Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South

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9780671036669: Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South

Traces the author's experiences as a young journalist in the Deep South, describing the challenges he faced in a town resisting twentieth-century life and his relationship with a promising young football player who is later charged with murder.

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About the Author:

Richard Rubin is a regular contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and New York magazine. He lives in New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Hospitality State

The true wonder of hindsight lies not in its ability to clarify situations and events, but in its propensity to coat them with a glaze of dignity and glamour, even glory. Today, when people ask me why I moved to Mississippi in the summer of 1988, I tell them I did it for adventure, and to get a priceless education in the science of journalism, and because I wanted to see and experience and understand a place I had studied and written about extensively in college.

At the time, though, I was pretty sure I was going to Mississippi because I couldn't type.

*

I was supposed to be a lawyer. In high school, I had excelled in the extracurricular activity known as Mock Trial, wherein young aspiring jurists pretend to be attorneys, jousting over fabricated criminal and civil suits in classrooms decked out to resemble courtrooms. My team and I were so good at it that we went all the way to the state championships in Albany my senior year.

In the fall of 1984 I enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and, at the end of my freshman year, declared a major in American history, a major of choice for prospective lawyers. But during my sophomore year, something unthinkable and unconscionable happened: I began to develop a real passion for my major. The study of American history, I began to understand, concerned nothing less than the human condition, and I couldn't get my fill of it. I took enough history classes for two majors, many of them on subjects that could not possibly serve me in law school. And I always opted for term papers rather than exams -- because, as I had discovered, I was also beginning to develop a real passion for writing.

In the winter of my junior year, I participated in a seminar on the subject of "Race in America" and watched, as part of the class, the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize. Much of the first installment of that series dealt with the story of Emmett Till, a black fourteen-year-old boy who left his home in Chicago in the summer of 1955 to visit relatives in the tiny Delta town of Money, Mississippi. One afternoon, while playing with some cousins and their friends outside a small general store, Till removed from his wallet a photograph of a white girl and passed it around, explaining that the girl in the picture was actually his girlfriend. The other children were incredulous; they were, after all, black Mississippians, and in the Mississippi of 1955 black men didn't dare look at white women, much less date them. But Till was adamant, and the other children, looking to call his bluff, challenged him to walk into the store and ask the white woman behind the counter -- twenty-one-year-old Carolyn Bryant -- for a date. Perhaps no one, the film's narrator explained, will ever know for certain what happened next, but according to some of the other children present, Emmett Till strode into the store, bought some candy, and then, on his way out, turned to Carolyn Bryant and said "Bye, Baby."

Two nights later, young Till was awakened in his bed by two armed white men who were after "the boy who done all the talkin'." The two men -- Carolyn Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam -- drove Till to a secluded bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and beat him savagely; then they drove him back to another spot, near Money, where they shot him in the head, tied a heavy cotton gin fan to his lifeless body (using barbed wire instead of rope), and dumped it into the Tallahatchie River.

Till's great-uncle, a sixty-four-year-old sharecropper named Mose Wright, reported the kidnapping to the Leflore County sheriff as soon as Bryant and Milam had driven off with his nephew. Local whites immediately claimed it was a hoax perpetrated by the NAACP to win sympathy for the burgeoning civil rights movement, which was just beginning to take hold in Mississippi following the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas the year before. But when Till's bloated, mutilated body surfaced in the Tallahatchie a few days later, the sheriff had no choice but to arrest Bryant and Milam and charge them with murder.

Almost immediately, the case made international headlines. Till's mother insisted on an open-casket funeral back in Chicago so that the world, she explained, could "see what they did to my son." Jet magazine printed photos of Till's mutilated body. And when the trial began, the following month, hundreds of reporters from all over the world jammed into the small courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi.

The trial itself was a mere formality. At one point, defense lawyer John Whitten told the jury of twelve white men that he was certain "every last Anglo-Saxon one of you will have the courage to free these men." And despite the great courage of Mose Wright, who dared to rise on the witness stand and point his finger at the two men who had kidnapped his nephew that night, Whitten was right: The jury acquitted Bryant and Milam after only forty-five minutes. Later, a juror confessed that the deliberation would not have lasted nearly so long had the jurors not also paused for a Coke in the interim. When it was all over, Bryant and Milam told their story to journalist William Bradford Huie, himself a Southerner. Yes, they had murdered Till, but he left them no choice because he had stuck to his story about having a white girlfriend and had refused to acknowledge that there might be anything wrong with that. "That's what this war is all about down here," Milam explained.

The documentary quickly moved on to a much longer segment about the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, but I couldn't bring myself to leave Money, Mississippi. What kind of place was this? Was it possible that something like this could have happened in the same country in which I had been born, and only twelve years earlier? I had always known that things were different in the South, but my mind could not wrap itself around the notion that there might be room in my America for a place where two men could, with impunity, murder a fourteen-year-old boy for saying "Bye, Baby," or anything else. And yet, I also understood that I knew far less about Mississippi than I did any other state in the Union, and that for all I did know, even the laws of gravity might have been suspended there. In college I had met people from scores of foreign countries -- some of which I'd never even heard of -- but not a single soul from Mississippi. To me it remained a pure mystery, an abyss at the bottom of America. What was true for the South was true for Mississippi, I understood, but I perceived that there was also much about Mississippi that was untrue for the rest of the South -- or even, for that matter, the rest of the world -- things I couldn't even begin to fathom and could never learn at home in New York or in a classroom in Philadelphia.

A few segments later, Eyes on the Prize posed the rhetorical question "Mississippi -- Is This America?" By that time, I had a burning desire to seek out my own answer to that question, to see that state and meet its people and try to discern who they all were and why and how they got that way -- to explore this abyss, and understand it. So I dropped my old senior thesis topic (something about the Civil War, as I recall) and chose a new one -- a study of James Meredith's integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962, an event that was preceded by years of lawsuits and venomous editorials and that precipitated a riot in which two people were killed and hundreds injured. I read through hundreds of Mississippi newspapers from the era, virtually memorized Meredith's autobiography, and managed somehow to get an interview with a former Mississippi state legislator named Karl Wiesenburg who had stood, virtually alone, in opposition to the governor's many attempts to prevent desegregation, and had been rewarded with ostracism and death threats. (Interestingly, Wiesenburg was himself a native New Yorker, a son of German Catholic immigrants, who enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1929 at the age of eighteen and was sent to their station at Pascagoula, Mississippi, where he promptly fell in love with a local girl.) "Mississippi," Wiesenburg told me, "was a state in agony. It was like a woman afraid she's about to be raped, and the federal government and James Meredith were the rapists." I submitted the thesis and won an award for it, but still I felt that I didn't understand Mississippi. I was starting to believe that I never would.

*

One day, early in my senior year, I was walking out of Stouffer Cafeteria when I experienced -- quite possibly for the first time in my life -- a genuine epiphany: I did not want to be a lawyer; I was not drawn to the law. Although becoming a lawyer meant that I would be assured of a good and steady income, that didn't seemed enough to me. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I knew that practicing law in any form was not it, and I also knew that I, unlike most of my friends (who were much more mature and grounded than I was -- at least according to my parents), would be miserable doing something that did not give me any personal sense of fulfillment. And so I took the law school applications that had been arriving in the mail and threw them in the garbage. Then I graduated from Penn and spent the summer of 1988 not relaxing and preparing for law school, as I had once anticipated, but trying to land a job.

Actually, I spent a good bit of that summer just trying to figure out what kind of job I wanted to land in the first place. I had come away from college with an impressive degree and some prestigious honors, but without, as I saw it, any discernible job skills, save the ability to compose solid sentences and proper paragraphs. I figured, though, that as job skills went, writing was among the more valuable of the lot, and that my presence would prove enticing to prospective bosses in any number of fields: advertising, marketing, public relations, television, radio, publishing. I didn't even allow myself to consider a career in journalism, which would have been my first choice, because I knew that no one started out as a reporter in New York; you either made your journalistic bones in some other city, or cajoled your way into a post at the New York Times as a deputy assistant wastebasket-emptier and prayed that you might find a way to slowly climb up the ladder to a position that involved some kind of writing. No, I thought, there are much better jobs in New York for a bright young man fresh out of the Ivy League and armed with a fistful of glowing references from prestigious professors.

I was mistaken. I perused the help wanted ads and responded to any I found even remotely alluring, sending out dozens of well-written, cheerful, confident cover letters, most of which elicited no response at all. A few drew form letters informing me that my letter and resumé would be kept on file; and a very few drew form letters inviting me to come down for an interview. Those very few were all for administrative assistant positions, and none of them paid enough to cover the rent on even the smallest of New York apartments; nevertheless, I was grateful for them and determined to succeed, convinced that it was just a matter of time before an opportunity to do good and creative and rewarding work presented itself to me.

Most of my interviews were at "employment agencies," dark little offices with unpainted walls and cracked, grimy linoleum floor tiles, where the person inspecting me was most often middle-aged and shabbily dressed and invariably chewing gum while spitting out questions in a tone of voice remarkably devoid of interest; the rest were at in-house personnel departments, slightly nicer offices occupied by slightly better-dressed, better-looking, and younger professionals who nevertheless showed no more interest in what I had to say. Wherever they occurred, though, they inevitably led to one paramount question, the answer to which determined whether you would go home that evening employed or disappointed: "How fast can you type?"

Not very, I always said. We'll call you, they always said. They never did.

Eventually, the whole thing started to make me angry. Here I am, I thought, interviewing for awful jobs that pay poverty wages and for which I am overqualified, and I'm not even getting them. Hell, I'm not even getting any second interviews. And all because I can't type. Why did I work so hard in high school in order to get into an Ivy League college? Why did I work so hard in college in order to make the Dean's List and win awards? For what did my parents shell out an obscene amount of money over the past four years? Was it all so that I could make a living using my fingers instead of my brain, and continue living at home?

And that's when I realized that if I was going to get a job in which I could learn and grow -- a job I really wanted, for heaven's sake -- I was going to have to leave New York.

That afternoon I went to the library and pored over recent issues of Editor & Publisher, a trade magazine for journalists. Flipping through the Help Wanted ads in the back, almost all of which demanded that the applicant possess years of experience and an archive full of clips -- neither of which I had -- I came across one, at the top right corner of the page, that both excited and frightened me:


SPORTS EDITOR


9,000-circulation six-day PM daily in heart of the Mississippi Delta seeks a sports editor. J-degree, experience preferred but not essential. Call Emmerich, McNeill or Kalich, at Greenwood, Miss., Commonwealth.


I made a copy of the ad and took it home. For several days I did nothing, unsure of whether I really had the nerve to answer it. Finally, one evening, I picked up the phone and dialed the number. As the line started to ring, I could feel my heart palpitating in my throat; I wondered if I'd be able to speak at all.

There was a click on the line, and then: "Commonwealth!" It was a male voice, crisp and high-pitched; the Southern accent was not terribly thick, but it was sharp as a razor blade. My face grew hot.

"Hello!" barked the voice. It was, I imagined, the voice of Mississippi.

I hung up.

The following night, having spent the previous twenty-four hours fortifying my resolve, I dialed the number again. The same voice answered: "Commonwealth!"

"Uh, yes," I said, pausing to clear my throat. "May I speak to Emmerich, McNeill or Kalich?"

"This is John Emmerich."

I cleared my throat again. "I was calling about the job? In Editor & Publisher?"

The voice at the other end of the line suddenly grew warm and paternal. "And what's your name?" it asked.

I introduced myself and was immediately presented with a barrage of questions about my education and experience. I confessed that I didn't have much of the latter -- a stint as editor of my high school newspaper, during which time I produced two actual issues, and a few columns for my college daily -- and was surprised to hear that, as advertised, the position did not require any experience. "What do you know about sports?" he asked.

"I know enough," I replied, a distinct co...

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