|Oct/Nov 2019 Nonfiction|
Shortly after the jury in the Emmitt Till case exonerated Till's white murderers, Till's great uncle, Mose Wright, who had identified and pointed out the murderers in open court, spoke up. Clearly on film produced by PBS's Eyes on the Prize series, Wright said that he was "...done with Mississippi... you can have my part of Mississippi." He left the state, never to return again. Wright was an old man, so on one level leaving his home must have been difficult. Given that he was home with the boy when the killers, Roy Bryant and JW Milam, took Till away late one Saturday night, on another level it made sense that Wright would want to leave.
Till was 14, and this was perhaps the most heinous lynching in Mississippi history. But it was only 1955, and Mississippi race hatred would intensify in the next decade with the integration of schools including the University of Mississippi in Oxford; with the assassination of Medgar Evers; with the murders of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner; and with all the other acts of violence by those reacting to the push for Civil Rights in the American South. The title of the episode of PBS's Eyes on the Prize series that dealt with the Till chapter asked, "Mississippi, Is This America?" The question, of course, was more than rhetorical.
I grew up in Alabama during these years, and as I stack up the racist figures and incidents from both states, I'm hard-pressed to say which one's injustices are more severe. For every Mississippi Ross Barnett, James Eastland, Theodore Bilbo, John Stennis, John Rankin, Byron de la Beckwith, or Roy Bryant, Alabama can offer JB Stoner (perhaps a Georgia native), Robert Shelton, Bull Connor, Guy Hunt, and of course, Roy Moore and George Wallace. Church bombings, a rabbi's house bombing, Klan rallies, attempts at Dr. King's life, not to mention the various threats, assaults, and murders against and of more unknown figures. The list goes on and on. Which state is worse is asking the wrong question.
I left my home state 40 years ago, but unlike Mose Wright, I can never be "done" with Alabama. Like Quentin Compson, I will always love/hate it with a special force. What I feel about our neighbor to the immediate west, though, is strangely more complicated. Mississippi, though its landscape and people are virtually identical to Alabama's, isn't home. I am one of those Alabama people who has uttered the phrase "Thank God for Mississippi" when considering the educational or economic rankings of the 50 states. Mississippi almost stands alone, usually below Alabama, in these matters. Despite its pretensions to gentility, maybe it stands below Alabama in white hatred of blacks, too.
Still, on the occasions when I have visited or passed through Mississippi, I have had nothing but pleasant experiences.
Once, I visited a small town where the screenwriter/playwright Horton Foote was staging an autobiographical film for PBS. I got to watch filming for several nights, spoke quietly to actors like Amanda Plummer between takes at midnight snack tables, stayed in a local hotel, and ate fried frog legs from a local black-owned outdoor stand.
Another time I went to the annual William Faulkner conference in Oxford, met American critic Leslie Fiedler, and shared supper with him at the old general store in Taylors, a community made infamous by Faulkner's scandalous novel, Sanctuary, a novel Oxford residents spoke about in hushed tones when it was first published but nevertheless bought and reputedly carried home in plain brown wrapping.
Four years ago, as a representative of Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, I was invited to give the luncheon address in Ripley, Mississippi, site of the Faulkner Heritage Festival. Presbyterian was playing Ole Miss in football that weekend, and so the festival wanted our college to be represented. Locals welcomed my wife and me and insisted you could never tell how a football game might go. I assured them they didn't even have "fear itself" to fear, and when Ole Miss defeated us 62-7, they neither crowed nor apologized.
My wife and I left Mississippi having connected with many people at the festival, including the mayor of Ripley and his wife who organized the festival. Of course, all the people we met were white, and they politely sat though my talk, which was twice as long as everyone wanted or expected. My subject was The Sound and the Fury's Quentin Compson and the manner in which he acknowledged his love and longing for the black servants he left behind when he entered Harvard University: Roskus, Luster, TP.
I wrote of my own love and longing for our family's servants/maids: Georgia, Mona Lee.
I wrote about the way neither Quentin nor I acknowledged our paternalism, our racism. Though we thought of our caretakers with love, we never said goodbye to them, or even tried to do so, before death came.
When I finished my talk, a woman somewhat older than me quietly and very properly came up. "That is just so depressing," she smiled.
"Yes it is," I said. I couldn't read her tone, nor did I ask what she found so depressing. I wish now that I had. But it was just the two of us at that moment, and we didn't know each other at all. How often are we cowed by potential intimacy? By the fear of hurtful words or a menacing tone?
Sometimes, I think, being only depressing, or depressed, is a luxury.
Despite the missed opportunity and the gloom I cast on my audience that sunny afternoon in the backyard of a patron's Victorian house, when I reflected on that weekend, I thought maybe I had been misjudging Mississippi.
I began reading Richard Grant's Dispatches From Pluto, in which he and his girlfriend move from Manhattan to Mississippi and find, if not peace, then something different from the barbarian hordes they anticipated. I read other dispatches about the Mississippi craze for tamales. I subscribed to the Southern Foodways Alliance newsletter, ordered the BTC Cookbook, which offers recipes and the history of the BTC Grocery in Water Valley, Mississippi, and devoured the Oxford American, which though produced in Arkansas, seemed to me to be Mississippian at heart. I knew that Mississippi's politics still weren't progressive—as the recent election between Mike Espy and Cindy Hyde-Smith demonstrated—but I wondered if it weren't time to reconsider the "state" of Mississippi.
Then I began listening to APM's In the Dark: The Trials of Curtis Flowers, and all my views and fears were rekindled.
Since I drive almost 100 miles every day, I listen to a lot of college football talk radio. Often after the season, I revert to listening to Sirius-XMU or Outlaw Country, but lately I've tried True Crime podcasts: Serial, S-Town, and In the Dark. S-Town is set in and near my hometown of Bessemer, and I actually know some of the "characters." Spike Lee once said that Alabama is the one place in the country that will call you "nigger" to your face. In Alabama, it's not just talk, either. S-Town provides further testimony.
But it can't compare to In the Dark's second season, The Trials of Curtis Flowers. Flowers is an African-American man from Montgomery County, Mississippi, specifically a town called Winona, who was convicted of murdering four people at the Tardy Furniture store. Each was bound and shot in the head, seemingly execution-style. Three of these four were white people. Flowers' motive, according to the prosecution, was that he had recently been fired from his job there, a job he held for exactly four days. Before these charges, Flowers had no history of violent behavior. Unlike him, I have never been fired from a job, but I've quit without notice and had my pay docked. I didn't care for my employer, but the thought of killing him never occurred to me. I can't imagine how it would. But then, I'm an average white guy who was never a victim of racism.
Flowers' initial conviction was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court, and then he was re-tried five other times for this crime. Sometimes the verdict was overturned on appeal; at other times, the jury hung itself, resulting in a mistrial. The original crime occurred in 1996; Flowers' last conviction was in 2010. He lost that appeal and is still on death row, his case soon to be heard by the United States Supreme Court, which will render its verdict by the end of June 2019. He has not seen the light of day as a relatively free man in almost 22 years.
Flowers' appeal contends that Mississippi District Attorney Doug Evans has violated Flowers' 14th Amendment rights by striking potential black jurors solely on the basis of race. Even if the justices overturn Flowers' conviction, Evans could decide to try him again. In the Dark's reporting, however, has brought to light new evidence that could lead to Flowers's exoneration.
By the end of the podcast, it's not clear who murdered these four people, but only someone who has not been paying attention to the program could believe that Curtis Flowers committed this brutal act.
Or that the DA, Doug Evans, isn't guilty of prosecutorial misconduct.
Evans has been DA since 1992, running unopposed all but once. The In the Dark team has studied and found that in many other trials, Evans has also unconstitutionally struck black jurors. Think about that: the person in charge of prosecuting justice for an entire district in contemporary Mississippi likely conducts his business with a clear racial bias. And so far, no one has challenged this bias or brought charges against the DA. It's as if Evans is untouchable.
As outraged as I was hearing this, something else outraged me more, something even more stunning.
One of the seemingly minor players in the Tardy murder investigation is Ricky Banks. You hear of him in episode four of the podcast, and likely his name passes you by, though you might be struck by what he says, which I'll get to later.
Still, what hit me more when Banks was introduced was that I immediately recognized his name, though I have never been to Winona or anywhere in Montgomery County, or neighboring Leflore County.
I first heard of The Trials of Curtis Flowers sometime last summer when I saw a story about the podcast in The New York Times. I downloaded the podcast, but due to my own personal trials from midsummer on, I forgot about it.
This last fall, though, I taught an upper-level elective course, Southern Jewish Literature. In that course, we view Driving Miss Daisy and read both fiction and memoir—works like The Ladies Auxiliary and The Jew Store. Our final text, Confederacy of Silence, is a nonfiction work by a northern Jewish man, Richard Rubin. After college, Rubin took as his first job a sports writing gig in Greenwood, Mississippi (Leflore County), working for the Greenwood Index-Journal. On his first full day in Greenwood, as he was looking for an apartment, Rubin ran across a landlord named Carl Kelly, Senior, who explained to Rubin about "yella niggers":
Everything's all mixed up nowadays. Used to be, everything was clear-cut. Everybody knew where they belonged, and they stayed there... You didn't have niggers out looking to mix with white people and have yella babies. Those yellas, now, they aren't any better than the rest of the niggers, 'cept they figure they are, y'see, 'cause they're lighter... a yella nigger is still a nigger... (Confederacy of Silence 33).
As a lifelong southerner, I was sadly unsurprised by this commentary. I heard that phrase often as I was growing up.
Rubin's book goes on to examine the case of Handy Campbell, a former high school football star who, with an accomplice, likely murdered another man, Freddie Williams. Campbell, his accomplice, and Williams are all African-American. Campbell's trial, too, was a less-than-stellar example of our justice system at work, and the book accounts the myriad ways that justice might have been subverted.
What you must know is that while there might have been some jury tampering involved, no one particularly got bent out of shape in this trial, mainly because not only were the killers and their victim black, the victim himself was most probably a gay man, a fact that Campbell's lawyers exploited at trial. Had the victim been a white gay man, who knows what would have happened, but had he been a straight white man, killed by black assailants, the jury, which was composed of white and black people, might not have been so casually chosen. And the verdict, as even Rubin's white friends in Greenwood believe, would have been far different.
Despite all testimony and evidence—including that Williams' body was dumped almost in plain sight and remained at this site undetected for several weeks, and that Campbell and his accomplice were the last two people seen with Williams, riding around in Williams' car late on the night Williams went missing, and holding the eventually-discovered murder weapon—Campbell and his accomplice were found not guilty.
Oh. And the sheriff of this county, Leflore, was one Ricky Banks, who has held this office since 1972.
Confederacy of Silence doesn't exactly emphasize Sheriff Ricky Banks. There would certainly be no reason to remember his name, except for a section toward the end, when it's disclosed at trial that one day while in custody Handy Campbell began "...barking real loud like a dog." This testimony comes from one of the officers holding Handy, who explains further that Handy, "...kept hollering 'Ricky Banks! Ricky Banks'" (378-9).
Handy was being transported to a mental health center for evaluation during this episode because he had been acting depressed, maybe even suicidal. The officer, who knew Handy from his football days, calmed him down, and the barking ceased. A few minutes later, so the officer testifies, Handy basically confessed that he shot Freddie Williams.
There is more to Handy Campbell's story. A careful reader might wonder why Handy was barking and calling the sheriff's name. I can't explain why I remember an ordinary name like "Ricky Banks." I wouldn't have remembered the name "Carl Kelly Senior," though I'll never forget what he said.
However, when I heard the name Ricky Banks again in In the Dark, I paused the podcast. I thought for a minute. I heard barking, and so I went back to Rubin's book. There was nothing earth shattering.
Unless you're bothered by a sheriff's department giving a reporter free and unsearched access to a suspected murderer.
The first time Rubin appeared at the courthouse to interview Handy Campbell, he expected that Campbell's lawyer would also be present. And why not? Who knows what information a reporter might elicit from an accused murderer? But when Rubin arrived, the only one there to greet him was Sheriff Ricky Banks, who told Rubin that Campbell's attorney would not be joining them. "...But he already told me you were coming by to see... Campbell today."
And then Banks instructed a deputy to escort Rubin to "The Lawyer's Room," which turned out to be "a tiny triangular room... stacked... with thirty odd boxes of coffee... two ladders... a broken television set, and a gray metal desk... on top of which sat a large piece of scientific equipment that looked like it came from the set of Lost in Space" (215-16). This was the room where Rubin would interview Campbell and would be given "as much time" as he wanted. Rubin asked if Campbell's handcuffs could be removed; the deputy complied and then left the two alone. As Rubin writes, "I certainly couldn't imagine such a thing happening anywhere but in Greenwood, Mississippi" (217).
Under the jurisdiction of Ricky Banks.
Who could imagine such a scenario had the man Campbell allegedly murdered been white? However, it only occurs to Rubin after the interview is finished, after Campbell has been led back to his cell, and as Rubin is packing up his briefcase, that "...no one had bothered to search me on the way in, or even to ask what was in my case. I was automatically above suspicion... Such are the benefits of being a white man in Greenwood, Mississippi" (231-2).
One week later, Rubin interviews Campbell for a second time in the Lawyer's Room:
...as I walked through the side door [of the courthouse] I caught Sheriff Banks's eye, and he signaled a deputy to escort me upstairs. Yet again no one asked to see my briefcase, and I started to feel exalted and powerful and to understand, for the first time, really, how the enormous privileges accorded to white skin could prove terribly intoxicating, and how some white people might grow so addicted to these privileges that they would fight ferociously to keep them, no matter the cost (302).
At the end of this interview, Rubin walks downstairs and thanks Sheriff Banks. He emerges into the Mississippi Saturday sunshine a free white man with privilege (313). Whether anyone at the courthouse knows he's Jewish is another story.
The final reference to Ricky Banks in Rubin's tale is the barking episode, some 65 pages later.
Like I said, Banks is but a minor player in the Rubin/Campbell drama, and readers are left to speculate as to why Campbell was barking and calling Banks's name. Was Campbell looking to cop a deal? Plead insanity? Did he believe Banks would treat him favorably, even side with him? After all, Campbell was a football hero, and the victim, Freddie Williams, though well-liked in his day job as UPS delivery man, was also a gay black man out on the town of Greenwood, Mississippi, by night. To what degree would Ricky Banks mourn his passing, or investigate it?
Atria Books published Rubin's account in 2002. By then, Banks had been Leflore County's sheriff for 30 years. Rubin doesn't remark this, if he even knew it. We assume that an elected official is doing something right to hold an office for three decades. Is it in our purview, or nature, to assume that what this official might be doing "right" is upholding a longstanding, racially discriminatory way of life? A racially discriminatory system of justice?
Given what we're realizing about our elected officials today who wonder what's so wrong about "White Nationalism" and dressing in blackface, maybe not.
The reporters of In the Dark show a courage that I don't believe I have. They give DA Doug Evans and Sheriff Ricky Banks opportunities to tell their side of Curtis Flowers's arrest, conviction, and trials. They meet with many refusals but also some success. Sometimes you have to eschew formalities. Sometimes you have to cold call, or just show up.
After calling and being rebuffed over and over, In the Dark's reporters appear at Evans's office one day and talk with him for about 20 minutes. Evans refuses to discuss details of the case because it's ongoing, but he does assure them that his office has the right man, has always had the right man. Curtis Flowers did it, Evans maintains. But the reporters have uncovered other information that paints a different picture—a picture of collusion and invention between Evans and Banks and a jailhouse snitch.
I keep asking myself what makes this story—the Curtis Flowers/Ricky Banks/Mississippi story—worse for me than any atrocity that happened in my home state of Alabama, or in my adopted state of South Carolina? Why would I prioritize or rank any subversion of justice above the Birmingham church bombing in 1963, when four little girls were murdered by vicious Klansmen? Why wouldn't the beating and blinding of Isaac Woodard in Batesville, SC, circa 1945, or the "whiting" of Forsythe County, Georgia, from 1914-1989 outrage me more than the framed conviction of Curtis Flowers?
I think it's because of intimacy.
Not that I am intimately involved with any of these events. But I've heard the voices of Ricky Banks, Doug Evans, and Curtis Flowers's family now, just as in that Eyes on the Prize video, I heard the voices of Mose Wright and of Till's killers, Roy Bryant and JW Milam. Intimate, implicating, and killing voices that leap from history into my ears and down into my psyche. Men like the ones I knew growing up in Bessemer, Alabama, who casually dropped words like, "boy," "darkie," "jigaboo," and all the variations associated with the then neutral label, Negro. Could the men I knew back then be able to do what Till's killers did?
I've seen the house in Bessemer where lived one of the Klansmen who murdered Viola Liuzzo, a white woman aiding Civil Rights marchers during the Selma, Alabama, Freedom March. Seeing an old house, though, isn't equal to hearing the matter-of-fact voice of a cold-blooded killer or colluder.
So as I listen to In the Dark's lead reporter, Madeleine Baran, interviewing DA Doug Evans, I hear the courtly tones of a lawyer from back home—someone who is exercising great patience to explain points of law that prevent him from discussing this case; someone who, when pushed by Baran, sounds like a stern, yet kindly parent gently admonishing a wayward child, a child who just doesn't understand the ways of this proper adult southern society.
Ways that benefit her and allow her to move freely and with all her privileges as a white person in this dark land.
I hear a voice I've heard many times before.
And what I hear is that when it comes to winning his case, DA Doug Evans appears ready to make any kind of a bargain with any color of man. So there's another, greater force of intimacy at work here. Consider these factors that Baran uncovers.
There were three jailhouse snitches who, during the course of Flowers's trials, testified that Curtis told them he had indeed committed these crimes. One of the snitches is still serving time in Parchman prison. The second snitch died a few years back. Both of these men recanted their accusations against Curtis. They said they made these stories up for consideration in reducing their sentences.
The third man, Frederick Veal, goes further. He explains to Baran how his intimate confidence with Curtis Flowers came about. He explains that while Flowers was being held in the Leflore County jail, DA Evans and Sheriff Ricky Banks helped him create his story, that they, in fact, concocted the story for him and told him what to say and write for the judicial record.
First, Veal says Evans offered him $30,000 to testify against Curtis, money he'd split with another informant. Next, Evans rehearsed Veal's testimony with him just before the trial began. Then, during the trial, Evans told the jury that Veal came forward with this information voluntarily, and that Veal agreed to testify without any expectation of reward or favor.
Veal recanted in 2016 and tells Baran that not only did Evans and Banks create the story of Curtis Flowers's confession, Veal never spoke to Curtis about the murders or his "role" in them at all. What's more, Veal says he never got a cent of the $30,000 promised him.
And in case anyone wonders about the ethics or legality of what Evans and Banks did, Baran advises us that lawyers are constitutionally obligated not to use witnesses whom they know to be lying, nor to induce with special favors or treatment any jailhouse witness to testify for them.
Of course what Veal has charged is serious, but think for a minute about the scene: two white men with great authority, great power, and a long lineage of serving this community enter into a confidence with a black man serving time, offer him a concocted story and a monetary sum to testify, to lie, about another black man whom he doesn't know.
A confidence. An intimacy. One in which you believe everything you say will stay between you three. White men's words. Such power, and all the more so, for given the history of racial violence and injustice in Mississippi, a black man today trusting automatically the words of white men in authority—words he knows to be lies—means either he fears those men's power or sees his only hope for relief is to trust them. Desperation makes strange cell fellows.
This information is contained in episode four of the podcast "The Witnesses." Since DA Evans refuses to discuss this matter, Baran decides to contact Sheriff Banks, thinking perhaps he has more to say.
When I hear the sheriff's voice, I am afraid for Baran. Not afraid for her safety exactly, but for whatever veiled threat might be coming. How his tone will convey what he thinks of her and what, had he the opportunity and intimacy, he might do to her. She asks him if he remembers the Flowers's case, that a jailhouse snitch named Frederick Veal gave them the confession they needed to convict Flowers? Banks says he remembers there was a snitch but doesn't remember his name or how such a person came to be placed in Curtis Flowers's cell.
Banks further states he "doesn't know" if Veal got paid or had a promise of pay for getting Curtis to talk. Banks then denies making up any story for Veal to testify to in court: "I wouldn't be here if I made up stories," he tells Baran. "And I've been here since 1972."
Banks then says he never met with Veal and the DA together, and that he cannot remember anything about such a meeting.
Now, his tone definitely darkens: "You trying to put words in my mouth," and then swiftly, he hangs up.
Baran began this section of the podcast with this statement: "You can feel if you're human when a person is telling the truth or telling a lie."
Feel it for yourself. I did.
The day Veal signed the statement he says Evans and Banks concocted for him, his own charges were dropped, just as Evans promised him they would be.
The reasons why Evans and Banks might frame an innocent man are known only to them, except that Curtis Flowers was "all they had." What they didn't have at any of Curtis Flowers's six trials was an eyewitness, the murder weapon itself, or a truly convincing motive. It is possible that if the US Supreme Court rules in Curtis's favor, Evans will not re-try the case a seventh time, especially given all the new information that has finally seen the light, including what could be the murder weapon, a weapon apparently unconnected to Flowers, and which was found by a private citizen and his nose-to-the-ground dog.
Whatever does happen in the case, though, Curtis Flowers has been in jail for almost 22 years, many of those on death row. The podcast suggests there is another likely suspect, someone the police never really pursued. But if you ask me, or the In the Dark reporters, why this suspect wasn't pursued, we won't be able to say. We know neither the minds nor the hearts of those enforcing Mississippi law.
In the end, justice in Mississippi is murky, dark, and unfathomable.
Last year, Carolyn Bryant, the woman Emmett Till supposedly got fresh with, confessed to reporter Timothy B. Tyson that she had been lying for the past 63 years (Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till, New York: Simon and Shuster, 2017). It doesn't do much good for Till or his descendants, but most of us know that truth never mattered in that era of Mississippi, the time right before I was born.
I can't be the only person in America who has connected Ricky Banks of the Handy Campbell trial to Ricky Banks of the Curtis Flowers case. Yet, In the Dark's reporters either didn't notice or did and decided not to comment.
I finally googled Ricky Banks:
The Sheriff's Office is dedicated to providing the best possible law enforcement protection and service to Leflore County. The welfare and protection of the County's citizens is our first priority. The Office's duties include investigating complaints, emergency response, patrolling, executing warrants, maintaining the County jail, court security, criminal investigations, and arresting suspects.
From his re-elect Ricky Banks Facebook page, we learn from a September 2018 post, "When we seek to bring about positive change, it must start with us; because the true reality is we can only change ourselves, & inspire others."
And from an earlier post, May 13, 2018, "Today, we honor the vessels God used to create life. Their wombs birth Nations, & our Risen Savior. Let's celebrate Mothers, past & present."
There are other hits on Banks: a lawsuit one of his former deputies brought against him, and, more compelling, a 2011 incident where Frederick Carter, a black man who was reported to be mentally ill, was found hanged in a predominantly white neighborhood of Greenwood. A variety of African-American news outlets reported this incident, asking whether Carter had committed suicide, as Banks and his department concluded, or whether he was lynched. Reporters from both The HuffPost and Nola.com discussed the hanging and how many in the black community found its circumstances disturbing. According to state authorities, this man had a history of attempted suicide and was not taking his medication at the time of his death. Sheriff Ricky Banks offered that "...if this had happened in Massachusetts, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
The HuffPost story elaborates:
Carter was in Greenwood working with his stepfather painting a house. Apparently the stepfather left Carter at the house to get some tools. It's being alleged Carter wandered off from the home after his stepfather left to get tools. Carter, who resided in Sunflower County, reportedly had a history of wandering off as a result of mental illness. LeFlore County Sheriff Ricky Banks stated, "I didn't see any indication of anybody else being in that area, going from physical evidence and the general tracks." Banks went on to suggest Carter likely dragged a nearby table to the base of the tree, tied a noose, and proceeded to hang himself... "The frame probably broke, possibly because Carter kicked it out from under himself."
In USA Today, Banks added:
Carter "had on a sort of new pair of tennis shoes that had a most distinct track with an unusual design. We tracked him where he walked in there. No other tracks followed his tracks. He walked in there by himself. There were no signs around the tree where he was hanging." Banks says a man who lives nearby saw Carter walking toward the site, in a field between a levee and the Yazoo River. He "talked to him, asked him what he was doing down there. He said, 'Well, I'm just walking.' He wouldn't talk to him." Banks says his finding on a cause of death is not final. He is awaiting autopsy and toxicology reports. "They'll look for bruising on the body, to see if it looks like somebody might have scuffled with him or whatever," he says. "I didn't find any evidence of that."
Each of these stories was written in the months following Carter's hanging. Despite the suspicion and questions, the suicide conclusion stands. And to bring us back full circle, the author of The HuffPost story says that the site of Carter's hanging is only ten minutes from the site of Emmett Till's murder.
I know it's only three cases—not enough to brand an ordinary sheriff living and maintaining his office for the past 47 years in an ordinary southern town as callous, indifferent to justice, hostile to minorities. Racist. I wonder, though: what else don't we know about the sheriff of Leflore County, and those who work for and with him?
It's hard to understand why people make the choices they do, which maybe is the final reason I decided to write this story. Why would a majority of citizens in a county or state or country continue to vote for someone who cares so little about the laws he's sworn to uphold, or who distorts those laws to favor one group, one race, one gender?
Why would skin color continue to outweigh truth and justice? And why would a majority of citizens, in arguably the most racist state in our country, retrench into their old beliefs, prejudices that caused so much violence, hatred, and fear? Who chooses to live this way?
And why had I decided a few years back to give Mississippi a break when I'm still so hard on Alabama? What was I hoping, and why was I refusing to see what was in front of me?
I remember so clearly the day my wife and I drove out of Ripley, Mississippi. We had truly enjoyed our stay, and on the recommendation of the mayor, we'd found a local breakfast place that served eggs and bacon the down home way. Not too far out of town, we hit an antiques mall and bought a cool side table and reclined chair for our living room. It was a mild fall Saturday, and we took our time driving from the Magnolia State to the Heart of Dixie, where we'd be spending the night with my mother in Bessemer, watching Alabama defeat LSU in overtime. I felt good that night. My team had won, and Mississippi had won some of my heart, anyway. Unconsciously at least, I had decided to let the past be the past.
So maybe it's just the way of life, of coincidence, fate, chance, and luck—or maybe even my own conscious notion of the past rearing up in me again—that I finally chose to listen to a certain podcast just weeks after teaching a certain book. It could have been any state and any county. I could have been someone else, too, someone who didn't notice, or hear correctly, or care.
But this is reality.
"Ricky Banks, Ricky Banks."
Curtis Flowers is still on death row. Handy Campbell is free. Freddie Williams has been dead for over two decades. Emmett Till, for over six. Doug Evans still holds office. Ricky Banks was re-elected in the fall of 2018. Mose Wright died in 1973 in Countryside, Illinois.
And this is America, in the year of somebody's lord, circa 2019, where many of these voices still resonate and where some can still be heard in all their sinister intimacy.
Post Script: This past June the US Supreme Court, in a 7-2 ruling, overturned Curtis Flowers's conviction. Whether or not he will be tried for the seventh time is up to Doug Evans.