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219 pages
Dec 2006
Regal Books

Let Justice Roll Down

by John M. Perkins

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I remember when it happened like it was yesterday. Only it wasn’t yesterday. It was summer 1946. The war was over, and it was cotton-picking time again in New Hebron.

That summer of 1946 was a hot one. Real hot—with a limp kind of heat that lay over the land like a blanket.

And that was when it happened.

White folks in New Hebron always said they weren’t rich. And from their viewpoint, they were right. Only a couple of businessmen there were really well off.

You know, this area in south-central Mississippi wasn’t settled heavy until after 1800. So we didn’t have the huge plantations like they show in those old antebel-lum movies. This wasn’t rich bottomland, only rolling hills with small farms and smaller plantations.

These white folks—children and grandchildren, maybe, of some of those large plantation owners—fil-tered up this way from the delta or coast into our piney woods region. They moved in here, cleared the land and settled. Then they looked for sharecroppers to work full-time on the land, pick cotton for pennies a day and then pay back half their crops for rent.

Though they were a heap better off than the blacks, the way of life of local whites was modest enough that any change in the way things were was a personal threat to them. And in those days, keeping things the way they were meant keeping the blacks in line.

In fact, while the war was going on, a young black soldier, a sergeant, returned home to New Hebron on furlough. He was in town one day, wearing his uniform, stripes and all. But he got to drinking pretty heavy—to celebrate his leave at home, I guess.

A group of white men decided the sergeant had got too many big ideas. So they got hold of him and beat him almost to death with an ax handle. It happened on a Saturday.

Things like that made some black folks just move out. They left Mississippi—most of them for good—and headed north or west.

So like I said, things were a little bit different in 1946. Old King Cotton was tottering on the throne and his reign in the postwar South was shaky. There was no denying changes had come—the kind of changes that bother anybody, black or white, who likes things just to go along the same old way as before.

But lots of people had moved; whites and blacks alike had seen the rest of the country, the rest of the world. Some had, that is.

Actually, only one person in our family had escaped the rut of life in Mississippi, my brother Clyde. He was a dozen years older than me, but we were still real close. He was like a second father to me. Clyde was one who always stood up for himself. And that was true even before he got shipped off to Germany during the war—through no choice of his own. In World War II, all-white draft boards discovered in their newfound authority ways of getting “trouble-makin’ niggers” out of town. And because of an incident a few years before, our local board had decided that Clyde was one such nigger.

On that earlier occasion, Clyde had gotten into an argument with a white man. And that wasn’t safe, no matter how right you thought you were. Clyde commit-ted the unpardonable sin of challenging The Man’s ab-solute rightness.

“I want to see you dead” were the white man’s part-ing words to Clyde.

Not long afterward, my brother was drafted and sent overseas.

Clyde did all right for himself in service. He was wounded several times in Germany. He returned home with combat ribbons, a Purple Heart, an honorable dis-charge—and a new attitude about the white man in Mississippi. Clyde was determined not to be pushed around anymore. He was a hero to all us kids; we used to follow him through town and marvel at his daring.

That white man did all right, too. While Clyde was away in the army, that man, DeWitt Armstrong, had been elected mayor of New Hebron. And the mayor’s word always carried a lot of weight with the town mar-shal and his deputy.

It happened on a Saturday too, I remember.

You see, on Saturdays everyone would come up from the fields or wherever at noon. They stopped working for the day, washed up and all, and from about two o’clock on, folks would be coming into town to visit or just look around. Some would come into town in cars—or trucks, maybe—but others would drive in on mule wagons and tie up behind the stores.

Yes, people did travel some then, but town was the real center of life—and you either made it there or you didn’t make it at all. So on that Saturday—or any Saturday, for that matter—everybody who could headed for Main Street.

Big, wide and paved, New Hebron’s Main Street ran down a gentle slope from the dirt road at the upper edge of town to the railroad tracks of the lower end. Roads generally weren’t so good in those days, so the railroad was really important to the community. It brought in dry goods, fertilizer, everything, and took out pulpwood and cotton from the gin at the lower end of town.

All the stores in town were one-story places, except Riley’s General Merchandise, the largest business house in town. Riley’s was a two-story brick building with the main selling area on the ground floor, a second-level balcony above and a center space high and free between white pillars.

In town, groups of blacks, mostly sharecroppers and their families, drifted back and forth across Main Street or strolled along the sidewalks, stopping occasionally in the humid heat to mop their brows. Others sat around, fanning themselves and talking—mostly about the changes wrought by the far-off war, changes reflected in the wariness, the tension that was always there just un-der the surface on those crowded Saturday afternoons.

With all the black folks in town, the town’s white marshal would be there, too, on the lookout for trouble, even when things were quiet. Self-consciously visible, he would walk along with the crowd making sure every-one knew he was there. He would peer into the faces of each group of blacks, making sure that no one was drunk or boisterous, that everyone was talking low and quiet-like.

Here on Main Street, a quick, almost casual swipe of the nightstick was a standard reminder of who was boss in New Hebron. So, when in town, blacks had to weigh every word and action. Young blacks especially, even without any particular grudge, could run afoul of the law in the most ordinary situations. And after 8:30 or so in the evening, blacks standing around on the street were not appreciated at all.

It was Saturday evening when it happened.

Along about sundown most of the farm families, black and white, started heading for home. Main Street began thinning of its parked cars and trucks. People who had come by wagon went around behind the row of stores to untie their mules and start on back home.

As the sun set and the families cleared out, most of the stores began closing up. Main Street grew quiet, as the heat thickened with dusk. Town people and the few others who still hung around were mostly in the one-block area where there were a couple of cafes, drug stores and Carolyn’s Theater.

I was 16 that year and staying in town myself. So that Saturday night I was visiting at Charlie Wilson’s place, a house that also had a little store in the front room, just sitting there and talking with friends. Clyde was over on Main Street about five, six blocks away, standing by Carolyn’s Theater with his girl, Elma.

At the front of Carolyn’s Theater, flanked by a cafe and a barber shop, were big glass double doors. Whites used this entrance.

To the left of the theater, between it and the five-and-dime next door, was a narrow alley leading to a side door with its own ticket booth. Blacks used this en-trance. And stairs inside led to the theater balcony where blacks sat.

Clyde and Elma stepped into the alley and stood there talking. The alley was hot and already crowded. Since they hadn’t opened up the ticket booth yet, the people were getting restless, and there was some pushing and shoving. So Clyde and Elma stayed at the back of the crowd, still talking.

Nobody’s real sure just what started it all. But some folks say Clyde was talking loud, maybe even arguing with Elma about something. Anyway, a deputy marshal standing on the sidewalk yelled at them, “You niggers quiet down.”

Clyde had been facing away from the sidewalk where the marshal stood. And as he turned to ask the marshal a question, the deputy clubbed him. Clyde got mad and, in self-defense, grabbed the marshal’s club to keep the man from hitting him again. He struggled with the mar-shal.

That did it! The law now had all the excuse it needed. The marshal turned red in the face. You could see his eyes flash fire. He was so mad, he shook. And before anybody knew what was happening, he stepped back two steps, pulled out a gun and shot Clyde. Twice. In the stomach.

As soon as the marshal left, a crowd of blacks sur-rounded Clyde. One ran for a doctor. They picked Clyde up—he was still conscious—and carried him across the street to Seay’s Drug Store, which had a doc-tor’s office in the back. Whites could walk in through the front; blacks had to go around the building to the rear entrance.

I had just left Wilson’s house and was getting into a car with some friends to go to Georgetown when an-other car came peeling up in the dust. “Clyde’s been shot!” somebody yelled from the window of the car.

I just tore out of that place with the others. We piled into another car and roared off toward Main Street. I didn’t know any details yet, but I was sure it was a white man that had shot Clyde, and that churned me up. An-ger it was, not fear. I wasn’t the least bit afraid for myself—just felt that churning fury inside that we ought to do something. We had to get even.

We turned into Main Street and headed straight for Seay’s. A bunch of people had already crowded into the doctor’s office. By the time I managed to push my way into the room, they already had Clyde on the examining table. Words buzzed around—”the marshal shot him.”

Doctor Langston, the town’s two lawmen and one other white man were the only whites in that room full of black faces and black voices. That fourth white man was off to the side, but I could see he was bringing in an extra gun and ammunition for the marshal. He said a few words to the marshal. I tried hard to hear, but the noise of angry voices in the room, mixing in with the sound of the larger crowd outside the windows, covered up their words. I didn’t need to hear the words. With a heaviness like steel in my stomach, I knew right then if I had a gun, I’d have shot that marshal.

Black faces watched the doctor, watched the marshal. And the marshal just stood there watching all of them— just “doin’ his job.”

As more people jammed into the office, I went to the head of the table. The doctor was leaning over Clyde, working on his wounds. I stood at Clyde’s head, some-times putting my hand on his cheek and mumbling to him. “Brother, don’t die,” I begged.

Doctor Langston looked up. “You have to get him to the hospital. I can’t do anything more for him here.”

We passed the word through the crowd and soon my cousin, Joe David, had his ‘41 Chevy at the back door. We carefully placed Clyde in the back seat. Then I and my Uncle Bill got in with him. Two others crowded in front with Joe, and we headed off into the night.

Jackson, the state capital and the nearest hospital, was an hour and a half or so away. The road was gravel from New Hebron north to Mendenhall; then we hit paved Route 49 into Jackson.

As the car sped on, life slowly slipped away from Clyde. He lay stretched out in the back, his head in my arms, oozing blood and dying by the inches. How? Why? I kept asking myself questions, even though I knew the answers didn’t matter much anymore.

Clyde had to live. That was the only important thing now. But all we could do was keep on driving.

The miles stretched by in the night—past the white folks’ houses, past the sharecroppers’ shacks, past the cotton fields, past the tall stands of pine out there in the blackness.

At last—Jackson. We reached the hospital and got Clyde into a treatment room. Then there wasn’t any-thing I could do but wait. Other carloads of blacks from New Hebron began to arrive. They waited, too.

I don’t really remember much else about that night. But I do remember going into the room with Clyde for a few minutes. Something like a blood pressure strap was on his arm.

A white man was there in the room. A doctor? Atten-dant? Someone waiting for a doctor? I don’t know. He was just sitting there.

Later—how long I don’t know—some other white person came out to the waiting room with the word. Clyde was dead!

Dead! My brother dead. All that army stuff about making the world safe for democracy. All that fighting some place off in Europe didn’t get him killed. He had come home safe from the white man’s war only to be shot down six months later by a white man in his own hometown.

The anger I first felt turned to a sort of blankness. I don’t remember ever leaving the hospital. I don’t remember going home. I don’t remember the wake or anything else until the funeral.

Black folks came from all around and climbed to the hilltop four miles outside of town for the graveside ceremony in the cemetery of the Oak Ridge Baptist Church. Truth is, my family wasn’t known for being church-going people. So the man who said a few words at the graveside was the undertaker, not a preacher. But it made no difference to me who said the words or what they were. I wasn’t listening.

I saw the blue coffin lying open on the red earth. But the person inside didn’t look a whole lot like Clyde anymore. The undertaker’s efforts had not prevented the body from swelling and puffing.

Then the words were spoken and over. They closed the coffin and lowered it, and the folks began heading back to their homes.

It was all over. There was nothing more to be said about it. And there’d be no such thing as an official inquiry. If any whites stopped to think at all about my brother’s death, they quite naturally took it for granted that whites in authority were always justified no matter what they did. No questions need ever be asked.

Black folks, too, from different motives, joined in the silence. With some the reason for sealed lips was obvi-ous—they were practical enough to know where the power lay. In the case of Clyde’s death, the way this worked out was simple: He was dead, and the others were safer if they said nothing about it.

But other blacks just didn’t want to talk, and it wasn’t just a matter of fear. It’s hard to describe, really, but when you’ve spent your whole lifetime with limited op-portunities, spent your whole lifetime being told your place is at the bottom—that entire mixture helps create a low image of yourself.

After a while, assertiveness or anger or whatever it’s called just sort of dries up, like a muscle that never gets used. Some blacks were more like that than others. I wasn’t, but if I’d drift over to a bunch of black folks sitting around talking, and if someone mentioned the incident, some might just sort of walk away. They’d just disconnect themselves. Clyde was dead, and that was that.

I stayed around New Hebron for a few more months. But several relatives felt that some of the family ought to leave town. Clyde was not the only family member who was likely to stand up to a white man.

The Perkins family was one of the toughest families around. We were bootleggers and gamblers, known for fighting and carrying on. A Perkins wouldn’t take noth-ing off nobody, especially Uncle Bill and Bud. They didn’t care who they got into it with. So everybody was afraid of us—even some of the white folks.

None of us Perkins really was the quiet type, I guess. And some of my cooler-headed uncles were real afraid that some of us younger kin might not live quietly with the fact of Clyde’s death. Somebody might provoke something against the white power structure.

Several of the family left for California. I went up to Jackson for a while to live with my Aunt Lillie Mae David—Cousin Joe’s mother. Everybody called her “Sister.” She had quit bootlegging and running skin games for a time to open a rooming house for blacks working in defense industries.

Then Sister and Uncle Bud got enough money to-gether to send me west. I had one change of clothes, a lunch packed by Sister and three dollars left over after buying my ticket for California.

I boarded the train in Jackson. It chugged down to New Orleans where I changed for another one heading west. I rode on through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California! Mississippi was behind me. For-ever, I told myself. The year was 1947.