Chapters 3,4,5: The Plan

CHAPTER THREE

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“The best way to describe the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta is that it looks like half a football on the map. Its crescent of small counties hugs the River between Memphis and Vicksburg. We called our home the Delta, and it hasn’t changed much at all since the 1800s with its rich soil, cotton fields, wealthy planters, and desperate poverty.” From an oral history interview with Clarksdale attorney Clinton Moore, Spring 2012.

 

About a year before a complete stranger murdered me, I was invited by a small private college in Jackson to talk about my part in the modern civil rights movement, first as an activist student and then as a lawyer.

The Millsaps history honors student started out by asking what it was like growing up in the Delta. He seemed envious when I told him I’d been raised near the home towns of B.B. King and Howlin’ Jack Wolf, his two favorite bluesmen.

Jim, I’ll call him, knew that Clarksdale was the blues capital of the world. He was curious about why I’d left this music oasis, and I told him that by the end of high school. I was ready to fly!

“The old white cotton planters around Clarksdale gave me no reason to stay. I wanted to go out and be part of the modern civil rights movement.”

I traveled back in time, telling Jim how I’d helped when the early Freedom Riders came into the city of Jackson.

“I’ll never forget these special young and old, black and white, men and women, all brave enough to show up in this violent state to challenge the system. My job was to gather all their vital information before they were hauled off to Parchman Prison in the Delta, where we feared they would disappear.

“So what made you go back home to the Delta? That’s quite a change from working in Jackson, isn’t it? And then, Chicago?”

I told him a quick story that started out one muggy morning in 1971. While I was preparing for court, the phone rang.

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

May 24, 1971

 

“You better come home, Clinton. We need your help before somebody else gets killed.” Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’s voice trembled. I cradled the phone between my neck and right ear to talk while hunched over, stuffing case files into my briefcase. She’d caught me off guard.

“What do you mean?”

The civil rights icon spilled out her story. A young girl was murdered the night before in a small cotton ginning town in the heart of the Delta, two and a half hours north of Jackson. Drew was close to where fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched back in August 1955, right after the Supreme Court’s Brown II decision to speed up school integration. The place is still known for violence; after a small lynch mob tortured and killed this kid, they drove over to Glendora and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River, weighted down by a heavy circular cotton gin fan.

I was a kid in junior high back when Till was beaten and murdered in a small tool shed owned by a planter. The lynching attracted international media and helped spark the entire modern civil rights movement in the United States. After Rosa Parks heard the story, she decided to go ahead with her plan to sit at the front of a Montgomery city bus.

Nothing about this ugly town ever surprised me, though, including this new shooting of another school-aged child, on her graduation night.

Mrs. Hamer was in tears. “My sweet little Jo Etha was shot and killed, right after she left the high school gym. You know her—she helped register voters for my state legislature campaign.” She stopped to catch her breath. Mrs. Hamer—we always called her this out of deep respect—had known this young woman personally. This sudden, malicious act was affecting her deeply. I could tell by the crack in her voice.

“All she was doin’ was drinkin’ a soda pop with friends in front of  the grocery store, showin’ off her athletic award, when a pickup truck drove by real slow, and a white kid stuck his gun through the side window. Jo Etha was hit in the neck. They took her to the hospital over in Cleveland, but she was already dead. Too late, they told her mother.”

From secret state reports, I later discovered that a 22-caliber pistol “with one bullet missing” was found in the truck along with a 12-gauge Army issue riot gun and a 22-caliber automatic rifle. The information was slipped to me by a friendly Sovereignty Commission secretary, and it looked to me like the truck driver and his two buddies had planned one hell of a night ride throughout the Delta. Like the old days when Klansmen rode through on horses to kill and terrorize black people. Fortunately, the three of them were stopped after the first bullet.

We quit talking—letting silence have its say. I wanted to slam the damned phone down and walk away, but I couldn’t do this to Mrs. Hamer. So I eased back into the conversation.

“Sounds like Greenville, doesn’t it?”

Two years earlier, Flora Jean Smith died violently in this river town; shot to death and her body thrown into a stagnant bogue north of town. A white man first lured this teenage girl into his car to babysit his child. But he lied. He had no children and later confessed he wanted to see how it felt to kill a black girl.

Mrs. Hamer was twenty-four years older than me. We’d grown up hearing rumors about dead bodies at the bottom of the Delta’s small lakes or caught in the rushes of slow-moving bayous. Most folks could direct you to Whore’s Lake—a large gray body of still water outside of Drew, tucked between the cotton fields. Filled with bodies of black women killed by Klanswomen for sleeping with their men, the white women claimed.

“He was arrested and jailed the same night as he killed her,” Mrs. Hamer explained.  “He and the other two didn’t even know her, except as a black girl who didn’t matter. This won’t be the end, Clinton. More violence is coming. Hundreds of Jo Etha’s family and friends are demanding to march through downtown Drew in her memory, tomorrow night. That’s why I’m calling. You’ve got to come help me keep everyone calm.”

The mayor was refusing their request. He wouldn’t allow a candlelight march in her honor. Wouldn’t give out a permit and said he would arrest anyone in the streets.

“We have a right to honor her. Can you help?”

Gulping down the last of my coffee after closing my attaché—I was due in court in twenty minutes—I kept the phone to my ear while looking around my desk to make sure I’d gathered up everything I’d need.

“Can you believe this?” she asked. “The sheriff told reporters Jo Etha’s murder was a crime with no motive.”

I stopped my juggling act and leaned forward in my chair, as if she were in the same room talking to me. “So how about the color of her skin, Mrs. Hamer?” I half-whispered this into the telephone. “Was it a contributing factor?”

She let my question slide. We needed this moment of silence. The conversation already had ended, and I rose from my chair, straightened my tie, and brushed lint from my suit. I always looked good in court. I didn’t want Mrs. Hamer to feel dismissed, but time was running out, and I had to leave. I began to close the conversation.

“Look, I’ve got to go to court. I will take off for Ruleville when I’m done. Don’t worry, I’ll get to your house before nightfall. I know—don’t travel alone after five.”

This was the rule for any black person wanting to survive in the most turbulent years. If you had to go somewhere, it had better not be alone at night. Safer to do your work before the sun goes down. Mrs. Hamer, and all those who’d lived through the worst of times, still held by this mandate. And they were still alive!

“Love you, Clinton.”

“Same to you, Mrs. Hamer.”

After taking a final look in the mirror, I headed out to meet my client. Later that afternoon, I took off for the Delta to help my old friend with the memorial march and funeral. We succeeded in calming the Drew community, but after I’d returned to Jackson a month later, I packed my bags and moved back to the Delta. My community needed me.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

  

Mollie found me in Clarksdale late that summer. I was sitting behind a desk piled high with stacks of case files. A little heavier, up perhaps twenty pounds since high school, with my hair shaped into a moderate Afro and my face showing added creases. It’s always been a kind face, people tell me, but now more temperate. My body still strong and well-toned—no longer the frame of an athletic teenage male, but a physique of substance.

She discovered me working on contract language for a client, and when Mollie Johnson found me on that hot late-August morning, she walked right into my life and broke my concentration with her silly fake Southern twang:

“Hey, old man. I ha’ir you’ve come back home to the Miss’sippi Delta to set up a new law practice, bringing us some jaystice.” She slurred over the second syllable of Mississippi like butter melting on warm biscuits, her way of announcing she’d returned home, poking fun at Delta speak.

I looked up from my work, amazed to hear her voice, then quickly jumped up to cross the room and embrace her.

“I can’t believe it’s you, Mollie. My God, where have you been since high school? You’re looking younger and more beautiful than ever.”

For a moment, all I could do was stand there and look at my old friend. I never thought we’d see each other again. We had been tight before she disappeared the day after high school graduation. You can’t explain away so many years of absence in a moment, and I didn’t expect this from Mollie, but hoped she would fill in some of the gaps—maybe later, over lunch.

She was clearly on a mission, and it was as if the past twelve years apart didn’t matter. It was so like her to skip what she considered minutiae.

“Hey, Mister Clinton Moore. I see you’ve got an ad in the newspaper for a legal assistant.” She held up the newspaper’s classified section and angled it next to her cheek, pointing her finger at my small help wanted ad buried midway down the page. The announcement in The Clarksdale Press Register must have come out early.

“I want to come back home to Clarksdale. My parents are getting old, and they need me. I need a job, Clinton. So, when do I start?”

Of course I needed help running my new practice in Clarksdale, after deciding to come home and open a solo practice. My lover, Joe Means, and I had not been getting along. He was younger than me, still in law school at the time, and not entirely certain he was gay. But I wanted him to move to Clarksdale and join my law practice when he graduated. He didn’t like the idea.

“So you are asking me to come home and stay tucked away in the closet?” Joe’s neck had turned red, before telling me that he would not spend one more day in “that rat hole of Clarksdale.”

“I did everything you told me to do, Clinton. I always respected you like you were my big brother. You taught me everything—how to stay safe, keep the jocks off my back, and suck up to teachers. You weren’t there with me when I was in high school, but it didn’t matter. You still told me what to do every step of the way by telephone, and on any weekend that you came home. Like I couldn’t figure out anything for myself?”

He needed to blow off steam, so I said nothing and let him continue. Didn’t counter any of Joe’s remarks, including the deepest insults, and he was harsh.

“You said to find a beard, someone like Mollie, so I could attend school dances and everyone would think I was straight. You laid it all out, handed me your personal roadmap, and I followed that map so damned close that by the time I left home for college, I didn’t know who I was. Even at Jackson State, I was damned careful, and once again, thanks to you my big brother, I lied through another four years of my life.”

The discussion was over. I made no ground. Deep down, I knew that Joe deserved time to try out life on his own. Someday we would be together, but this would come later. I would honor Joe’s request for freedom. We kept our alternate weekends calendared, with an understanding this was to be an open relationship. I always believed one day he would move home to Clarksdale to live with me.

So here I was. Alone, single, and practicing law in my home town, the hub of the cotton center of the world, a real back end of civilization. But the place honored good music and was home to the Delta blues. With the possibility of Mollie coming home to Clarksdale, my life suddenly looked a hundred percent better, even if Joe lived elsewhere.

She was a beautiful woman. Her face accented by her fuller lips, big eyes, and well-shaped eyebrows. Her high cheekbones and blemish-free completely black skin almost made me quiver. Mollie was exotic, a standout with very short hair that framed her face. She had a tall and slender body. Important to me, she knew I was gay. Had known it clear back since junior high.

We’d talked a lot about this when we were teenagers. She was always there when I needed her—not only for artificial reasons like accompanying me as my “date” on Prom night—but when I really needed to talk to someone about being different, and trying to sort out if something was wrong with me—my deepest fear.

“Does it show?” I would ask. I’d been made fun of a couple of times because I didn’t always go to dances or parties with a girl. It frightened me to think I might look gay. I never got beaten up, like some other gay kids, but I was still insecure about who knew, since my brother and sisters didn’t—at least I believed. I could trust Mollie to help me out with these and other issues like no one else. She was my best friend.

We’d tried sex once. It was her suggestion, and it didn’t work. I’d been afraid of physical intimacy and apologized. She said she was sorry for asking me to do this. She was beautiful afterward, in her unconditional love and understanding of who I was. Nevertheless, she disappeared the day after high school graduation, with no warning. I never heard from her until that day she showed up at my office.

I begged her parents and friends to tell me where she’d gone. Either they didn’t know, or they weren’t telling me. She’d had a boyfriend in high school. He’d gone on after graduation to work in Jackson; occasionally, I’d see him on the street when I was at Jackson State.

Had he heard from Mollie? He would stare away before saying no to my question. I didn’t trust his answers. I imagined she was pregnant and had moved far away. Maybe she was married with a family.

Years passed. My feelings for her lessened, but I didn’t quit thinking about her. I’d see an old friend at a party and ask if he had heard from Mollie. Always the answer was no. Coming back home to Clarksdale with these memories had not been easy.

And here she stood at my desk. Demanding a job. Banking on the newspaper advertisement, my messy office, and our friendship. Mollie assumed this job was hers to lose, and she started flirting to win it—just like the old days. She returned to Delta-speak, with its soft accent and pseudo formalities: using Miss and Mister before first or surnames, whether the conversation was serious or light. Missy was reserved for snotty black or uppity white women and was used by blacks and whites both.

“You know you need me, Mister Clinton Moore. Someone’s got to clean up this big fat law office mess of yours. You go ask your sis’tuh Miss Betty, and she’ll say it’s so, you ha’ir?”

I joked. “She put that ad in the pa’puh, herse’f, hoping some nice young belle like you would come ovu’h and h’ep me out.”

Mollie swept her right arm across the clutter, shaking her head side to side and making clicking sounds of disapproval. She got down on both hands and knees to attack the hundreds of small paper file tabs stuck in my carpet.

“When’s the last time you filed something? Sent out bills? Or cleaned up this floor?” She reached out for paper clips, also stuck in the carpet weave. “Don’t you ever answer your phone before the third ring? I don’t think so. I tried calling you this morning to let you know I’d be coming ha’ir for the job.”

I thought I should help her out and took to the floor, perhaps a little too quickly. Mollie back-crawled a couple of inches to look me square in the face.

“Now you don’t want to mess up those good suit pants, Mister Clinton. Let me do this for you.” She followed me with her big dark-brown eyes as I eased back up from the floor to a standing position, lifting each foot in the air and pretending to shake wrinkles from my trouser legs.

“Nice dress suit.” She looked into my face. “Armani?

“Not quite. I’d have to go to N’awlins for that. Tough to get the good Italian stuff here in Miss-sippi, you know.”

“Nice trimmed mustache. Cool Afro—maybe too short,” she continued her assessment. I laughed and waggled my finger at her face.

Out of the blue, I started singing Mississippi Goddam, a wild 1964 protest song actually banned across the state after Nina Simone sang it to the world. Mollie started dancing, and I found myself scanning her trim black body from her head on down. Had I changed? I didn’t think so, but I had to wonder.

A couple of minutes, and I returned to checking over clauses I’d established for Harry Stork’s contract, still watching Mollie from the corner of my eye. She’d gone back to picking up paperclips. Her short yellow jersey wrap dress hugged her ass and her breasts dropped forward into the soft cloth. Mollie’s perfectly shaped legs were accented by black heels with thin straps buckled across her small ankles. She’d topped off her summer look with a low-pocketed jacket and carried a bulky leather purse, giving her a 70s urban look.

My reactions surprised me, and I began to wonder what would have happened between us if she hadn’t left home? If I weren’t gay? If I hadn’t loved Joe? I shook my head a couple of times to clear it before going back to the Stork contract.

“I think you can skip the typing test,” I called to Mollie.

I sensed fleeting pragmatism. While Mollie had been out of my life, I’d done time in some of the grimmest years of the civil rights movement, before and after becoming a lawyer, often diminishing my sense of humor. Was I too quickly growing old? Becoming an old fart? I hoped not. But another good reason for having Mollie back around the office; she’d always liked to flirt and have fun! She would keep me young.

Finished with the carpet mess, my old school friend sat there with her legs crossed, watching me work. I needed a legal assistant—someone with brains—and here she was in my Delta office, playing cat and mouse.

Mollie had been one of the brightest people I’d known. As Clarksdale High’s 1959 class valedictorian, she balanced calculus, chemistry, and cheerleading without a hitch. Why did she leave home the day after graduation? Without saying goodbye? Or calling me on the phone? I deserved answers to the questions now filling my head once again, but all of this could wait. I couldn’t let Mollie slip away. It had been too long since I’d last seen her, and I needed her help.

“You’re so smart, Miss Mollie, you could have been a lawyer yourself. You should be offering me a job,” I kidded her while mentally calculating what I could afford to pay. I knew I had to get Stork’s legal work done; it meant an extra fifteen dollars. I had to get back to business. But there’d been a spark of pleasure in watching her move around my office in that tight-ass dress and those spiked heels.

“I’ll need to buy an extra desk and office chair by tomorrow,” I called out to her, then went back to work.

Noon approached, and my white shirt collar was getting moist—my forehead dripping. The six-blade metal fan used to cool the office whirred, but didn’t help much except to recirculate the hot air. By the end of April, unbearable heat moves into the Delta. Most folks wilt. Mollie’s face stayed dry, as drops fell onto my pressed shirt. She glowed in the Delta humidity.

“How about some lunch? Forget walking on the hot pavement. We’ll take my car! Say, do you remember that day we walked down to the sandbars? When it was so damned hot?”

I’d had this memory while the temperature moved up. Everyone around here says don’t go down to the Mississippi River sandbars after April, unless you leave by nine in the morning. The river is low, and it may look like fun, but walking there in the heat is dangerous.

“Yeah! I was wearing gym shoes with socks, and you had those dumb rubber thongs on your feet,” Mollie laughed. “Two hours later you could barely pull your naked feet up and out of the sinking, hot sand on our way back to the car. Remember? You had to crawl on all fours when your thongs broke!”

Mollie’s eyes shined. She wasn’t about to forget our senior sneak-out to the Mississippi River’s hot sand banks. I closed my eyes, and her cheerleader voice came back: “Come on Clinton. You can do it!”

“I could have had a stinking heat stroke and died! Buried in the hot, sucking sand for all you cared, Mollie.”

We’d reached the cool interior of Jim’s Eat Place, where our conversation moved beyond my  humiliating senior trip to talk over Mollie’s new responsibilities and celebrate her homecoming. I’d finally stopped sweating like an ox, once the cool air hit. Mollie, of course, kept her jacket tightly wrapped around her shoulders, complaining it was too cold. She surprised me by not making Jim turn up the heat, or turn down the air conditioning in the restaurant.

The next day, Mollie came to work ten minutes early. She started answering the phone on the first ring, and by Friday she’d caught up my entire client billing and put it in the mail. Including a bill for fifteen dollars to Harry Storks. Since Mollie found me, things were definitely looking up.

*****

(available now at Amazon, print and kindle - Also available at Barnes and Noble-NookSmashwords, ePub/iTunes and Other Online bookstores)