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On Wednesday, the country music network CMT stopped airing a video accompanying a controversial Jason Aldean song. The song, released in May, had already gotten a lot of attention recently for its lyrics appearing to glorify guns and vigilantism.
Aldean has defended the song, “Try That in a Small Town,” and video, saying the song does not mention race and that the video uses news clips.
This is a reminder of the importance of a fuller accounting of American history to move the country toward a more equitable future.
We had not heard of Choate or his murder. We’re guessing the majority of Americans hadn’t either. More than 4,000 Black Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950, according to research by the Equal Justice Initiative. Many were accused of crimes they did not commit.
Given this horrifying history, it may not be possible to know the location of each of these killings. However, if you’re a well-known singer going to use a prominent building as the backdrop for a music video glorifying small town southern life, you and your team should research the venue and know its history. In a “behind the scenes” video about the making of the music video, Aldean says he and the crew are in front of the Columbia courthouse. A quick Google search could have shown why using that location as the backdrop for a video, especially one that touts guns and “good ol’ boys,” would be problematic.
Choate, an 18-year-old working on a road crew, went to Columbia to see his grandfather, who had been a slave. While visiting his grandfather in November 1927, a white woman said she had been attacked by a Black man. Choate was arrested and put in the county jail. Soon, a mob of at least 250 men showed up and stormed into the jail. They beat Choate and dragged him behind a truck before hanging his body from a balcony on the Maury County Courthouse.
“Around here, we take care of our own/You cross that line, it won’t take long/For you to find out, I recommend you don’t/Try that in a small town,” Aldean sings in front of that courthouse, the balcony where Choate was hung covered with an American flag.
Aldean, a Tennessee native, has said that the song was meant to be about “the feeling of a community … where we took care of our neighbors regardless of differences of background or belief.”
The problem is that for many people that feeling of community has meant keeping out those who are different. In extreme cases, it meant brutally killing people because they were Black.
People like Maceo Snipes. Facing threats from the Ku Klux Klan, Snipes was the first — and only — Black person to vote in Taylor County, Georgia, in the 1946 Democratic primary for governor shortly after a federal court invalidated the state’s whites-only primary. A veteran of World War II, Snipes voted on July 17, 1946, in his hometown of Butler, Georgia.
The next day, four white men went to Snipes’ grandfather’s house. After Snipes went outside to talk to them, one fellow veteran shot him in the back. According to the family, Snipes and his mother walked several miles for help and he was eventually taken to a hospital. There, he languished while white patients received care. A white doctor said Snipes needed a transfusion but that the hospital did not have any “black blood,” according to the family. Snipes died two days later. He was buried at night in an unmarked grave because of threats that anyone who showed up to his funeral would be killed.
Like the Tulsa race riots and Rosewood massacre, the murders of Snipes and Choate are reminders that racist-fueled violence is part of America’s not-so-distant history. Learning and sharing that history, in all its uncomfortable reality, can help us move forward with a commitment to build communities where everyone is truly respected and valued.