Friday, December 6, 2013

Stephen V. Ash's "A Massacre in Memphis"

Stephen V. Ash is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Tennessee. He is the author of Firebrand of Liberty, A Year in the South, and other books on the Civil War era.

Here Ash dreamcasts an adaptation of his latest book, A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War:
A lot of actors would no doubt welcome a movie version of A Massacre in Memphis, for it features a large cast of interesting characters---black and white, male and female, old and young---and many dramatic episodes and gripping action sequences.

The setting is interesting, too: a Southern city one year after the Civil War, crowded with black people reveling in their new-found freedom, former Rebels resentful of defeat and emancipation, Irish immigrants struggling to survive and be accepted in America, and Yankee newcomers endeavoring to assert federal authority, help the freed people, or just make a buck.

In May 1866, long-simmering racial tensions in Memphis boiled over, resulting in a three-day race riot in which white mobs rampaged through black neighborhoods, shooting, beating, robbing, raping, and burning. Forty-six black people were murdered and every black church and school in the city was destroyed, along with many black homes.

One of the victims was fourteen-year-old Rachel Hatcher, a talented student in one of the freed people’s schools who dreamed of becoming a teacher. During the last hours of the riot, as she was trying to rescue a neighbor from his burning house, a white man put a bullet through her head. Her mother found her body moments later, but was unable to retrieve it before flames consumed it. A good choice to portray Rachel might be Quvenzhan√© Wallis.

One of the most colorful characters in the book is the city’s affable, alcoholic, Irish-American mayor, John Park. Quite drunk throughout the riot, he made a great show of trying to stop the violence while secretly sympathizing with the rioters. I can see Denis O’Hare playing him to perfection.

The commander of the U.S. army garrison in the city, General George Stoneman, likewise failed to distinguish himself during the riot. Having attained fame during the war as a dashing Union cavalry officer, Stoneman found his postwar assignment in Memphis boring and wished he was somewhere else. When the riot broke out he declined to get involved; only grudgingly and after much bloodshed and destruction did he deploy his troops and restore order. Sam Elliott, who did a fine job portraying a Union cavalry general in the film Gettysburg, might be a good pick for this role.

One of the bloodthirstiest rioters was a city policeman named David Roach. (Policemen in fact made up a large portion of the rioters.) Armed with pistol, club, and matches, he roamed around the city throughout the riot, setting fires and savagely assaulting black people. Although he’s really too old for the role, I’d love to see Jack Nicholson in it, reprising the demonic visage we all remember from The Shining.

These are only a few of the many good parts available in A Massacre in Memphis, should the casting call ever go out.
Learn more about A Massacre in Memphis at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: Firebrand of Liberty.

Writers Read: Stephen V. Ash.

The Page 99 Test: A Massacre in Memphis.

--Marshal Zeringue