“Tallahatchie County Acquits a Peckerwood”
The Reporter, April 19, 1956
A friend of mine divides the white population of Mississippi into two categories. The first and largest contains the good people of Mississippi, as they are affectionately called by editorial writers, politicians, and themselves. The other group is a smaller but in many ways more conspicuous faction called the peckerwoods.
The good people will generally agree that the peckerwoods are troublemakers, and indeed several good people have told me they joined the Citizens Councils because otherwise the peckerwoods would take over the situation entirely. It is the good people who will tell you that their town has enjoyed racial harmony for many years, while it is the peckerwoods who may confide that they know how to keep the niggers in their place; it is the good people who say and mean, “We love our nigras,” and it is the peckerwoods who say and mean, “If any big buck gets in my way it’ll be too damn bad.” But while the good people would not act with the rashness of and are not governed by the hatred of the peckerwood, they are reluctant to apply society’s normal remedies to the peckerwood. Thus it is the peckerwoods who kill Negroes and the good people who acquit the peckerwoods; it is the peckerwoods who hang dead crows from the trees of a small town and the good people who do not cut them down.
These are troubled and tense times in Mississippi, and there has been a prevalent you-are-either-for-us-or-agin-us atmosphere. Because of this, much of the silence on the part of the good people can be traced to a reluctance to fall into another and infinitesimal group, the nigger-lovers, and run the risk of social, political, and sometimes economic ostracism. A newspaper editor who had decided to cross the line and challenge some injustices within the segregated system explained it this way to me: “There’s only one thing I hate more than a nigger lover, and that’s a nigger-hater, and if it comes down to a choice of the two and I’ve got no other possible out, then I guess I’ll go with the nigger-lovers.” Most of the good people would prefer not to have to make the choice at all.
‘We’d Like a Conviction’
In Sumner, Mississippi, last month the good people of Tallahatchie County convened to try the case of a peckerwood named Elmer Otis Kimbell for the murder of a Negro. Sumner is the site where another Tallahatchie jury recently acquitted Kimbell’s best friend, J. W. Milam, and Milam’s half brother, Roy Bryant, of the murder of Emmett Till, a fouteen-year-old Chicago Negro.
Perhaps because Clinton Melton was a native Mississippi Negro, and his death lacked reader appeal (this was the Kimbell rather than the Melton case), the flock of reporters that converged here in September had dwindled to a handful for the March trial. Only one wire service ent a staff member, and the only Mississippi newspaper that sent a staff man was Hodding Carter’s Greenville Delta Democrat-Times. Cameras were barred, not only from the courtroom but from the entire courthouse property, and no press table was set up. There were none of the more obvious tensions of the Till trial, at which a defense lawyer privately asked the sheriff to integrate the white and Negro reporters at the same table because of the threatening effect it would have on the jury. “We don’t want a press table here this time because the less seen of the press the better because we’d like to see a conviction,” I was told by one of the Sumner lawyers who had worked on the Till defense and had turned down the Kimbell defense.
It is clear that many of the good people of Mississippi would have liked to see a conviction. The sentiment was particularly strong in the Glendora community where Kimbell. shot Melton and where both the deceased and the defendant were well known. Elsewhere in Tallahatchie County, of course, it tended to become the usual matter of a white man and a black man.
Elmer Kimbell, a thirty-five-year-old cotton-gin manager, shot Melton, a gas station attendant, on December 3, 1955. Kimbell claims he shot in self-defense, and displays a shoulder wound to prove it, but his story conflicts sharply with that told by the white owner of the gas station, Lee McGarrh, and McGarrh’s story is supported in part by two Negroes.
Kimbell had driven up to the gas station in his friend Milam’s car that Saturday night and asked for a tankful of gas, according to McGarrh.
The owner told Melton to fill the tank, but a few minutes later, Kimbell, who had been drinking, rebuked Melton, saying he wanted only two dollars’ worth. Then Kimbell argued with McGarrh and left, warning Melton, “I’m going to get my gun and come back and shoot you.” Ten minutes later Kimbell returned and fired three shots, hitting Melton twice in the head and once in the hand. McGarrh witnessed the entire shooting from inside the store.
Despite his pleas of self-defense, Kimbell was denied bond in two preliminary hearings. At first, the racial overtones of the case were slight, and some of the good people comforted themselves with the thought that Kimbell might almost as easily have shot a white man. As a matter of fact, the case originally attracted attention because of the local reaction against Kimbell: McGarrh became the star state witness, the community raised money for Melton’s widow, and the Glendora Lion’s Club adopted a statement written by a local minister to the effect that:
“We consider the taking of the life of Clinton Melton an outrage against him, the people of Glendora, against the people of Mississippi, as well as the entire human family. We intend to see that the forces of justice and right prevail in the wake of this woeful evil. We humbly confess repentance for having so lived as a community that such an evil occurrence could happen here and we offer ourselves to be used in bringing to pass a better realization of the justice, righteousness and peace which is the will of God for human society.”
But if Clinton Melton is remembered at all (and already he is a fleeting memory as evidenced by the attorneys’ difficulty in remembering his name and their tendency to call him Clement, Melton Clinton, or uh . . . that boy) it will be because the outcome of this case may have shocked the good people of Mississippi in a more profound way than the killing itself. For there is no out for Tallahatchie and Mississippi in this case.
The N.A.A.C.P., citing claims that it had distracted Till jurors from their duty, stayed tactfully away both before and during the trial. The Northern press by and large restricted its commentary on the case to praise for the progress being made. And unlike the Till case, where evidence was circumstantial and ambiguous, the state had factual authority in the person of three witnesses. Finally, whereas the Till case was seen primarily as an insult to white womanhood by a Negro who didn’t know his place, this trial involved the murder of the sort of “good” Negro worker upon which the Southern economy depends.
Tallahatchie County whose population is more than two-thirds Negro, boasts little industry, outside of an occasional company allied with its agricultural interests. Almost all Mississippi juries are made up almost entirely of small farmers. and this is particularly true in places such as Tallahatchie where there are no cities of more than three thousand. The basic ideology of what has been called the Southern Way of Life is perhaps most deeply engrained in the small farmer, who is closest to the Negro, and who would feel first and heaviest any move on his part toward a more independent life.
Thus the problem that District Attorney Roy Johnson and County Attorney Hamilton Caldwell faced when swearing in fair and impartial jurors was that they were handling a group sworn by birthright to protecting the interest and life of the white. Besides the usual questions, District Attorney Johnson asked the jurors if they could try the case without regard to color. One man rose and said, No I don’t allow as I could,” and was excused. His place was easily filled by someone who allowed as how he could, but the wire service man said he would have made a better juror because at least he was conscious of his prejudice. Ten of the jurors were farmers, one of them worked for a seed manufacturing company, and one sold insurance.
‘I’m Going to Kill that Nigger’
The state for its part produced three witnesses. The main one was McGarrh, a stern little man who is a member of one of Glendora’s most respected families. McGarrh stuck to the same story he had told at the earlier hearings. He said he saw Kimbell shoot the unarmed Melton. He went unshaken under cross examination. The only weakness in his story is that although Kimbell had given prior warning of his intention McGarrh stayed inside the station with his shot gun. The next witness was John Henry Wilson, a Negro in whom Kimbell said he had a great deal of confidence. Wilson did not witness the shooting, but he damaged the self defense theory. He was standing outside the station when Kimbell returned with a gun. He asked Kimbell what he was going to do.
“I’m going to kill that nigger,” Kimbell said.
“Please, sir, don’t shoot that boy. He ain’t done nothing to you,” Wilson said.
“Get back or I’ll kill you too,” said Kimbell. Wilson ran to the back of the station.
The last witness for the state, George Woodson, said he was standing about ten feet away from the scene. He said he saw Kimbell walk around the side of the station with a gun, and that he did not see any gun in Melton’s hand.
The plan of the defense, lacking eye witnesses itself, was to shake the testimony of the state’s witnesses. To this end its witnesses came up with only minor points. But more significant than their testimony were their positions—a sheriff, a deputy sheriff, and a chief of police. One of them, former sheriff H. C. Strider, assumed the same role he had played in the Till case as defense witness.
Carl Strider, who owns one of Tallahatchie’s largest plantations on which there are seven Negro shacks each bearing one letter on top spelling out S-T.R-I-D.E-R, is not a peckerwood and certainly not a nigger-lover, and in Tallahatchie County it is hard to question him.
Sammy Kimbell, the defendant’s thirteen-year-old son, like Milam and Bryant’s children in the Till case—and unlike Melton’s four children in this case—was seated right at the front in court, and served as a sort of unofficial Exhibit A. He was the next witness.
Now Kimbell had been hunting with his friend Milam that day, had been driving Milam’s car, and said that after he was shot he went directly to Milam’s house and that eventually Milam drove him to a doctor. Just how he received that shoulder wound remains as puzzling as does the question of what happened to the gun with which Melton is alleged to have inflicted it.
During the cross examination of the boy the district attorney asked Sammy whose car his father had been driving. Discarding his self-consciously slow courtroom manner, defense attorney J. W. Kellum came leaping out of his seat with an objection. Kellum did this because he was afraid that Milam had become a dirty word in Tallahatchie County, where one of the good people can tell you in one breath that that wasn’t the Till boy’s body they fished out of the river and in the next that Milam and Bryant were the ones who sold that information to the fellow from Look magazine themselves. For unlike most of the rest of the state, where William Bradford Huie’s article “Approved Killing in Mississippi,” drew a reaction aimed only at the magazine, around Tallahatchie and its neighboring counties there was a reaction against Milam and Bryant among the very people who had contributed to their defense fund. Because of this Kellum told me before the trial that this case would be more difficult than the Till case. This accounted for his continued objections to the stream of state questions involving Milam, and for his statement that “these questions were made for the sole nurnose of prejudicing the jury.” The jury, happily, was not prejudiced. It was sent out of the room and the judge sustained Kellum’s objections.
Milam paid a visit to the court at the end of the first day and I asked him if it were true that in addition to securing counsel for his friend Kimbell, he had, as one of his former lawyers claimed, given Kimbell other financial aid. He caught my meaning and answered, “He’s a very good friend of mine, but I didn’t get a dime for that article.” And without further prompting, he added, “You can look for the cancelled check.” Nevertheless, Milam is now driving a new Chevrolet and has fewer friends than he did last September when he had to pay five lawyers.
One more man damaged the self-defense theory during this trial— the defendant himself. Kimbell got up there before those twelve Mississippians and told them a story about his relations with Melton that flatly contradicts all the Mississippi mores. Kimbell told how he drove up to the station, ordered gas, and then changed his mind: “‘I wish you’d make up your damn mind,’ Clinton told me. I told him that kind of talk would get him in trouble, and he said, ‘I’m not afraid of you or any other white son of a bitch.’” Kim-bell said he went inside and told McGarrh that Clinton was getting pretty nasty and asked him to total up his account and he’d be back and settle up; when he returned a few minutes later someone started firing at him, hit him, and he went back to his car and got his shot gun.
Kimbell told this story to a jury which knew that you cannot provoke a Negro attendant to talk like that no matter how much you irritate him, particularly a trusted Negro such as Clinton Melton who had held his job for ten years and handled both money and credit from customers without complaint: He will not talk back, he will just turn away, and sometimes, as Melton apparently did in this case, he will go to the boss for help. And the jury also knew that no white peckerwood gin manager, the best friend of J. W. Milam, would let a Negro talk like that without doing a little whupping right there on the spot. In addition, all of this about Clinton’s getting nasty was the first time Kimbell had ever mentioned the threat, and when Hamilton Caldwell, who prosecuted the two earlier hearings, asked why he had failed to mention it before, Kimbell said, “The same questions weren’t asked.”
Kimbell also testified under cross examination that he had complete confidence in both McGarrh and Wilson and trusted them completely, although they lied on the stand; that he knew of no reason why Melton threatened him; and that although he was badly wounded he drove past a doctor’s house on the way to Milam’s house, and again by-passed it when he and Milam drove twenty-five miles to Charleston.
The Summing Up
Then came the final arguments. An apologetic Hamilton Caldwell, who knew beforehand that there would be an acquittal, pointed out that he was only doing his job and told the jury that it also had a job to do. “Regardless of whether a man’s white or black, you’ve got to be impartial. A nigger’s a human being. He’s got life,” Caldwell said “And you know,” he added, “that no nigger would call you those things, and you would just walk away.”
For his part District Attorney Johnson reminded the jurors that they were sworn to give equal credibility to the Negro and white witnesses. He reminded them that he had lived with Negroes a long time, that no Negro is going to get up there and call a white man a liar unless there is pretty good reason. He said that he was doing this for their own protection, and that it is a serious thing when a citizen of Tallahatchie County and Mississippi disregards the law. Where that happens, he said, you find a degenerated society. He knew the problem that the jurors who agreed with him faced, so he emphasized that it was important that they stand by their convictions and resist the influence of their fellow jurors and neighbors. He said he was going home with a clear conscience, and he invited them to join him.
J. W. Kellum, the defense attorney, is very tall, with a craggy-sort of good looks. He would like to be eloquent, and he has a habit when he speaks of emphasizing a word that has no business being emphasized. Although he lost the runoff contest for district attorney to Johnson last August, he will probably not lose any elections for a while in the future. “You have a noble opportunity for democratic service,” he told the jurors in a summation almost identical with the one he delivered at the Till trial. “You are the custodians of the American civilization.” And he wound up with “This boy was born thirty-five years ago into the land of the free and the home of the brave, and where under God’s shining sun is the land of the the free and the home of the brave if you convict him on this flimsy evidence?” Then he handed the jury Kimbell’s bloody shirt, and the jury retired.
It took four hours and nineteen minutes to break down those members of the jury who had misgivings about the whole thing. Another case, having to do with cow poisoning, was heard while the jury was out.
The reporters sat around and talked and some said there would he a conviction, and I said there would be a hung jury, and one said he didn’t know. One wonders just how deeply the jurors thought about how their decision might establish a precedent for future juries—just as they faced the Till jury precedent. I think the fifty-eight Negroes who sat quietly in the crowded courtroom were thinking about it, and I think that the few merchants sitting around were worrying about it. The merchants know that although this was a good year for cotton, business was poor in the area because the Negroes are either shopping in the hill section of the state or leaving the state completely. The merchants know what the result of this trial will be—the Negroes will not write impassioned letters to their Senators or the newspapers, but they will very quietly stop hanging around the stores on Saturdays, and business will get worse.
On the other hand, I suspect that the jurors who may have had misgivings were thinking that they had to go on living in the county, and how could they explain any other verdict to the neighbors, particularly if word got out, as it undoubtedly would, about who the two or three men were who had hung the jury. Elmer Kimbell was protected by the system whose rule of paternalism he violated. None of those jurors would kill a man, but they could not give Melton, even in death, equality with Kimbell. That would have meant that they give credibility to the Negro witnesses, and it might have meant that they were nigger-lovers, and that they were agin us.
So the jurors walked in and announced their verdict and filed up one by one and shook hands with Kellurn. Elmer Kimbcll, found innocent, told the reporters that he was relieved because he had been pretty worried, and it was the first time I had heard of an innocent white man worrying about a case involving a Negro’s life. Then Kimbell asked the deputy sheriff for his gun back, and now he can go hunting again with J. W. Milam for squirrel and God knows what else.
‘Maybe We’ve Made a Start’
The immediate reaction in Tallahatchie County among the sort of people who issued the Glendora Lions Club statement was one of discouragement. “There’s open season on the Negroes now,” one man said. “They’ve got no protection, and any peckerwood who wants to can go shoot himself one, and we’ll free him. Our situation will get worse and worse.”
That may be true, but perhaps in the acquittal of Elmer Kimbell there is a lesson which may jar Mississippians and eventually make the situation better. I talked with one newspaperman in a neighboring county who said,
This is just what we needed for our own good. People here underwent all that criticism before, and some of it was unfair, and they hardened and became convinced that they were right and everyone else was wrong. All they could talk about was the racial problem in Chicago and Detroit, and they looked at the one new Negro school in their city and they boasted of the virtues of separate but equal. They forgot about the five or six broken-down shacks out in the county with one room and no electricity and the fact that we are a long, long way even from separate but equal. We became very defensive and stopped criticizing ourselves—our politicians and newspapers lulled us along because it got so tight you couldn’t talk, and you still can’t talk (don’t use my name). A lot of it was the Till case when we went through a lot of underserved attack. Well, everybody looked at this case beforehand and said, ‘Here’s where we show them what we’re really like.’ But we had forgotten what we’re really like and how far we had to go, and the fact that you can’t put one value on a Negro three hundred and sixty-four days a year and then raise him up equal in court. This case will hit people. It hit me. And when we look around for some place to put the blame, well, there’s only ourselves. And even if we don’t do our blaming out loud it will change what we think inside a lot. What’s also encouraging, I think, is that a lot of pro-integration people up North who were pretty militant a while back are beginning to realize the problems involved, and that’ll make things less tight. Well, if we can get them to that point and then get our own people to a point where they realize that these problems not only exist but must be faced, then maybe for the first time we’ve made a start. If Kimbell had been given twenty years for manslaughter we’d have been more self-righteous than ever and gone right back to our old ways of thinking.
Kimball’s acquittal may have encouraged the peckerwoods, but I’m pretty sure it has troubled a lot of the good people. And that, after all, may be a step in the right direction.