(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.)
Seven years after Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten by the minions of Earl Wayne Patridge, a young woman gave birth to a baby boy in Winona, Mississippi. She named the baby Curtis Giovanni Flowers. Twenty-six years later, Lola Flowers’ baby was charged with murdering Bertha Tardy, Carmen Rigby, Derrick “Bobo” Stewart and Robert Golden in a Winona furniture store.
How much had changed in Winona during Curtis Flowers’ quarter century in the free world?
Winona is the county seat of Montgomery County, once the boldest bastion of white supremacy in the state of Mississippi. Little civil rights brush fires sprang up in Montgomery County in the early 1960s, but men like Sheriff Earl Wayne Patridge and Tom Scarborough of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission made sure they were stomped out before they could spread. Sometimes that meant issuing an extrajudicial beating to uppity black males in the dead of night. When a black school teacher who thought he could register to vote just because he held a masters degree, it was necessary to denounce the man as a communist agitation and have him fired. If a young black preacher encouraged his flock to vote, he had to be relieved of his pulpit.
What happened to Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, Euvester Simpson and Lawrence Guyot at the Montgomery County Jail fit a well established pattern. But these victims had connections with civil rights luminaries. By 1963, Martin Luther King had access to the White House and the Department of Justice. When Fannie Lou Hamer told her Winona story on all three major television networks in 1964, the Civil Rights Act had just been passed and the Voting Rights Act was waiting in the wings.
From a distance, it appeared that Fannie Lou Hamer’s team had scored a smashing victory at the expense of Earl Wayne Patridge and his ilk. In a sense, they had. Now black residents could register to vote without placing their jobs in jeopardy or risking a brutal beat-down. And just as little Curtis Giovanni Flowers was drawing his first breath, the doors of Winona’s public schools swung open to black students.
The public schools of Mississippi integrated because the Supreme Court of the United States gave them no choice. An NAACP-sponsored suit filed just a few miles from Winona, transformed the intention behind Brown vs. Board of Education into reality. President Richard Nixon mollified southern whites by signaling his disapproval, but the deed was done.
In June of 2009, Mississippi Senator and Winona native Lydia Chassaniol surprised political observers by giving the keynote address to a national gathering of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the old white Citizens Councils in the 1980s. Asked to explain herself, Chassaniol admitted to being a card-carrying member of the CCC but she denied the organization had a racist agenda.
“I belong to the local group because they serve as a booster club for one of the local schools,” Chassaniol told the British Broadcasting Corporation. “They raise money for the school—that’s about all they do.”
Would that it were so. The CCC Statement of Principles reveals a fierce racial agenda:
We believe the United States is a European country and that Americans are part of the European people. We believe that the United States derives from and is an integral part of European civilization and the European people and that the American people and government should remain European in their composition and character. We therefore oppose the massive immigration of non-European and non-Western peoples into the United States that threatens to transform our nation into a non-European majority in our lifetime. We believe that illegal immigration must be stopped, if necessary by military force and placing troops on our national borders; that illegal aliens must be returned to their own countries; and that legal immigration must be severely restricted or halted through appropriate changes in our laws and policies. We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called “affirmative action” and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.
The lead article in the “Anti-white” section of the website contains a rallying cry straight out of the 1950s: “We should never forget that the South was RIGHT. There is no shame to bear. In fact, I consider myself having won the genetic lottery for God to have allowed me to come into this world as a Southern male and to have been born and raised in the former Confederate State of Tennessee. This birthright is something I wouldn’t trade for any amount of money. It’s an affirmation of pride that we all should share.”
When Lydia Chassaniol wears her membership in the Council of Conservative Citizens as a badge of honor she is, perhaps unwittingly, embracing the canons of white supremacy. If that isn’t her intent she should withdraw from the group.
But my concern, here and elsewhere, isn’t with with Ms. Chassaniol, a savvy politician and Mississippi tourism booster who appears, in most respects, to be a fine human being and a credit to her community. The problem is that Miss Lydia’s views on race are so mainstream in Mississippi that not a single opinion leader in the state has challenged her affiliation with an openly racist organization. I have a big problem with that.
According to CCC logic, I should be returned to my native Canada and neither Curtis Giovanni Flowers nor President Barack Obama should be considered real Americans. Please, somebody, correct me if I am wrong here because I desperately want to be wrong.
As Senator Chassaniol suggests, the Council of Conservative Citizens really does raise money for schools. But not a nickel goes to public education; CCC money goes to private, all-white schools.
For instance, the CCC raises money for the Winona Christian School, a segregation academy that was founded in 1970, the year after Alexander vs. Holmes County made it impossible to keep black students out of public schools.
In 1965, still stinging from the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a group of parents tried to organize the Montgomery-Carroll Academy. When that didn’t work out, Montgomery County parents assumed the charter in 1970 and started the Winona Academy. Eventually the name was changed to the Winona Christian School. Although the school attracts children from several neighboring counties, most of the students are local and 100% of the student body and 100% of the faculty are white.
Not every white student in Winona can afford a private education, of course, and some white parents may prefer to have their children schooled in a racially diverse environment. In 2007, the Winona public school system was 54% black, 45% white and about 1% other.
Pictures in the Winona Times show predominantly black student athletes playing basketball and football in the public system alongside pictures of the all-white Winona Stars squaring off against all-white competition. If you asked residents what they made of this two-tier world I suspect they would tell you that race has nothing to do with it.
In a recent article in the local paper, Evelyn Strickland, one of the first four teachers at Winona Christian School, recalled how the teams of WCS became known as “The Stars.”
The Stars were a military regiment from this area that came together in 1861 and fought all over the state of Mississippi,” Strickland said. “These brave men were the last known company to surrender in 1865. Because of these brave men, we chose the name the Winona Stars.
The reference appears to be to Mississippi’s Seven Stars Artillery, named in honor of the seven states of the Confederacy. This suggests that the Winona’s Christian School was inspired more by neo-Confederate mythology than Christian ideals. On the other hand, to the anti-civil rights zealots who founded the school, Old South virtues and Christian ideals were indistinguishable.
Does this mean that Lydia Chassaniol is wrong when she insists that Montgomery County has changed dramatically in the past fifty years?
Certainly not. Browse through the Winona Times and you will see articles on the local Martin Luther King Day celebration right next to a photo spread celebrating Winona Christian School’s all-white prom. If Fannie Lou Hamer visited Winona today she could eat almost anywhere she wanted. True, Winona does have a whites-only restaurant—but it is unlikely that even this establishment would turn away a black customer if one should wander in by accident. It’s an academic question; the town’s black residents know to steer clear of the place (unless they have been hired as a cook).
Over half of Winona’s local white children attend integrated schools.
But like the rest of the South, Winona didn’t have the luxury of unpacking her historical baggage. Integration wasn’t embraced, it was simply endured. The lessons of the past have never been learned because the real history of the state is too painful and disturbing to be explored.
This explains how vestiges of Winona’s Jim Crow past can steal undetected into the present.
It has been almost fifty years since a black resident has been beaten half to death for challenging Jim Crow orthodoxy because there is no Jim Crow orthodoxy to challenge.
When Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten half to death in 1963, not a single prosecutor in the state of Mississippi would indict her oppressors. How much had changed when Curtis Flowers was arrested in 1997?
Before we address this question in greater depth, remember that, in 1963, not a single black resident of Montgomery County had registered to vote. When a Greenwood college student advocated racial integration from the pulpit, members of the congregation denounced him to the white authorities.
In 1960, when Sheriff Lawrence King wanted to eliminate his lover’s husband, he hired two black men to do the dirty work. Three years later, with Sheriff King serving a life sentence in the dreaded Parchman prison, his successor threatened and bribed two black jail inmates into wielding the black jack that transformed Fannie Lou Hamer’s soft skin into patches of bruised and bleeding leather.
When we consider how DA Doug Evans and Investigator John Johnson have built their case against Curtis Flowers, it seems that not much has changed at all.