As we drove the final stretch of Mississippi Hwy 49E, I think we both noticed the barren trees that lined the roads. The temperature inching towards 80 degrees, the branches offered no hint of a bloom. “It’s like the whole county is clouded by death”, uttered the man in my passenger seat. Indianapolis native Dan Wakefield. He was just a 23 year old recent graduate of Columbia University the last time he took this road. Took it on an express trip into Jackson, Mississippi where he’d file his story for “The Nation” magazine.
It was September 23, 1955. The murderers of a 14 year old African American, Emmit Till, were acquitted and set free into the Mississippi autumn. Dan Wakefield, who’d spent the week inside the stifling Tallahatchie County Courthouse of Sumner, Mississippi was leaving the town where he watched the start of the civil rights movement. He never went back. Until this weekend.
It’s a documentary that called him back. Filmmaker Don Sawyer of Big Vision Productions- most noted for his “Under the Bridge” documentary on homelessness is chronicling the extraordinary life and career of Dan Wakefield. It’s a journey chock full of milestones- a best selling novel, a drama series on NBC, an award winning journalistic effort covering Vietnam, numerous publishings in Esquire, The Nation, Playboy, and The Atlantic. Dinners with confidants James Baldwin and Kurt Vonnegut. His finest national work may have been one of his first- letting the world know of that atrocity of injustice.
He was looking for the sign as we came towards the end of our trek. He didn’t recall from which direction it sat, but Dan recited aloud exactly what it read.
“Sumner. A good place to raise a boy.”
Dan arrived by bus in 1955, the trial beginning less than a month after two white men were charged with the abduction, torture and murder of the Chicago boy who’d come to see family in the Delta. By the time they pulled Emmit Till from the Tallahatchie River, a cotton gin fan still roped around his neck, he was unrecognizable. “I knew this was going to be a major story”, Wakefield recalls.
It was more than that. It was a trial that captivated the nation. For many, the segregation and hatred that gripped the south was little more than a whisper or a studied cause of the Civil War. For those oppressed, the injustice needed illuminated to the world. Dan Wakefield’s pen cracked open that door.
The people of Sumner knew it. It’s why they tried stealing his notes, left him in the heat of a dried cotton field when he’d naively asked for a ride. No Northerner, after all, was gonna alter the Mississippi way of life.
The hostility with which Dan was greeted some 67 years ago did not exist today. As I pulled off of Main Street into the shadows of the courthouse, we were greeted by only a pair of mutts enjoying the spring day.
The reminders of the trial are plenty- a youth center named for Emmett Till on the outskirts of the town of 400, an interpretive center in his name lining the town square.
Yet, as we stepped out of the car, it’s the statue of a Confederate soldier that catches Wakefield’s eye. As we walked towards it, he recited verbatim its inscription: “Our Heroes. They lift the cause that never yet has failed.”
That, he tells me “was where the black people were forced to stand during the trial. Next to that statue.”
The staff at the retired courthouse, which in 2007 was added to the National Registry of historic places and has since been restored to its 1955 arrangement, is accommodating and welcoming. They, like me, can sense the conflict within Dan Wakefield. Here, in this place, a week of horror and pain played out. Defendants smoking cigars through their grins, a mother tearfully hearing the recall of the torture of her son. A gripped nation watching from afar. The verdict sent waves throughout the South- spurning the Montgomery bus boycotts, inspiring Rosa Parks, raising the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King.
It revealed so much of America’s ugly truth. The wounds inflicted in the deep south were assumed by many to have magically dissolved 90 years prior. Yet, here it was- Mississippi’s way of life- threatened for a moment, displayed for an era- and captured by a young writer. A young writer who, seven decades later, wrestlers with the dichotomy of it creating possibly his finest hour.
I’ve gotten to know Dan well. We met through my love of literature, bonded over plenty of Bazbeaux and basketball. I was flattered when he asked me to accompany him on the trip. I was excited for the the glimpse of history. I didn’t anticipate the pain.
I can see the pain it brought back. I can feel it- within this gentle soul that continues to write and fight for his fellow humans- I can see the pain of that wound still runs deep. I could see it when I picked him up for our flight to Jackson. As I drove along I-70 to Indianapolis International he offers me a confession. “I got zero hours of sleep”, he told me. “I mean zero. I don’t remember any other night I couldn’t sleep. But I literally didn’t sleep last night”
The sleep deprivation did little to impact his memory. Sitting in the courtroom, just feet from where he watched the defendants smoke what everyone knew would be victory cigars. Dan Wakefield tells in vivid detail every memory he has of the Emmett Till trial. The defendant he heard say it was hot enough to be “a good day to be mean.”. The writers who begged him to leave town imminently after the verdict. The images of a boy beaten beyond recognition. He recounts it all. Shortly after, a Sumner resident named Janus makes her introduction. She was a five year old girl when the trial took place, and as a black woman, she tearfully recalls what life was like to grow up as a black Mississippian. Don Sawyer captured it all. When I eventually watch the documentary, the same lump will be felt in my throat. It was one of the most powerful moments of my life.
We returned to Sumner the next day. Dan found the sleeping room he’d rented for the week, and we drove out the arid fields where he’d been abandoned 67 years ago.
Eventually, we drove back to the desolate town square for one last look at the courthouse.
As I backed out of my parking spot, the rear car camera alerts me of the lone motion behind me.
The pair of dogs frolic through the dusty road. Frolic in the place where dogs run free.
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