Man on Fire

“June 23, 2014: A 79-year-old white Methodist minister named Charles Moore drove to an empty parking lot in his old hometown of Grand Saline, Texas, and set himself on fire. He left a note on his car’s windshield explaining that this act was his final protest against the virulent racism of the community and his country at large. Man on Fire goes back to Grand Saline – population 3,266 – to try to uncover the truth about the town’s ugly past and the fervor for God and justice that drove Moore to his shocking final act.

This horrifying moment intertwines with a town's history that almost no one seems to want to talk about.” –

The film premieres Dec. 17 on PBS stations as part of the Independent Lens series.

James Chase Sanchez and the late Rev. Charles Moore never knew each other, but they shared a common cause.

The fight against racism.

It was Moore's self-immolation, setting himself on fire in the small East Texas town of Grand Saline in 2014, that inspired Sanchez to tell the story in a documentary that will air on PBS on Dec. 17.

Sanchez could not get the incident out of his mind. Why, he asked himself, would someone do this to themselves?

Inside, growing up in Grand Saline, as did Moore, Sanchez understood the stronghold of racism. The town has often been referred to as the stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. Tales of lynchings and even decapitations are connected with the town.

Moore's story became the basis of Sanchez’s dissertation and was later made into a documentary entitled Man on Fire. It premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in January in Park City, Utah, and won the International Documentary Association’s David L. Wolper Student Documentary Award this year for university-level student productions.

The Dec. 17 broadcast is part of PBS's Independent Lens television series.

Sanchez received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas-Tyler in 2009, followed by his master’s in 2011. He completed his doctorate in rhetoric and composition at Texas Christian University in 2017.

Today, Sanchez is an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Middlebury College in Vermont. He spoke to the Fort Worth Business Press about his experiences.

How did the experience of growing up around racism help shape you into a better adult?

I think after I left Grand Saline, I became more cognizant of racism in society. I quickly learned that the racism that was supported systemically in this community wasn’t the same at the university I attended. Ultimately, this led to me wanting to study race because I was fascinated with how I was affected by racist discourse as a kid and how others in my community were affected by it as well.

How did you find out about what the Rev. Charles Moore had done, and what made you want to make the documentary?

I heard about Moore’s death a few minutes after it happened. Someone in Grand Saline posted about it on Facebook, and I kept hearing more and more stories. Eventually, two days later, I read the letter Charles left behind on his car windshield, asking Grand Saline to repent for their racism. And in this moment, I realized that if I had one story to tell, it had to be this story because it highlighted my scholarly interests in race and social protest.

A year and a half after Moore’s death, I was fortunate enough to meet Joel Fendelman, director of the film, through a mutual friend. We began discussing Moore’s story, and soon we found a common interest in producing a documentary. So, honestly, my interests in the film came out of a fortunate encounter in meeting Joel.

What is the best advice you have for battling racism today?

I think most important thing to keep in mind is to understand that racism is systemic. That means though there are racists in society today who openly say bigoted epithets, most racism is more under the surface and can be seen in our education system, courtrooms, prisons, hospitals and other institutions. We need to focus on dismantling institutions that support and preserve racism and hopefully, by doing so, we can also better address individual racism as well.

Do you feel America is going in the right or wrong direction concerning racism?

In 2008, we were promised a “post-racial America” with the election of [President Barack] Obama. That was naïve for many of us in America to buy into. As other writers have said, I think we can see the election of President Trump, and, in this sense, the election of his rhetoric, as a direct response to Obama’s presidency.

I wouldn’t say that racism is worse than before or better. But for that past couple of years, it has been more out in the open. While that is bad, it also helps us point to obvious systems that continue to support racism in America today. Some of the groups showing this racism, like the white nationalists marching in Charlottesville or the Proud Boys, aren’t always labelled specifically as racist groups in America, but they show us how the racism that many of us thought disappeared a decade ago never really went away. Rather, it just evolved.

Do you ever get back to East Texas and your roots? Do you still have family there? How are things there today?

I go back to East Texas sometimes during the holidays, and I only moved to Middlebury last August. My family still lives in the Tyler and Lake Fork areas. But I always find it odd coming back home. While I have some wonderful memories growing up in Grand Saline and loving my time there, it feels so distant. I think this is because I have changed as a person, and I am striving to make my home community better as well.

Are you working on any other projects?

Right now I am working on a book project on Grand Saline, tentatively titled The Salt of the Earth: The Rhetoric of White Supremacy. This research project better focuses on the mechanisms of white supremacy in the 21st century and how we might disrupt them as a society. Other than that, Joel and I are looking at a couple of documentary projects that fit our cultural interests, but we haven’t landed on anything solid quite yet.

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