Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (2017) - full transcript
A documentary murder mystery about the filmmaker's family, set in lower Alabama, 18 miles north of the Florida state line. On an October night in 1946, S.E. Branch twice shot a man named Bill Spann in the small neighborhood market that Branch owned. Two days later, Spann died in a segregated black hospital. Branch was white-a Klansman-and Spann was black. Branch claimed self-defense, but despite that claim and the political climate in Dothan, Alabama in 1946, Branch was charged with first-degree murder. S.E. Branch was the artist's great granddaddy, on his mother's side. Everyone says they looked alike. That this story echoes across decades and generations says much about the distance travelled by U.S. society since 1946.
This isn't another way to save your story.
This is a white nightmare story.
It's another strange coincidence
all along I'd imagined I'd
All along I'd imagined
I'd start this film
with the story of To
Kill a Mockingbird.
That story like mine.
Is set in Alabama?
I takes place in a fictional town based
on a real piece called Monroeville
That town sits about 100
miles west of Dothan.
Where my family comes from.
Both stories deal with racism and violence
Both, it turns out
have sexual violence in them too
Her story is set in the 1930's
But mine takes place in the 40's
Her story is a fiction.
Whereas mine is true.
Hers is liberal.
Whereas mine is radical.
Hers is structured like a fable.
Whereas mine shatters into bits.
In the filmed version of her novel
Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch,
The role supposedly inspired by her father.
The American Film Institute named him
the greatest film hero of all time
of all time.
But that's because he isn't a human being,
he never wavers,
he doesn't lust
he doesn't rage,
He doesn't curse,
he doesn't make human errors,
he's a secular saint,
not a flesh and blood human being.
And that's another huge difference
between my story and hers.
Because my white relative
wasn't standing on the steps of that jail,
bravely stopping the
lynching of a black man.
No, my great grandfather
would have been one of the members
of that racist lynch mob,
reeking of booze,
carrying a rope,
and a pistol.
Wearing a fedora
and a terrifying smile
I know it sounds like
I'm making this up,
but this whole thing really
did start for me
in the streets of south Los Angeles and
the days just after the Zimmerman verdict.
Justice for Trayvon!
I couldn't get it out of my
head, how much the story
of Trayvon Martin reminded
me of a family legend,
that my great-grandfather,
Samuel Edwin Branch,
of Dothan, Alabama, had murdered
a black man in the 1940's,
and had gotten away with it.
I also knew from memory,
that Dothan sits just 18
miles from the Florida line.
I called my mother during the march
and asked her what she knew.
After I got off the phone,
this is what happened.
In Los Angeles police called
a citywide tactical alert,
as about two hundred protesters
closed a portion of the 10
freeway for about 25 minutes.
By the time I was back home,
she'd sent me this in an email
from the Dothan Eagle October 14th 1946.
Bill Spand, Dothan negro,
shot Saturday night during an altercation
at Branch's grocery
store on West Houston Street
died yesterday in a Dothan hospital.
The charge against SE Branch
at 508 South Oak St.,
has been changed from assault
with intent to murder
To first degree murder.
Span was shot twice in the
neck and lower abdomen.
Around 7:30 Saturday night,
with a 32 caliber pistol
Branch told officers that
the negro entered the store
cursed him and started to
attack him with a knife
when he shot him in self-defense.
Let me move backward,
before I move forward.
This is an image
from the only time I ever
met SE Branch,
in the first year of my life, and
the last year of his.
My entire life people have
told me we look alike,
But I think that's just
because we're both fat,
My mother and her sister
Jill, who both grew up
in Dothan, started doing
a little more searching.
They quietly asked relatives and friends.
People have a way of not
answering you down there.
Nobody said anything.
We checked the courthouse archives
But we're told that no documents
existed for the case.
No record of charges
ever being filed at all.
from the state of Alabama.
We requested a copy of Bill
Span's death certificate.
My grandfather Arthur son in law of SE,
was a photo-buff.
He remained so all his life
And so we have dozens of
eight millimeter movies too
SE Branch is a rare figure in the movies.
In all those dozens of rolls of film,
he appears in only 12
shots split between two
roles one black and
white, and one in color.
The black and white role,
is especially peculiar.
It was labeled October 1946.
The month of the murder.
So was it taken before?
Or was it taken after?
Is it some sort of family celebration?
Sc Branch has a strange
energy in the first role,
he wears a certain awkward menace.
The camera is clearly
making him uncomfortable,
but by the time he's filmed
in color in 1953
you'd barely recognize him from
the black and white.
He walks with an unmistakable swagger.
He's been emboldened somehow.
By the time I saw any of
these images for the first time
I'd already read Bill
Span's death certificate.
You can't look at these images the
same way after you've read it.
So let me show you the images again
Standard Certificate of Death
State of Alabama.
Place of Death: County, Houston
City or Town, Dothan.
Street Address, the moody hospital.
Usual residence of deceased.
City or town Dothan.
Color or race.
Single widowed married or divorced: Married
Name of husband or wife: Lily Spann
Age of husband or wife: 44 years.
Birth-date of deceased.
additional information not available
Burial cremation or removal: removal.
Place burial or cremation.
Date of death.
Month, 10 day, 13 year, 46.
Immediate cause of death.
Bullet wound through
neck penetrating larynx.
Suicide or homicide,
They both live in Alabama.
One of them is white.
One of them is black.
One of them is the family of a murder.
One of them is the family of the murdered.
One of them is inscribed
on a death certificate.
And one of them is making home movies.
So it was time to go back to Alabama
for the first time in 20 years
I drove through the pouring rain straight
from the airport to Branch's grocery.
The building is locked and closed.
There's nobody there.
When I go to transfer the images
to my computer,
the first two shots left on the camera
are of my baby daughter Matilda Jane
She's more or less the same age I was
in the picture with granddaddy Branch.
I visit my Aunt Jill.
The walls of her home are covered
with the public face of my family.
But make no mistake.
There are other faces too.
The next day I'm back at Branch's grocery.
It isn't a store anymore.
The sign says it's a restaurant,
but everyone in the
neighborhood I talked to
refers to it as a shod-house.
That's what they call
informal, unlicensed bars.
When I'm about to leave the
woman who lives in the
house directly behind the
store comes home from work
She's a nurse and was
working the night shift.
Her name isn't that she's lived
in the house her entire life.
She tells me she knows the owners.
And she'll try to get me in there somehow
While I waited to hear about the store.
I asked my mother and her sister
Jill would talk to me about SE.
We spent the afternoon trying to
film but there was a terrible storm.
It was hard not to feel like
we were conjuring something.
Finally I gave up waiting for the
storm and just filmed them anyway.
I had the murder weapon.
But until the article you didn't know
he'd actually been charged with murder.
Because when I left Dothan
Back in 1967
My grandfather, who was very fond of me
Granddaddy Branch––was very fond
of me––I was born on his birthday
And I was special
He maybe thought you were the only one who
was going to leave the state anytime soon.
And you could take it with you
I wonder if I ever saw it,
I don't remember it.
Looked like a six-gun,
I mean my recollection is that
it had a fairly long barrel
Not like a revolver?
Not like not like the.
The 38 that Granddaddy hung.
Handle of the bedside table in between.
The bed he slept in the great big head.
Little dead that our grandmother slept in.
The holster with the 38 and he would
take it off and hang in there.
And, as a little girl.
We were admonished to leave
it alone, but it was there.
Why did he feel that he had to
have a revolver next to him?
Maybe because he murdered somebody.
For protection? I mean there's no telling.
It's not like he was a nice person.
He was my grandfather and he loved me.
I guess I loved him at one point.
But I'm not a fool. I know
what kind of person he was.
When I found out that he
had murdered somebody
It was shocking.
But at the same time it wasn't
really surprising. Was it to you?
I feel the same way.
I think just seeing it
written in an article.
It gave it a different life or something.
I'm sure there are other things that
could have been in other articles.
That gun was the first
firearm I ever fired.
It was easy to shoot.
The barrel was long and
it didn't have much kick.
I shot at paper targets
on trees with my dad in
the sandpit across the
street from our house.
It was time to pay a visit
to the man himself.
There isn't much to say about SE
Branch's final resting place.
His grave is well kept.
It's a few feet from a busy intersection.
I need to tell you about
his wife my great grandmother
who everyone called
every time you ask
anyone about SE they'll
tell you about Mama
I understand why.
When I was eight years old she
came to stay with us in Colorado
It was the first time in her
life she'd been on an airplane.
There was also the first time
in her life she'd seen snow.
We built snow castles
outside together for hours.
The snow was filled with dogshit.
She couldn't have cared less.
She insisted on building
those snow castles with me.
It's my fondest memory of her.
These images are the only ones that
describe the woman that I knew.
She's buried next to SE in a
cemetery by the busy road.
Annette said shed talk to me on camera.
So I asked her what she remembered
about Branch's grocery.
This is my favorite,
because it was like going home. I
was right here with my grandparents
But the other men who
were in the neighborhood,
when they got off
from work came here.
With Mr. Dean you know stuff on
the front porch or in the store
Mr. Roberts was there on the corner.
Benny Ingram, in a blue house. And Mr.
Mickize 1-2-3-4 houses up.
They don't just you know just you
know be here after work,
sitting on the stoop, on the steps,
smoking their pipes and
cigars and everything.
And the kids would
be coming in and out of the store
with cookies and candies.
I'd be right there with them.
Mr. Branch would say, alright
now don't give me trouble
You give me trouble I'm gonna getcha.
So it was just you
know just your life.
It was definitely the
best point of the day.
You get off that bus, and
"let's see how much money we got."
And you count your money. And hit
those steps, get in the store.
After the camera was off, she
told me something important.
She told me she'd asked around
about the shooting at the store,
and that the elderly woman across
the street knew both witnesses,
and knew what had happened.
She also said she'd never
ever speak to me about it.
And she stuck to her word.
One person who would speak
to me was Ed Vaughn
Ed was a contemporary
of Martin Luther King's
And has been a civil rights
activist his entire life.
He told me he didn't remember much
about the case but he was certain
a boycott of Branch's grocery was
organized after the killing.
I filmed our conversation in his
museum of African-American history.
His words are full of
clues, if not answers.
I used to go to Branch's all
the time when I went to school
on that side of town, but I
didn't live on that side.
However I remembered the store quite well
and I do remember the boycott of the store.
I remember that but once again you
know I had every time school was out.
I'd come home and most times I would
walk by that store on my way home, cause
I had to walk up from over there, you
know, no school buses for black kids
So we had to walk.
And so I walked by the store
on a fairly regular basis
As I said, the first actual civil rights
movement in the modern south was led by myself.
And that was the 1950 strike
at Carver High School
Wherein, we had two health
officials from Houston County
And they said while they were
speaking to 8 or nine hundred of us.
They said that the girls at
Carver High School
had given venereal diseases to the
soldiers at Fort Rucker.
And so we said, why are they saying this?
And so we were kind of
rumbling and talking back.
And so my homeroom teacher Mr.
Dickerson went up and asked
them not to come and embarrass
our girls like that,
and they rebuffed him and told him
to get away and then he grabbed both
of them up because he was a big guy
about six five, 2/300 pound man.
He picked them both up and took him out
to Lake Street and threw him in the ditch
And we were all right behind him.
Yelling: Get 'im! Kill 'im!
And, the next day and even
before the next day,
we knew that they were going
to make a move against
Mr. Dickerson that they
were going to fire him.
That same day that the health
officials that were there
we had a meeting in our classroom
and we decided that if
they bother Mr. Dickerson we
were going on strike.
This is 1950, five years before
the Montgomery bus boycott
And so we said we're going on strike.
So the next day the
superintendent did exactly what
we thought he would do
his name is Bruce Flury,
superintendent of schools.
And there was no such thing
as a school board then,
the super ran everything.
And so he was a real racist.
And so the next day he fired Mr. Dickerson
He fired three other teachers who had
nothing to do with the strike missed who
had nothing to do with the incident
Mr. Hill out of Montgomery.
Mr. and Mrs. Cator out of North Alabama.
He fired all four of them
and only one had something
to do with it, and that was Mr.
And so we said that we thought that the
major reason was he didn't like out-of-
town teachers, because he felt he could
get away with local teachers better.
So anyway we went on strike
after the teachers were
fired and we shut the school
down for three weeks.
Did he get reinstated?
None of them got reinstated
I got expelled from school.
I was only one expelled.
No one else was expelled
because I'm the one
who led the strike and
set up a strategy
to make the strike strike 100 percent
effective it was 100 percent effective
and the reason for that
is I went down to the
bottom, which was the
hood, where all the
thugs hung out and these were my buddies
either I shot pool with them every night.
So I drank wine with them
and everything else all
while I was in high school
and in elementary school.
So we all drank wine together I knew them!
and so they
they liked me because I had
a few leadership skills.
And so when the strike came, I went to
them and said "look you got to help me."
I don't want nobody coming from the north
side of town to Carver High School, which
was on the east side and I don't want
nobody from the east side coming to Carver
So we had blockades at the east at
the East Gate entrance and we had
blockades at the North Gate entrance
came to school.
When I came home and told my parents that
they expelled me and because there had
been some rumors on their job by that
time my mother's employers had changed,
and they were kind of hinting
to her that she ought to
tell her son to end the strike?
And my father also who was
a cleaner and a presser.
They were getting some
pressure at their jobs.
And every night we would have
dinner together at home.
And my mother would make
gourmet meals she was a
great cook and at the
time I wanted to I wanted
to buy a hamburger from
the local five and dime
store and I couldn't do
that because I was black.
But every night I would
have a gourmet meal.
But anyway when integration
came, I bought a hamburger
I said oh my god what what did
I get this nasty thing for?
My mother cooked gourmet meals every day.
Anyway we sat down at the dinner table.
I think we had stuffed pork chop
that night my mom was a great cook
This was our home right here that
she bought during the Depression.
And this was her home bought through
the homeowners loan corporation
which was a FDR program to get
us out of the Depression.
So anyway my mom and
my dad told me that
evening cause my mom was
leader in the house.
You know daddy whatever she said
he'd follow. And so she said
she told me she say you stay
out as long as you want to.
So you keep it going as
long as you want to.
We are with you whatever you decide.
It's your decision.
I said OK.
So we're with you.
And so I had decided and the group
that I had working with was.
That we had gone about
as far as we could go.
We had picketed through midtown with
picket signs in all white area.
We had taken it all up
around us 231 highway
where people would go
through going to Florida.
There was no interstate or
no circle at that time.
There's still no interstate here.
There was no circle.
So we had gone by as far as we could go.
And so we had decided that we had
gone about as far as we could.
And we ended the strike.
But the deal was that I
would get back in school.
That was the deal.
A cop tried to rape my mother on her way to work,
because my mother went to work every morning
around 3:00 a.m. and he
confronted her in a little
section called Five Points
on her way to work.
It would be dark when
my mother went to work.
I would look out the window
and see her leave walking,
and she did it every day
for about 30, 35 years.
And and so he told her he
told her to come upstairs.
He wanted to have sex with him and
she said I'm not going to do that.
And he said well you see this
gun and he said I'll show you.
He said you'd better come home with me
And she told him you had
better use the damn gun
because I'm not
going nowhere with you
She just walked out the work and when she
got to work she told her boss Mr. Meyer.
And they called the police chief.
They confronted this policeman.
And I guess they criticized him
or whatever they did to him.
But anyway he didn't
bother my mother anymore.
They didn't take him off the job but
he didn't bother my mom anymore.
And when he'd see her.
he'd go the other way.
So but I came from that kind
of family you know because
my grandfather used to bring
people out of Abbeyville.
I was born in Abbeyville.
And my grandfather
used to bring out
blacks who were
destined to be lynched
And he would get them to Dothan
That was a safe house in Dothan
run by a man named Mr. Smart.
And the train would leave Dothan
every night to 58 going north.
And a lot of people left on the 58.
My grandfather would get
these folks out of Henry
County who were in
danger of being lynched
He was a mulatto.
He was very fair skinned black man.
His father was a white
man, and he didn't he
didn't like his father
at all, by the way
And he tried to kill
his father and he
couldn't kill him so he
killed his prize goat.
My grandfather used to groom
this goat and take him to shows.
And his name was Frank White and granddad
Frank killed a goat and ran away
And he was militant as all hell
Not only did he get folks out of Abbeyville
the people who were about to be lynched?
But he also got his own family out.
Cause my uncles were rough they were tough.
They were all very fair-skinned black
guys and they would have problems.
My grandfather didn't
have no problem because
he knew how to maneuver
through the system.
But they, being
young, didn't know.
One guy kicked my grandfather
in the butt, no I'm sorry my uncle
Uncle J.B. in Abbeyville.
And uncle JB
When the guy turned around––Uncle JB had
a coca cola bottle. Hit him in the back
of the head. And that was when coca-cola
bottles were like a little piece of steel.
And so the man died eight days
later, but that same night
my grandfather got him out of
Abbeyville and told him that
if anybody tried to stop him to shoot.
Don't let nobody ask
no question don't care who
it is, just start shooting.
So he would meet him at a place
called Skipper Creek and
bring him to Dothan and
take him to the safe house.
And they would get to 58 out
at that night around 11pm
And so my grandfather did that for many
people in Abbeyville and Henry County.
So I came from that kind of family.
All my uncles were pretty militant.
And my mother was.
And so I didn't have much choice.
It was in the genes.
No one gave me a clearer image
of the world in which the murder
took place and contained within
his words was a valuable lead:
The town of Abbeyville.
I went to look at the old Branch house,
where they lived when the murder happened.
It's gone now.
There's a used car lot where
the house used to be.
Everywhere I look,
there's nearly nothing left of him.
I'd been in Dothan for a few weeks.
When Annette called me again she told
me if I came down that afternoon
They'd be cleaning the store.
And I could finally film inside.
Have you ever been in a
place that just feels
like something terrible
I know it doesn't make logical sense.
But you feel it.
In Branch's grocery
Most of the store has been transformed.
But the old counter is still there.
My mom says SE always kept four
things under that counter.
Two sets of brass knuckles, a
bullwhip and a loaded revolver.
Off camera Ed Vaughn
told me something else.
He told me that two other people had
been murdered in Branch's grocery too.
The couple that bought the
store from Mamma Jeanie
and her brother had a
badly abusive marriage.
When the woman had finally had enough
She killed her husband.
She wasn't charged.
So a few weeks later his
family came back and
killed her and retribution
in the store too.
Three killings in one small store
Just try and tell me that
store isn't haunted.
Bill Spann died at the Moody hospital,
the same place my mother was born.
A guy was working on the roof.
He came down and talked to me.
He wouldn't let me film inside
but he showed me around.
While he told me over and over again
that the hospital was haunted.
His girlfriend wouldn't
even go there anymore.
That's also why he wouldn't
let me film inside.
Because he and his brother
were trying to sell it.
The stain on the front door was
from someone who'd just blown his
brains out standing there in front
of the old abandoned hospital.
Ed Vaughn had something to say
about the Moody hospital too.
That hospital was truly amazing.
Was an alcoholic
I was in a one operation where
the man was cut with a chainsaw
they cut his arm off and gave
it to me and I threw it out
and the doctor was so so high he
couldn't really do the operation.
So a black guy did the operation on
this white man and the black guy, Joe.
I think Joe went until
about the third grade.
But he was good at what he did.
Which showed me that in the
military, when I went
to the military, and they
trained medics in six
months when I was in the army.
And then someone
says "you know they don't
train these guys enough."
I said well, I knew a guy who
never went to any school.
and he operated on
I was sitting right there watching him,
He was doing all kinds of stuff.
He was calling the shots for the doctor.
I threw it in the incinerator. I
didn't know I was supposed to save it.
They wanted it to go to the state
lab, but didn't nobody tell me that.
And in the incinerators where
they used to put the stillborn
babies, back then they just
dumped them in the incinerator.
So I just took the dang arm out
and dropped it in the incinerator
And I thought I was a
doctor 'cause I wore white
bucks, you know? white buck shoes.
They were popular.
I had on white pants and I
had my white jacket on.
And people would think I was a doctor.
Oh you're a doctor? And they called
me doctor. No I'm the cleanup guy.
But if I had stayed there
long enough I probably could
have been a surgeon myself,
just working there.
How was the care segregated?
Well the blacks were
in the basement and it
was very damp down there
and it was terrible.
So many times we would go
down there to the rest and
we'd go down and we'd have
breaks down in the basement.
But there would never be black
people down there because
that was the worst hospital
in Dothan for blacks.
And so that's where Bill Spann
ended up after being shot at
Branches grocery, at the worst
hospital for black people
in Dothan, where the head
surgeon was so drunk that he
couldn't operate and orderlies
tried to save you instead.
And now it's time for me to tell you about
the third sister–– the eldest, Jean.
Jean is the only one of the three sisters
alive at the time of the murder.
So she's also the only
sister in the old movies.
This is Jean,
Around the time she was introducing my
mother to folk music and civil rights.
And this is Jean now.
And so is this.
And so is this.
Jean is a politically
active white supremacist,
in a group called The
League of the South.
Here's what the Southern Poverty Law Center
has to say about the league.
The godly nation envisioned
by the league should
be run by an Anglo-Celtic
white elite, that would
establish a Christian
theocratic state and
politically dominate blacks
and other minorities.
Originally founded by
a group that included
The group lost its Ph.D.s as it
became more explicitly racist.
The league denounces the
federal government and
Northern and coastal states
as part of the empire.
A materialist and anti-religious society.
In recent years it has become increasingly
rabid, writing about potential
violence criticizing perceived
Jewish power and warning
blacks that they would be
defeated in any race war.
Here's the group's leader––a man Gene
reveres––speaking in his own words.
There is this misconception
about what nationalism is.
Most people when they hear the
term nationalism, they think
of a political entity they think
about the American nation.
They think about politics
they think about borders.
Well yeah there are borders, but
the borders that distinguish what?
Borders that distinguish not
a political unit a polity,
but borders that distinguish
a people, a blood people.
The Bible talks of that nations
and it means peoples, tribes,
clans, groups of individuals
that are connected by blood.
So when we talk about the Southern nation
we're talking about not political entities.
We're talking first and foremost
about our people. And who
are our people our people are
white Europeans southerners.
Now we're mainly from the British
Isles, but we're also from other
parts of Northern and Western Europe
and even parts of Central Europe.
But we are a distinctive people.
Based on blood and from
that blood comes culture.
And from that culture comes our
political institutions and
from the political institutions
come our borders and our
nations, our nation states, as
we call them Germany, France,
England, Scotland, Ireland,
Norway, Denmark Sweden.
Dixie, they're all the same.
We are a people we are a nation
we are a blood with the land.
I'm not going to devote
much time to this group.
I'm certainly not going
to offer them a platform.
Their views are well-represented.
But I thought you should
know you're dealing with.
None of us has talked to Gene in years.
Still I wanted to try.
My mother told me she thought her sister
might be at a Confederate memorial
ceremony, in the middle part of the
state, in a town called Verbena
I thought I might as well go
and try to meet her there.
Like the League of the South,
they emphasize family a great deal.
At one point, the man in charge, the man
everyone wants to take pictures with
gave a speech from
atop his literal high horse.
Those were our families he said.
Defending their homes against
invaders against great odds
just like the Revolutionary War was
fought against great odds.
And we aren't even allowed
to remember them.
Speaking of memory, at the
time of the Civil War.
There were over five hundred
thousand black slaves in Alabama.
All of them carrying the names
of those same families who were
defending their homes against invaders
against great odds.
The only black person at the
entire event was a firefighter,
selling hot dogs to raise money
for his local department.
You had the sense he didn't know
he was getting himself into.
Do black lives matter?
At this confederate memorial
They don't even exist.
I looked everywhere for Jean.
But I never saw her.
I think somehow she'd been tipped off
that I might be there.
And so I drove straight to Selma
Where black people and
their history actually exist.
I finally mailed a letter to Gene.
I was honest about what I was doing.
I asked her if she talked to me about SE
Branch and what she knew about the murder.
Ed Vaughn spoke about
Abbeyville, where he was born.
A small town 27 miles from Dothan.
On September 3rd 1944.
The Rockhill Holiness Church in Abbeyville
Alabama rocked late into the night.
It was nearly midnight when the doors of
the wooden one story church swung open.
Releasing streams of worshipers, all
African-American, into the moonlight.
After a night of singing and praying.
Resee Taylor, Fanni Daniel,
and Daniel's 18 year old
son, West, stepped out of
the country chapel and
strolled toward home alongside
the peanut plantations
that bounded the Abbeyville
Taylor, A 24 year old mother
and sharecropper noticed
a green Chevrolet past
them at least three times.
Young white men.
Gawking from its windows.
Taylor and Daniel.
A stout 61 year old woman,
watched the car creep by one
last time and roll to a stop
a few feet ahead of them.
Seven men, armed with knives and guns, got
out of the car and walked toward the women.
The oldest of the crew at 24 and a
private in the US Army, shouted "Stop".
He cocked the gun at the back of her
head and said "I'll kill you if you run"
LaVette walked her to the car
and shoved her into the back seat.
Lavette was the first of six
men to rape Taylor that night.
When they finished, someone
helped her get dressed tied a
handkerchief over her eyes and
shoved her back into the car.
Back on the highway.
The men stopped and ordered
Taylor out of the car.
"Don't move until we get away
from here," one of them yelled.
Taylor heard the car
disappear into the night.
She pulled off the blindfold.
Got her bearings.
And began the long walk home.
A few days later
A telephone rang at the NAACP branch
office in Montgomery, Alabama.
E.D. Nixon, the local
president, promised to
send his best investigator
Her name was Rosa Parks.
In later years.
Historians would paint Parks as a sweet and
reticent old woman, whose tired feet caused
her to defy Jim Crow on Montgomery city
buses. Her solitary and spontaneous act,
the story goes, sparked
the 1955 bus boycott.
And gave birth to the
Civil Rights Movement.
But Rosa Parks was a militant race woman
A sharp detective
And an anti-rape activist
Long before she became the
patron saint of the bus boycott.
After meeting with Resee
Taylor, Rosa Parks
helped form the Committee
for Equal Justice.
Eleven years later this group
of homegrown leaders would
become better known as the
Montgomery Improvement Association.
The 1955 Montgomery Bus
Boycott, often heralded as the
opening scene of the Civil Rights
Movement, was in many ways
the last act of a decades long
struggle to protect black
women, like Taylor, from
sexualized violence and rape.
I spent the afternoon filming the town,
searching for Rosa Parks childhood home.
The town was mostly deserted.
For the better part of the afternoon,
the only people encountered were white
Nobody seemed to know anything
about the Rosa Parks home,
a state monument to the most famous person
ever to come from the town.
As the light began to
disappear I ran into a
young black man leaving
the corner market.
He immediately told me
where to find the house.
This is the home Rosa Parks
returned to, in order
to organize a defense
committee for Resee Taylor.
She was 31 years old at the time.
It is difficult to imagine the
courage it must have taken
Rosa Parks to leave Montgomery
and return to a small
town in the middle of nowhere
Alabama, where white men
had absolute impunity to
rape and murder black women.
All in order to organize the defense
of one of those abused women.
She did this more than 10 years before
she also led the Montgomery bus boycott.
And it was also five years before Ed
Vaughn led the strike at Carver High.
The first modern civil rights movement was
led by a woman just 27 miles from Dothan
And it was organized in response
to racist sexualized violence.
Just try and convince me
that's all a coincidence.
The death certificate says that Bill
Spann was removed to Lewisville Alabama
a town 51 miles north of Dothan,
and it seems to have been were
black people who died in abject
poverty were taken back then
Starting at the gas station,
I began asking people
where I might
find the grave of an African-American
man buried in the 1940s.
Nobody seemed to know anything.
The old man who ran the gas
station pointed across the
street to city hall without
so much as making a sound.
When I told the clerk at city hall
that I was looking for a grave
she eagerly pulled out a thick ledger book.
But she couldn't find the
name and seemed puzzled.
She asked me if he was a relative of mine.
I told her no.
I explained that he was
a black man from Dothan
Who'd been buried in Lewisville.
She returned the ledger to its
place on the shelf before
telling me they didn't have
those kinds of records.
On my way out of the building
I was gestured into the library
By a black woman in her late 20s.
She wanted me all the way
to the back of the library
where no one could hear us speak
I explained to her what
I was trying to find.
She took my number.
And said she'd try to help me.
In the meantime I drove to Cottonwood
on the outskirts of Dothan.
I went there because everyone
told me it was the Klan town
Because it was outside city limits and
gave them greater freedom to operate
The town wasn't very interesting to
look at. For some reason in Cottonwood
All I wanted to do was film trees.
I was approached by two teenage boys.
They asked me what I was doing.
One of them said
people don't do things like that
They left and I quickly
started putting my gear away.
They returned a few minutes later.
As I was about to get in
my car and drive off.
"Are you Travis?"
One of them asked me directly.
I was shocked.
And answered reflexively, Yes.
"Don't go anywhere" he said.
My dad's coming and he
wants to speak with you.
I firmly got back in the
car locked the door.
Started the engine and drove off.
I was on the outskirts of town when a
sedan came barreling up behind me.
Driven by two men.
I took a strange and circuitous route but
they followed me every step of the way.
I didn't want them knowing
where I was staying.
So I pulled into a Ruby Tuesday restaurant,
sat at the bar and ordered lunch.
By the time I came back
outside, the car was gone.
I guess Jean had received my letter.
My cell phone rang.
It was a Lewisville number.
It was the young woman from city hall.
She asked me not to use her name.
He's in Mount Zion she said.
Behind the church, in an unmarked grave.
And she hung up.
Four years of research
led me here outside the
small town of Lewisville Alabama.
This is where I believe
Bill Spann is buried.
Everything I know about
him, about his family,
after all these years of
research, after spending
time in libraries, in
archives searching public
records even after hiring
a private investigator.
This is what I know:
I know what's in the two
I know what's in his death certificate.
I know he's buried in Lewisville
and I know that black people buried in
Lewisville were only buried in one place.
I also know that the name Bill Spann
isn't inscribed on any legible tombstone
in the entire graveyard. And that poor
blacks were buried in unmarked graves.
My great-grandfather murdered that man.
Bill Spann he shot him in cold
blood and got away with it.
I'm showing you images of the place Bill
Spann is buried in an unmarked grave.
I filmed the graveyard
using an expensive camera.
I was paid to do it.
Two families they both live in Alabama.
One of them is white and
one of them is black.
One of them is the family of a murder,
and one of them is the
family of the murdered.
One of them is buried in an unmarked grave,
and one of them is filming it.
That's a pretty precise
expression of racism.
♪ Singing♪ Oh Lord, time
don't get no better yeah.
I'm going down the road, I'm
going away to leave you.
Every time don't get no better here.
Down the road I'm gone.
Every time it get no better.
Oh down the road I'm gone
I'm back in Alabama.
I needed to drive the road to Atallah
I can feel it.
I'm getting close.
I can feel it.
There's no close to getting.
In 1963, William Moore was murdered
somewhere along this road.
♪ Singing♪ Walking down an Alabama road.
Remembering what the Bible told.
Walking with a letter in his hand.
Dreaming of another Southern land.
Walking down an Alabama road.
He went by the name of William Moore.
Now what are you doing, William Moore?
Why the letter in your hand?
There's only one southern land
And he went by the name of William Moore
What is the glory of one man?
What price the dream was and
what price the glory of one man?
Moore was a white activist from
the Congress on Racial Equality.
He was walking alone from Chattanooga
Tennessee to Jackson Mississippi
to deliver a letter to the governor of
Mississippi denouncing segregation.
On the day of his murder.
Moore argued with a local
man named Floyd Simpson.
A passing motorist found Moore's
body about a mile down the road,
shot twice in the head at close
range with a 22 caliber rifle.
The guns ownership was
traced back to Simpson.
But no charges were ever filed against him.
Moore died a week before
his thirty-sixth birthday.
That murder too is largely forgotten.
The only reason I know about
it is Phil Och's song.
There's nothing to mark the exact
spot on the road to a Talla.
So you just have to guess
where it happened.
Despite all my research the public face of
S.E. branch remains more or less intact.
Over and over I'd circle
in near to the truth.
Over and over, the truth would
disappear like the morning fog.
I asked those who knew him
to write me something at least.
Those requests were ignored too.
Save by his granddaughters.
One by one each of the three sisters
wrote me, beginning with my mother.
The image they create together is
even more troubling than
what I knew before.
When I concentrate I can
see everything as it was
Most of all I see his hands,
With those hands my grandfather
threatened to kill my grandmother,
sending her running to our house across
town in the middle of the night out
of breath screaming
"let me in Mary
now your daddy's
going to kill me."
"Your daddy's going to kill me."
Those are the hands that pushed
me down onto Jeannie's bed and
held my wrists hard while he
pressed his body against mine.
I don't remember how old I was.
I didn't dwell on it.
They are also the hands that held the
gun used to shoot a black man to death.
Those are the hands that
drove the car, with me
sitting next to him, to the
Elks Club on bingo night.
The hands holding my baby boy, you,
on his lap.
In the photos taken just before he died.
He is smiling because
it pleases him that his
first great grandchild
favors him so much.
After months and months of waiting
The third sister finally
join the conversation too
"I wanted to get a letter off
to you because I will be
busy with my secession politics
for the next few days."
"I didn't want you to get the idea that
I wasn't going to respond to you."
"Also your family and I don't want you
to interpret my response as cold".
"You don't know me."
"You can't know someone
you haven't been around"
"And I don't know you either."
"It won't take long for me to
tell you what I think about
your project to investigate
the past of Edwin Branch".
"So let's get this out of the way."
"I remember hearing but don't
remember from who whether Art or Mama
Jeannie that a black female had run
into the store asking for help."
"Because she was chased by a
black man with a butcher knife"
"He chased her into the
store and refused to stop."
"And my grandfather shot
him to protect her."
"I doubt there will
be any witnesses and
probably all legal info
has long been purged."
"I can't stop you from 'investigating'."
"I can only tell you that I
would prefer you dropped it."
"My mother would be horrified."
"And so would my father."
"My mother loved her parents."
"Flawed as they both were."
"I have different memories of my
grandfather than my sisters do"
"All of mine with the exception being
the horrifying call on Christmas Eve."
"I'm sure you've heard about it."
"I have good memories of being at the store
and several fishing trips with them"
"Both of my grandfathers were flawed."
"I can't stop you from doing
what you decide to do but I'm
responding to your letter as
best and as honestly as I can"
"The only hate I have ever
seen at the rallies I attend
and organize, was black
hatred against other blacks."
"We are not a heritage organization,
we are Southern nationalists."
"We don't pledge allegiance to the U.S.
flag or sing the national
anthem, we salute the Confederate
flag and our anthem is Dixie"
"We are fighting against
Cultural genocide it
becomes physical genocide"
"I am no longer interested in
debating causes of the civil war"
"or trying to teach history lessons."
"I have no time for that anymore."
"I will continue to
correspond if you wish."
I shared Jean's letter
with both of her sisters.
Jill, especially, was furious
And she quickly wrote her reply.
"Dear Travis, I am writing this
letter to you post-interview"
"I originally felt that SE
Branches obvious actions and
responsibility in the murder of Mr.
Bill Spann spoke loudly enough."
"After reading a letter written to
you by my oldest sister, Mary Jean."
"I have decided to share some lesser
known qualities of my grandfather."
"When I was around 11"
"He began molesting me."
"I have only one clear
memory of the incidents"
"He was a loud, aggressive man who
intimidated other grown men."
"I had no power against him and never
told a soul until just a few years ago"
"I instinctively knew that it
would only make things worse."
"And that I would receive no support"
"I always knew him to be violent."
"I had heard stories of physical
abuse to my grandmother."
"He treated her nearly as
a master would a slave"
"After reading the letter
that my sister wrote to you"
"I felt compelled to question
her newly found memory of
the accounts of the evening that Mr.
Spann was murdered."
"SE branch hated blacks
and had no regard for women.
It is my opinion that Mary Jean
has submitted an outright lie
disguised as an alternative
to what we know to be true."
"One: Mr. Branch was charged with murder"
"Two: Mr. Branch was an
abuser not a rescuer women."
"Three: Mr. Branch was well
known for his intense racism."
"Well we may never know all the truth
I know in my heart that Mr. Branch
did not kill Mr. Spann while
defending an African-American woman"
"and it seems strange to
me that Mary Jean would
suddenly remembered this
accounting of the evening."
"Mr. Branch was an evil
man who did evil deeds"
My only wish is that the Spann family will
know that Bill Spann's life mattered.
"Thank you, Jill"
A few weeks later Jill
sent me another message.
She told me that she'd spoken to her
cousin Diane, daughter of SE Branch Jr..
Who recalled the following
SE was owed money by a black man. He went
to collect that money at the man's house.
SE found him hiding under a bed.
Dragged him out.
And shot him dead on the spot.
SE was always proud that he'd never so
much as spent a night in jail for it.
Which is to say accidentally
we had stumbled on to a second murder.
The details don't match up.
It's obviously a different incident.
This time we don't even
know the man's name.
Suddenly returns to the story now.
Unexpectedly near the
end of her life she
publishes her second
book Go Set a Watchman.
Ostensibly the sequel to
To Kill a Mockingbird.
It is more accurately described
as its predecessor,
the first draft and suddenly one recognizes
To Kill a Mockingbird.
For what it is,
the public face of Atticus Finch.
But the private face of
Atticus Finch exists too.
You confront it directly
in Go Set a Watchman
The segregationist. The racist.
The bully. The hypocrite.
It's near the end of my journey.
My image of SE Branch remains incomplete.
Why did he kill Bill Spann? Why was
he charged with first degree murder?
Had he threatened Bill Spann before?
after he was charged,
did the charges disappear?
He's an enigma.
But he's an enigma with a well-kept grave.
With family photos, with
and with stories passed down
through the generations.
There's a story I could never
quite fit in elsewhere.
Somehow I think you should know it.
Several people told me.
That every so often.
SE would pack things into a
black leather doctor's bag
and drive off into the country, where
he would pose as a doctor.
Treating poor blacks.
Bill Spann remains nearly altogether blank.
There are Spanns in Dothan and
Abbeyville and I contacted
every single one I could
find in the phone book.
But nobody seems to be related to Bill.
has disappeared without a trace
Even the private investigator I
hired can find nothing of them.
In fact the only thing the private
investigator told me was that
he knew for certain that my great
grandfather wasn't a good man
had done a lot of bad
things, and was 'friendly',
as he put it, with the
But he found nothing about Bill Spann or
Lily Spann, or any of their descendants
Two families, they both live in Alabama.
One of them is white.
One of them is black.
One of them starts with a name
one of them ends with a name
whiteness can incinerate a family.
With the heat
equal to a bomb.
Give it enough time
and whiteness will incinerate the world.
I'm driving on the road to Attalla
I'm listening to Phil Ochs singing
about a man who was murdered there
He's singing directly.
♪ Singing♪ And they shot
him on the Alabama road.
Forgot about what the Bible told.
They shot him with that letter in his hand.
As though he were a dog and not a man.
They shot him on the Alabama road
Did you say it was a shame when he died?
Did you say he was a fool because he tried?
Did you wonder who had fired the gun?
Did you know that it was
you that fired the gun?
Did you say it was a shame when he died?
Someone's following me again.
They have been for a while.
I slowed down.
And so did they.
I Speed up.
And so did they.
And I go faster.
And so do they.
♪ Singing♪ Can you talk to him? x5
♪ singing♪ Oh my Lord winter is here.
and I spend my summer days resting
in the shade by the willow tree.
I heard the fog march
through town last night
Footprints in snow. My country's
heartbeat's grown cold
I will close your eyes. The
country's blind with you.
The castles on the coast
are filled up with smoke
Hold your tongue or fall.
I'll find the hole in the fisherman's net.
Dive deep or sink or swim. faster now
Swim faster now
Take my hand. We'll take the Lord's
'Cause I heard tales of the shire,
music and fire, deep in sandstone eyes