Sam Burnham, Curator
It’s a three word name that just about anyone in Georgia, Tennessee, or Alabama knows. A homegrown jurist with a sharp legal mind and a folksy presentation became a legend over a 65+ year career. Bobby Lee Cook died just a week past his 96th birthday. During his life he was an in-demand defense attorney who represented rural folks and international business magnates.
It seems unlikely that one of the world’s best lawyers would operate out of an office in Summerville, Georgia. He was born and raised in Chattooga County and returned there after completing law school at Vanderbilt. Despite the isolation of his hometown he would be sought out for high profile cases.
Cook represented Savannah antiques dealer Jim Williams in the 1981 murder of Danny Hansford. Although Williams was convicted, Cook was able to appeal and get the conviction overturned. The case inspired the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as well as the subsequent movie.
Cook also defended Wayne Williams who was convicted of the Atlanta child murders in 1982.
Cook’s legal career is believed to be the basis for the Andy Griffith television series Matlock, which ran from 1986-1995.
According to Gordon College’s President’s Report, Cook won approximately 80% of his murder cases. His annual income was estimated at $1 million.
Cook’s reputation makes him a bit of a folk hero...or villain, depending on who you ask. While Ben Matlock tends to suggest a benevolent mastermind working tirelessly to defend the innocent, defense attorneys are often demonized for defending the reprehensible.
In 2002, former president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice Barry Tarlow told the Los Angeles Times “My dear friend, Bobby Lee Cook, the great lawyer from Summerville, Georgia once told me ‘the best defense in the world is the SOB deserved to die’” It’s effective but it isn’t particularly endearing. It’s probably a good way to accumulate some enemies and antagonists.
Cook’s success and influence in such a small town fueled rumors and tales of corruption. There are those that even suggest he ran the whole county, the local government securely tucked in his watch pocket. It wouldn’t be that unusual in Georgia as local political machines are fairly common. But rumors are notorious in their own right. So who knows for sure?
What is known for sure is that Bobby Lee Cook became a Georgia legend while remaining true to his small town roots. He chose a career and became one of the best ever at it. With Cook gone, defendants are probably in greater danger than they were with him here. Prosecutors are probably in an easier spot. It would be hard to imagine that his legacy would not go on in the legal system of Georgia.
And so Summerville and the rest of Georgia say goodbye to a giant. I’ll leave the major conclusions to biographers. Godspeed, Bobby Lee.
Sam Burnham, Curator
There is something deep in the soul of Southerners that permanently imbeds auto racing in the culture. For over a century they have built infernal machine - wheeled monsters that tear at the ground, hug the curves, and propel their operators to victory...or leave them entrapped in a mangled pile of rubble. Racing existed in The South long before gasoline engines. Acceleration, speed, maneuverability, agility, and courage have been tested on horseback, in buggies, aboard boats, and whatever conveyance the competitive found convenient. But the race car has a unique place in the Southern culture.
When bootleggers needed to transport their goods to customers, their livelihoods, even their very freedom, depended on them outrunning the competition. The sense of pride and an intense drive of competitiveness led to the birth of stock car racing and, of course, NASCAR. The sport had its venues. Some of them remain to this day. Others, as I have written about previously, have fallen into disuse and as far as the sport is concerned, they’re lost.
These tracks have inspired a member of NASCAR royalty. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent years mapping their locations, researching their histories, and now he and his production team are tracking them down. They are documenting what is going on at the locations now as well as meeting with people who know the history of these speedways. The work is being compiled into a series called Lost Raceways which is available on NBC’s streaming service, Peacock.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a well known figure in racing. His father was one of the greatest ever before his tragic death at the finish of the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt Jr. grew up going to speedways and is familiar with some of the featured tracks. His cohost, Matthew Dillner is also from a racing family. His father, Bob Dillner, might not have the national name recognition as Dale Earnhardt but he was a successful driver in the Long Island, NY area. Back in the 60s and 70s racing was much more local and regional and drivers like Dillner could be famous and successful on that level.
That’s kinda what the show is about anyway.
So Lost Speedways invites us into the world of racing that existed before the Allison Brothers and Cale Yarborough literally fought NASCAR into the national spotlight. Through eight episodes we see venues, both dirt and paved tracks, that hosted various types of racing over the years. Some of the sites are abandoned. Some have found new life through some creative reinventions. Others have promise for a future if the right people and resources appear.
The stories include trying to determine if Dale and Ralph Earnhardt really did race against each other, one of early racing’s most dangerous tracks, midget racing in a Negro League Baseball stadium, and a federal moonshine raid during a race. There’s even a story of a race that went so sour a driver was arrested on the track and his mechanic ran out of the pits and fought the cops... you know, racing stuff.
In many ways the show points us back to a grittier, less refined era of our history. In some ways we have improved as a society. In others, we have lost our way. The show celebrates this time but it doesn't run from the less desirable truths. Viewers get a well rounded telling of a great story.
The episodes are a bit short but not incomplete. You might wish you had more of the experience but the topic is covered. These guys have done their homework and their guides remember their experiences. It’s a wonderful show that comes highly recommended.
Sam Burnham, Curator
I was watching the latest episode of TrueSouth the other night. I’ve gone back to that episode a few times to revisit a scene that has stuck with me. I’ve thought long on it. I’ve pondered it. Something needs to be said.
John T. Edge was sitting at a table with Martha Goodard, owner of the 14th Street Grill in Phenix City, Alabama. She was reluctant to talk. He made the comment that “She feared we were there to pry, maybe even poke fun. But we weren’t.” That’s where the beauty of the show really stood out. John T has a gift. He can walk into a small town dive and connect with the people there. He can win their trust, not by trickery but by sincerity. That’s how he told half the story of that episode.
You can’t really blame Martha Goodard. She’s running a hot dog joint in a town still known for its wild past. Even I’ve heard a first hand account of “Sin City” in its heyday. So when a bunch of strangers roll into town with cameras asking questions she, understandably, suspected evil intent.
When she finally opened up, she told a story that’s all too familiar with Southerners her age. She spent years working on her daddy’s farm as well as in the cotton mill. Her hands know what work feels like. She has a grit that comes from such a life. But it’s that grit that has kept her restaurant going through the pandemic. It’s honorable. It’s dignified.
But this is also a way of life that is frequently maligned in certain segments of the media. There are camera wielding crews that would turn Ms. Goodard and her restaurant into a punchline for a laugh or perhaps to prove some political point. If you’ve lived in The South long enough you’ve seen it. Perhaps you’ve even been the target.
This is one of those phenomena that hits places like Atlanta’s West End and the town of West Point quite equally. It’s true in Phenix City or the big city. Poor urban blacks and poor rural whites both know marginalization. They both know exploitation. Their experiences are what fuel their distrust of media. Their experiences are what put them on the defensive. Understanding how someone votes, how they relate to the rest of the world, how they choose to open up or shut down, all depends on understanding exploitation and marginalization. It all comes down to trust and that is earned.
When a corporation or a politician exploit someone it is usually private. The anguish is around the dinner table, making a family budget, or losing sleep over making ends meet. When someone with a camera or perhaps a column in The New Yorker exploits someone, it’s very public. It’s humiliating and it drives stereotypes and creates more exploitation.
That’s precisely what makes what John T did so powerful. He took the time and connected with Martha Goodard. He used his camera to show her humanity. Instead of some linthead turned hot dog maker, she was more accurately cast as a hardworking entrepreneur who is running a business while caring about the well-being of her employees and meeting the needs of her customers. On TrueSouth she didn’t become a punchline. She became a hero.
That is the power of media. It can be wielded to show the world the truth about The South. It can be used to tell the stories of the marginalized, the abused, the ridiculed. It has the power to celebrate and honor just as much as it can humiliate or exploit.
There is a lot of talk of unity and healing in the various outlets of the media of late. There are a few ways that this could go. I want to look at two.
The first is the now defunct Jeep Super Bowl ad. Bruce Springsteen (who is temporarily 'problematic' at the moment) extolling the virtues of "the middle" and all the ways that we can come together in some sort of peaceful and harmonious ideal. In this scenario we get a cinematic utopia of the rural landscape of the American Heartland. The little chapel, the flying flag, the passing train, and The Boss riding in his Jeep pull at our heartstrings. It is a beautifully made ad. But it is just that. It is just an ad. It puts a pleasant thought in our minds and maybe even makes us want to reach for unity. But Bruce isn't really one to lecture us on unity and meeting in the middle.
On the other hand, I know some of John T's beliefs on politics and culture. There are things I know he and I disagree on. I can promise you there are things he and Martha Goodard disagree on. Yet there he sat at a table in her restaurant patiently connecting with her and telling he story to his audience. He portrays her as a responsible employer who cares for her employees and her customers. He tells us that her life and her experiences are important, that they matter to the culture of The South. He went out of his way to make this connection, to earn her trust. He did not have to do this. He could have ridden around Phenix City in a Jeep and gave stirring narration. But he got out of the car. He met Martha Goodard where she was. He didn't just pontificate about unity. He actually practiced it. In the process he made a beautiful story and he made the world a little bit better.
That is how we will find unity.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire