By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – So long his mother’s “good” child, Kenneth Mayfield went looking for a man to kill one college Christmas break.
He’d begun his University of Mississippi career with stellar grades, one of just a few African American students there despite seven years past its integration. His eyes were on the prize of Harvard Law School.
But he forever changed that day in 1969, when he searched for a friend in the wrong West Point neighborhood and feared for his own life as he stared into the barrel of a white man’s rifle.
“I think I’d say that was a key moment in my life,” the Tupelo attorney said recently, as he talked about his forthcoming autobiography and documentary.
Back then, he’d finished the fall semester with enthusiasm and rejoiced to realize he was just as smart, maybe smarter, than the thousands of white students around him.
Then, the man with the rifle challenged him as Mayfield asked for directions to the residence of a friend, who attended the all-black Mary Holmes College nearby.
“He said, ‘You know nobody here goes to Mary Holmes,’” insinuating that Mayfield deliberately was where he shouldn’t be.
As Mayfield struggled to drive away, he said, the rifle’s aim followed him for blocks and burned his soul.
“I finally said to myself, ‘I need to go home and get a gun so I can come back and even the playing field.’”
Despite his best efforts, Mayfield didn’t find a gun at his Okolona home. He voiced surprised that the town’s civil rights leader, Dr. Howard Gunn, denied him a weapon.
“I went home and broke down in tears, I was so angry that I couldn’t do anything – I’d been wronged.
“I decided, I’m going to kill this man. I made up my mind.”
Looking back on his 60 years, Mayfield gauges the moment as the most profound on that early part of his life.
His mother’s “good” child, now a man, radicalized and changed from to a civil rights zealot.
It took nearly 20 years for the searing heat to temper.
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Mayfield’s lawyerly downtown Tupelo office reflects none of that firebrand attitude these days.
It’s business and legal work with a diverse staff, including his wife Elouise.
Since 2009, he’s been busy on his autobiography and plans to launch it at a gala charity ball Dec. 17, with proceeds to go to college scholarships.
“I never went back to kill him,” Mayfield said of the West Point rifleman.
He admits returning to the Clay County town at some point, but he’s not even sure the man lived there.
“How was I going to find this guy?” he reflected 42 years later.
Mayfield isn’t angry anymore, either. The rage left him in the 1990s, he says.
But in between, the Pontotoc County native stirred up things on the Ole Miss campus and focused his anger on whites who discriminated against blacks.
In 1970, he became part of the famously infamous “Up With People” concert protest with other black students, who took over the Ole Miss stage to read a bill of complaints against the university hierarchy.
It cost him a year’s suspension and his financial aid, ultimately making him a Tougaloo grad with a University of Michigan law degree.
He and other UWP protesters returned to Ole Miss on the protest event’s 25th anniversary and received an official apology for their treatment.
He and others will talk about their Mayfield-related experiences in a documentary to accompany the release of his book, “To Be Born Black in Mississippi – Why I Became a Civil Rights Lawyer,” which takes readers from his birth-year 1951 to 1974, when he opened his civil rights law practice Tupelo.
“My primary goal with the book is to leave an footprint on history,” the sharecropper’s son noted recently.
“I realized I’d lived through a very historic era, the heart of the Civil Rights Movement.”
He said if folks like the book, he’ll put the other half of his life out there.
Otherwise, he’s as busy as ever with his law practice and keeping up with the couple’s adult twins, Kenneth II, a graduate student at Cal State, and Dominique Karol, in law school in Michigan.
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Still, he enjoys recollecting about some early civil rights triumphs.
His very first lawsuit was filed on his own behalf against a potential landlord, whose manager didn’t like Mayfield’s looks when he sought to inspect office space in downtown Tupelo.
He smiles when he talks about another early case about a black truck driver refused front-door food service at a Noxapater truck stop.
“We actually went to trial in federal court with an all-white jury,” Mayfield remembers. “To my surprise, we got a verdict – $500 actual damages and $500 punitive damages.”
What his book won’t go far enough to tell was Mayfield’s hiatus from the law, when he “retired” in 1990 to spend more time with regular-hour businesses, and his wife and their 2-year-olds.
In essence, the law firm continued without him until 1996, when he came back. Business was down and it made sense to rebuild the practice.
The legal return brought a new focus on major personal injury cases and other complex litigation, he said.
He recalls with pride the $1 million success from a lawsuit against a utility after lightning struck a Calhoun County mobile home. A woman was severely burned in the subsequent fire and her child died.
“It was a difficult case, but our theories were plausible” enough to yield the tidy settlement.
He also likes to talk about his self-styled nickname, “The Hawk,” which he gave to himself as an Ole Miss freshman.
“It was the cool thing to do – I wanted to define myself,” Mayfield recalls.
He said he affixed a note card to his dorm-room door and on it he wrote: The Almighty Hawk Lives Here.
“Somebody came along and marked through Hawk and wrote Black Bird,” he laughed.
These days, he’s got no regrets about his rebellious history, some including shaking up Tupelo politics.
He’s also proud that his 80-year-old mother, Inez, continues to be part of his life. She helped with the book, providing details to him about his childhood, including the traffic accident death of his father, Herbert, on his way home from work in Indiana.
As for his influences, Mayfield says his mother is at the top of his list.
“She had this way – she saw something in me,” he said. “She caused me to accept responsibility at an early age.”
He also has praise for his church family at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in the Troy community.
“It was like God speaking to me, that I could do all things, that nothing is impossible.”
Mayfield hopes the scholarships funded by his new book will make futures possible for others.