The shallow graves of Mississippi

(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.

image0-1In 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.”P9214806

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.”

The Duck Hill Public Library

P9214859I understood none of this when I was in Grenada and it has left me eager for a return trip, this time in the company of a larger group led by a local resident who can interpret the history.  I took a picture of the box-like Grenada County courthouse and Doug Evan’s office a few blocks away.  Then I got back in the car and we headed southwest in the direction of Greenwood.
You know you have entered the Mississippi Delta when the Kudzu laden hills suddenly level out into a flat plain.  A few miles later we arrived in the black side of Greenwood.  Amazed by the poverty around me, I left the car to take a few pictures.  A local resident approached me.  “You interested in Robert Johnson and all them?” he asked.
“Did Robert Johnson live in Greenwood?” I asked.
“Hell, yeah,” the man replied.  “Robert Johnson, Honey Boy Edwards, all them old bluesmen lived and played around here.  But you need to be in Baptist Town to see all of that.  Here, I’ll climb in the car with you and show you how to get there.”
Knowing a teachable moment when I see one I complied.  My new friend took us to the Baptist Town Convenience Store and introduced me to the proprietor.
Baptist Town
Baptist Town

“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.”

I could believe it.  Every building within eyesight was dilapidated to the point of collapse, but it was the look in the faces of the people wandering in and out of the store that told the story.  The owner had a few fuzzy memories of the Greenwood civil rights movement but I doubted many of his younger customers had any coherent appreciation of the sacrifices their grandparent’s generation had made.
We returned to the car and drove a few blocks to the Leflore County courthouse, an impressive structure dominated by a massive Confederate memorial that had been dedicated in 1915.  I circled the building looking for any acknowledgment of the civil rights movement.  Although Greenwood in 65% black, no memorial counterpart to the imposing Confederate Memorial could be found.
A quick driving tour of Greenwood explained why.  We drove through poor and working class neighborhoods without seeing a white face.  Suddenly we were in an upscale older neighborhood dominated by two-story mansions.  We had entered the world of white.  Although Greenwood has elected its fair share of black leaders, the locus of raw political leverage remains unchanged.
After stopping for supper, we motored eastward toward Carroll County.  A few minutes after crossing the county line, the flat road twisted into a steep climb and we were out of the Delta.
Like Montgomery County, Carroll County was sternly resistant to the civil rights onslaught.  While black residents were lining up for voter registration in Greenwood, federal registrars in Carroll County waited four straight days without a single black applicant showing up.  Without outside leadership it was almost impossible for black residents to make a stand against what people were still unapologetically calling “white supremacy”.
The Carroll County Courthouse
The Carroll County Courthouse

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.  A major remodel in 1992 removed the last vestiges of the bullet holes that riddled the structure back in 1886.

The Carrollton Massacre (remembered locally as the “Carrollton riot”) marked the transition from the Reconstruction period to the Jim Crow era.  Ed and Charley Brown, half-Indian and half-black brothers, had an encounter with a white man named James Liddell.  The molasses the Brown brothers were delivering was spilt and angry words were exchanged.  A short while later, Liddell emerged from a local cafe and approached the Browns again.  Asked why he was still hanging around, Ed Brown told Liddell it was none of his God damned business.  Liddell slapped Brown across the face, a melee erupted and gunfire was exchanged during which Liddell was wounded in the leg.
Two days later, the Brown brothers were arraigned before a judge, accused of assaulting Liddell.  Still viewing themselves as American citizens in the spirit of Reconstruction, the brothers charged Liddell with assaulting them.  The brothers were taken back to a holding cell.  A few days later, a white mob stormed the local lock-up and secured an inmate they took to be Ed Brown.  The man was shot and hanged.  Unfortunately, the lynch victim was a young man named Will McKinney.
Staircase in the Carroll County Courthouse
Staircase in the Carroll County Courthouse

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.

A grand jury looking into the matter theorized that the armed men must have been goaded into action by gunfire from the Brown brothers.  “The evidence before us goes to show that the Browns were turbulent and desperate half breeds, always ready for a conflict” the grand jury opined.
No one knows how many black people died that day (two dozen would be a modest estimate) but no white residents were injured.  With the passing of time, even local historians were forced to admit that the men from Greenwood had carried out a well organized campaign of terror designed to put the black man back in his place.
You won’t find any reference to any of this on the courthouse square in Carrollton, of course.  The picturesque community appears to have been frozen in time.  Little has changed since that fateful day and the community would make an excellent tourist destination were it not for the incident that created bold headlines across America in 1886.
Seventeen years after the massacre for which the town is famous, a Civil War Memorial, impressive for a poor, underpopulated county, was erected on the northwest corner of courthouse grounds.   As you move clockwise around the monument the dedication unfolds: “To the memory of Carroll’s Confederate soldiers who fought in defense of our constitutional rights from Bethel to Appomattox.  Truth crushed to earth shall rise again.”

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.

17 thoughts on “The shallow graves of Mississippi

  1. The Confederate Memorial at the Carrollton, Miss., Courthouse was unveiled Dec. 1, 1905.

  2. nice writing! I am interested in courthouse massacre after researching fact that my ancestors lived between Carroll and Leflore counties beginning in 1870. They came from Georgia and despite unending hardships were able to servive. I am trying to find out if the Brown brothers were related to Browns in Browning circa 1920.

  3. Thanks so much for the informative article. It is really ironic about the Confederate memorials, yet very few civil rights memorials. There has been some progress in the state, but attitudes are very slow to change; and it always bothers me to hear the same supremacist attitudes. I must say that I have found bigotry everywhere. However, I will say that I grew up in Mississippi, and we NEVER celebrated a Confederate Memorial Day-in fact I never heard of such a thing. Is that something new? I know the King/Lee Day is.

  4. Thank you for writing about the Carrollton Massacre. My mother is from Carrollton. I lived there for a short period with my grandparents in 1990-91. My great-great grandfather, Jake Cain was injured in the massacre. His brother, Simon was one of the people killed that fateful day. It was told to me that as my great-great grandfather lay on the ground suffering from the fall out of the 2nd story window of the courthose (legend has it he was shot in the back and fell out the window), some men stood over him and were about to shoot him. One said, not to waste his bullets on him because he was going to die anyway. My great-great grandfather lived until 1945 til the ripe old age of 83. Had he been killed that day, I would not be here because the massacre happened 3 yrs before my great-grandfather, AlbertCain was born in 1889.

  5. My grandparents , James and Nettie McCarley came to Texas from Carroll County somewhere around 1910. They had lived in the town of McCarley and and my grandmother would have been about 15 when the courthouse massaacre took place. I had not heard of the massacre until I stumbled across it on the internet. I appreciate your article.

  6. Germany, The Czech Republic, and others have many memorials to the Jews slain during WWII. We have a huge segment of America which has not even acknowledged the atrosities visited on the African Americans, let alone said they’re sorry in any way. How is that possbile in a religious people?

  7. My great uncle was George Windam. While the lynchings were terrible and tragic, my grandmother, George’s sister, witnessed everything. The entire situation is just tragic from all ends of the spectrum.

  8. Catherine, you and I are related. This history is deeply compelling to me. Please let me know how I may contact you.

  9. I inherited a marble top dresser from my grandmother with the name Capt. J. Liddell, Carrollton Mississippi written on the back of it. My daughter refinished the dresser and removed the date which I believe was 1863. Could this have been the person you wrote about?

  10. Very possibly, although James Liddell lived in Greenwood at the time of the incident. But the two towns aren’t more than ten miles apart, so who knows. In a town that small, the J. Liddell you mention was almost certainly a relative if not the man himself.

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