CHAPTERS 6,7, 8 THE PLAN

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Chapter 6

I loved my scales of justice—a small desk toy that Joe purchased for me in a Jackson antique shop. It reminded me of the gadgets that Grandpa Willie kept in his tool shed.

I would drive Mollie nuts with my scales, dropping paperclips on the Truth or Fairness side, depending on how I’d fared that day in court. The scales are supposed to remain in balance for justice to prevail. But for black people in Mississippi, this rarely happened. The Magnolia state could use a third scale, for Ludicrous. One day the Coahoma County assistant district attorney wanted to put my young client in Parchman prison for stealing aspirin for his sick baby. Even the old white judge appeared disgusted with the ADA and dismissed the case.

I took my win that day with grace. Did my usual thing behind the ADA’s back and returned to the office, ready to load up the Fairness side. I called out for Mollie to open a new box of paperclips and join me, but she appeared busy. As I walked through the front door, she yelled from down the hallway, “Can we get rid of some of these messy cardboard boxes, Mister Clinton?”

“What’s the problem, Mollie?” I was hanging up my suit coat, first giving it a quick brush while listening. Mollie could get overly excited over silly stuff, so I wasn’t tuning in to what she had to say—at first.

“One of your boxes back here in the storage room fell over and spilled its guts into the hallway. Those boxes are creeping out of their places, and I’m afraid more of them are about to flop over and burst open.”

I was a meticulous man who brushed lint from my blue serge suit, picked my short Afro, and shined my shoes to military standards—always going into court with a handkerchief in my breast pocket, so any mess in my office normally concerned me. These boxes held papers I’d been collecting for years. They were important to me, and I didn’t consider them to be a problem.  Each box held documents that might one day solve a crime—or send someone to prison. I knew they created a space problem, but I had already warned Mollie she never was to touch or even go near them.

I sensed she knew on a deeper level to leave the boxes alone. She probably did have some idea of what I was doing, but we didn’t talk about it at first. I didn’t feel it was safe for her to have this knowledge. My attitude eventually changed; in later years, I shared some of what I was doing. But not in these early years of my law career.

Joe, over in Montgomery, Alabama, was one of two people who knew about my collection. Joe had his own assemblage stored in his back office. The other person, Ann, was a kind woman from Jackson who’d helped me gather a good share of what I’d collected, in the first place. Ann was head secretary of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and handled plenty of secret documents and reports that she slipped to me on the qt. But even she didn’t know about Joe’s collection. I thought it my responsibility to keep quiet about my own growing boxes of secret papers. Everyone would be safer, I rationalized.

Ann helped me put my hands on some of my very best and most secret materials that could shed light on dozens of cold cases, things like horrid beatings and murders. The Commission was formed after Emmett Till’s murder in reaction to visits from the feds who started snooping around Mississippi, asking questions, and rattling a few cages for a short time. By 1977, the state closed the Commission’s doors, and its secret files gathered by former FBI and military intelligence spies were sealed for the next fifty years. After a lawsuit in 1989, a federal judge ordered the records opened, with some exceptions for still-living people. I wasn’t surprised to hear from Ann that my name was on their list.

“Mr. Clinton, if you don’t do something soon about this mess, we could have mice trapped in one of those cardboard containers, and they could have babies, and their babies could have babies until kingdom come.” Mollie was carrying on, close to shouting by now as she stared down at the files and papers strewn across the hallway floor.

I didn’t get to load my justice scales that day—something I liked doing right after a solid win—but had to walk down the hallway, get down on my hands and knees, and scoop up the mess of papers. But I didn’t mind.

“Don’t worry, Miss Mollie, I’ll get to the rest of this over the weekend.” I looked down and noticed her tapping foot next to my face.

“Sure I can’t help?”

“Yes.”

Molly returned to her desk.

As I finished picking up the papers, Mollie called out, “How’d it go in court today with Missy Zooey? Uh, you didn’t—”

“Course not, Mollie. I promised you I wasn’t going to do that again.”

“Well, your sister said if you do, I should call her, and she’ll tell your mama.”

Now, there’s a conversation that floats through the galaxy. Mollie was always saying I treated Missy Zooey like a sixth grade boy in heat. Because if I beat her in court, I’d do something before leaving the courtroom that Mollie called pathetic. I just thought it was fun.

“Come on, Molly. Cut me some slack. You know it’s funny.”

“Mister Clinton, I promise if you do THAT again, I will tell the judge. And then, your mama.”

Mollie carried on like this because out of the judge’s sight, and believe me I didn’t let the old peckerwood see me do this, I’d stick out my tongue at Missy Zooey’s small white rear end as she bent over in a tight cotton skirt, stuffing her court documents into her girly-looking briefcase. And then—I’d waggle it.

That’s all it was. Real simple. But the first time Mollie caught me, she nearly had an asthma attack. She’d come to help in court that day, and once we got back to the office, she ratted me out to my sister!

“He could be arrested for this, Miss Betty. You have to tell him to quit. He won’t listen to me, and Sheridan’s old man will freaking kill him.” She was almost crying on the telephone.

Mollie was right about Missy Zooey Sheridan’s daddy. He was a mean old SOB who looked over his dark-haired brown-eyed limited-brain-power daughter like a Mississippi buzzard. Everyone knew she owed her law degree from the Senator James O. Eastland School of Law solely to her daddy’s gifts to the university foundation—earmarked for white students only.

“Now, Mister Clinton. You know her daddy is mighty pow’ful. She might be stupid, but—”

We’d had this conversation many times. She knew Sheridan’s daddy had people murdered and so did his daddy, and his daddy’s daddy. Growing up in the Delta, most black folks see ghosts and smell evil rising from the vapors of its steaming alluvial soil. Sheridan’s family had a lot to do with this.

William Faulkner, this state’s literary genius, knew the Delta’s heritage well when he said that in Mississippi, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

The Sheridans, and others like them, weren’t about to dissolve into the steamy cotton haze as the years rolled by. They’d been hanging on for too long to disappear; their past would never dissolve, but would only melt into the present. Faulkner would have appreciated this, I am sure.

One of my coveted paper-filled boxes held highly confidential documents signed by witnesses who claimed Sheridan’s daddy and a couple of his cronies helped kidnap and kill fourteen-year-old Till.

It wasn’t until 2004, forty-nine years later, that the Justice Department reopened the murder case that brought international news coverage to the Delta. I held secret papers I’d been collecting for years suggesting the Sheridans, and others involved in the murder, were still alive and could be held accountable.

I believed that I also could tie the old planter to a murder in Bloody Belzoni—a white public defender killed by Klansmen for doing his job. They took him out one night and beat him to death. Then they cut off his limbs and buried his body under a small earthen dam. There’d been only a limited investigation because one of Sheridan’s friends said the young lawyer had left the Delta. “He’s somewhere in New York with his family,” this man told state investigators. And that was good enough for the officers, back then.

Personal stories and other documents, all stored away in my cardboard cartons, were waiting for the right day to see light. Waiting for Mississippi to shed its destructive roots—waiting until the U.S. Department of Justice grew gonads and sent FBI teams here to kick butt—which never happens in this state. Frankly, I was surprised by the DOJ’s decision, years later, to take an honest look at Till’s lynching.

Mollie knew that I was looking into this cold case. It was a crime that anyone of our age who lived in the Delta would never forget.

“Why did Emmett Till’s mother call you on the phone,” she quizzed me one day after I ended a call with Mamie Till Mobley. I had to admit that Emmett’s mother and I spoke frequently on the telephone about her son. Our calls carried on until she died in 2003. 

“She knows that I was born in the same year as Emmett, and she’s counting on me to find everyone involved in the murder of her son. You know that I went to law school because of Emmett,” I told Mollie.

Sadly, Mrs. Mobley was still living in Chicago when she died at the age of eighty-one, one year before the DOJ finally decided to do something about it.

What data I’d collected over the years didn’t stop with Sheridan and his friends. I had even more names, and some of the crimes I’d investigated were rooted far away from Mississippi, taking place in Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee. I thought I was keeping most of this secret from Mollie.

I kept the most important of my provocative papers in the locked safe at the back of my office. Ann’s husband was a liberal white Baptist minister in Jackson who had no idea that she was helping me. Ann insisted he remain protected by leaving him out of the loop. Like I’d insisted on doing with Mollie.

If Mollie thought sticking out my tongue at Missy Zooey Sheridan was my biggest problem, so be it. I didn’t want her involved in my highly secret snooping; it could be extremely dangerous for her, just as it could be for Ann’s husband.

I’d meant to keep things operating this way. No one knew what mysteries were stored in my boxes, or what surprises were locked up in my safe. Or what Joe was hiding in his collection of documents. Only Joe and I shared this clandestine information when we got together on weekends.

I always hoped that someday everything we’d collected would make a difference—would cause justice to be served. This was what I had been working for.

 

 

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 THE PLAN IS AVAILABLE AT MOST ONLINE BOOKS STORES (BARNES AND NOBLE, IBOOKS) AND ALSO AT AMAZON IN PRINT AND EBOOK FORMATS.

 

Chapter 7

 

“You’ll make a fine minister, Clinton.” Betty gave me a warm hug and patted my back. My own minister, Tom, stood by her. He’d helped me get here—spending extra hours at night with me and my studies, sharing his thoughts and encouragement. Karen, his wife, edited my papers. All three had been my support team.

I’d been the first family member to finish high school and then go to college and law school. Now my sister, with all my family members, were shaking my hand and calling me the Rev. Clinton Moore—our family’s first preacher.

“It’s going to be tough to balance the two careers, but I’ll work three or four extra hours two evenings a week at church, then be with congregation members all day Sunday,” I told Betty. She was concerned about how I was going to manage both roles. Our parents had passed on years ago—after I’d returned home to the Delta. I was sorry they’d missed this important day in my life.

Small black-run churches and funeral homes have remained popular Southern enterprises—good ways to make money as small businesses—but I’d opened Holy Trinity for other reasons. I had gone through a period of self-reflection grounded in resentment and depression following the modern civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Becoming a minister turned out to be a good decision, and my depression actually faded when I finally began to grow my congregation. Holy Trinity was housed in a white stucco former car dealership that I’d personally purchased. Over the years, some of the stucco had fallen off the front of the building, leaving several gaping holes in the façade, and the large show windows were cracked. Most of the building was tagged with graffiti. It would take a great effort on everyone’s part to turn this into a viable church, yet I had faith this would happen, in time.

Most evenings, church members dropped by for help with personal and family problems, requests for prayers, or to help out with church chores—doing everything from rehabbing the building to scrubbing floors or mending torn pages of hymnals.

On Sunday mornings and throughout the holy day, Trinity came alive with laughter and cheers as our members danced, screamed, shouted, and clapped—behaviors that would embarrass or wake up most straight-laced Presbyterians or liberal Episcopalians.

I pledged to church members, “This church will be a reminder of the kindness and cruelty, struggles and successes, the love, bitterness, and biases that make up our lives.”

By now growing older, I thought this church would provide a good way to ease out of my law practice. My plan was working out, and my own life improved significantly as Holy Trinity kept taking new form, amazing all of us who came together to worship.

 

 

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Chapter 8

 

The first Tuesday in November 2010 started off with no problems. Mollie came in to work around eight and made a pot of coffee—warm and weak. I headed out the door for the Rebel’s Roost Grill with my mug hooked over my second finger, expecting Walker to solve my problem. He did, and then a banker friend and I spent the next fifteen minutes talking over the state’s newly announced school appropriations plan, while we drank a couple cups each of Walker’s black bean roast before I went back to the office.

Warden Roy Bolton of Parchman Prison was sitting out in the front reception area waiting for our scheduled monthly talk. Mollie had just poured him some coffee, which he had set on the table to cool. He picked it up to bring with him as I invited him to follow me into my office.

“You can hang your jacket over there, Roy.” I pointed to a wooden coat rack.  After placing his fringed coat on the hook, Bolton walked over to the conference table and put his mug on a coaster. He allowed me to talk first. New to Mississippi and the Delta, the lanky West Texan  was unnerved over an upcoming scheduled investigation of his prison farm, situated thirty miles due south of Clarksdale.

“So you’re here today for some quick education?” I smiled, trying to put him at ease.

“Thanks for your offer to bring me up to snuff on Parchman, Mr. Moore. I really do need to know more about its past and current culture before this big meeting coming up.”

Bolton unfolded his crossed arms and started to look a little more relaxed, leaning back in his chair. I was surprised that he was comfortable seeking the advice of a black man. But he had a lot to lose if Parchman didn’t pass this inspection.

“Please call me Clinton.”

I’d met Bolton the week before at a prison board meeting. As the first black person appointed to a local prison board in the state’s history, this had been a surprising honor for me, coming from the state’s first liberal governor. What a change for Mississippi—a black state board member, and I was it!

Not much else had changed at Parchman since it first opened in 1901 as a brutal four-stockades prison farm. The old wooden structures had been replaced with prefab metal buildings, making the place hotter than hell during most of the year and freezing cold in the winter.

We had a productive talk that day, and I believe I’d helped Bolton get through the dreaded visit. Close to the end of our meeting, the phone rang, and Mollie put the caller on hold. Bolton stood from his chair, noting he was going over to the Grill for lunch. “Care to join me?”

“Sorry, but I’ll have to take a rain check. I’m due in court.”

We shook hands, and he left.

Joe Means’ wife Tara was holding on the phone, Mollie informed me. I picked up the call. Then Tara delivered the blow.

“Joe killed himself Friday night.”

She said it twice before I registered that the man I’d known since grade school, and had been lovers with on and off since high school, was dead. By his own hand.

I clenched my fists and closed my eyes. I could see Joe. A medium-sized very black man with short, tight curly hair and sharp black eyes that could pierce a soul, inherited from his half-Chickasaw great-grandfather. He’d carried himself with precision, always standing proud “like a Marine,” I used to tease.

It did not make sense! The last time we’d seen each other, he hadn’t acted or looked depressed, anxious, angry, or even happier than usual. He was simply Joe that night.

We’d been through so much together. Civil rights battles that moved into Vietnam protests. Later, searching for answers to cold cases. This report of his death was a lie; it had to be a mean trick. I wondered for a moment if Tara was trying to punish me for sleeping with her husband.

For over thirty years, I never tried persuading Joe to move home. He loved Montgomery  and was always telling me about a new opera or play when we got together. Rarely, I visited him on his turf, not wanting to invade the privacy he’d won after college. But one weekend, less than five years ago, on our regularly scheduled visit, did I get a surprise!

Joe had pulled into my drive and I could see him from my front window. I walked out to greet him. He didn’t leave his car, but looked straight ahead, saying, “Let’s go for a spin.” His eyes were red and puffy. I wondered why he wanted to go somewhere after driving hundreds of miles to get to Clarksdale. Quietly, I walked over to the other side of his car and took my seat. We headed for Rosedale, where he parked along the river near a quiet place where we’d often picnicked. Silently, I opened my car door, got out, and walked over to a wooden picnic table.

I felt a cold separation between us as I waited for him to leave his car. He walked over to the table and sat on the opposite side. My eyes landed on a small heart that had been carved into the wood, and I started tracing the design with my thumbnail, hoping Joe would talk first.

“I need a life, Clint. You know I can’t help the people who need me if the higher ups who manage most social agencies and public organizations think I am gay. I’ll never have a chance, even with some liberal groups.”

 I wanted to jump in and say we should go ahead and get married, even if it was still not legal. He must have already considered this because he talked about going to San Francisco.

“We could pass the California state bar and live an openly gay life. But you would have to start out all over finding new clients, and I don’t have the kind of money it would take to build a private practice out there, Clinton. I don’t know if—”

“Stop talking, Joe.” I took his hand and looked him in the eyes. “We live in strange times. We’re black. We’re gay. We’re liberal, and we’ve pissed off a lot of people over the years, haven’t we? I’d say we’ve done a damned good job.”

Some of the stress left Joe’s face. Maybe I saw a small grin.

“We’ve needed each other every step of the way to get as far as we’ve come,” I said, “maybe even to stay alive. I am okay with this life of complex privacy, but you are not, and you don’t have to say another word.”

I wondered what he really was trying to say, or if he had a plan of some kind. Any celibacy plan made no sense. He told me a sad story about a recent job interview he’d experienced, trying to demonstrate what he was going through emotionally.

“I’d made it to the end and was invited to dinner with the director and board chairman of a large social service agency. The chairman greeted me alone, before the director arrived. He said he liked my resume and experience, but then asked to meet my wife. When I said that I wasn’t married, he apologized for his agency not being ‘progressive enough’ to hire me at this time.”

Joe said he’d walked out of the restaurant. “I didn’t have anything to say. It hit me too hard in the gut.”

He said that he had a new plan. I was totally unprepared to hear it.

“I have to try something different. There is this woman, Clinton. We work together. We’re good friends, and we’re getting married.”

What could I could say ? I had no big brother lecture to deliver; I let him carry on and listened as he revealed his plan.

“I had another interview with the region’s ACLU office. He wants to help my career, but he laid it out to me, real damned clear. Said if I want to go somewhere, have the right cases, sit on the right committees and boards, I’d better make it clear that I only date women. Too many of these organizations are backed by religious money and are not ready for lesbians and gays, let alone someone who might be transgendered. At least I don’t have that problem,” Joe said, as he managed to give a small smile.

Joe knew that he’d hurt me. It was a stab in my heart, but I remained quiet.

“Look, we can still get together. Same time, same place, every two weeks. But the rest of the month, I have to be seen with Tara—that’s her name.”

Still tracing the carved heart in the table, I moved my finger around and down, up and over to the top, then back up again. It felt good on my thumbnail, so I pressed down harder and made a couple of swerves on a nearby set of carved initials.

It was my turn to talk.

“Okay, Joe. You tell me that you are going to pretend you’re straight. Marry a lady and take her on your arm to dinner and the theater. Do you have any particular Greek tragedy in mind?”

He smirked. That little brat who I’d cared for like a brother and screwed all of my adult life like a mink—a precious little mink—was about to legally hook up with a beard. I had to let him have it.

“Hey Joe, I think I just invented a new form for you. You’re going on the up low. See, guys on the down low are seriously heterosexual. If you are going this direction—you know, up to pretend you have straight genes—this means you’re really a homo who needs some serious woman ass on the side –“

“Stop! Don’t do this, Clint. Tara is a fine woman, and I’ll go a hell of a lot farther in life with her at my side, than I’d ever go with you!”

Joe and Tara were married one month later. I didn’t go to the wedding, and I didn’t see that little cocksucker—as I was calling him by then in my dreams—until one month after the honeymoon. And damn it was good.

“He killed himself, Clint.” Tara said this on the phone again, and I went numb. The panic started in my chest; my lungs worked hard to suck in each breath. Why would she wait four days to tell me this? Why hadn’t she screamed for Mollie to put her call straight through to me? What in the hell was wrong with this woman? Had she lost her frigging mind?

I moved into a place of silence, half-listening as Tara’s words flowed into a description that sounded rehearsed. She talked of a private service planned for Wednesday afternoon. But I didn’t want to hear anything about a funeral. I wanted to know what happened to Joe!

“Please call Tom and ask him to come to the funeral,” Tara requested. Joe and Tom, my minister, had been close friends. I promised Tara I would give him the news plus her invitation to the service. The conversation was over as far as I was concerned. I said goodbye, after assuring her I would leave in the next few minutes for Montgomery.

Mollie had come into my office. Her eyes caught mine as I ran through the conversation with her before she stopped me midsentence.

“Four days? What does she mean it happened four days ago? And why would she wait until now to call you?” Mollie beat me to the logical question,“What do you think is going on?”

“I have no idea, Mollie. Nothing about this sounds right, and I have no idea why she would wait four days to call. But cancel my appointments for this afternoon and tomorrow. I’m leaving for Montgomery in ten minutes.”

 

 

* * *

 

 THE PLAN IS AVAILABLE AT MOST ONLINE BOOKS STORES (BARNES AND NOBLE, IBOOKS) AND ALSO AT AMAZON IN PRINT AND EBOOK FORMATS.