Seventy miles east of Dallas lies the City of Grand Saline. This otherwise textbook rural Texas town is fabled to be the producer of all the pretzel salt Americans consume.
But it's also a city burdened with an ugly reputation. For black Texans, Grand Saline represents a place to avoid at all costs; a city perceived to be so racist that people of color don’t even stop for gas on the way through.
But does the city deserve that kind of reputation? Its residents don’t think so – even as younger residents tell stories of brutality and racism in the not-so-distant past.
The truth is, these stories of bullying and intimidation and terrorized black residents run out of town might really just be stories. But they are powerful enough, convincing enough stories to keep African-Americans far away from the town nicknamed ‘Big Salt.’
And they were powerful enough to compel one man – a white Christian minister – to take one dramatic step to bring attention to Grand Saline’s character.
On this episode of Convo, a look at the complex nature of Grand Saline’s reputation, as told by residents and by two filmmakers, and at the death of Charles Moore in the name of social justice that has, four years on, finally started the wider conversation he was hoping for.
A visit with filmmakers Joel Fendelman and James Chase Sanchez, the makers of the documentary feature film, Man On Fire.
In June of 2014, Rev. Charles Moore pulled into a strip mall parking lot in Grand Saline, Texas, and tacked a typewritten letter under the windshield wiper of his car. Not long after, he knelt on a car seat cushion, doused himself with gasoline, and lit himself on fire in broad daylight in front of several horrified witnesses.
The suicide was a message that Grand Saline, a small Texas city 70 miles east of Dallas, needed to atone for its racist sins. Moore was white, but spent his adult life fighting for equal treatment of and against discrimination to historically put-upon populations – African-Americas; gays; women.
Moore's suicide inspired an article in Texas Monthly later that year. And that article, in turn, inspired two filmmakers – one of whom grew up in this same town with the reputation for being a racist stronghold – to make a documentary about Moore's suicide and the darker side of Grand Saline's history.
The film, like the article, is titled Man On Fire. I spoke to the filmmakers about their approach to the story of Charles Moore -- why they made the choices they made, and what they learned.
You can also catch the film Man On Fire on PBS Independent Lens. It will be available for streaming at PBS.org on Dec. 18. It is scheduled to be aired nationally on PBS Independent Lens on Jan. 28. (Dates subject to change)
More information about the film and its makers is available at www.ManOnFireFilm.com.