The New York Times described it as a “lackluster account of a complex, nightmarish event that demands more thorough treatment.” The expectation seemed to be that Baldwin provide a more strictly journalistic account, which he was uninterested in doing.
In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, Baldwin offers an account of the American Dream that sees no innocent state to which we can return; the dream was toxic from the beginning. The sooner we recognize this, Baldwin implores, the better. “There are no more oceans to cross, no savage territories to be conquered, no more natives to be converted (and those for sale have been bought).” The Reagan vision of winners and losers, strength and dominance had proved to be a failure. One need look no further than inner cities across the country, where crime, poverty, and violence showed no signs of abating—to the contrary, conditions had grown worse, in most cases, since the 1960s.
As Baldwin finished work on The Evidence of Things Not Seen, the nation was commemorating the twenty-year anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. It had now been calcified as the triumphant moment of the civil rights movement, when the United States’ conscience was pricked and the tide finally turned. But Baldwin, surveying the outcomes of those battles in King’s hometown, was not in a celebratory mood. “I would like to point out,” he wrote, “that Martin Luther King, Jr., for the people whom he loved and served, was not a (pious) martyr. . . . Nor was he a victim. He was not even a hero. These terms are meant to distract one from, and, as it were, justify the obscenity of the publicly and privately willed event that transformed him into a corpse.”
The disentanglement between King’s dream and the American Dream continues in Cleveland and Chicago, Ferguson and Atlanta. It is, as Obama put it, ‘a history that doesn’t go away.’
Baldwin’s still-visceral anger and sadness had to do with loss, certainly, but also the meaning of King’s legacy in the post–civil rights era. King was not merely an icon to him, but a friend and ally. Baldwin still wore a watch given to him by Coretta Scott King with King’s face and the incantatory words, “I have a dream.” “Martin is dead,” wrote Baldwin, “because he was our witness—still is, for that matter.”
In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, Baldwin attempted to honor King’s struggle—and the struggle of hundreds of thousands of others—by pushing beyond the slogans of the Reagan era, by being honest about what he observed. King’s dream, Baldwin lamented, remained unfulfilled. Atlanta was evidence of this. “This dream,” he writes, “must, alas, be disentangled from whatever nightmare controls this fearfully White Republic.”
In many ways, this disentanglement was more challenging in the post–civil rights era than it was in the 1950s and ’60s. It may, in certain ways, be more challenging still in our age, in which covering black death in the national media has become a near-weekly ritual. “The inescapable and irreducible danger of being a black man or black woman in this country,” writes Baldwin, “is being forced to live with so vast a horror, day in and day out, that one finally ceases to be able to react to it. Another man done gone; and one clicks on the television set.”
Fifty years now since King’s assassination, and over thirty-five years since the Atlanta child murders, the disentanglement between King’s dream and the American Dream continues in Cleveland and Chicago, Ferguson and Atlanta. It is, as President Obama put it shortly after the Trayvon Martin verdict, “a history that doesn’t go away.”
That is not to say that it is deterministic but, rather, that we are responsible for understanding connections between our history and our present moment, or we remain trapped in a destructive cycle. In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, Baldwin demands that the Atlanta child murders be more than a mere media spectacle or crime story. He insists, amid all the noise and distractions, beyond the PR of the “city too busy to hate,” against a thousand narratives about hustlers, runaways, and predatory gays, that the children deserve better from their country: that, as our present movement puts it, black lives matter.
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