Sample text for The ghosts of Medgar Evers : a tale of race, murder, Mississippi, and Hollywood / Willie Morris.
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This is not a book about the business of moviemaking, or the inner workings of the modern corporate film studio, or the often fierce competition among high-powered executives, stars, and agents, or the sophisticated technology demanded in contemporary motion pictures. All these are important, of course, and as a layman and newcomer with no previous expertise in filmmaking I have tried to deal with them.
Rather, this book is about the individual people involved in a large endeavor in what everyone in the trade calls "the Industry," how they came together, the day-to-day realities, the eternal struggle in good movies between commerce and art, and how these things related to the essence of this particular film itself. It is about one peculiar place, Mississippi, set as it is in the larger American context, and race and commitment and justice, and how all these crystallized in a real-life drama: the interrelated complexities of the merging of these, and what these might suggest about the cosmos of Hollywood and the modern American society that it both shapes and reflects. My intention, then, was to follow from beginning to conclusion the filming of a movie about which I had some inside knowledge; to make a side-road dalliance into a subculture I knew little about, a dalliance that might interest readers much as, for instance, Picture, Lillian Ross's enthralling 1952 book on the filming of John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage, had, and in a different perspective Sidney Lumet's 1995 Making Movies and John Gregory Dunne's 1997 Monster: Living Off the Big Screen. All this would prove a personal diversion from the essentially solitary calling of the writer, for a Hollywood movie is a surpassingly communal enterprise, one that in a maverick kind of spirit I welcomed and know I will never encounter again.
Along the way, however, this book became about more than that--it became a chronicle of the hazards, pitfalls, and surprises involved these days in making a meaningful, dramatic, nondocumentary movie based on authentic and recent history, especially on such a volatile history set in such a volatile milieu and encompassing such a range of flesh-and-blood living people to be depicted with their own proudly personal and emotional investments, for these incipient stresses were always just beneath the surface of things.
Ghosts of Mississippi was perhaps fated to be embraced in the turmoils and vagaries of our times: a contemporary American culture, in William Styron's words, 'dominated by hostility and suspicion, by doctrinaire attitudes in matters of gender and race, by an ugly spirit of partisanship and exclusion, and by an all-round failure of mutual generosity.' The controversies and conflicts that would come later might in some measure have been foreseen, and indeed the elements of these were quietly present at the very start, but I myself was not nearly so prescient as to have augured their full dimensions. From one of the finest film directors of our day on down, there was an honest spirit of excitement that enveloped this film from its inception. I had seldom seen people so caught up in an undertaking. Everyone was trying so hard and was so happy, with little clue of what might be waiting. Would Ghosts of Mississippi satisfy its original promise? If so, why? If not, why not? If Ghosts had subsequently swept the Oscars and been a box-office smash, this book would likely have turned into a valentine to moviemaking, to the drama and allure and power of it, but in movies as in life the best and most honorable intentions sometimes go awry. Making an ambitious movie with an eye to human things that matter is never a clear sail, and certain innocent decisions, not in the least devious, would come to have unforeseen results. In a most contemporary way Ghosts of Mississippi would become not only a movie, but an almost symbolic public document raising questions about who we are as Americans and Southerners in the late 1990s, who we are as whites and blacks, and what we expect or do not expect of ourselves. Ghosts would elicit responses, both petulant and admiring, across an unusual national spectrum.
Hollywood was the last place in the world I might have expected to raise certain questions and to learn certain truths about Mississippi and Mississippians and America and Americans. The filming of this movie would turn out to be as delicate and multilayered as the final Beckwith trial itself and all that had gone before, for Ghosts would represent nothing if not a stark reliving of an unquenchable past.
In 1994 I was drawn to an extraordinary story. That year in Jackson, Mississippi, I covered for a national magazine the third and final trial of the radical white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith for the June 12, 1963, assassination of the thirty-seven-year-old Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, shot in the back with a powerful deer rifle in the driveway of his house before his wife and three young children. I had interested a longtime comrade of mine, a prominent Hollywood and Broadway producer, in pursuing the intriguing tale of how the murderer, freed by two hung juries thirty years before'both all white and all male'was finally brought to justice by Mississippians. (Beckwith's lawyers would appeal the decision to the state supreme court.) Fred Zollo, the producer, had gone to Rob Reiner, the director; the film would come to fruition much more swiftly than the vast majority of big Hollywood movies.
To understand the world, William Faulkner once said, you have to understand a place like Mississippi. One loved a place, he wrote, not so much because of its virtues, but despite its faults. Faulkner understood Mississippi in his soul, and so did Medgar Evers. It is America's Ireland. Richard Ford observes that it, as with the larger South, has produced such a wealth of writers because it is so complicated it takes that many writers to interpret it.
One of Faulkner's most persistent themes, as Malcolm Cowley wrote about the great tortured labyrinth of his work, was 'the belief in Isaac McCaslin's heart that the land itself has been cursed by slavery, and that the only way for him to escape the curse is to relinquish the land,' and that the proponents of slavery and secession, in that dark curse, 'built not on the rock of stern morality but on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage.' Faulkner's work abounds in the truths and complexities and harkenings, the Dilseys and Beauchamps and Christmases, the severance the society inflicts on two seven-year-old boys who are comrades, one white and one black, and that to the character Roth Edmonds is the 'day the old curse of his fathers, the old haughty ancestral pride based not on any value but an accident of geography, stemmed not from courage and honor but from wrong and shame descended to him'; and aging Ike McCaslin, in the last finger of the vanishing Mississippi Delta woods, tells Roth Edmonds's black mistress to go north and marry one of her own kind: 'the instant when, without moving at all, she blazed silently down at him. "Old man," she said, 'have you lived so long and forgotten so much that you don't remember anything you ever knew or felt or even heard about love?' "
When you live in Mississippi you cannot escape race, because it is in its deepest convoluted being and in the very soil, which haunts you with its lineage. In his 1996 Dixie Rising: How the South Is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture, Peter Applebome, an Easterner with The New York Times, observed of race in the South 'what Southerners tend to know instinctively and Yankees have never figured out. Race is so powerful that we usually can only see it in searing, vivid colors'"I Have a Dream" or Mississippi Burning . . . that there are moments when you remember that the shades of gray are so infinite and subtle, the dreams so elusive, that the bright lights are more likely to blind than to guide."
It is no accident that Mississippi elicits such rage and passion and fidelity in its sons and daughters of both races, in Faulkner and Evers, or that Northerners have forever been beguiled by what takes place here, for Mississippi has always been the crucible of the national guilt. All one has to do is read Dark Journey, Neil McMillen's history of
Mississippi from the 1880s to the 1930s, with its unremitting accounts of cruelty, murder, and injustice, to have some sense of the tragedy of this soil. "As ye sow," the Book says, "so shall ye reap."
I am a sixth-generation Mississippian. I grew up in the time of "the troubles," as people sometimes refer to them here now, absorbing the turmoils and extremes of the Delta, my native ground. I went to college in Texas and in England, became an editor and writer, and observed Mississippi from a distance. I never met Medgar Evers and was living in New York at the time of his death. I wrote a book on the massive integration of the Mississippi public schools in 1970 and sensed the gradual softening of my home state's more virulent strains of racism.
Federal legislation and court decisions were central to the salubrious changes that took place. But in Mississippi the outcroppings of the past are forever with us. After years in the East, I returned here in 1980, to live and die in Dixie. There are, to draw on the Lillian Hellman title, abundant pentimentos here.
The confluence of past and present, the day-to-day mingling of the dark ghosts and the better angels of our nature, graphically evoked for me on the sets of the movie, was strange and often painful but emotionally redemptive at the same time. There has always been what historian David Sansing cites as "the other Mississippi," the Mississippi not of illiteracy but of literary tradition, not of ignominy but of nobility, not of nihilism and injustice but of charity and humanity. In both symbolism and substance, the merging of this real story and this real movie embodied for me something of the best of that indwelling vein.
The tumult of its elements and the tension of its paradoxes lay at the core of the town where I grew up, Yazoo City, sitting there on the precipice of the great Delta flatland where providence had set us down. Its rough-hewn democracy, complicated by all the visible textures of caste and class, encompassed harmless boyhood fun right along with all sorts of treacheries and tensions and deceits: murders and other lesser transgressions, rank hypocrisies, churchgoing sanctimonies, unrepentant avarice, and above all, I would someday grow to see, racial hatred and calculated repression.
The blacks who constituted nearly 60 percent of the town's population were largely quiet, or so it seemed. But every so often there were rumors of a mass uprising, and my father and the other white men would stock up on bullets and shotgun shells and lock all the doors and windows. It was planters' heaven then. The larger plantation owners, who were once going broke on ten-cent cotton, were now getting the Roosevelt relief money, funneling it to the workers in the off season, and then shutting it off when they needed the labor. They were churchgoers and whiskey drinkers all. One noticed the prolix restlessness of the young playboy planters who drove the newest Cadillacs or Lincolns or sports cars to the Peabody or the Moon Lake Casino or Bourbon Street or the roof of the Heidelberg in Jackson where they brought their own sour-mash whiskey in brown paper bags and danced with the wives of other men. In 1934, the year of my birth, 44 percent of all Agricultural Adjustment Administration payments in excess of ten thousand dollars nationwide went to ten counties in the Mississippi Delta, as cited in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. "This largesse facilitated the mechanization and consolidation of agriculture, and as federal farm programs continued, the money kept rolling in."
In 1967, four years after Medgar Evers's death, "Delta planter and U.S. Senator James Eastland received $167,000 in federal payments. The Delta's poor blacks were not nearly so fortunate, as a power structure dominated by lavishly subsidized planters declared war on the War on Poverty."
The impoverishment of the black people, in their hovels in town and their tenant shacks in the flatland, was wrenching and inscrutable, as Medgar himself would learn firsthand as an insurance salesman in the Delta in the early 1950s. And so too was that of the poor whites. We children of the middle class absorbed all this as mindlessly as we would the insects or the fireflies in driftless random, or the red water truck of the summertimes with our prancing in its wake. These childhood and teenage years were poised, fragilely and inevitably, before Brown v. Board of Education.
There are intense memories. In North Toward Home, published in the late 1960s, I described a scene of those years. On each side of the bayou running through the Delta side of town to the Yazoo River was a low concrete wall only inches from the street. On Saturdays the blacks sat in a long row on the top of the wall. White men in soiled T-shirts, with anxious, marginal countenances, would drive by in cars decorated with Rebel flags and open the doors and watch the black people topple backward off the wall like dominoes. "That really didn't happen, did it?" my Northern readers asked.
There are not many prospects in America so beautiful as a field of white cotton in the early fall; and if you stand in the right spot in late afternoon in the Delta, you catch the golden glow of autumn's setting sun, the verdant green of the trees along the rivers, the bright red mechanical cotton pickers, the panoply of white in the undulating gloaming. It makes you feel big and important in such a moment--at least those who never worked these fields--to know that the ancient Egyptians grew this same cotton, and that it has been with us since hieroglyphics.
There are not many American places where you can see so far, thirty miles away, it seems, under the copious sweep of the horizons. You can stand up there in Kansas or Nebraska and do that, but there is nothing to see except more of Kansas and Nebraska. Yet, in this glutinous and devouring soil, cotton has forever pertained to blood and guilt, as it must have too with the Egyptians.
This incredible Delta land consumed and shaped me, irrevocably and forever, as a child--it was not in my mind then, only in my pores--and as a man and a writer I find it dwells in my being. I love it beyond all measure, and I fear it too, as I always did. It is the very power of this land itself that makes you both love and fear it. It is what I am, and always will be till I die.
Here is a summer tableau from my boyhood: My friends and I drive in a vintage Plymouth with dual exhausts through the Delta stretches of Yazoo County, along some of the same roads that Medgar Evers and Byron De La Beckwith would separately travel in the fifties and sixties. All about us is the warm, deep aroma of July. The asphalt road on which we are going is built a little higher than the land that encompasses it; there are the occasional burma shave signs and, every other mile, it seems, a small concrete cross off the side where someone died in a car accident.
Soon we pass an unpainted country store mere yards from a horseshoe lake; turtles bask in the sun on logs in the water, and on the gallery of the store a sign advertising its minnows, worms, and crickets: our worms catch fish or die trying. In the distance are the spooky old Indian mounds where we came as children in search of arrowheads and earthen fragments of pottery. In the flatness they are the only rises; they resemble miniature grassy hills.
Soon we find ourselves on one of the largest plantations of our neighborhood. It is three thousand continuous acres, we have always been told, beginning at a tortuous creek seething with crawfish and cottonmouths and stretching all the way to the most dramatic bend in the entire Yazoo River. All about us the plants show green and white in the rows; occasionally deeper green patches appear in the farther fields, which means they are experimenting with rice and irrigation. posted signs dot the dark soil. As we drive farther, the blacks are everywhere, ambling along the road, bent low before the cotton in the ancient ritual, ebony silhouettes in the sunshine. They stand and wave, as if the car itself is a magnet that ripples among the flesh. The tiny unpainted shacks pervade the landscape, often with a tree or two in front, a worn-out tire roped to it for a swing, a modest vegetable garden planted with corn and tomatoes, a slumping outhouse with a half-moon carved in the door, and a clothesline from which garments flutter in the breeze.
After a time the shacks appear more frequently, in clusters along the road, with barefooted children in ragged clothes staring out at our approach, naked infants in the grassless yards, and hybrid dogs under the arching chinaberries. We go by the schoolhouse, a gaunt wooden structure set back from the road with a rusty sloping tin roof and, as if in afterthought, a whitewashed porch filled with derelict furniture. And then to the commissary, another unpainted and unadorned edifice, a dozen black men in front lifting sacks of flour from a truck and one of the enormous new mechanical pickers parked in back. A strange sense of doom seems to hover over the land itself.
"If it wasn't for the Negroes," I overheard a "moderate" white lawyer say in those Delta years, "people around here wouldn't have nothin' to talk about."
I remember pondering this; it was indeed the simple truth. Mainly they were there, they were ours, and they were blamed for everything wrong under the sun. "A servant of servants shall ye be unto his brethren." In the town, almost every house had its black maid, who for fifteen cents an hour left her own dwelling early in the morning and did not return until late afternoon--cooking, laundering, mopping, sweeping, as Medgar Evers's mother had done. They would take the dirty clothes home with them in straw baskets balanced on their heads, boiling them in iron washtubs, scrubbing them on washboards in their backyards, pressing them with irons heated over wood fires; their labors never ceased. Then almost every second house had its yard man, Jap or Redeye or Shorty or Potluck or Shenandoah, who wore a sweaty bandanna and was given his own private Mason jar to drink tap water from.
From the womb to the tomb, the blacks tended to the substantial whites of the town: their women raising the white infants, their men digging white graves, mowing the cemetery grass, clipping the hedges surrounding the very plots of the dead. In the proper season, the town blacks went out in trucks to the plantations to work from dawn to dusk. They lived in sprawling precincts with gravel or dirt roads and situated without rhyme or design, sometimes separate from the white sections, sometimes bordering and even mingling with them. If, through some precipitous act of nature, the blacks of our town suddenly vanished from the earth, we would have been strangely empty and bereft.
As a grown man I have thought often of those who labored so against the soil and who still live now in the town, or in Memphis or Chicago or Detroit or Gary or Los Angeles, but mostly in Chicago, to which they had drifted by the thousands from the Delta with their belongings in cardboard boxes and suitcases tied with cotton clothesline; others lie now in pine boxes under the very earth they once tended. It was mysterious and cruel and profoundly interior, that merging here in the Mississippi Delta of the great European and African sources; yet it was vital and even life-giving--as if we belonged together and yet did not, the barrier between us acute and invisible. It was very strange and hard.
One Sunday morning several years ago I found myself in a Shoney's in Clarksdale in the Delta having breakfast with my friend Alex Haley. As we sat in our booth, the word began to spread that he was there. First the black waitresses began coming up to talk with him and to ask him to sign his autograph on paper napkins, then one by one came the black workers from the kitchen. The news circulated quickly, and large numbers of black people began drifting in from Highway 61 outside. In a momentary lull my companion said, "I apologize for this. It's not me really. It's the effect Roots had on black people."
"On white people, too," I suggested. In minutes a number of white Deltans entered the establishment to seek a word with Alex Haley.
I have a white friend my age, Charles Henry, whose father once farmed in the upper Delta. His mother died when he was little, and his father was courting again, and for all purposes he was raised by an illiterate black muledriver named Shotgun, whom he loved. "The black people of the Delta didn't sail past the Statue of Liberty when they came to this country," my friend once said to me. "They made this place down here. They worked to death and got nothin', except just the ground itself, and it wasn't theirs either. I'd look out from my porch at night when I was a boy and see all the coal-oil lamps in their houses and wonder what they were thinking that night with their lamps blinking in the shadows. Now I know they were thinking of the same things I was."
Of this let there be no mistaking: It is the ghost of Medgar Evers, pervasive and implacable, that reigns over everything to follow in this narrative, even in deepest Hollywood. For that reason it is important for the reader to know precisely who he was, what he did, and why he was killed.
When I was later in New York City for the premiere of Ghosts of Mississippi, I would be approached by Richard Valeriani, the longtime NBC radio and television commentator, who wanted to know how close the film was to the actual facts. He had covered the civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s, he said, and knew Medgar Evers well. "He was the best of them all," Valeriani said. "He was a very great man."
Medgar's family came from the area around Newton County, Mississippi, not far from where he himself was born and raised. His paternal grandparents were freed slaves and landowners. Over three hundred acres in nearby Scott County belonged to his paternal grandfather, Mike Evers, but whites later stole it from him through legal chicanery. His paternal grandmother was part Cherokee; his maternal great-grandfather was white. His grandparents were noted for being fiercely independent and for resisting the white establishment. Medgar was named for his great-grandfather Medgar Wright, who was half Indian and reputed to be an incorrigible slave. The derivation of the name Medgar is unknown, though it was possibly a variation of Edgar.
Medgar Evers grew up on a small farm outside Decatur, Mississippi, with three sisters and two brothers. He and his older brother, Charles, were close. Charles loved Medgar so much, he said, that on cold winter nights when the wood fire had gone out, he would get in bed first and warm up the sheets for him. Their father, who could neither read nor write, was a proud man who had a reputation for taking no nonsense from mean whites. Their mother worked as a domestic for white families in town and took in laundry, getting fifty cents a household for washing huge amounts of clothes.
Charles was ten and Medgar eight when some white men killed one of their father s friends, Willie Tingle, for supposedly looking at a white woman or insulting her. They dragged him through the streets of town behind a wagon and hung him up to a tree and shot him. For a long time his bloody clothes were allowed to remain in the field, and the Evers brothers had to pass them daily on their long walk to school.
The school they attended was a one-room shack with a potbellied stove in the middle of the floor. Rain came in through the shingled roof. One hundred or so students, grades one through eight, crowded into the one room, where they were taught by two teachers. Mississippi winters can sometimes be bitterly cold, and Charles remembered that before they got a decent fire going in the stove, the children "would all be huddled up in their old coats the white folks had worn out and given them. Some of the girls would bring old blankets to keep their feet from freezing. Maybe we would have a little spelling or a little reading, but we were too cold to study very much. Even the teacher was cold."They went to school only from mid-October to mid-February. The school closed down the rest of the time so the young blacks could join their elders in the fields.
They had to walk several miles each way to school, and when the bus with the white kids came by the driver would veer to the side and make the black children jump off the road, a routine ritual for black kids in the South then. The white students would shout, "Let's see you run, niggers!" Charles and Medgar started stationing themselves behind bushes
on both sides of the road and throwing rocks at the bus, catching it in a crossfire.
Charles remembered Medgar as a bookworm who was smarter than the rest of them and studied harder. He would sit on their back porch for hours at a time reading books. He was easygoing and popular. The two brothers developed an aversion to the white peddlers who came across the tracks and barged into the black shacks unannounced to persuade them to purchase Bibles, mail-order shoes, cheap mirrors, brushes, tonics, broken-down furniture. They had been seeing Tarzan films in what Charles described as their "little buzzard-roof movie." They watched closely while Tarzan dug his ditches and made his traps. Then they would go out and dig holes under the peddlers' trucks when they were parked somewhere and bury two-by-fours with big spikes jutting under the tires. Then they would watch from a distance as the peddlers backed over them.
Medgar was not atypical of the black American veterans from the South who fought for the country in World War II, for democratic values as they had been told, and then returned home to find that nothing had changed at all. In 1946 he, Charles, and three friends went to the county courthouse to try to register to vote. Hostile whites blocked the entrances, but they managed to reach the clerk's office, only to be turned away by armed white men. The ironies in this were most abundant, and the litany of them in Mississippi during and shortly after the war as I learned of them much later was heartrending. One of the worst I heard of, for example, occurred in a small town in the Delta during the war; a decorated black veteran still nursing an arm wound was not allowed to enter a restaurant where several Nazi prisoners and their security guard from a nearby POW camp were eating inside. Medgar knew of such instances, and they had to have moved something in his soul.
To fully understand Medgar, one has to have some appreciation of the raw rampant fear among blacks in Mississippi in the years of his NAACP stewardship. (It was the blacks who were afraid then. It is the whites who are afraid now.) For them Mississippi was essentially a police state, which used every method at its disposal to keep the Negro down. Until Medgar came along there was no real outlet for these immeasurable grievances. Many blacks were also uncomfortable with him, with the basic activisim he was engaging in, and these included some of his neighbors living in the first middle-class black subdivision in Jackson, who were apprehensive that his endeavors might bring white retribution down on their neighborhood. Hired black informers reported on his activities to white authorities.
Yet in the early 1990s before the third and conclusive Beckwith trial, in many quarters Medgar seemed to exist in collective memory mainly as the martyr figure--mythic, remote, and piously memorialized, rooted forever in that chaotic long-ago day so far removed from our blander equivocating times and, although the first victim of the notable 1960s assassinations, by far the least known among Americans of the civil rights movement's conspicuous leaders and spokesmen. He was representative surely of the finest of the older struggle, but in the popular society he was not particularly well defined in a human way, or adequately noted beyond the ritualistic deferences. Many were not especially aware of his personal character and goals, of the honor inherent in the deepest springs of his life, of the rudimentary guts of what his lonely efforts entailed. Where did this great gritty courage come from? What were its sources? To comprehend this is to comprehend the dominion of the ghost itself.
In his early efforts, at a time before sit-ins, before Freedom Riders, before Rosa Parks, before Martin Luther King, Jr., in a place of abandoned repression, he had only his wife, Myrlie, and a handful of others wholly behind him. King had his Montgomery congregation and his father's in Atlanta, a much larger web of support, and later, of course, a national forum. Implicit in these circumstances are questions of greatness that transcend race but are even more unimaginable because Medgar was black, in Mississippi, in the first half of the twentieth century, and basically alone. Beckwith did not just kill a man whose hard life had instilled a quiet fanaticism; he killed a man almost fated for martyrdom, a man whose ability to rise every morning and take on the entrenched and cruelly arrogant mores as he did was little short of incredible.
"There are no pictures of him at the head of a great, epoch-making march," Adam Nossiter observed:
His image is preserved in a few dozen grainy group shots with other speakers on a podium, meeting NAACP officials at the airport or, sleeves rolled up, taking notes in the field. There are few newsreels of him. One of the better known, a dark and jerky sequence of under thirty seconds in which he urges blacks to boycott stores on Capitol Street, conveys nothing of the heroic qualities imputed to him after his death.
It is the images of his death that are better known, the memorial march in Jackson and the ensuing riot during which defiant young blacks shouted to the armed police, "Shoot us! Shoot us!" It is the family's grief, the Arlington burial, the widow and the children being solaced in the Oval Office by John F. Kennedy. For the first time the murder of a civil rights activist had a national impact. Bob Dylan wrote a song in tribute to him, "Only a Pawn in Their Game."
By innumerable accounts of those who knew him, Medgar was a fine, decent, efficient, highly likeable family man who could not ignore the compulsions of his heart. Much of his work was dutiful and routine: trying to get people to join the NAACP, to pay their dues. In this and more dramatic quests he spent a great deal of time traveling the highways and back roads of the state. He believed in a truly integrated society. "He was a man who'd been through a great deal and in no way was a hater," a close friend and associate said of him. "He was just not a hater." In meetings with white leaders late in his life he was invariably courteous and restrained, but his emotions ran deep. He once cried openly during a talk at an NAACP meeting while describing some particularly brutal wrong, and in his last weeks people recalled him as weary to the point of collapse.
He challenged the whole white power structure, and he did so across a broad spectrum, becoming by far the most visible and aggressive civil rights activist in the state. The white supremacists were aware of him, and for good reason:
* He investigated racial murders and beatings: the killing of the fourteen-year-old Chicago child Emmett Till near the town of Money; of the Reverend George Lee, the NAACP leader in Belzoni, who was felled in a downtown neighborhood with shotgun blasts to his face, with no arrests ever made, the police claiming the shotgun buckshot pellets were dental fillings; of a farmer named Lamar Smith, murdered outside the courthouse in Brookhaven. In the perilous work of examining these and other crimes, Evers often disguised himself as a sharecropper. He developed contacts among writers for the national media and kept them informed of his discoveries, and they trusted him.
* He was constantly on the road trying to get blacks to register to vote. Both Lee and Smith had been murdered for their efforts in this regard, and countless others had been beaten and driven away. By various extralegal tactics blacks were almost totally excluded from the voting rolls. (Lyndon Johnson's Voting Rights Act would not be passed until 1965. Not until two years later would Mississippians elect their first black legislator since Reconstruction. "The first time I ever voted, I voted for myself," the legislator said.) Of all the multiple challenges to the indigenous system Medgar chose to live and work within, this may have been the most ultimately disrupting to the established white hegemony, and to the violent underlings it encouraged and condoned, because this challenge went to its wellsprings.
* As early as 1953 he was roaming the Delta photographing the horrible conditions of the black schools. (Earlier he himself had been denied admission to the University of Mississippi Law School.) After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 he strenuously advocated public-school integration and encouraged local petitions among blacks to that end, including one in my hometown of Yazoo City that culminated in disaster.
* He espoused equal access to public facilities and, near the end of his life, organized economic boycotts, mass demonstrations, and lunch-counter sit-ins. Even his more modest pursuits suggested something of the daily life of Mississippi blacks then: to be able to try on hats in stores, to use public swimming pools and libraries, to have school-crossing personnel at the black schools, to be addressed as Mr., Mrs., and Miss.
* His most towering accomplishment, however, as Adam Nossiter has eloquently noted, was "his simple presence, his standing up for the idea of racial justice, in a time and place where it was extremely dangerous to do so. He kept that idea alive in Mississippi publicly, at a time when no one else did. When other civil rights leaders came into the state in 1961, they were not carrying their message into virgin territory."
For this he was beaten while trying to integrate a bus, threatened by a mob while attempting to get an NAACP member out of jail, attacked by police outside a courtroom, and routinely trailed and harassed by cops, and he received voluminous hate mail and telephone calls and had his home firebombed. Ed King, a veteran white civil rights activist, commented after the two 1964 trials that the issue before the court was not Byron De La Beckwith's guilt or innocence "but whether Medgar Evers was guilty enough in his agitation to deserve the death sentence which Beckwith, for all white Mississippi, had carried out." (I do not believe for a moment, of course, that the killer was acting for all white Mississippians, although he probably thought he was.)
Among the stresses and complaints in which Ghosts of Mississippi would eventually be caught up was that Medgar himself was not featured more prominently. But that lay in the future.
The basic crisis in America is racism. Future reactions to Ghosts would demonstrate to me that more than ever, perhaps, we are unable to think clearly and rationally about racial matters. The O. J. Simpson case of the mid-1990s, with all it symbolized, would divide the nation like nothing since Vietnam. The church burnings in the South would be frequent reminders of how close we sometimes remained to the older nihilism. With a 30 percent black underclass and hardening attitudes on both sides, the chasm would often seem unbridgeable. These would be times of immense pessimism. John Hope Franklin vividly reminds us that we have struggled with these tragic issues for 350 years on this continent. The heroic black pastor Gardner Taylor would ask if the suffering of blacks in this country had gone in vain. Would there ever be a resolution of race, so "woven into the fabric of American life?"
Can we only ameliorate it, make it more manageable? He quoted a remark made about racism in America during a conversation he had had years before with Albert Einstein, who saw it as "a quality of primitivism in humanity, and the best we can do is keep it under control." One can only hope this will not be all.
As with many white Southerners of my generation, I believe passionately in the importance of race relations. "The South is the image of Huckleberry Finn and Jim," William R. Ferris has observed, "black and white figures dependent on each other for survival." I understand how profoundly the American and African experience, and especially the Southern-American and African experience, intertwine. If Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is correct in identifying slavery as "an economic form masked by race," then until the 1960s in places like Mississippi a neoslavery was still similarly masked by the canon of racial inferiority.
Racism would be the theme of Ghosts of Mississippi. The movie would be about Mississippi but also about contemporary America. The story of our country is the story of people of many races and origins trying to live together, most of all whites and blacks. Mississippi's white-black nexus is the most intense of anywhere in the nation. The state is a veritable morass of paranoia about the subject, further complicated by the fact that everybody here knows about everybody and everything. The obsession with what outsiders think of the place is a principal aspect of the Mississippi psyche. Many white Mississippians believe the rest of the country thinks them racist and wants to use the state as a whipping boy, and that others have never tried to understand the state and are always manipulating it. This kind of paranoia is unique to Mississippi. [See Note]
This obsession would likely have been sharpened among those Mississippians who read the November 1972 , issue of the magazine Lifestyle ranking all the fifty states "from civilized to barbaric." As cited by William Manchester in his "The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972," the magazine updated a famous 1931 series by H.L. Mencken and Charles Angoff in the old American Mercury. The 1972 criteria, as American Mercury's had, took into account "wealth, literacy, entries in Who's Who in America, symphony orchestras, crime, voter registration, infant mortality, transportation, and availability of medical attention." In the 1972 study, as in the 1931 one, Mississippi was last in the country, just below Alabama. In 1972 "the average Mississippian had less than nine years schooling. Over a third of the people were poor, as the Department of Commerce Statistical Abstract of the United States defines poverty. One in four households lacked plumbing and 29 percent telephones; only 24 percent read a daily newspaper and only 3 percent a news magazine". [End Note]
Mississippians believe they have changed but will never be taken seriously. The other Americans, they feel, are not sensitive to the fact that they themselves are not dealing well with race, that the rest of the nation smugly tells itself, "We're not as bad as Mississippi." A woman of long and honored acquaintance who happened to be governor of Texas asked me not long ago, "How can you live there?"
In a sizeable spread under the title "South Toward Home" in 1997, Newsweek reported that the reverse migration of middle-class blacks back to the South was up 92 percent over the 1980s and that "a net tide of 2.7 million" more than half of the great post-1940 migration" will have headed South between 1975 and 2010." A veteran columnist recently wrote, "There is a weird pulling power about this state. Many people I have known have left and come back. I don't know what it is. It is a very strange place, Mississippi." A professional pollster retained by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the state's most widely read newspaper, reported that he had never seen anything like it. "I've never been anywhere," he said, "where people identified themselves more with their state."
Mississippians are nothing if not ornery and proud. In the autumn of 1997 the head football coach for the Ole Miss Rebels, Tommy Tuberville, issued a statement pleading with students not to wave Confederate flags at football games on the grounds that the flag is a visual reminder of a divisive past. (The university's enrollment is 12 percent black and about half the football team is black.) The coach argued that the flag tarnishes the school's image and has damaged his efforts to recruit black athletes."I was hired to win football games," he said, "and other schools are using the Rebel flag against us." Some outstanding black prospects will not even visit the campus because of the school's reputation, he warned. In a football-crazed culture like this state's, one would have thought the coach's urgent appeals might be heeded. Nothing is simple as that. At Ole Miss's next game, the homecoming game against Vanderbilt, the student section was a sea of more Confederate flags than ever. And in the game after that, television cameras caught a similar flaunting for a national audience. This was hardly limited to students, many of them graduates of the "seg" academies. Alumni joined in, too. A prominent and lengthy piece in The Washington Post reported that men wore vests and ties adorned with the flag. One woman wore a Rebel flag skirt and her eleven-year-old daughter a flag-decorated blouse. Others attacked the football coach as an uncomprehending outsider from that den of Yankee radicalism, Arkansas. [See Note]
The student-body senate later condemned the flag-waving by an overwhelming majority.
From my own experience I believe the nation is beginning to look more like the South, yet that personal race relations are better in the South than in the North. When I was in Los Angeles later to view the filming of the movie, a native remarked to me that in the wake of the Rodney King and O. J. Simpson cases and other matters the relationship between
the whites and blacks in the City of the Queen of the Angels was not unlike that between the Arabs and Jews in the Middle East--there was practically no common ground as they faced each other across a nearly catastrophic divide.
Although it has been exceedingly flawed and complicated, much progress has been made in Mississippi since Medgar Evers's death. By the 1990s blacks, who numbered 36 percent of the approximately 2,690,000 population of Mississippi, the highest percentage of any state, comprised one third of its registered voters, and there were more than six hundred black elected officials, also more than in any other state. "The case against Byron De La Beckwith," one journalist wrote, "was brought back not because of any one event, but by a confluence of many events in a slow tide of change." As blacks mustered political strength, a younger generation of whites accepted integration, in part out of repulsion toward everything the Beckwiths had once stood for.
One of these younger whites was an assistant district attorney named Bobby DeLaughter, who would handle the new investigation into Byron De La Beckwith. "The growth I've had," he would say, "is symbolic of the growth people of our age have had." DeLaughter was a child when Medgar Evers was killed, and he remembered little of it. (Years later, when he and District Attorney Ed Peters were examining prospective jurors for the 1994 trial, they discovered that almost none of the blacks had ever heard of Medgar Evers. One black member of that jury pool was actually employed by the local NAACP office.)
Yet the state overall remains staunchly conservative. Just before he signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Lyndon Johnson said to his White House assistant, Bill Moyers: "This will turn over the South to the Republicans in your lifetime." Mississippi remains close to the bottom in everything--education, economics, social programs--and it continues to elect people who keep it that way. Its public schoolteachers are among the worst paid in the Union; if a Mississippi schoolteacher crossed the state line into Tennessee he would automatically make $6,000 more a year. In many ways the old George Wallace constituency of a generation ago is the undergirding of today's GOP dominance, yet more urbane and business-oriented. Kirk Fordice, Mississippi's arch-rightist, neo-Dixiecrat Republican governor, "the exemplar," Peter Applebome of the Times wrote, "of the meaner-than-cat-shit, tough-nosed-businessman-turned-politician school of Southern Republicans," recently became its first governor in history elected to two consecutive terms. Once, around his campaign headquarters, he introduced Ronald Smothers, a black reporter, as "the spook from The New York Times." Soon after taking office he announced he would call out the National Guard to fight against court-ordered equalization of appropriations for the state's white and black universities. At a National Governors' Conference, he declared the United States officially "a Christian nation." He would appoint in 1996 four conservative Republican white males to new vacancies on the Board of Higher Education, which supervises its eight public universities including three predominantly black ones, only to be rebuffed by the state senate.
When in 1997 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held one of its infrequent hearings in Mississippi--it subsequently described public-school education in Mississippi, particularly the Delta, as bleak, inadequate, and racially polarized--the governor did not even bother to send his education aide to the meetings. Later that year, when he routinely vetoed a landmark Adequate Education Act, which would have established a long-overdue program of equity funding for schoolchildren in property-poor districts, Bill Minor, dean of Southern journalists and recipient of the first John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism for his fifty years covering Mississippi politics, wrote:
"That the remarkable legislative construction of the bill was treated so cavalierly by Fordice is so reprehensible it proved beyond a doubt his unfitness to govern. He is vying for the dishonor of being Mississippi's worst governor in my memory. And there have been bad governors."
For the outsider to comprehend the social climate out of which Myrlie Evers and Bobby DeLaughter gradually succeeded in their reinvestigation of Medgar Evers's assassination, a highly elusive and beleaguered quest, he should be apprised that approximately 65 to 70 percent of the white populace of present-day Mississippi endorsed the stands and statements of this public leader. This in itself should place the reinvestigation and subsequent conviction in a certain real and direct human framework. As we approach the new century, it is the juxtapositions of Mississippi, emotional and in remembrance, that still drive us crazy. I cite Maryanne Vollers on the conclusion of the 1994 Beckwith trial because her words so faithfully reflect my own:
After the courtroom doors swung shut, the reporters and news crews caught their flights to Atlanta and New York, and another edition of the Clarion-Ledger was put to bed, what remained was still Mississippi, haunted ground: a place at war with its own history and destined to repeat its past, like a soul being reborn again and again until it gets it right.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Ghosts of Mississippi (Motion picture)Evers, Medgar Wiley, 1925-1963 Assassination, Jackson (Miss, ) Race relations, Mississippi Race relations, Beckwith, Byron de la