Monday, April 18, 2016

KOOL AID and COOPERATION, an excerpt from Dear Jeff, a Chronicle of lawyering in Mississippi, 1966

         Fifty years ago I was a young, enthusiastic civil rights attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice whose duties required frequent flights to southeast Mississippi to interview victims of race discrimination—beatings, denial of right to register to vote, harassment and other violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sometimes I only had the victim’s name and town, like Samuel Johnson, Leakesville, Mississippi.  Once out of the Jackson Airport and into the countryside, it was easy to get lost on the narrow, oft-times unpaved roads of rural southeast Mississippi. But I was never on a time clock. There never was an appointment with the victim; I knew roughly where to find him or her. So I enjoyed my unhurried and unintentional exploration of the Mississippi countryside, driving though the pine forests and leisurely passing though little towns that were sweltering and seemingly abandoned to the heat, not a soul to be seen. I loved to roll the window down and let the hot, moist air wash over me and caress me with the clean fresh scent of the forest.
Eventually I would reach the town that Johnson had put as his address; even the small towns, with just a gas station, country store, and a few houses on either side of the road were on the map. Finding the right town was just the first step. Most folks lived remotely, outside of town, down narrow dirt roads, sometimes ending at a cleared acre or two for the family garden, with the house at the front of the clearing, unnumbered, nothing to tell you that it was Sam Johnson's place, unless you had been told what to look for, like a certain make pickup parked in front or the place with two fifty-gallon drums for water on the porch.  

         Once I found Leakesville or whatever town that Johnson called home, I would stop on the outskirts, usually at a little country store just back from the road, with a porch the length of the building, good for sitting and smoking or chewing and talking, the overhang offering some relief from the heat but none from the humidity. I’d park, swing open the car door, and rise from the sticky car seat, my trousers audibly coming unglued from the vinyl, and step into the heat that was so oppressively humid and heavy that you felt that if you could grab a fistful of atmosphere and squeeze it, drops of water would drip from your fist, like water from a sponge. Sometimes there would be two or three men sitting on the porch or standing around. If there were, I would approach whoever was on the porch, leaning up against the ubiquitous Coke machine, its red metal surface cooler than anything else in sight, and ask where I might find Samuel Johnson.

       If no one was outside, or if my inquiry was met with “Don’t know, suh,” I'd enter the establishment, which was dark and cool—well, cooler than outside, anyway—and I would just stand there a moment, unable to see a thing until my eyes adjusted to the darkness. When I was able to see, I studied the place. Each wall was lined with shelves from floor to ceiling, crowded with everything from dry goods and groceries to tools, clothing, toilet paper, tobacco, sundries and simple medications like aspirin and cough syrup in dusty bottles. There was a cooler against the back wall, for milk and eggs and other perishables, and a couple of bins with fruit and vegetables.

      Every one of these country stores that I ever visited had a fan on the counter, near the cash box, and that is where I would find the proprietor, sometimes a man, sometimes a woman; that seemed about equally balanced in the places I entered. The proprietor would be sitting there behind the counter in the steady breeze of the fan, occasionally reading something, though there was hardly enough light for reading. He or she would look up, expressionless, neither welcoming nor hostile, saying nothing, just waiting to learn whatever or whoever I might be or represent, because a white person seldom strode into a black's country store out in the middle of nowhere unless he was up to no good or threatening no good to whomever he was looking for. Rarely did some white witlessly wander into a black store to buy something.

“Hello there. Do you happen to know where I might find Samuel Johnson?”
  “No, suh.”

       Before long I discovered that it was necessary to make it clear who I was and why I wanted to talk to Mr. Johnson.

      “Oh, by the way, my name is Kerry Gough. I’m a civil rights attorney from the Justice Department in Washington D.C.” I would show the person my ID and then the tension in the air would evaporate and I would get directions to Mr. Johnson’s home. “About a mile on down the highway, past the filling station. Turn off the highway on the third dirt road after the filling station, there, where eight or ten mailboxes on wooden posts are lined up next to the highway, you will see Sam Johnson’s name on one of them, and then just go on down that road a bit and you will come to his place, near the end of the dirt road, but mind you, not the very end, on the right side,  and you can see his place just off the road with a fifty-gallon drum on the porch that he fetches water in, and that’s where you will find Samuel. He has an old grey Chevy pickup, and if it is in the yard he will be home. If it’s not, just sit a spell and wait and he will be back.”

      Inevitably, I would have to stop and knock on another door or two and make more inquiries, but eventually I turned down the right road and spied at the end of a driveway, nothing much more than two dirt ruts with coarse grass between them, a small, unpainted, weathered wooden dwelling. Some folks would call it a shack, but it was the Johnson family home, and there on the porch sat a fifty-gallon drum, so I figured I had the right place. A battered, old Chevy pickup rested in the yard in front of the house. A dog appeared from under the porch and ran toward me, barking, but stopped short, as apprehensive of me as I was of it. I stood there, not moving, and then came the welcome squeak of the screen door opening and a thin, black male in overalls stepped out.

       “Mr. Johnson, I’m from the Justice Department.” I shouted trying to be heard over the raucous barking of the dog. I told him that we had received his letter or his telephone call, or whatever it might have been that informed us of his incident.
At that he invited me in.
“But the dog.”
“He don’t bite.”
So I ventured ahead, taking a cautious step toward the porch. The dog stopped barking, sniffed at my shoes and walked beside me to the porch. I climbed the three steps to the porch and the dog disappeared into the shade beneath.

Johnson and his wife invited me to sit a while on the porch, which was sheltered from the sun by the overhang of the roof. They offered me something to drink and I sat there and sipped warm cherry Kool-Aid for they had no ice. I heard their complaint of harassment and intimidation, and took notes on my yellow legal pad. The sweat on my arm dampened the paper and the ink bled and the paper stuck to my arm. When I peeled the paper back, some of my notes were imprinted on my forearm, smeared a bit there and on the paper, but still readable, although backwards on my arm. I told them that Justice was concerned and cared about what happened to them, that I represented Justice, and that I was concerned and cared, too, and yes, something had to be done about this kind of hateful activity. When I finished the interview, I thanked them for the Kool-Aid and cooperation, climbed back into the hot dusty Ford, and headed down the dirt road from their place. They watched me as I drove away and the cloud of dust thrown up by the tires obscured their view of the rented Ford, and obscured my view of them in the rear view mirror, and that was usually the last that I ever saw of them and the last they ever saw of Justice.

Upon my return to Washington, I dictated a summary of my notes in the form of a memorandum to file and submitted it to my supervisor. It disappeared into the black hole of the bureaucracy and I never heard another thing about Samuel Johnson’s complaint.

Nor did Samuel Johnson.

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