Who needs “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Atticus Finch for a rare story of a white lawyer coming to the defense of a wrongly accused black person in a racially tense Southern community?
Not when former school teacher and journalist Pam Johnson digs out a long-untold, actual story with “Mockingbird” credentials set in Jim Crow Mississippi.
“Justice for Ella,” published by iUniverse, tells how protagonists Ella Gaston, a well-respected black mother of seven and her white friend – and employer – the irrepressible Jewell McMahan – defeated the state’s twisted system of racial justice a half century ago.
In 1959, law officers in Noxubee County – then a stronghold of white supremacy – tried to railroad Ella to prison. With Hattiesburg businesswoman Jewell footing the bills, a top criminal attorney in Northeast Mississippi was hired to keep Ella out of jail. Jewell, a native of Kentucky’s Appalachian hills, had landed in Mississippi in 1940 to teach at Forrest County Agricultural High School. That’s how she met Bryce McMahan, a fellow teacher who had been a heavyweight boxing champ in junior college.
You might say that attorney Jesse Stennis, second cousin of Sen. John C. Stennis, was the Atticus Finch: A prominent white lawyer representing a black woman whose job in Hattiesburg, a sizable city down in south Mississippi, was head cook in a nursing home.
Ella, with her husband, Nelse and five young children, had come to the tiny town of Shuqualak to visit her husband’s ill mother. Nelse found work with a meat packing company way down in the southern end of the state in Hattiesburg. Later he would take a job at Hercules Powder Plant which made gunpowder.
Nelse had driven his shiny new Ford Fairlane up to Noxubee. Rarely would you see black folks driving such a vehicle. The Gaston family unfortunately had arrived amid a manhunt for a black man suspected of pistol-whipping a white town marshal. The nervous sheriff leading the hunt was quick to pull over Nelse, then slug him with a gun-butt in front of his children while slapping handcuffs on him. When Ella questions the sheriff the small black woman too is arrested and cuffed.
Not unexpectedly, Ella is convicted in circuit court. Though the Ella-Jewell forces held out little hope for relief in the state’s highest court, the justices stunned everyone by voting unanimously in favor of an opinion written by Justice William Etheridge overturning the conviction on grounds of racial prejudice. But the ruling remanded the case, meaning Ella could be retried in Noxubee County.
At this point, the persistent Jewell swung into action, concocting and unfolding a clever scheme (with Ella’s cooperation) that thwarted any attempt by Noxubee authorities to haul her black friend back into their home grounds. Suffice it say that Jewell’s plot entails an induced “sick” stay in the Hattiesburg hospital with Jewell close by to persuade the Noxubee prosecutors that Ella is too ill to stand trial, burying the case forever.
How different is the makeup of officialdom in Noxubee County between now and 50 years ago. Then, no African-Americans held a county post, despite the fact the county’s population census showed black residents outnumbered whites two-to-one. Now all but one county elective post is held by a black person.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.