'Blind Vengeance' -- Deep South deeply

September 14, 1997|By Lloyd George Parry | Lloyd George Parry,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Blind Vengeance," by Ray Jenkins University of Georgia Press. 338 pages. $29.95.

In the Atlanta of my youth, there was a barbershop near home operated by four rednecks. They employed a shoeshiner named Roscoe, a black man who appeared to be in his late 60s. With your haircut you got a free floor show which consisted of the barbers taunting Roscoe and subjecting him to a level of humiliation that would have driven Job to go postal. But Roscoe just took it silently and did his job. And in all the years that I went to that barbershop, I never once had the courage to tell those nitwits to leave him alone.

Reading "Blind Vengeance: The Roy Moody Mail Bomb Murders" brought back with painful intensity shameful memories of all the Roscoes of my acquaintance and the large and small accommodations made by us white "moderates" with the open racial hate that pervaded the South throughout the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

The author, a white Southerner, has produced an evocative and richly textured account of the era that ended racial segregation in the Deep South. That he has done so by interweaving the biographies of a murderer and his two victims makes this extraordinarily fine work of history a compelling read.

The book portrays Roy Moody as a South Georgia career criminal with a mean streak and a persecution complex. Robert Vance was a white liberal who navigated the rocks and shoals of Alabama politics to emerge as a federal appeals court judge and champion of civil rights. Robert Robinson was a black lawyer who helped fight segregation in his hometown of Savannah.

As an alumnus of the federal criminal system, Moody believed that the federal courts had discriminated against him while favoring blacks. Acting on his grudge, Moody used mail bombs to murder Vance and Robinson, total strangers who nevertheless represented in his twisted mind the unjust order of life in the new South. There followed a massive federal investigation which at times vacillated between brilliance and low farce. The end result was the conviction of Moody following a deft prosecution by a young fed named Freeh who went on to become director of the FBI.

In the hands of a less thoughtful author or more profit-oriented publisher, this story would most likely never have risen above the level of a police procedural replete with the now commercially de rigueur innuendoes of a vast right-wing conspiracy that threatens us all.

It is significant perhaps, that the publisher - the University of Georgia Press - can afford to fund a less hysterical look at these killings. And the author, who covered the civil rights movement for an Alabama newspaper, manifests a deep appreciation for the underlying drama of the larger historical events that preceded the murders.

Indeed, the introduction, in which the author sketches his family's history in Georgia and its relations with rural blacks, is at once moving and a good primer for anyone hoping to understand the social forces and passions that collided in the post-World War II South.

This book covers a lot of ground: detective story, biography, social and political history of a region in turmoil. That it is first-rate in all of these categories is a tribute to the author and a rare treat for the reader.

NTC Lloyd George Parry, a native Georgian and former federal prosecutor, practices law in Philadelphia.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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