Witness to Injustice

Witness to Injustice

Witness to Injustice

Witness to Injustice


There were two events in particular that had a lasting effect on the life of David Frost, Jr. Watching my parents make moonshine in our back yard in a washpot, he says, and listening to my parents tell the story of how the Peterson boy was lynched here in Eufaula. My parents would tell it like it had just happened. In this compelling account of his life as an African American in Eufaula, Alabama, Frost illuminates the strange world of the rural South. He was a living witness to both the dramatic racial violence and the heroic struggles of the civil rights movement. This world included lynchings as well as the quieter activities of everyday life. His story, told honestly and earnestly, pictures an alternately violent and placid community where whites not only brutalized blacks but also came to their aid. Frost tells of the intricate web of collusion, cooperation, treachery, competition, and sometimes gleeful gamesmanship that wove together the lives of black and white people in this typical southern community. His story recounts his unique perspective on this complex social culture in which strange twists governed daily life, in which a black moonshiner evading the law might take the white sheriff hunting on his property, a culture in which a white doctor, the leader of a lynch mob, spent the rest of his life trying to atone by serving the medical needs of the black community. Although there are multitudinous analyses, narratives, and reports detailing the baffling enigmas of southern history, in this exceptional memoir a fresh, previously unheard voice reveals cultural complexities that most historians have neglected. David Frost, Jr. (deceased) lived in Eufaula, Alabama. Louise Westling is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Oregon. Charles Reagan Wilson is a professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi.


Charles Reagan Wilson

David Frost’s narrative of his life is the latest expression of a vital tradition in black culture. the life stories of African-Americans have defined a collective identity. Telling stories has preserved memories of individuals but also asserted a group identity, countering legal denials of it. Every generation has remembered its experiences and recounted them for the future, from slavery to emancipation, from Jim Crow segregation to political empowerment in the 1960s. the black autobiographical tradition, “the impulse to testify,” as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., puts it, is a foundation for the African-American literary tradition, embracing both historical specificity and language forms as sources of the black ethnic self.

Frost’s autobiography can trace its ancestry back to the slave narratives, which began in the 1760s to recount the rigors and outright horrors of American slavery. They were examples of a peculiar genre, shaped often by the polemical needs of the antislavery movement and the expectations of a middle-class white audience. Works Progress Administration interviews with ex-slaves in the 1930s gave other AfricanAmericans, sometimes those without reading and writing skills, a forum to recount their life stories for the historical record, to be brought to life in recent decades as newly-respected sources for historical research.

Taken together, the formal, written narratives and the ex-slave interviews reflect the enduring variety of ways to tell the African-American story and the significance of the oral tradition as a repository of it. Slavery denied blacks the tools of literacy that can be essential for preserving a collective memory, but the voices of black culture kept that memory alive and periodically the written word would redress the imbalance of power in American society through its claims on justice.

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