Once, in high school, I was waiting for an appointment to get my wisdom teeth extracted, and in the lobby was the obligatory selection of outdated magazines fanned out on the table, smudged by months of grubby fingerprints left by children who have exhausted the find-a-pictures in the Highlights magazines. Well, in all offices - be they dental, medical, lube shops - in Texas, there is a Texas Monthly Magazine. On the cover of this particular edition of this periodical of secessionist sympathy was a picture of a white sheeted hood and, if I remember correctly, a noose hanging from a tree. It was an article on an East Texas town called Vidor - essentially giving the impression that this was that one standout town that films exploit to give travellers the impression that the last fucking place they'd ever want to run out of gas is in the middle of the vast monochromatic humanity of a hinterland Texas state highway.
I read this article with rapt attention about a man named Bill Simpson, a 36 year old African American man who had the misfortunate desire to refuse to leave his government subsidized home when the racial tension shit hit the fan. 11 hours after he finally gave up his hold, the last standout in the neighborhood to give in to the pressure and threats of any of the 5 factions of Ku Klux Klan in the area called in for reinforcement, Bill Simpson was shot on the street by a passing car. And though the "official" ruling stated inner-racial random gang violence, long-silenced witnesses say something entirely different.
I'd long forgotten this article about Vidor and it's politics, but last weekend spent a nice weekend with my family on the Gulf of Mexico in Galveston. Somehow, a strange sign reminded me of the one and only time I'd driven through, or rather OVER, Vidor (as the interstate in the area is purposefully elevated above the city, with only one exit available for access) and noted a bright yellow billboard with red lettering stating, "Vidor, Texas: The only city in the United States where it is legal to rape and beat a woman to death." I had to wonder, at the time, if the sign was a caution or a boast. It stood to reason that it was a caution to passing motorists, and a chastisement of the legal system of the city, but then again, if that were true, why had the sign stood un-violated, un-vandalized for the better part of a decade? Could it be that it was both?
I mentioned this to my father this past weekend, whose family hails from the towns of Orange and Beaumont, close neighbors of the dreaded Vidor, and he illustrated some stories I'd surprisingly not heard before. He told me a tale along one of my favorite subjects "Adventures of Your Grandfather As a Young Man." I never met my dad's dad, who died when my father was still a teenager, after years of travel to Moroccan shipyards, youthful mapping of Louisiana waterways searching for the treasure of the pirate Jean Laffitte, and by all standards making my grandmother a very happy woman who would never remarry. Tales of his travels are always very carefully filed in my mental cabinet as something I'm very proud to be descended from, and Granddad's Vidor episode is no different.
My father says, once his dad told him about one time he'd nearly gotten arrested. In the late 30s, before my father was born, there was no interstate to speak of, and state roadways by necessity travelled directly through towns in thin two lane ribbons. In Vidor, the authorities saw a wonderful opportunity here to increase revenue for the ailing logging town, founded years before by famous Hollywood director King Vidor's grandfather, CS Vidor. Their grand plan was to develop flexible speed limits, where one day the speed limit going through town was 35, the next it would be perhaps 20, or 15, or anything they arbitrarily decided in order to pull over the unfamiliar traveller. Having to drive through Vidor frequently for his job, my granfather had suffered at the hand of Johnny Law quite a few times, paying tickets as if bribing the troll under the bridge for passage. One day, he was making one of his trips through town, and true to form, an officer pulled up, lights flashing behind him, and my grandfather thought recklessly, "Oh heck no, not today buddy!" and he floored it, giving chase up to 20 miles outside of town when the officer finally gave up. Being that cars at this time weren't even equipped with CB technology, he managed to get away with nothing but accelerated adrenaline.
Not so for an acquaintence of his who worked for a fleet of fishermen, to deliver their catches to local fish markets in the area. Having suffered the wrath of Vidor law countless times, and being detained long enough to make several loads of fish go bad while cutting through all the red tape, he decided to take a stand. He employed the help of the fishermen who had also suffered the ruination of their income from these detentions, and loaded the truck with fish that were destined for the garbage. He floored his gas through the city streets, pushing his truck to its maximum speed, sure he would attract the attentions of his favorite police sergeant. Sure enough, he saw flashing lights in his rearview, and gave a bit of a chase, enough to raise the ire of the officer. When he finally slowed to a stop, he spiced his responses to the interrogation with enough salt to earn him a trip to the local jail. His truck was parked outside the courthouse awaiting his release. All the while, the driver continued to protest, as he always had in the past, that his load was sure to go bad, costing him and the fisherman their income. Unsympathetic, the police allowed him to languish in a cell overnight. At dawn's light, he was released on his own recognizance, at which point he threw open the back doors to his truck, letting loose the unmistakeable stench of rotten fish and proceeded to leave town. But not without leaving this steaming, stinking load directly on the courthouse steps.
As the interstate system began construction, it was a unanimous decision that Vidor would not be given limited access from the interstate, and would lose any semblance of authority over traffic that would traverse the town using this roadway. Their entrapment tactics were well known.
Not to mention the fact that in Vidor, well, in Vidor they just flat out didn't like Black people. Veritable runway shows of the latest in white sheet tunics and headwear assured that Vidor would remain the Whitest City in Texas. As late as the 2000 Census, the population of Vidor was listed as being 97.33% White, and only .07% African American.
Vidor was traditionally known as a Sundown Town. There were many such towns located primarily outside of the borders of the South actually(Illinois seems to be a particular breeding ground) between the 1930s and 1960s that were referred to as such because of rules and intimidation tactics summarized by a sign once prominently featured in suburban Hawthorne, California that said very succinctly, "Nigger, Don't Let the Sun Set On YOU in Hawthorne." And Vidor kept this spirit alive and well.
The events leading up to Bill Simpson's suspicious murder were very cut and dry. The county proposed the building of a government housing project in the early 90s in the city limits of Vidor, and this complex was to be entirely desegregated. Residents of Vidor immediately saw this as an invitation to heterogenize their working class, mostly poor city with equally poor minorities. As one of the most active, and flagrant cities in the tight knit world of the KKK organization, the local active chapter called in reinforcements from neighboring towns Louisiana and Arkansas to aid in an effort to intimidate builders and future residents until the plan was quashed. Reports state that a bus was driven through the complex, filled with hooded men and boys brandishig weapons, and a huge white power banner was draped from an overpass stating indisputably the revocation of the town's welcome mat to minorities.
Nonetheless, the housing was completed, and several families moved in. But, as Bill Simpson protected the right to maintain his home, others were unable to withstand the threats of and actual violence that was a constant downpour on their families. And when Mr. Simpson was the last to leave, it seems that the locals were bent on making their message loud and clear. Vidor is a White Town. Don't let the sun go down on you in Vidor.
And the point of this story, is really simply that I am from Texas. But I grew up in a neighborhood that couldn't have been any different than this. My best friends looked like a fucking Benetton ad, and thank goodness for that. Because this shit scares me.