This project began when through some distant family connections,
received an audiotape of an interview of John Mason just a few year
before his death in the early 1980s. Mason grew up in Conway County
Arkansas, in the early twentieth century, became a high school histor
teacher and principal, and throughout his life listened avidly to storie
of the old days. Mason understood the significance of these stories
committed them to memory, and became a virtual griot, preserving an
oral heritage of his rural community of origin. Mrs. Polly Church con
ducted the interview for the purposes of family history, but throughou
the interview, Mason digressed into numerous asides and anecdotes. In
one he told the story of the murder of John M. Clayton, a Republican
congressional candidate, from the point of view of the men who com
mitted the murder. Mason even identified the killers by name.
I grew up in Conway County in the 1960s, a time when the count
had the reputation within Arkansas as the epitome of the southern
Democratic machine at work. After college I left this Faulknerian at
mosphere to pursue graduate study in modem European history, then
job teaching at a small college in the Chicago area. Fifteen years later,
took a position at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway
Arkansas, just down the road from Conway County. My life had come
back around the circle. Getting back in touch with my extended family
eventually brought me into possession of the Mason tape. I had only
passing acquaintance with the history of my own state, and the text
books on Arkansas history said that Clayton's murderers had neve
been found. What began as a curiosity became a quest to solve a
century-old murder mystery and then evolved into this monograph.
In some ways, this study has been an attempt to understand my own
roots, the space on earth that formed me. The extraordinary sequence
of political violence I found in the late nineteenth century helped me
understand how sixty years later, I could grow up in a county where
almost all African Americans could not vote and where authorities stil
used fraud and terror, when necessary, to neutralize their opposition
all in the name of tradition and civic righteousness.
The study of my own roots led me to confront the salient themes o
southern history. Larger than local questions kept surfacing. How does
a community create the account of its history? By examining Arkansas
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