A few months before my book came out, I got a call. “This is the other radical Watkins cousin,” a voice said.
I said, “I didn’t know I had a radical cousin.
It was Thomas Naylor, a Mississippi cousin I hadn’t seen since high school. Our grandfathers were two of six Watkins brothers. We were born in the same year in the same town, but grew up hardly knowing one another. You could do that in our many-cousined clan, especially since my parents shunted me off to school a year early and Thomas and I were never in the same class.
We got to know one another during that long phone conversation, and through his many follow-up letters, written in spiky, almost unreadable, print with a green marker. He taught Economics at Duke for thirty years and retired to Vermont. He was the author and co-author of thirty books.
Thomas turned out to be far more radical than I ever dreamed of being. I wrote a memoir about growing up liberal during the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, and running away. Thomas founded the Second Vermont Republic, seeking secession from the Union. The U.S. had become too large, he claimed, and could no longer be managed as a democracy. Vermont would be part of the Northern Kingdom, with Canada as its major trading partner. Having few resources for the rest of the country to envy, he claimed the State wouldn’t be missed.
We both had disagreed with our family’s conservative politics and talked about the moment the realization hit us that something was terribly wrong with the way we lived in the South. My awakening came at 18, when Brown v. Board of Education integrated the schools. Thomas said he woke up during Summer Bible School in the fifth grade: a visiting anthropologist spoke about the non-existent difference between the races. It speaks to the silence liberals and moderates felt obliged to maintain in Mississippi, that we felt the same and never knew.
My book came out in 2011, and Thomas was my best cheerleader. He had a huge network of friends, relatives and colleagues. He told everyone about the book. When I read in Jackson, he flew in from Vermont with both his children and hosted a large dinner for the Watkins cousins. It tickled him that the restaurant was in a bed and breakfast once owned by the head of Sovereignty Commission.
Thomas died on December 12, after suffering a massive stroke. His wife Magdalena will bring his ashes to Mississippi in March, spreading them in the places he found meaningful—including, she says, his parents’ graves. “Which, I guess,” our cousin Vaughn McRae said, “is a kind of reconciliation.”
He was a generous friend with a brilliant and original mind. We didn’t know each other long enough and I will miss him.