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Educator Backs Off Lynching Account

Details Don't Fit In James Hood's Story Of Uncle's Killing

Wisconsin State Journal
May 7, 1998
By John Welsh

James Hood, the Madison educator who broke the color barrier at the University of Alabama in 1963, tells a dramatic story about his uncle's hanging and burning at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.

But the killing never happened.

Hood most recently told the story of the 1950s lynching April 26 to a crowd of 300 at a racial unity rally organized by area churches in response to a possible KKK march in Madison this year.

"I crawled over to the window and pulled aside the drapes, and I saw a man -- hanging, burning," Hood, chairman of Protective Services at Madison Area Technical College, said at the rally. "And the next morning, I learned that the man was my uncle."

Hood backed off the account Wednesday after the Wisconsin State Journal, working with the Huntsville Times of Alabama, questioned many details of the account.

Hood said that after talking to other relatives, he's now certain only that a relative -- he's not sure of the man's name -- was beaten severely by Klan members that night but was not killed.

"I probably should have cleared it up," Hood said in an interview. "I just remember the devastation. I grew up afraid of the Klan because of it."

Community leaders in Piedmont, Ala., the city that Hood specified in his speech, said Hood owes its 5,000 residents an apology. "I wish he was a little more careful before putting labels on communities," said Lane Weatherbee, editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper in Piedmont.

On Wednesday, Hood said he planned to write a letter of apology to Weatherbee's paper.

Piedmont, located in the Appalachian mountains halfway between Atlanta and Birmingham, was the site of a lynching in 1870 in which seven people were killed. Historians said the city paid a large price for that gruesome crime as railroad and other business people steered clear.

"The community is a little sensitive to someone making a false claim against it," said Gerald Whitton, president of the Piedmont Historical Society. "It's sad someone resorts to that kind of tactic to get attention."

The account of the lynching captivated Madison listeners. In a videotape of the speech, groans and murmurs of shock can clearly be heard as Hood recites his story.

But Hood's story sparked immediate skepticism in Wisconsin and Alabama. Stoughton resident Wayne Smith brought the State Journal account of Hood's speech to Weatherbee's attention. In Madison, Eugene Parks, a former city affirmative action director, also was convinced the story wasn't true.

Hood has been interviewed several times about his account, beginning Friday. He was examined at St. Mary's Hospital Wednesday after experiencing chest pains but was released and said he didn't think his health problems were related to the questions raised about his speech.

When Hood was first asked about the accuracy of the lynching claim Friday, he said listeners would have to take him at his word: "These things happened every day, particularly in that area," Hood said. "I can verify it as a human being. Yes, it happened. I saw it. And I know there won't be any written record of it. If I had to stand on a stack of Bibles, I would do it. But ask me to show documentation, I can't do it."

In that interview, Hood said the victim was A.C. Hood, his great-uncle. He said the killing took place near Spring Garden, a small community of about 200 people less than 10 miles north of Piedmont.

In an interview Tuesday, after being told no man by that name was buried in the local cemetery, he said the victim's name was A.C. Murray. A.C. Murray is buried at the cemetery -- but he died in 1990 at the age of 69.

Facing continuing questions, Hood said Wednesday that he talked to relatives this week and realized he made a mistake. He said his relative had not been killed but only severely beaten. He was not sure if the victim was Murray.

Hood has told the lynching story before: It was included in a 1989 State Journal feature about his background.

Hood is already guaranteed a role in the nation's civil rights movement. Hood and Vivian Malone were the first black students to enter the University of Alabama, which was integrated only after a famous showdown with then-Gov. George Wallace.

Several years ago, Hood returned to Alabama and reconciled with Wallace, and last year he graduated with a doctorate from the University of Alabama.

Hood, who came to Madison nearly 20 years ago and ascended to a MATC job that is equivalent to a university dean, said he has told the story of the Klan episode in order to give an audience in Wisconsin a taste of what the KKK meant to him as a youth growing up in the South.

"That night leaves something stained in your memory," he said Wednesday.

Charles Pfeifer, an organizer of the anti-Klan rally and executive director of Madison Urban Ministry, said he took Hood's word at face value.

"My sense is that it is not an important point at all, Pfeifer said. "We aren't perfect. We all mess up somewhere down the line."

Another person at the rally, Rosemarie Johnson-Brown of Madison, said any misstatements shouldn't overshadow the theme of unity that community members expressed at the event.

"I know these experiences happened," Johnson-Brown said of KKK attacks. "Whether it was Jim's uncle or whoever, it has happened, and we don't want it to happen again."

But Parks said Hood's "dastardly lie" diminishes the impact of the community response to the KKK and gives ammunition to racists.

"One lie by an opponent is worth many, many lies to the Klan," Parks said. "If I'm the Ku Klux Klan, I would use this lie to cover up the thousands of lynchings they did commit."

What Hood said
Here is how James Hood described what he originally said was the lynching of his uncle by the Ku Klux Klan. This transcript is taken from a videotape of Hood's speech:

"I remember on a wintry evening in October 1952, my grandmother herded us into the living room to hide beneath the fireplace.

"As we looked through the draped windows, we could see flames, and we could hear a scream, and we heard chanting.

"And I crawled over to the window and pulled aside the drapes, and I saw a man -- hanging, burning.

"And the next morning, I learned that the man was my uncle.

"And I realized also that I saw something else that night. I saw the man who stood beneath that cross take off his dunce hood and recognized the face. It was the chief of police -- of Piedmont, Alabama."

Copyright The Capital Times. Posted with permission.