The photographer who took the picture moved away and was an undistinguished part of the story my editor assured, so no need to track him down. Just get the old hippies to talk about what happened on the courthouse steps and how they evolved from town outcasts to whatever they had become. Respectable? The quirky neighbors who keep quiet and bother no one?

 

As if an award from some Civil Rights competition, a bust of MLK occupied a prominent spot on the bookshelf. A layer of dust sheeted the plastic exterior of Martin’s head—the size of a small coconut—as well as an adjacent row of anonymous hardbacks bound in burgundy or green hues ranging between autumn grass and Army. I’d imagined that the books had been stolen from a library or perhaps ordered from some “of-the-month” catalog years and years ago. The rest of the house reeked of similar stale history; not quite the color I expected to find in the home of a couple of Southern-fried ex-hippies.

I’d been sent to profile Bracy and Annabelle Lee McClure for a special edition commemorating the 100th anniversary of my newspaper; A Century of Stories they were so cleverly going to call it. I was told that the couple gained their notoriety by way of a memorable photograph that appeared in the paper in early March, 1969: Two drugged-out ill-fed graduate students standing on the steps of the county courthouse, oblivious to a smoldering America flag draping their embrace.  For the special edition, they’d be the sole icons representing the “Sixties” half of the 1960s.  My editor ticked off some themes to consider in a thousand words, as she hovered over my desk envisioning the final copy. “How did it happen? What were they thinking? Had they now become respectable people?”   Respect?” I whispered, absently scripting the word in air to settle on a story node, the way a New Age J-school professor taught us to do my freshman year.

“A thousand words,” she then reminded. “And make sure we get a picture of these McClures at the courthouse. Even in the Internet age, people still like having their picture in the paper.” My editor sounded as if she were trying to convince herself of that.

So these McClures, they lived on a street named in honor of a confederate colonel: Farrell Way. Canopied by a soaring oak, a statue of the colonel watched over a well-kept median and weary brick homes lining the street. It would be an old money neighborhood except all of the money had long been transformed into college degrees, red wine, annual trips to Europe and other bad investments. Bracy McClure taught history at the state university, so his reliable professor’s income kept the lights burning, the water running, and the food bowls filled for an extended family of cats that shared living arrangements with their human benefactors. Annabelle sold water-color paintings every six months and supposedly these renderings of Georgia’s antebellum mansions, azalea gardens and sun-soaked Golden Isles waterscapes contributed something to their household income. All of this I learned from my editor who charged me with getting the quirky couple to share their thoughts on the paper’s famed photograph of the act, which sparked an editorial series on the desecration of the flag and a city ordinance against the specific act of unauthorized burning of anything on public property.

The photographer who took the picture moved away and was an undistinguished part of the story my editor assured, so no need to track him down. Just get the old hippies to talk about what happened on the courthouse steps and how they evolved from town outcasts to whatever they had become. Respectable? The quirky neighbors who keep quiet and bother no one?

The local desk was in charge of the special edition, farming some work out the folks in Sports and Life to piece together the century of sports and social history covered by the paper.

Now supposedly, the McClures hinted they’d only talk to a black reporter about the photograph, perhaps issuing a challenge to test if the paper hand any; who knew with my byline (Ian O’Neal).

Having hastily disappeared upstairs to put on a bathrobe after I arrived, Bracy came back down and produced a handshake from his wiry body which sprouted in all directions; bones and angles jutted from his knees, shoulders and long gnarly toes stretching freely from leather man-sandals, the braided sling back kind they don’t even seem to sell anymore.

“Son,” he said, before wincing and flashing a set of teeth slathered with peanut butter. “How are they treating you at The Journal?”

“Fine,” I said curtly, wanting to show that I was all business. “Is your wife going to join us?”

“Anna will be over in a minute. She’s piddling around in her studio. One never knows when the inspiration will smack her, so she’s been up at it all morning.” Bracy McClure eased his body into chair, a worn director’s seat in the middle of the living room. A cushiony chair was offered to me. I took it after a quick inspection of the soiled and depressed seat.

“Now the picture?”

“You mean this one,” Anna appeared in the doorway of a side room—apparently a garage turned art studio—with a large canvas in hand. A slight woman with thin reddish hair, she turned the board around and revealed the morning’s work. In breezy faint watercolors, she had rendered a copy of the photograph, her painted version of the American flag sporting tropical-flavored pastels.  The figures in the painting appeared as dusty apparitions, outlined with thin gray lines. Her courthouse steps vanished into golden sunlight that washed the entire top third of the canvas.

“This woman of mine!” Bracy declared as Anna walked towards us. He reached for the painting and lodged it against his waist to get a better angled view.  “Would be nice to get a photograph of this, yes? You didn’t bring a camera did you?”

I brought along a digital camera with strict instructions to take a few portrait shots of the two of them if they didn’t have any more formal pictures that they would be willing to share. This painting would be a bonus I thought, so I took a few shots of the McClures with it.

“Now back to the photo, seems you two are very proud of it?”

“You’re surprised?” Anna asked.

“Well are you? Proud of it?”

Anna wagged a finger. “It was a defining moment. Didn’t change the world, but it challenged minds. Even the microscopic two brain celled minds littered about this town.” Her tone lowered. “Like good art is supposed to do.”

“So you think this news photo was art?” I handed the two of them photocopies of the picture. I stared into my notepad and doodled around their house address as they took quick glances of their famous picture. Anna then picked up a cup of tea that had been surreptitiously steeping on a coffee table cluttered with magazines, empty mugs, and thick old art books. She brought the cup close to her face and blew against faint steam. “Sometimes, art isn’t art until someone declares it so. I declared it so because the photograph changed the discussion. Do you know what the protest was all about Mr…?”

“O’Neal.”

“Well Mr. O’Neal, a young African-American man was beaten by the cops. Dragged from his motorcycle and clubbed silly for no good reason at all. Said he’d stolen a pocketbook or some such nonsense. People that looked like me and Bracy made all kinds of excuses; but no one wanted to face the truth.”

Anna took several quick and noisy sips of her tea. Just remembering the event required soothing dormant anger.  Bracy gazed lovingly at his wife; her controlled seething prompted an odd admiring smile on his face.

I dropped my notepad in my lap and held my palms out as if to balance the two events on a scale. “So this kid was beaten and, in protest, you two draped yourselves in a flag that had been set on fire?”

“Yes, when you put in the fashion of cause and effect.  It didn’t heal his wounds. But the statement was made.”

“And things quieted down in this town after that,” Bracy added.

“So then take me back to that day. Like, who struck the first match? Where did the flag come from? Did you two just go out a buy it from the K-Mart? How much did it cost?”

Bracy laughed. “Good one. Let’s see, where did that piece of cloth come from? We surely must have stolen it from somewhere. The old high school maybe?”

“Who knows,” Anna answered. “A school, a post office, who knows. Why write about such trivialities Mr. O’Neal considering the seriousness of the times and the issue? What about the boy that was beaten? The policemen who weren’t punished? Your paper’s editorials in the aftermath defending ‘law and order’? Why don’t you write about that?”

“Ma’am it’s about the photograph, that’s all. Notable and memorable pictures that have been in the paper over the decades.”

She rose, tightened the belt around her faded napped robe and turned her back to me. “Well, then, I want no part of this.”

Bracy winked, and then whispered to me, “I’ll take care of this.” He followed Anna back out into her garage studio and shut the door behind him. I heard their muffled voices and then nothing. Then their voices again and the movement of objects.  As this continued, I pulled out the digital camera and snapped four more shots of Anna’s painting leaning against the coffee table. Bracy returned with big smile.

“Mr. O’Neal, how about we continue this discussion tomorrow? Anna’s just having a bad day.”

I agreed to meet the McClures again, first at a diner across the street from the courthouse where the photograph was taken, two short blocks from our news building.  The diner was busy and loud; lawyers on cell phones, servers handling dishware, a diverse group of jurors making small talk, and a TV blasting cable news. I asked short pointed questions atop the noise. The McClures gave short answers until I asked them to show me where the picture was taken. Anna shook her head. She didn’t want to recreate the scene. She hated such sentiments she said, recalling the pathetic congratulatory anniversary marches that sprung up in the 80s.

“Nostalgic fluff.  What does it accomplish? What message does it send? Your generation should do its own thing. You may only get one chance to make a difference. Don’t miss yours celebrating someone else’s past glory.”

I prodded on. “So right there, about the tenth step up, you and Bracy were there right? Did you just walk up there with the flag? How long before somebody notice? Did you see the photographer?”Optimized-IMG_6008

“It was a protest son, Bracy said. “A dozen or so from the university decided we had to do something. We’d met for lunch right over here. The set-up was different then and the place had a different name, but I believe we were in a booth over there.”

Bracy pointed to the jurors; three black women, two white men, and three white women crowded into a pair of booths. They laughed together like old friends, but everyone in the place could hear that the conversation was idle chat—commentary on the choice of TV channels, the saltiness of the diner food, the annoying but necessary particulars of post 9/11 courtroom security.

Bracy continued. “We all argued about what exactly we should do:  protest in shifts, storm the courthouse door all at once, or do something dramatic. We never did come to any consensus, except that everybody would just do whatever felt right.” Bracy laughed and gave me a fatherly shoulder grab. “That’s how we did things in those days. No planning or real goal setting.”

“But the end result had an impact.” Anna said. “And that’s all this little story of yours needs to be focusing on.”

Bracy McClure agreed to head over to the courthouse steps without Anna and I called over a photographer from the paper to meet us to get the picture.

“Right about there?” I asked Bracy as he wiped mayonnaise from the creases of his mouth.

“I’d say so. You seem to be making a lot fuss over all this Mr. O’Neal. Surely there must be hundreds of other photos you all will be using in your special edition worth more attention. Pictures of mayor or governors and presidents? Some genuine celebrities that passed through town?”

I blamed the editor for my necessary persistence. Then tried to get some sympathy, a reasonable ploy since Anna was not around her husband. “Look Mr. McClure. They just really want a good picture about the picture. Nobody’s going to read the words. Your wife shouldn’t be too worried.”

The photographer tapped his watch. “You ready Mr. McClure?”

I pulled a small American flag from my notebook. “How about just a quick shot on the spot.”

Bracy hesitated, wiped crumbs from his lap then spiraled his body upward. “O.K. Mr. O’Neal.” He reached for the flag without me asking him to take it or how to pose with it.  He stood erect in the spot where the original photograph had been taken. He held the stem of the flag between the fingers of his cupped hands. The photographer took five or six pictures.

“Thanks. We’re done,” the photographer said before quickly packing his equipment.

“That’s it?” Bracy asked.

“Looks like it.”

We shook hands and Bracy walked away. I left and made my way over to the high school for another interview, one with a retired football coach to discuss a 1972 photo of him striking a Heisman pose with a pair of star running backs.

The next day, I got an email from a photo editor at the paper. “Notice anything strange?” he asked in the subject line. He’d laid out the old photograph of the McClures alongside one with the one of Bracy taken the day before and included the combined image in the email.

Bracy’s stance in the new photo was little crooked, but he was an old man. Nothing strange about that. I looked closer at the old photo. Bracy and Anna’s bodies cast a long abstract shadow that angled down steep steps. Their joint bodies standing erect and the shadow seemed to form a sun dial, the later afternoon sun apparently beating down from the left side of the picture.

I took another look at the new photo. The sun seemed to be showering overhead. Like the ghostly figures in Anna’s painting, Bracy appeared as 3D figure plastered into the scene instead of a real life figure a part of the scene.

With copy of his email in my hand, I went down to see George, the photo editor who’d sent the email.  A tattooed and pierced twentysomething, he nonchalantly answered my puzzled look before I said anything.

“You don’t see it do you?”

“See what?” I asked.

“The steps, the shadows, man. I don’t think these two photos were taken in the same place.”

With the cropped and zoomed-in visual evidence on his computer monitor, he explained what he uncovered from his photo-detective work: There was a difference in the steepness of the two sets of steps, a difference in the positioning of the shadow of what should have been the same afternoon sun angle, and a difference in the depth of the vanishing point—much further back in the older photograph than it was in the new one. “White marble steps in both pictures to be sure, but two different buildings.” George pointed at the blowup of the old picture.  “Unless they’ve done some major renovations and changed the way the sun shines, that’s not the courthouse down the block.”

I took another look at the new photo. The sun seemed to be showing overhead. Like the ghostly images in Anna’s painting, Bracy too seemed a two dimensional figure plastered into the scene where he didn’t quite belong. I printed the pictures, tucked them away and headed to that evening’s assignment, a protest against the University for wanting to demolish a housing project to make way for a new student union.

I interviewed only one protestor, drawn to her by the lengthy hand-written sign she held up: “Yes to Housing for the Poor, No to a playground for rich kids.” She, one of the few whites in the crowd, introduced herself as a sociology grad student at the university. “No need for the state to be subsidizing such an anachronistic building,” she told me over the monotonous chants of her fellow protestors. “The student center we have now is perfectly fine and underutilized.  These kids already have their ‘third places,’ their coffee shops, the library lounge, their bars and apartment clubhouses. Why should the state displace poor people once again to create just another place serving up Wi-Fi so these kids can glaze over laptops screens to update their social media statuses?” I nodded, and to let the woman know that I’d gotten the gist of her thesis, closed my notepad. As their hoarse voices trailed off, the dusk light settled over the protesters and everything ended abruptly without incident or any response from the university officials, who probably had long escaped the administration building. Those who were residents of the project headed back to their homes across the street knowing full well that the bulldozers would soon be maneuvering into place.

I took Farrell Way on my way back to the office, slowing down in front of the McClures house. Fiery lights, as if from a flame, flickered in the small panes on the garage door.  One of the McClure’s cats standing guard under the lights of the porch spotted me as I parked in front of the house and walked to the garage door.

I peeked inside windows and saw Bracy embracing Anna from behind while her arms angrily flailed above a small fire burning in a metal bucket. He managed to push her aside and extinguish the flame, and then opened a side door to wave away the fumes. Anna drew a fist at the back wall where dozens of small paintings hung in random spots.  My gaze panned backwards and I slowly began to see the paintings, many of them variations of the scene in the photograph, journeying through a history of artistic styles.

Bracy reached for a charred rolled up canvas out of the bucket. He unfurled the painting; the one Anna had completed the morning of my visit, realized that too much had been burnt to save it and folded it into fours. The cat rustled from the porch, around to the garage and scratched at the garage door. I stepped away as Bracy, startled, turned and saw me there. I saw tears in his eyes. Later that evening, I revised the beginning of my story:

On a cool spring morning in 1969 two university graduate students protested the arrest of young black man, stood on the County Courthouse steps and inadvertently created art.

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