(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town. Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)
There is no substitute for being there. I have been researching the social history of Mississippi for several months now, but on Monday, September 21, 2009, I toured five towns in north central Mississippi that I have been writing about: Winona, Duck Hill, Grenada, Greenwood and Carrollton. The experience left me stunned.
My travelling partners were Rev. L. Charles Stovall, a United Methodist pastor from Dallas, and Lola Flowers, mother of Curtis Flowers, the man who has been tried five times for a murder he didn’t commit.
The day began in Winona. The county jail where civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten half to death in 1963 was demolished long ago and the Trailways depot where Hamer and her companions were arrested is now a strip mall. There isn’t much of historical value in Winona. The old courthouse where Hamer and her companions were taken after being beaten was torn down long ago, replaced by the sleek, modern structure where Curtis Flowers has been tried three separate times. (Flowers was also tried in Tupelo and Gulfport). The first Winona trial ended in a conviction but was overturned because Doug Evans, the District Attorney, illegally barred black residents from the jury. The next trial featured five (5) black jurors, all of whom voted to acquit Mr. Flowers. The final trial, held a year ago, also ended in a hung jury.
I’m not trying to convince you that Curtis Flowers is innocent–not today anyway. Today I want to talk about children and the cultural legacies they soak up by a process of osmosis.
In the picture of the Old Montgomery Courthouse you will notice a monument to the fallen heroes of the Confederacy. You see these marble and limestone relics proudly displayed throughout the South. In Mississippi you find Confederate memorials on the grounds of every county courthouse, most of them erected between 1895-and 1915, the period in which the last of the confederate soldiers were shuffling off this mortal coil.
But you won’t find a lot of historical markers in Montgomery County; it’s as if the past has been intentionally stripped away. When the old courthouse was destroyed and a new building erected, the confederate memorial disappeared. It may have been transferred to a cemetary or it may be stored in somebody’s barn (if you know, leave a comment), but it wasn’t taken to the new Montgomery County courthouse.
Perhaps this represents a keen sensitivity to the sensibilities of Montgomery County’s African American residents. If so, the white people of Winona are out of step with the state of Mississippi. In 2001, Mississippi voters were asked to choose between a new-fangled flag designed by a special commission and the old 1894 flag which features the Confederate stars and bars. The result of the referendum was depressingly predictable. In excess of 85% of white residents voted to keep the stars and bars flag while 90% of black voters wanted to be rid of it. Since white voters outnumber black voters two-to-one, the old flag remained. In 1972, four years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the state of Mississippi agreed to name a new holiday in the civil rights leader’s honor. Just in case somebody might get the wrong idea, the Mississippi legislature decided to honor the blessed memory of Robert E. Lee (the White Marble Man) on the same day.
This decision didn’t sit well with Black opinion leaders. Derrick Johnson of the Mississippi NAACP explained his opposition to the King-Lee linkage this way: “It’s clearly contrary to biblical and Christian principles of loving thy neighbor. That the state would continue to allow this holiday to be celebrated is an affront to close to 40 percent of the population that is African-American. It is a remnant of Mississippi’s segregated past. Could you imagine Israel celebrating Hitler day or Nazi day?”
White Mississippians were offended by this remark. Robert E. Lee is warmly remembered as the nice Confederate who freed his slaves during the War of Northern Aggression and stood for national reconciliation when the shooting started. The fact that Lee (like Abraham Lincoln and almost every other white man of his day) considered black people to be biologically and intellectually inferior to whites, and that he was horrified by the thought of a black man casting a ballot or running for office is beside the point. It is also forgotten that the heroic general held onto his slaves as long as legally possible. The two sons of the South are linked forever (or at least for the immediate future) in Mississippi, Arkansas and Georgia. The message isn’t subtle. The January holiday can be used to honor both men or the leader of your choosing.
You won’t find that sentiment in any official documents, of course, but consider this: the state of Mississippi celebrates Confederate Memorial Day each year on the last Monday in April. All state employees, black, white or indifferent, are given the day off. This too is a sore spot with black Mississippians, but few express their views on the subject too stridently. Support for official white dominance is so institutionalized in Mississippi that anyone opposing its cruel dominion sounds like a bomb-throwing lunatic.
In Mississippi, white is the official color of normal. If you are white your culture is symbolically memorialized and regularly celebrated; if you are a person of color you live with the cynical ambiguity of King-Lee day. If you are black in Mississippi you don’t really exist, or, to put it a bit more gently, your existence is merely tolerated. The real Mississippians are the sons and daughters of the confederacy and no one lets you forget it.
On April 13, 1937, two black men, Roosevelt Townes and “Bootjack” McDaniels were in the custody of the Montgomery County Sheriff, charged with shooting George Windham, a white merchant in the small community of Duck Hill. At the conclusion of a court hearing at which the two men entered pleas of not guilty a large white mob (some reports put the number as high as 500) appeared outside the old courthouse. Sheriff’s deputies had their arms pinned behind their backs, the two defendants were bundled into a waiting school bus and driven to a field near Duck Hill.
According to a newswire report: “After they were seized the mob tortured their victims by searing their flesh with blasts from gasoline blow torches. After thus brutally burning them, the wild mob piled brush high about them, saturated the brush with gasoline, and touched a match to the pyre.” There was a lot more to the lynching, but I will spare you the gruesome details . . . for now. When this brief summary of the event was read to the House of Representatives even Southern congressmen were horrified. It was widely believed that lynching was a vestige of the past that wouldn’t survive long in the enlightened modern era. Mississippi had gone 15 months without a lynching prior to 1937. But the Duck Hill debacle were so horrifying that the House passed America’s first anti-lynching law.
The Senate version of the bill died a few weeks later, killed by a Southern filibuster. Howard Kester, a white man representing the NAACP, arrived in Duck Hill two weeks after the lynching. The charred remains of Townes and McDaniels remained chained to trees until a local pastor managed to have them taken down and buried. The savage torture-slayings had outraged the entire nation to the point that Mississippi residents were writing letters to TIME distancing themselves from the perpetrators. But Kester found that “of the scores of people with whom I talked not a single one greatly deplored the lynching. The citizens of Duck Hill seemed rather well pleased with themselves.”
I related this story to Lola Flowers and Pastor Stovall as we drove through the black end of town looking for someone who could show us the scene of the crime. No one seemed to know. The black police chief pointed us the home of the chairman of the Montgomery County NAACP, but he wasn’t home. As we drove past the town’s white cemetary a small tombstone caught my attention. The marker stands in memory of Mrs. Virginia Wells, a Duck Hill resident who died in 1937, one month after the town’s infamous lynching. Finally, we dropped in at the Duck Hill library to see if someone there might be able to assist us. A friendly woman who looked as if she might have been a young girl in 1937 asked how she could assist me. “This will sound like an odd question,” I began awkwardly, “but I have been doing research on famous lynchings and I keep running across references to what happened in Duck Hill in 1937.”
“You are looking at the poorest neighborhood in America,” the man told me. “We ain’t proud of it, but there it is. A few years back I brought Honey Boy Edwards back here to play. We was driving through Baptist Town and Honey Boy says, ‘Man, this place ain’t changed a lick in the past sixty years.”
Grenada and Montgomery Counties may have abandoned their old granite courthouses, but the courthouse in Carrollton hasn’t changed significantly since it was built in 1876, the year it was built. A major remodel in 1992 removed the last vestiges of the bullet holes that riddled the structure back in 1886.
When a hearing was held regarding the charges filed against Liddell by the Brown brothers, the courthouse was packed with black spectators. They had been warned to stay away, but the wonder of seeing a black man filing charges against a white man generated tremendous curiosity. As the hearing proceeded, a posse of white riders from Liddell’s home in Greenwood dismounted outside the courthouse. Armed men entered the handsome building, climbing the stairs to second story courtroom and shooting every black person they encountered. When the men burst into the courtroom panic erupted. Many black residents jumped out of windows to escape the onslaught. Some died from the fall; those who survived were gunned down as they lay writhing on the ground.
By 1903, the “truth” of white supremacy was standing tall again in Carroll County and throughout the South. Given this kind of history it’s not hard to see why the Mississippi NAACP objects to a flag sporting the stars and bars, a cynical marriage between the legacy of Robert E. Lee and the legacy of Martin Luther King, and an annual state holiday dedicated to the glories of the Confederacy.
The Carrollton massacre happened a very long time ago, but it helps to explain why, exactly eighty years later, federal registrars couldn’t get a single black person in Carroll County to register. In the waning days of the 20th century, Mississippi politicians were still gathering in the Carroll County town Black Hawk to curry favor with “conservative” voters and raise money for the County’s all-white private school. But that is another story.
Events have conspired to maintain white power in Mississippi and every aspect of the state culture, including the criminal justice system, has been adversely affected. White residents who were toddlers in 1886 were in the prime of middle age when two men were tortured to death with blowtorches in Duck Hill. Children attending elementary school in 1937 were in their mid-30s when Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten half to death in the Montgomery County Jail. Duck Hill is ten miles north of Winona, the town where Curtis Flowers will go to trial for the sixth time in June; Carrollton is ten miles west. Grenada is ten miles north of Duck Hill. Greenwood is ten miles west of Carrollton. The entire region would fit into a corner of the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex and it shares a common mythology.
Men like Doug Evans and women like Lydia Chassaniol are products of this culture and they behave accordingly. As white Mississippi revels in its confederate mythology innocent men like Curtis Flowers can be convicted without meaningful evidence so long as they appear to fit the “sorry nigger” profile. The criminal justice system was derailed by bigotry in 1886, in 1937, in 1963 and in 1966. In those years, the justice system was a cruel joke and people of color lived outside the law. When a thoroughly compromised legal system couldn’t adequately defend white interests, vigilante justice came into play.
By the time Curtis Flowers was arrested thirty years after the violence in Grenada the days of overt race baiting were over. But the shoddy “investigation” of the Tardy murders and the manipulation of vulnerable witnesses in this case shows how little things have changed in cases involving a socially prominent white victim and a low-status black suspect. The gaudy trappings of white supremacy have been toned down over the years and vigilante justice has all but disappeared; but inside the courtrooms of rural Mississippi the old rules still apply.