Living With Ghosts … of Mississippi

I just awoke from a strange dream. I somehow was the lead prosecutor in a trial seeking to convict the killer of Medgar Evers. Far from reality, Medgar’s brother, Charles, was frail and ill and near death at the time of the trial. I remember hugging a diabetic and now blind Charles—played by Morgan Freeman—and whispering quietly to him, “Hold on, Charles … we’ll bring him to judgement. Stay with me.” I remember asking him, “You’re so weak, Charles. Sit down.” He replied, “If I sit, I won’t stand up again.”

Then I awoke, dazed and quite confused.

Of course, it didn’t happen like this at all; Byron de la Beckwith, the racist sonofabitch who killed Medgar Evers and crowed about it in his racist circles for decades, was notoriously re-tried and convicted of Evers’s murder in 1994. Charles Evers wasn’t weak and frail at that trial; as best as I can tell from a Google search, he’s still alive today. Beckwith lived for seven years in prison until he died in 2001.

The Beckwith trial was fascinating for me. I was a Midwestern boy thrust into the Deep South just before I hit puberty, a boy who was fairly well ashamed to say, “My father is from Mississippi, and my mother is from Alabama,” in the time that we still lived “up North”, for fear that I’d be seen as a redneck, a racist, an idiot, or all three. I feared strongly that I was moving back into the 1950s, socially and racially, when we moved to Mississippi in 1991.

Since I’d moved from a very good Ohio school district [Beavercreek] to a better-than-average Mississippi one [Forest], I ended up repeating a lot of schoolwork because of the varied expectations of students of the same age. One of the very few classes that interested me at all was Mississippi history, a state-required course that was the only one that held any interest for me since it seemed that it was the only new things to be learned in my new environment. As such, I attacked it with zeal.

My class was taught by a Mr. James Watts, a tall, skinny black man with a rich, deep skin tone. He was a Vietnam veteran–a member of the Big Red One, the First Infantry Division of the United States Army. Mr. Watts wasn’t what liberal Northerners might think of when they think of a black man teaching a mixed-race group of students about Mississippi history. Many would think—or so I conceive of it—of a loud-spoken man teaching passionately about the ills that existed in the 1950s and 1960s, railing against the wrongness of it all and laying it all at the feat of the dirty white man.

Maybe they’d think he was as Charles Evers really was—Charles, too, had served in the Army, but his service was in War Two. Charles was from our part of Mississippi, being born in Decatur, and he was the first black mayor of Fayette since Reconstruction. I remember Charles as being a fiery man. As his Wikipedia entry says, “Admired by some, he alienated others with his inflexible stands on various town issues [in Fayette, Miss., as Mayor]. Evers did not like to share or delegate power.”

No, James Watts was a quiet, passionate man, honest and fair, one who realized that all sides in the racial fight of his youth were largely born into their ignorance and distrust of each other. I think that he learned the true equality and brotherhood of man when he served in Nam. Mr. Watts worked some nights and most weekends at the local Wal*Mart in the sporting goods section, selling firearms and ammunition and making keys. Dad, an inveterate Wal*Mart shopper, quickly realized that he had a colleague and a brother in arms in Mr. Watts. I always flew pretty straight and level in school at that age, but I flew even straighter and more level in Mr. Watts’s class.

A couple years later, armed with the knowledge of my new home’s inglorious and shameful past, Beckwith came to justice. I was enraptured by it all—probably the most notorious of all the Klan killings, Medgar Evers’s assassination was an open wound that just wouldn’t ever heal as long as Beckwith was a free man. All the newsclips from WLBT-TV, Channel 3 in Jackson, are shown in Ghosts of Mississippi as I remember them in real life—except, of course, for the interview scene with James Woods’ powerful portrayal of Beckwith as Ed Bryson interviewed him. [I can’t remember now how close that scene was to the truth; someone with a better memory than I would have to chime in.]

Here I was, a boy ashamed of my family’s home state, seeing a man brought to justice quite late, but not too late. Ghosts of Mississippi, despite its many faults, is still a powerful movie for me because of all the memories it evokes of my 15th and 16th years, seeing that racist old man finally being brought down.

Who knows why I had that crazy-ass dream. Maybe I’m still living with those ghosts.

5 thoughts on “Living With Ghosts … of Mississippi”

  1. I haven’t thought about James Watts in a couple of years. Have you heard anything of him lately? He is one of the very few people from Forest that I totally liked. (Of course The professor is now in Hattiesburg; not Forest)

  2. Dad: I sure haven’t. Until I wrote this, I hadn’t thought of him in a good while. But you’re right, he was one of the people in Forest worth knowing—because he was absolutely a man of good character, and you knew where you stood with him.

    I didn’t full grasp until I’d been away for a couple years just how full of bullshit that town was.

  3. I remember seeing him get interviewed on t.v. here in Chattanooga when i was a kid. I was a racist back then but the things he said shocked me. He would go off on the reporters…it was crazy. I’m glad that the the Evers family got some justice and closure finally after all these years. Really thankful that the Lord saved me from a life filled with all that hate!

Comments are closed.