Civil Rights Era: The Mark Pinsky interview on putting ghosts to rest

Cover Mark Pinsky Met Her on the MountainMARK PINSKY isn’t laughing. And, this is a writer who is famous for his humor. He ranks as one of the nation’s most creative journalists in covering religion—and is the author of two fun books for the whole family: The Gospel According to Disney and The Gospel according to The Simpsons.

Now, however, Mark is turning to the True Crime genre for a gripping story of murder and corruption that springs from his own life. In the book, Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan, Mark returns to his roots as a young journalist in North Carolina in 1970.

Most top journalists at the zenith of their careers find themselves still haunted by a few stories they encountered that remained unresolved. Writing as the Editor of ReadTheSpirit with 40 years of journalism behind me, at this point, I agree with Mark: These memories of cold cases spark in us the kind of yearning you’ve seen in television dramas when veteran detectives remember cold cases they were never able to lay to rest. Journalists feel the same lingering concern.

Here’s what is especially timely about Mark’s return to his own cold case after 40 years:

The horrific murder he re-investigates (and seems to solve in this new book) revives the life of a popular, young, VISTA-anti-poverty worker whose body was found in the trunk of a car along an unpaved logging road in the mountains. To place this in historic context: Nancy Morgan’s brutal murder came two years after the assassinaton of Martin Luther King Jr. The year Nancy Morgan was killed opened with the trial of the Chicago Seven, young white and black activists whose convictions in 1970 wouldn’t be reversed by an appeals court until two years later. While incidents of civil rights-related violence popped up all over the U.S. in 1970, Americans’ fears still focused on the South. James Dickey’s gripping novel, Deliverance, hit bookstores in 1970 and would become a major movie in 1972.

As Pinsky’s investigation shows, Nancy Morgan’s murder involved the kind of deeply entrenched, small-town political networks that had become so tragically corrupt in many communities across the South. Deliverance was set in an isolated wilderness area in northern Georgia; Nancy Morgan’s murder was in mountainous Madison County, which borders on Tennessee in the far-western section of North Carolina where that state touches the northern tip of Georgia.

MARTIN LUTHER KING WEEK: Realizing His Dreams

At ReadTheSpirit, we selected this author interview with Mark Pinsky to appear in this special week of remembering Dr. King’s teachings. As 2014 opens, we are hearing reports of another national wave of layoffs at newspapers and magazines. As veteran journalists leave the long-time resources of their once-powerful publications, we hope that new forms of journalism will arise and continue to pursue important stories, involving justice for the vulnerable—as Mark Pinsky has done in this case. As a reader, you can support this effort by buying a copy of Mark’s book from Amazon (click on the cover above) and by reading the profiles in our own Interfaith Peacemakers Month series.

Bono and the band U2 wrote one of the most eloquent hymns of hope for Dr. King’s legacy, from which we borrow our front-page headline this week:
Sleep
Sleep tonight
And may your dreams
Be realized.
If the thundercloud
Passes rain
So let it rain
Rain down on him.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH MARK PINSKY ON …
‘MET HER ON THE MOUNTAIN’

Mark Pinsky with some of his research materials for "Met Her on the Mountain" (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Mark Pinsky with some of his research materials for “Met Her on the Mountain” (Photo courtesy of the author.)

DAVID: You open this page-turner of a book with two lines from the American folk song Tom Dooley, which is loosely based on a 19th-century murder in North Carolina. The lines are: “I met her on the mountain, There I took her life.” This book taps deeply into our American anxiety about evil lurking in remote Southern towns.

MARK: It’s true that we are connecting with a long tradition that, in music, sometimes is called a “murder ballad.” That includes Tom Dooley and so many other songs like Pretty Polly, Banks of the Ohio and so many others.

DAVID: You and I both were part of the wave of young journalists in the 1970s who headed into the South, particularly into the Appalachian region, to write about communities that had been largely isolated from mainstream American culture. There was a great deal of injustice to write about both coming from these communities—like racism—and being forced upon these communities—like destructive mining. While you were in North Carolina as a reporter, I was over in eastern Kentucky. This really was a time in which the divisions between “insiders” and “outsiders” still were quite turbulent.

MARK: Yes, as a journalist, I was very much aware of the cultural insularity and the position of outsiders in those areas. There was a long history of outsiders coming in, claiming that they wanted to help—but doing more harm than good. Some of the missionaries who went into the mountains came with what they thought of as aid—but their aid was accompanied by what felt like disdain and condemnation for people living there. Even as the culture from this region became popular—like the music of the mountains—it didn’t benefit many people there. This particular region of North Carolina in my book was known for its musicians and a lot of people came from the outside, learned from the musicians—and went back home and profited in their own careers from the traditional musicians’ work.

DAVID: Right. I was in eastern Kentucky at a time when a lot of people where cruising through the mountains picking up “folk art” for pennies and reselling it at a profit. Remember that 1976 was the bicentennial and everyone seemed eager to grab hold of a bit of the mountains, as we entered the 1970s.

MARK: We have to remember as journalists: We always will be outsiders in that region, even if we lived and worked there for a time as reporters. Honestly, I would have preferred it if a regional author had written the true-crime book on Nancy Morgan at some point over the years. But, now that more than 40 years have passed and no one has written her story—I just felt it was my responsibility to finally tell her story.

And, it wasn’t as though I suddenly drove back there and wrote this book. I had been visiting that region over a 20-year period, getting to know people as I worked on this research. Many people were very helpful and encouraged this project.  I have friends who live there. I’ll always be an outsider, it’s true, but this book is something I’ve been thinking about and working on for many, many years.

What inspired Nancy Morgan?

DAVID: Describe Nancy a little bit. I don’t want to confuse readers. Nancy wasn’t a crusading activist. She wasn’t like a hero in a John Grisham novel who suddenly found herself locked in an angry feud with evil forces. She was a well-meaning and apparently well-liked VISTA worker helping poor families.

MARK: Yes, she was widely liked, but not universally. The people who worked most closely with her did love her and they developed a loyalty to her. But she did butt heads with some leaders in the county. Remember that in this region there was a general suspicion and dislike for people who arrived through this kind of program. VISTA workers were seen, by some, as the latest in a 200-year-long parade of outsiders arriving to change people’s lives.

A lot of American women who today are in their 60s would recognize Nancy’s story. Her life tracked the kinds of influences that shaped many lives in that era. She was raised in a middle-class home—in a military home with a father who served in the Air Force. She had a fairly stable, middle-class suburban life. She didn’t think too much about what she wanted to do in life, but then the civil rights movement and Vietnam War unfolded. She saw the series of assassinations that we all remember at that time. You can see in her letters that she changed from a sheltered suburban kid into this young woman with a rising social conscience. She came to oppose the Vietnam War. She changed her major in college to social welfare, which was like a social-work course of study today.

She decided that, before going on to graduate school, she would try working with VISTA and she wanted to help people. She was a spiritual searcher, not someone who was locked into one particular religious doctrine. She attended various churches looking for a place she felt was consistent with her political consciousness. But she also was inspired by Catherine Marshall’s novel, Christy, the story of a young woman who moves into the mountains to teach at a Quaker mission school. There are parallels with Nancy’s experience, although Christy is set much earlier. And, it was a combination of those influences that brought Nancy to the southern Appalachians in North Carolina.

DAVID: In our interview, I’m not going to spoil the book by asking too many questions that will reveal what happened to Nancy. The book is less than 300 pages and is a gripping “read.” I don’t want to give away too much. But I will say this: The reason her murder wasn’t solved had to do with this deep chasm between insiders and outsiders. No one in the region was willing to really go after a suspect who was among the inside circle of power brokers in that county.

MARK: That’s right, the insider-outsider division is an important part of this story. You have to remember that this is a beautiful part of the country, so people have moved into this region. Outsiders keep coming. Well, in an unsolved case like this, opinions become deeply divided. The outsider view is: This was such a horrible crime that only a local person could have done it. The insider view among people whose families have lived there for generations is: This was such a horrible crime that it had to have been committed by outsiders.

DAVID: The assumptions are mirror opposites. But, as we read your book, you seem pretty sure that you’ve solved the case.

MARK: I would describe my certainty as “80 percent sure.” I am persuaded that I have identified the figure who was responsible for what happened to Nancy. This was a man who, at that time in that area, was able to act with virtual impunity. He had a record of assault, but he managed to avoid prison.

DAVID: The irony is that he wasn’t convicted of Nancy’s murder, but you found that he is in prison.

MARK: Yes, he is effectively serving a life sentence for poisoning his own daughter, so he’s not free and he’s not going anywhere. But, of course, he was never charged with Nancy’s murder.

DAVID: As we close this interview, I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that this region of North Carolina, today, is out for your blood, Mark. In fact, you wrote a note in your Mark Pinsky website some weeks ago about a warm reception you received down there. You appeared at a number of events to share the book with folks in that part of the country. After one appearance, you wrote: “In Hot Springs, near where Nancy Morgan’s body was found … we had our best turnout: 60 people for a reading-and-signing benefit for the county library. Most were post-1960s ‘newcomers,’ but we had a good representation of older natives, too. … Good discussion following.”

MARK: When I went to these events, I was unsure of the reception I would receive. From all my visits over the years, I have some friends who live there and I knew they would be sympathetic. And it turned out to be a very good experience. In one of the audiences was the first VISTA worker assigned to Madison County in 43 years. She works with adolescent girls to provide educational enrichment programs. So, VISTA is returning to the region. People were very very interested in the book and they asked a lot of good questions.

DAVID: And I’m going to recommend the book to our readers, as well.

Care to Read More?

INTERFAITH PEACEMAKERS MONTH: Working with international peacemaker Daniel Buttry and guest writers, we are publishing 31 stories about 31 men and women who risked crossing boundaries to make peace. If you are intrigued by Mark Pinsky’s work, then you will enjoy these inspiring stories of Interfaith Peacemakers.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. Thanks David. Excellent interview. Keep up the good work. Oh how I miss all the excellent religion writers….and am so glad they are popping up all over the place still writing incredible pieces. This book sounds like a must read.