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A Ghost Story
Sunday Stories from the South
Midnight was around three glasses of whiskey and six cups of coffee ago. All was quiet, save for the haunting voice of Patsy Cline keening from the stereo, “I’ve Got Your Picture, She’s Got You.” Willie was sitting deep in his easy chair staring a hole in the bottom of his ceramic mug. His mind was 120 miles and 40 years away as he peered past the last brown swallow of Folgers.
“There are not many prospects in America so beautiful as a field of white cotton in the early fall,” He mused to himself, “if you stand in the right spot in late afternoon in the Delta, you catch the golden glow of autumn's setting sun, the verdant green of the trees along the rivers, the bright red mechanical cotton pickers, the panoply of white in the undulating gloaming. It makes you feel big and important in such a moment to know that the ancient Egyptians grew this same cotton, and that it has been with us since hieroglyphics. There are not many American places where you can see so far, thirty miles away, it seems, under the copious sweep of the horizons. You can stand up there in Kansas or Nebraska and do that, but there is nothing to see except more of Kansas and Nebraska. Yet, in this glutinous and devouring soil, cotton has forever pertained to blood and guilt, as it must have too with the Egyptians.”
But he wasn’t really thinking about cotton. He wasn’t even thinking about the trial. In the early morning hours at his home in Jackson, Mississippi, Willie Morris sat thinking about ghosts.
Shortly after midnight on June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers was shot in the back as he stepped out of his car at his suburban home just outside Jackson. His wife and three young children cradled him on the ground as he bled to death. He was 37.
When famed Mississippi author, Eudora Welty, heard the news across the radio she was so outraged that she dropped what she was doing and wrote a first-person narrative from the standpoint of the killer: “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” The story was written before the police had any suspects in mind, but Welty’s psychoanalysis of the assassin could not have been any more accurate if she had been privy to his innermost thoughts.
I says to my wife, “You can reach and turn it off. You don’t have to set and look at a black nigger face no longer than you want to, or listen to what you don’t want to hear. It’s still a free country.”
I reckon that’s how I give myself the idea…
…As soon as I heard wheels, I knowed who was coming. That was him and bound to be him. It was the right nigger heading in a new white car up his driveway towards his garage with the light shining, but stopping before he got there, maybe not to wake ’em. That was him. I knowed it when he cut off the car lights and put his foot out and I knowed him standing dark against the light. I knowed him then like I know me now. I knowed him even by his still, listening back.
Never seen him before, never seen him since, never seen anything of his black face but his picture, never seen his face alive, any time at all, or anywheres, and didn’t want to, need to, never hope to see that face and never will. As long as there was no question in my mind.
He had to be the one. He stood right still and waited against the light, his back was fixed, fixed on me like a preacher’s eyeballs when he’s yelling “Are you saved?” He’s the one.
I’d already brought up my rifle, I’d already taken my sights. And I’d already got him, because it was too late then for him or me to turn by one hair.
Something darker than him, like the wings of a bird, spread on his back and pulled him down. He climbed up once, like a man under bad claws, and like just blood could weigh a ton he walked with it on his back to better light. Didn’t get no further than his door. And fell to stay.
He was down. He was down, and a ton load of bricks on his back wouldn’t have laid any heavier. There on his paved driveway, yes sir.
And it wasn’t till the minute before, that the mockingbird had quit singing. He’d been singing up my sassafras tree. Either he was up early, or he hadn’t never gone to bed, he was like me. And the mocker he’d stayed right with me, filling the air till come the crack, till I turned loose of my load. I was like him. I was on top of the world myself. For once.
The actual shooter, an outspoken Klansman by the name of Byron De La “DeLay” Beckwith, couldn’t stop bragging about killing Evers. He left a trail of clues that resulted in his quick arrest. And though the evidence pointed clearly to Beckwith, his lawyers mounted a defense that insinuated Evers deserved killing for trying to overthrow the Mississippi way of life.
DeLay would show up for court dressed in his cream-colored suits and with a wide grin would slip cigars into the breast pocket of the prosecutor. Though the D.A. may have been wearing a suit of navy blue, it was evident to all who looked on that he and the defendant were indeed cut from the same cloth.
Despite the fact that several witnesses put DeLay at the scene, and despite the fact that his fingerprints were found on the murder weapon left between the sweetgum tree and honeysuckle bushes across from the Evers house, the trial ended in a hung jury, and a second trial produced the same result. Beckwith famously said, “You’ll never find twelve jurors in Mississippi who will convict a man for killin’ a nigger.” It seemed he was right.
But Myrlie, Evers’ devoted widow, wasn’t content to let the past stay buried. In 1994, thirty years after Beckwith first walked away from the courthouse whistling Dixie, the Evers family convinced Bobby DeLaughter, a young assistant D.A., to file charges for a new trial. And Willie Morris was there to cover the trial for a national magazine.
As the courtroom drama heated up, Morris was spellbound. He took copious notes and, sensing something of the weight of the historical moment, prepared a memo for his longtime friend and movie producer Fred Zollo.
This time the jury wasn’t made up of twelve white men concerned about protecting a doomed way of life. This jury was made up of men and women, both white and black, without the past gray shades of moral confusion. This time Byron De La Beckwith came face to face with justice. When the verdict was delivered, Beckwith was sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life behind the white walls of the state penitentiary.
Morris convinced Zollo to make a movie about the long-awaited victory. In a way, Zollo shared some credit for Beckwith coming to trial again in the first place. His earlier film from 1988, Mississippi Burning, inspired some of the key players in the Beckwith trial to go digging around for new evidence. Information which would eventually win them the trial.
Zollo then procured Rob Reiner as director and together they recruited a cast of actors that should’ve been able to turn any story into a blockbuster hit: Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, William H. Macy, and James Woods.
But Morris wasn’t primarily interested in making a splash at the box office. He was interested in exorcizing the demons that had plagued his beloved state for so long: animus and apathy. Even more, Morris wanted the restless spirits, these “Ghosts of Mississippi,” to find lasting peace.
Despite the great cast and the even greater story, Ghosts of Mississippi, failed at the box office. But this is probably due to a few factors that can be better appreciated a quarter of a century later.
The first problem is that Evers remains a ghost. That is, too little of the film’s considerable energy is spent acquainting us with this unsung hero of the early civil rights movement. Even though we now have a film about his tragic death, we still know precious little about his life. And that is a story worth telling.
A second factor is that Ghosts of Mississippi ends up being a film about the moral dilemma of white liberals rather than Medgar Evers’ quest for justice. All of the heroes are pasty, square-jawed progressives. Of course, this is only a problem if one thinks that a story about southern racism and civil rights could probably have done without scenes recounting the temper tantrums of a spoiled white housewife in order to squeeze in a few more minutes with Medgar.
But at the end of the day, I stand with Willie. It was a film worth making because it was an event worth remembering. The conviction of Byron De La Beckwith reminds people who grew up in places like where Morris grew up that even old wrongs can be righted. While the past may never be fully past, it can be laid to rest.
And those spirits who are ever in our ears spurring us on to love and forgiveness are probably not ghosts at all, just members of that Great Cloud of Witnesses, of whom the world was not worthy, cheering us northward toward home.
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