'Lightning Men' Is A Story About Police, Race And Atlanta
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Thomas Mullen's new novel, "Lightning Men," is a story that winds in and out of the lives of three 1950 Atlanta police officers - two negro officers, as they were called then - Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith; and then Denny Rakestraw, a white officer who's a man of honor who happens to have a dishonorable brother-in-law.
The story is a kind of standalone sequel to his previous novel, "Darktown," which was an NPR book of the year. And it's set in a growing city that strains and simmers with the tensions of the times. Thomas Mullen joins us now from member station WKNO in Memphis. Thanks so much for being with us.
THOMAS MULLEN: Thank you so much for having me.
SIMON: Tell us about this Atlanta before it became, you know, Hotlanta, the capital of the new South, the city too busy to hate.
MULLEN: Well, Atlanta, like a lot of American cities at this time, was dealing with a big housing shortage. And the housing crisis is particularly acute if you were African-American because not only in Atlanta, not only in the South, but really all across America, you know, if you were African-American, you were only, quote, unquote, "allowed" to live in certain neighborhoods.
And at this time in Atlanta, you know, a growing number of African-American families of means who were very brave and willing to take the risk started moving into neighborhoods on the western side of Atlanta that had previously been white only. And when they did that, they encountered all kinds of resistance.
SIMON: Yeah. All kinds of resistance can also be a code word for often violent resistance, right?
MULLEN: Exactly. And the book really explores the different variations of white resistance to black equality. We have the Ku Klux Klan, who obviously wants to do something about this problem that they see. And believe it or not, in Atlanta, there was also a neo-Nazi organization called the Columbians, that - even though this was after World War II, this group - they liked to dress in Nazi-style brownshirt uniforms complete with lightning bolt patches on the sleeve, sort of in honor of the Nazi stormtroopers.
That's where the book title "Lightning Men" comes from. But they would give speeches at mills, trying to recruit more adherents. And they would show up in neighborhoods when a black family had bought a house in a white neighborhood and, you know, try to intimidate them, start fights, firebomb houses. And they would also put up signs in the neighborhood that would say, zoned as a white community, with a lightning bolt on it.
SIMON: This is 1950. And Officer Boggs and Smith are considered - to borrow a phrase from one of your characters - Jackie Robinson with sidearms when they integrate the Atlanta Police Department three years after Jackie Robinson. Who, by the way, of course, was born in Georgia, integrated major league baseball. But their fellow white officers and even career criminals demean them, don't they?
MULLEN: Yeah. I mean, it was a very difficult job. And they faced resistance at every turn. A Newsweek article that came out in 1947 estimated that somewhere between a quarter and a third of all Atlanta cops at that time were members of the Ku Klux Klan. So the police chief and the mayor were afraid that if these uniformed black men showed their faces at the headquarters, the white cops would riot and attack them.
So they couldn't even use a headquarters. They instead had to operate their own precinct out the basement of the black YMCA. So, yeah, most of the white cops are not very happy to have them there at all. And for the most part, they don't interact because the black cops are only allowed to patrol black neighborhoods. So they didn't cross paths too often, and when they did, there was a lot of hostility.
SIMON: And then let me ask you about Officer Rakestraw, Denny Rakestraw, the white officer. What makes him different from his family?
MULLEN: Rakestraw was raised by a German immigrant mother, so he's always had a little bit of a soft spot for outsiders and underdogs. And so like some white Southern moderates of that time, he felt that African-Americans in the Jim Crow South were mistreated and that, you know, we should have anti-lynching legislation, that black schools should be funded equally to white schools. But at the same time, he still can't quite imagine a world without segregation at all.
He thinks segregation can be improved and made more fair, but the idea of his kids going to school with black kids would probably blow his mind. His brother in law, Dale, does not come from such an enlightened background. And Dale is a member of the Klan. And when three black families move into their previously all-white neighborhood, Dale wants to do something about it.
SIMON: Without giving too much of the plot away, each of the three officers in some ways is asked to assess where their loyalties are. That's an old story in crime fiction, isn't it?
MULLEN: Yeah. I wanted to write more about their families and show the different loyalties that they have. It's one thing to say, I believe in X, and I believe in y. It's another thing when your brother-in-law has done something stupid and you don't agree with what he did, but you also don't want to see him thrown in jail because you don't want your sister to have to raise your kids without a parent.
And that's what Rakestraw faces. He has to do some things to help his brother-in-law who he really doesn't like. And he hates the fact that his brother-in-law is a racist, but he also doesn't want him to go to jail. And one of the white supremacists in this book, you know, a member of this Nazi group, he kind of calls Officer Rakestraw on it. He says, hey, you know, you're doing things to help your family too. That's what we do. We believe in family and blood and race. Why don't you agree with us? You're acting like us, but you don't want to admit it.
And I wanted to kind of explore that idea of, you know, where racism sometimes comes from, this misapplication and this misextension (ph) of how you put your family first. And sometimes people go too far, and they want to put their race first. And it's a sensitive thing, but I wanted to really explore that.
SIMON: What was it like to be working on this novel against the backdrop of everything that's been going on over the past couple of years and African-American citizens being palpably mistreated by police officials in a number of cities across the country?
MULLEN: It was very strange because I do feel that this issue, which has always been an important issue in America, but it came into the spotlight in a new way with, you know, the murder of Michael Brown and Ferguson. And, you know, when I first got the idea for "Darktown" a couple of years before Ferguson, I was finishing the rough draft of that book when Michael Brown was killed.
And it was very weird to see it receive a national spotlight in a way that it hasn't always. I think the book maybe has some added resonance that I couldn't have foreseen when I started it, but I think it just goes to show that these are issues that still remain unresolved.
SIMON: Thomas Mullen. His novel, "Lightning Men." Thanks so much for being with us.
MULLEN: Thank you so much.
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