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Fort Wayne native BJ Hollars explores racial violence in Thirteen Loops
Non-fiction debut details three cases in Alabama
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
“’Thirteen loops’ are the number of loops a Klansmen wraps around a noose prior to a lynching,” says BJ Hollars, author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America. “It's a kind of calling card of sorts, an acknowledgment that the Klan was involved.”
A wrier and Fort Wayne native who now teaches at the Eua Clair campus of the University of Wisconsin, Hollars’ debut non-fiction book Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America is the story of three interconnected, race-related murders that occurred over a 50 year time period in Alabama.
The story begins by taking a look at 1933 Tuscaloosa, when a rash of violence made the town one of the most dangerous cities in America. Then, the book leaps forward to Birmingham in 1979, when a white police officer was murdered by an African-American bank robber. When the bank robber received a mistrial, a pair of Klansmen abducted and murdered 19-year-old Michael Donald, an African-American man who had nothing to do with the trial. “He was simply the first African-American the Klansmen stumbled upon, and so they murdered him, hanging his body in a tree directly across the street from where one of the Klansmen lived,” Hollars says.
The murder lead the Southern Poverty Law Center to put the United Klans of America on trial, essentially bankrupting them and forcing them to give up their headquarters.
Hollars has several published short stories to his credit, and his collection Sightings is currently under review at a few presses. He also writes essays: recently his piece "Fort Wayne Is Still Seventh On Hitler's List" was published in the North American Review. Hollars says it’s a “re-imagining” of Michael Martone's original essay on the same topic. Martone, also a Fort Wayne native, was Hollars’ advisor at Alabama, and played in integral role in the production of Thirteen Loops.
Though he’s interested in history, Hollars says the subject of Thirteen Loops wasn’t one he ever thought he’d tackle. But while he was living and going to school in Tuscaloosa, he heard about the Michael Donald case, even though it had happened nearly three decades earlier. He began wondering about the events leading up to it. “The story just continued to spiral outward until I was left with three interrelated, race-related murders that occurred over a 50 year time period throughout the state of Alabama. And since the victims could no longer tell their stories themselves, it was important to me that I try to tell them.”
Hollars stress that Thirteen Loops isn’t an indictment of Tuscaloosa or Alabama. He points out that stories of racial violence and civil rights could be written of virtually any place in the United States, but he lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, so the stories always seemed to take him back there. “I didn't write this book in some attempt to ‘expose’ the racial struggles Alabama endured,” Hollars says. “In fact, my great pride in Alabama enticed me to write about the state more as a testament than a game of ‘pointing fingers.’ We have heroes here, people who stood up against racial violence in a time when doing so might have cost them their lives.”
He cites Morris Dees, one of the founders of the Southern Poverty Law Center, as an example. “As a white Southerner, his decision to take the Klan to court was not popular, but it was the right thing to do, and he risked quite a bit by doing so.”
Few interviews have been done on these cases, Hollars says. The vast majority of his research came from first hand accounts, newspaper clippings, and rarely viewed FBI files and interviews with those who were there. While writing the book, Hollars went to Mobile and spent time on the streets where Michael Donald lived and died in an effort to give readers a sense of what it might have been like during those times. “I wanted to bring the story alive for readers,” Hollars says. “I want people to understand what it might feel like to be walking down the Tuscaloosa streets in 1933, or the Birmingham streets in 1979, or worst of all — a street in Mobile in 1981, the night Michael Donald was murdered. I never wanted to sensationalize these stories; I simply wanted to make this a readable book. I owe it to the victims.”
BJ Hollars read from Thirteen Loops at the Aboite Library, Saturday, Oct. 22, 4:00p.m. The book is published by the University of Alabama Press.
You can find out more about BJ Hollars and his work — including Thirteen Loops — at bjhollars.com.