A day of reckoning in Winona, Mississippi: Why Fannie Lou Hamer and Curtis Flowers are forever united in a corner of my mind

The first part of this day was dedicated to Curtis Flowers; the second half to Fannie Lou Hamer. This was by design. I came to Winona, Mississippi to spend some quality time with Curtis, and to attend the unveiling ceremony of a new plaque commemorating the day Ms. Hamer and her companions were savagely beaten in the Montgomery County Jail. The two are firmly connected, in my mind at least.

I suspect you have heard of Curtis Flowers, a man wrongfully accused of murdering four people in a Winona furniture store in 1996. Friends of Justice has been working on his behalf since 2008. On the surface, what happened to Hamer in 1963 and what happened to Flowers thirty-three years later, bear little resemblance. To begin with the most obvious difference, Hamer was a woman; Flowers is a man. Hamer was bold and assertive; Flowers is gentle and fun-loving. Hamer was the victim of violence; Flowers was falsely accused of perpetrating violence.

Curtis Flowers learns he is a free man in 2018

But the two stories follow a similar narrative arc. Both happened in Winona, Mississippi. Both were acts of violence (one literal, the other judicial) inflicted upon a helpless person of color. The beating of Hamer and the framing of Flowers were both acts of desperation.

The violence inflicted on the helpless body of Fannie Lou Hamer was a symptom of the civil rights movement unfolding in the Mississippi Delta. The state of Mississippi, in the iron grip of a proudly racist caste of white men, was winning every war and, very clearly, losing the battle. These men wanted to keep the educational and political systems of the state in white hands for the benefit of white citizens. There was no public debate. Those who disagreed kept their mouths shut or suffered the consequences. Pastors, pundits and politicians who supported the cause of civil rights were lucky if they merely lost their jobs. It could get far worse.

And yet women like Fannie Lou Hamer refused to quit. They kept holding mass meetings in Black churches. They kept teaching Black children about racial equality. Worse still, they insisted on quoting the Bible, and there was so much Bible to quote. The day after Ms. Hamer was beaten half to death, she informed the sheriff’s wife that, contrary to what she might have been told, God demands justice and racial equality. She quoted chapter and verse. The Sheriff’s wife, a good Baptist, took notes.

Fannie Lou Hamer in the Winona jail

Fannie Lou Hamer wasn’t beaten because official Mississippi thought she could be silenced; she was beaten because everyone knew she couldn’t be silenced.

State officials were equally desperate when Curtis Flowers was arrested, albeit for a very different reason. Four innocent people had been senselessly slaughtered in a Winona place of business, and no one had the slightest idea who to blame. But this case couldn’t go cold. Somebody had to be arrested, charged and convicted.

And it was obvious to everyone associated with the investigation of the case, that the sacrificial lamb had to be poor, powerless and Black. Curtis Flowers was singled out because his name appeared on a pay check found on the desk of Bertha Tardy.

And how do you frame a powerless Black man? You find a dozen-or-so powerless Black people to testify that they saw him walking to and away from the scene of the crime. And you promise to go easy on a psychopathic repeat offender if he will only testify that Curtis Flowers admitted the crime in the course of a jailhouse conversation.

Once you have all these witnesses on the record, you threaten them with prison time if they choose to backtrack. No single witness is particularly persuasive, but, taken together, a clear portrait of guilt can be scrawled across the courtroom walls.

In both the Hamer and Flowers cases, then, the state was doing what the state had to do. And the good citizens of white Mississippi did their part. When the feds placed Sheriff Earl Wayne Patridge and his deputies on trial, they were expeditiously acquitted. When the state paraded their long string of compromised witnesses before the jury, they voted to convict and to kill.

We know what happened in the Hamer case, because she lived to tell her story. Repeatedly, and with no details omitted.

We know what happened in the Flowers case, because the witnesses recanted their testimony. Every one of them.

Curtis and I attended the Hamer unveiling together. That was as it should be.

Like I said, I spent the morning cruising Winona with Curtis and his friends. Curtis has a lot of friends. He seems to know everybody in town. Everybody loves Curtis Flowers, and he loves them right back. On the advice of his attorneys, he spent the first six months of his freedom living with his sister in Plano, Texas. But he couldn’t stay away from Winona forever. As he drove around town, showing me his favorite fishing holes and other local landmarks, his love for the community was evident. His ambition (inherited from his mother, Lola) is to buy up all the abandoned homes in town, fix them up, and rent them out. He can’t do it, of course; but he would if he could.

A day in pictures:

The morning began with a visit with dad, Archie Flowers
Curtis order lunch for Archie at the local deli
Curtis visits his home for a quick shot of insulin.
Curtis notices that a cow has just birthed a calf. “See, she’s still licking it.”
Curtis is reunited with his attorney, Ray Charles Carter (now retired) at the Hamer event
Curtis swaps stories and laughter with Marvin Edwards, his chaplain at Parchman prison. “They put me in the same office with the Islamic chaplain,” Edwards says. He was Muslim and I was Catholic, so we were in the “non-Christian” office. At least, that’s the way they saw it.”
Curtis and Alan Bean at the Hamer event
I am reunited with Dianna Freelon Foster of Granada, Mississippi. Back in 1966, Dianna and several other school children attempted to integrate the public schools of Granada. They were beaten mercilessly by men with steel pipes and baseball bats. But, like Fannie Lou Hamer, Dianna never gives up.
Ray Carter, Curtis Flowers, Alan Bean. It was Carter who asked Friends of Justice to investigate the Flowers case. “Winona,” he told me, “is the town where Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten half to death.” The association was chiseled into my brain.
The plaque unveiled at the former site of the Montgomery County Jail. Winona mayor, Aaron Dees, read the proclamation, passed unanimously by the Winona city council, celebrating the accomplishments of Ms. Hamer, and declaring that what happened to her and her friends was wrong and must never be repeated. That is nothing short of miraculous language.

When the Hamer event concluded, and the crowd of 300 started drifting away, I hung around and visited with whoever wanted to talk to me. I was invited to a dinner at the Catholic Church next door and seated, to my delight, next to Euvester Simpson, the woman who, at the tender age of seventeen, cared for Fannie Lou when the guards had done their worst. “We just sang songs all night,” she told me. “What else were we supposed to do? We had to look beyond ourselves.”

We still do!

A recent Library of Congress picture of Euvester Simpson


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2 thoughts on “A day of reckoning in Winona, Mississippi: Why Fannie Lou Hamer and Curtis Flowers are forever united in a corner of my mind

  1. It’s come full circle. I wish he could get those years back, but the next days will be the best of his amazing life. 👏

  2. Curtis Flowers and his story is an inspiration to those of us who have not had to suffer as he did.

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