(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.)
Why has a black man named Curtis Flowers been to trial five times on the same murder charges? When Curtis goes to trial for the sixth time he will establish a new national record for the number of times a single defendant has been tried for the same murder. A big part of the answer lies buried in the history of the town Curtis grew up in.
And how can state senator Lydia Chassaniol blithely admit that she is a member of the notorious Council of Conservative Citizens without stirring a ripple of official protest? You’ve got to understand the history of the state of Mississippi, Montgomery County and the town of Winona before any of this begins to make sense.
I am frequently criticized for giving the South a bad name. The racial animus of yesteryear is gone, my critics tell me. You can find black police officers, black mayors, black sheriffs and prominent black business owners throughout the length and breadth of Old Dixie, so why do I sometimes write as if nothing has changed?
In the Deep South it was never about race, per se; it was about protecting a way of life from the corroding acids of Yankee liberalism.
The trouble began during the Second World War when Harry Truman integrated the American military. Then Brown vs. Board of Education overturned the separate-but-equal doctrine in public education. Then folks up north started fussing about Emmett Till and Rosa Parks. Where was the outside agitation going to end? Somebody had to draw a line in the sand.
So it was that in 1956 the state of Mississippi created a “Sovereignty Commission” to keep tabs on the NAACP, outside agitators, the FBI, the federal Department of Justice and every other organization and individual opposed to “the Southern way of life.” The word “sovereignty” suggested that Mississippi was locked in a life-and-death struggle to see who would control the institutional life of the state, the people of Mississippi or the federal government?
The files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission were eventually unsealed and can now be found online. Spend a few hours sifting through this gut-wrenching mass of information and you get a feel for the sort of information the Commission was looking for. In the dawning days of 1960, a Montgomery County sheriff’s deputy named William L. Kelly was bludgeoned to death with a hammer while he worked in his office. The Sovereignty Commission was attracted to the story because two Negroes, “bootlegger and an ex-convict” Alec Morris, 49 and factory worker Pink Townsend, 25 were the prime suspects in the case. Other Commission documents suggest that few Montgomery County Negroes had run afoul of the law that year, so the gruesome misdeeds of Morris and Townsend were welcome news. Stories illustrating the Negro’s natural proclivity for violence and dissipation were highly prised by the Commission.
Gradually, the facts around the Kelly murder grew more Byzantine. Minnie Lee Kelly, the wife of the slain deputy (always identified as “a pretty brunette”) was brought in for questioning. The “two Negroes” had signed confessions stating that they had been paid to kill the deputy. But it quickly surfaced that the lovely Minnie Lee was involved in a treacherous love triangle with her murdered husband and sheriff Lawrence King. Ultimately, Minnie Lee went free and the High Sheriff himself was charged with hiring the two black men to dispatch his own deputy.
At this point the Sovereignty Commission appeared to lose interest in the story. In the early 1960s, there were few official restraints on the activities of Mississippi Sheriffs–especially men like Larry King who freely cooperated with the Sovereignty boys in Jackson. But a Sheriff who hires two black men to get rid of his lover’s husband was a potential embarrassment.
The Commission’s interest in the case revived slightly when former governor JP Coleman was hired to defend the disgraced Sheriff. When the hired-killers received life sentences in exchange for cooperation, Coleman was indignant. Was the State of Mississippi going to execute a white man and let the Negroes escape with their lives?
Sovereignty Commission records don’t provide the final chapter to the story but Winona residents assure me that all three men died in the dreaded Parchman prison. Minnie Lee Kelly continued to live in Winona and died in a traffic accident a few years ago.
How does a County Sheriff accused of paying two men to bump off his lover’s husband warrant an ex-Governor as a defense attorney? The Sovereignty Commission was initiated during J.P. Coleman’s term as governor and operated out of the governor’s office. Both the Governor and his client had gone down to defeat in the 1960 election. The increasingly morose Sheriff Lawrence King was defeated by a staunch segregationist named Earle Wayne Partridge while Coleman was being “out-niggered” (to use George Wallace’s charming phrase) by the fire-breathing segregationist Ross Barnett. Standing up for a white defendant allowed Coleman to re-establish his racist bona fides with potential voters.
But there was more to it than that. A heavy-hitter like Coleman ensured that a Mississippi Sheriff escaped the gas chamber and the state was saved from a moral dilemma. No one wanted the Yankees to get hold of a story that was none of their business.
By 1960, a master of polite intimidation named Tom Scarborough was assigned to investigate signs of agitation in Montgomery County. Scarborough and his bosses were particularly concerned about black teachers and school principals who, should they be so inclined, could easily pay the poll tax and pass the registration exam. But Mrs. Grady Nail, the Montgomery Circuit Clerk, informed Scarborough that the twelve Negroes registered to vote when she took office had all unregistered. By the early 1960s only 14,000 Negroes were voting in all of Mississippi–down from a high of 25,000 a decade earlier.
Sovereignty Commission men like Scarborough had no powers of arrest and Mississippi citizens were free to decline an interview if they chose. But when Scarborough showed up at the door, folks were always eager to chat. In 1960, the year of the Kelly murder, Lamar Wray, a resident of Kilmichael in Montgomery County, wrote a letter to the Jackson paper mocking a member of the Sovereignty Commission for telling an audience in the Midwest that 95% of Mississippi Negroes were comfortable with segregation. Mr. Wray was sure that northerners could see through a claim that specious.
Lamar Wray’s letter was never published; instead, the Montgomery County resident received a visit from Tom Scarborough. “Mr. Wray appeared to be shook up while I was talking to him,” Scarborough exulted. “I told him I would be going and he followed me all the way to my car in the rain bare-footed . . . I do not believe we will be hearing anything else from Mr. Wray concerning the Negro intergration (sic) problem.”
Wray had good reason to be “shook up.” Getting on the wrong side of men like Tom Scarborough could make you unemployable in little towns like Kilmichael.
The paranoia went so deep that when a Montgomery County civic organization hired black singer Fats (Blueberry Hill) Domino to provide entertainment at a dance at the Armory in 1960, State Sovereignty Commission Director Albert J0nes fired off a letter of concern to Governor Ross Barnett noting that Fats Domino was “colored” and that “this office has received two calls of concern about this dance.”
The Sovereignty Commission worked hand-in-glove with the (White) Association of Citizens’ Councils of Mississippi, the precursor to Lydia Chassaniol’s Council of Conservative Citizens. The Council was particularly active in Greenwood, Mississippi, thirty miles west of Winona. A letter from Secretary Robert B. Patterson in 1959 (in the wake of the Little Rock 9 incident) vividly illustrates the brand of white paranoia afoot in the land.
By now every white Southerner should realize the absolute necessity of maintaining strong local and state Citizens’ Council organizations. We have seen what happens in states and communities that have no organization or weak organization against the race mixing program of the NAACP and the many left-wing groups.
Our greatest enemies here in Mississippi are the complacency and apathy of our own people, who are not doing their part in this struggle for survival.
In December of 1959, the Council released a blistering diatribe called “Here is the enemy”, a list of 74 organizations and political entities “favoring civil rights and anti-South force legislation.” As one might expect, the list featured several branches of the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But virtually every department of the federal government, every branch of the armed forces, most mainline Christian denominations, a variety of progressive Jewish organizations and several prominent labor unions also figured prominently on the list.
In other words, the Citizens’ Councils regarded every organization committed to justice, fairness and equity as the enemy. Check out the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens and you will see that little has changed.
Readers are sure to deplore the phrase “Antichrist world” in my title; but the floridly rhetorical shoe fits the social reality Lydia Chassaniol and her generation grew up in. If this is all a matter of stale history why does the senator claim membership in an organization bristling with the same kind of black-bashing, anti-progressive paranoia you find in the documents of the Sovereignty Commission? Lydia Chassaniol and Curtis Flowers grew up in a deeply religious culture that systematically renounced every good gift Jesus of Nazareth brought to the world. So long as everyone knew their place, southern hospitality lived up to its press clippings. But virtues like fairness, mercy and forgiveness melted away the moment anyone, black or white, took a principled stand against the Southern way of life.
This southern species of parnanoia was rooted in racism, but it didn’t end there. Mississippi had its share of progressive spirits like Hodding Carter and Will Campbell, but most of these people were educated outside the South and few had the courage to voice their convictions publicly. As Lamar Wray discovered to his sorrow, it wasn’t safe to mock segregation in 196os Mississippi. Only one perspective was tolerated. Black citizens foolish enough to exercize their voting rights in towns like Winona soon found themselves unemployed and vulnerable to the whim of the County Sheriff. This was a world where ignorant segregationists like Tom Scarborough prospered and progressive spirits like Lamar Wray kept their eyes down and their mouths shut.
What happened when a brave band of Freedom Riders strayed into the Antichrist world I have just described? That’s the subject of my next post.