The madness of Martinsville

Photo courtesy of the Hoosier Times.

SHYAM K. SRIRAM | GUEST CONTRIBUTOR | ssriram@butler.edu

Editor’s Note: The original version of this column stated that Martinsville “will always be racist.” This has since been stricken from the piece. The Butler Collegian regrets publishing a statement that does not speak to the possibility of change — change that the town’s residents are striving for. According to an Indy Star article, the town’s “reputation was sealed” by the murder of Carol Jenkins, but Martinsville’s residents are striving to heal and show others more of their town. The Collegian should not have painted the entire town as racist for its past actions. Shyam Sriram, the guest columnist, has accepted the invitation from Martinsville residents to tour the town once the coronavirus travel restrictions are uplifted. 

Corrections: Carol Jenkins was 21 years old at the time of her death and not 20. The men who murdered her were not from Martinsville. Carol Jenkins was a 21-year-old black woman who was murdered in Martinsville in 1968 and whose case was not solved until 2002. She was followed and harassed by two white men, who were visiting the area from Bloomington. The Butler Collegian regrets these errors. 

My relationship with the state of Indiana began in July 1997, when my dad and I visited West Lafayette for the first time to go on a Purdue campus tour ahead of freshman orientation. In the 23 years since, I have made many trips around the state and have explored everything from Indiana Dunes National Park and Shipshewana’s Mennonite and Amish country to snow-tubing in Lawrenceburg and Beck’s Mill in Salem. But there is one city I still have never visited, and that is Martinsville.

Just mentioning Martinsville stirs up a feeling of uneasiness and a general malaise. Perhaps it is apocryphal, but to this day, people of color speak of Martinsville in hushed tones as that one place you never stop to get gasoline because it is the town that time forgot. The city is often associated with racist and xenophobic behavior towards visiting sports teams in 1998 and 2012, photos of a 2019 mayoral candidate in blackface and even a recent incident involving an Asian American doctor asked to leave a gas station because of the coronavirus.

In researching this piece, I discovered that Martinsville’s racist history was cemented by a Civil Rights-era hate crime. Carol Jenkins was a 20-year-old black woman who was murdered in Martinsville in 1968 and whose case was not solved until 2002. She was followed and harassed by two white men who eventually held her down and stabbed her through the heart with a screwdriver. The city acknowledged her death in 2017 with a stone memorial at City Hall.

Well into the 1970s, Martinsville was a sundown town. It was one of thousands of municipalities across the U.S. that used racist signs and illegal policies to implement “curfews” restricting black people — but also Native Americans, Jews and Chinese people — from entering town or being seen in public at night.

Virginia Commonwealth University has a tremendous online resource depicting the proliferation of Ku Klux Klan chapters between 1915 and 1940. The site allows you to zoom in and look at specific states, and it is quite terrifying to watch chapters populate all over the Midwest. By 1940, the KKK had a presence across the entirety of Indiana, with almost 50 “Klaverns” in Fountain Square, South Bend, Lafayette, Columbus, Bedford and Evansville among others.

I do not remember when I first heard about Martinsville, but it was sometime in college and in the conversation of places I should avoid — something about the KKK and this idea of a racist city that refused to adapt, no matter the politics changing around it. In polite society, this may have once been described as “old fashioned” or “quaint.” But in 2020, can the residents of Indiana continue to accept the depiction of our state as out of touch and backward because of the mulish tendencies of this one city in Morgan County?

When I posed this topic in my state and local politics class, a few students were shocked, but not many, because “every state has a Martinsville.” We discussed our personal experiences with discrimination in Fishers, Avon, Kokomo, Plainfield and Zionsville. I suppose what bothers me about the idea of a place like Martinsville is what it says about my own civil rights and the supposed Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Think of this lunacy. I am an American citizen and am the first person in my family born in the U.S. I am a resident of Indiana and have a driver’s license from this state. I can allegedly go where I please and do not need anyone’s permission, yet I have to avoid certain towns and cities because their residents are racist or xenophobic. There is no logic in this.

I believe that cities like Martinsville not only endure, but prevail — paraphrasing William Faulkner — because of federalism. The national government cedes many responsibilities to the states, who then devolve many policies to the local level. Why do we excuse away entire towns, cities, and even states for being impervious to change? Further, I believe that it is the responsibility of states to adjudicate the behavior and policies of their counties, cities and towns.

This is a controversial policy, for some, because many Americans feel it takes away from notions of self-rule and representative democracy that have existed since the Mayflower Compact. Look at all the blowback now with people who do not believe in social-distancing because their rights are being impinged by “big government.”

To those who ask why Indiana is still not committed to fighting its racist legacy, exemplified by cities like Martinsville, I would respond by saying that Indiana’s political institutions like the Governor’s Office, the Indiana Supreme Court, and the General Assembly contain structural barriers to democracy, particularly when that change might result in a loss of white privilege at the expense of any kind of minority success.

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