The Last Juror - Page 27

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At noon on the Fourth of July the temperature was 101 degrees and the humidity felt even higher. The parade was led by the Mayor, even though he was not yet running for anything. State and local elections were in 1971. The presidential race was in 1972. Judicial elections were in 1973. Municipal elections were in 1974. Mississippians loved voting almost as much as football.

The Mayor sat on the rear seat of a 1962 Corvette and threw candy to the children packed along the sidewalks around the square. Behind him were two high school bands, Clanton's and Karaway's, the Boy Scouts, Shriners on mini-bikes, a new fire truck, a dozen floats, a posse on horseback, veterans from every war that century, a collection of shiny new cars from the Ford dealer, and three restored John Deere tractors. Juror number eight, Mr. Mo Teale, drove one. The rear was protected by a string of city and county police cars, all polished to perfection.

I watched the parade from the third-floor balcony of the Security Bank. Stan Atcavage threw an annual party up there. Since I now owed the bank a sizable sum, I was invited to sip lemonade and watch the festivities.

For a reason no one could remember, the Rotarians were in charge of the speeches. They had parked a long flatbed trailer next to the Confederate sentry and decorated it with bales of hay and red, white, and blue bunting. When the parade was over, the throng moved tightly around the trailer and waited anxiously. An old-fashioned courthouse hanging couldn't have drawn a more expectant audience.

Mr. Mervin Beets, president of the Rotary club, stepped to the microphone and welcomed everyone. Prayer was required for any public event in Clanton, and in the new spirit of desegregation he had invited the Reverand Thurston Small, Miss Callie's minister, to properly get things going. According to Stan, there were noticeably more blacks downtown that year.

With such a crowd, Reverend Small could not be brief. He asked the Lord to bless everyone and everything at least twice. Loudspeakers were hanging from poles all around the courthouse, and his voice echoed throughout downtown.

The first candidate was Timmy Joe Bullock, a terrified young man from Beat Four who wanted to serve as a constable. He walked across the flatbed trailer as if it were a gangplank, and when he stood behind the mike and looked at the crowd he almost fainted. He managed to utter his name, then reached into a pocket where he found his speech. He was not much of a reader, but in ten very long minutes managed to comment on the rise in crime, the recent murder trial, and the sniper. He didn't like murderers and he was especially opposed to snipers. He would work to protect us from both.

Applause was light when he finished. But at least he showed up. There were twenty-two candidates for constable in the five districts, but only seven had the courage to face the crowd. When we finally finished with the constables and the Justices of the Peace, Woody Gates and the Country Boys played a few bluegrass tunes and the crowd appreciated the break.

At various places on the courthouse lawn, food and refreshments were being served. The Lions Club was giving away slices of cold watermelon. The ladies of the garden club were selling homemade ice cream. The Jaycees were barbecuing ribs. The crowd huddled under the ancient oak trees and hid from the sun.

Mackey Don Coley had entered the race for Sheriff in late May. He had three opponents, the most popular of whom was a Clanton city policeman named T. R. Meredith. When Mr. Beets announced that it was time for the Sheriff candidates, the voters left the shade and swarmed around the trailer.

Freck Oswald was running for the fourth time. In the prior three he had finished dead last; he appeared headed for the bottom again but seemed to enjoy the fun of it. He didn't like President Nixon and said harsh things about his foreign policy, especially relations with China. The crowd listened but appeared to be a bit confused.

Tryce McNatt was running for the second time. He began his remarks by saying, "I really don't give a damn about China." This was humorous but also stupid. Swearing in public, in the presence of ladies, would cost him many votes. Tryce was upset at the way criminals were being coddled by the system. He was opposed to any effort to build a new jail in Ford County - a waste of taxpayer money! He wanted harsh sentences and more prisons, even chain gangs and forced labor.

I had heard nothing about a new jail.

Because of the Kassellaw murder and the Hank Hooten rampage, violent crime was now out of control in Ford County, according to Tryce. We needed a new Sheriff, one who chased criminals, not befriended them. "Let's clean up the county!" was his refrain. The crowd was with him.

T. R. Meredith was a thirty-year veteran of law enforcement. He was an awful speaker but he was related to half the county, according to Stan. Stan knew about such things; he was related to the other half. "Meredith'll win by a thousand votes in the runoff," he predicted. This caused quite an argument among the other guests.

Mackey Don went last. He had been the Sheriff since 1943, and wanted just one more term. "He's been saying that for twenty years," Stan said. Coley rambled on about his experience, his knowledge of the county and its people. When he finished, the applause was polite but certainly not encouraging.

Two gentlemen were running for the office of tax collector, no doubt the least popular position in the county. As they spoke, the crowd drifted away again and headed for the ice cream and watermelons. I walked down to Harry Rex's office, where another party was in progress on the sidewalk.

The speeches continued throughout the afternoon. It was the summer of 1971, and by then at least fifty thousand young Americans had been killed in Vietnam. A similar gathering of people in any other part of the country would have turned into a virulent antiwar rally. The politicians would have been heckled off the stage. Flags and draft cards would've been burned.

But Vietnam was never mentioned that Fourth of July.

I'd had great fun at Syracuse demonstrating on campus and marching in the streets, but such activity was unheard of in the Deep South. It was a war; therefore real patriots were supportive. We were stopping Communism; the hippies and radicals and peaceniks up North and in California were simply afraid to fight.

I bought a dish of strawberry ice cream from the garden ladies, and as I strolled around the courthouse I heard a commotion. From the third-floor window of the Bar Room, a prankster had dropped down an effigy of Baggy. The stuffed figure was hanging with its hands above its head - just like the real Baggy - and across its chest was a sign that said "SUGGS." And to make sure everyone recognized the butt of the joke, an empty bottle of Jack Daniel's protruded from each pants pocket.

I had not seen Baggy that day, nor would I. Later, he claimed to know nothing about the incident. Not surprisingly, Wiley managed to take numerous photos of the effigy.

"Theo's here!" someone yelled, and this excited the crowd. Theo Morton was our longtime state senator. His district covered parts of four counties, and though he lived in Baldwin his wife was from Clanton. He owned two nursing homes and a cemetery, and he had the distinction of having survived three airplane crashes. He was no longer a pilot. Theo was colorful - blunt, sarcastic, hilarious, completely unpredictable on the stump. His opponent was a young man who'd just finished law school and was rumored to be grooming himself for Governor. Warren was his name, and Warren made the mistake of attacking Theo over some suspicious legislation that had been "sneaked through" the last session and increased the state's support for nursing home patients.

It was a bristling assault. I was standing in the crowd, watching Warren blast away, and just over his left shoulder I could see "SUGGS" hanging from the window.

Theo began by introducing his wife, Rex Ella, a Mabry from right here in Clanton. He talked about her parents and her grandparents, and her aunts and uncles, and before long Theo had mentioned half the crowd. Clanton was his second home, his district, his people, the constituents he worked so hard to serve down in Jackson.

It was smooth, fluid, off-the-cuff. I was listening to a master on the stump.

He was chairman of the Highways Committee in the state senate, and for a few minutes he bragged about all the new roads he'd built in north Mississippi. His committee handled four hundred separate pieces of legislation each session. Four hundred! Four hundred bills, or laws. As chairman, he was responsible for writing laws. That's what state senators did. They wrote good laws and killed bad laws.

His young opponent had just finished law school, a notable accomplishment. He, Theo, didn't get the chance to go to college because he was off fighting the Japs in World War II. But anyway, his young opponent had evidently neglected his study of the law. Otherwise, he would've passed the bar exam on the first try.

Instead, "he flunked the bar exam, ladies and gentlemen!"

With perfect timing, someone standing just behind young Warren yelled out, "That's a damned lie!" The crowd looked at Warren as if he'd lost his mind. Theo turned to the voice and said incredulously, "A lie?"

He reached into his pocket and whipped out a folded sheet of paper. "I've got the proof right here!" He pinched a corner of the paper and began waving it about. Without reading a single word of whatever was printed on it, he said, "How can we trust a man to write our laws when he can't even pass the bar exam? Mr. Warren and I stand on equal footing - neither of us has ever passed the bar exam. Problem is, he had three years of law school to help him flunk it."

Theo's supporters were yelping with laughter. Young Warren held his ground but wanted to bolt.

Theo hammered away. "Maybe if he'd gone to law school in Mississippi instead of Tennessee then he'd understand our laws!"

He was famous for such public butcherings. He'd once humiliated an opponent who'd left the pulpit under a cloud. Pulling an "affidavit" from his pocket, Theo claimed he had proof that the "ex-reverend" had an affair with a deacon's wife. The affidavit was never read.

The ten-minute limit meant nothing to Theo. He blew through it with a series of promises to cut taxes and waste and do something to make sure murderers got the death penalty more often. When he finally wound down, he thanked the crowd for twenty years of faithful support. He reminded us that in the last two elections the good folks of Ford County had given him, and Rex Ella, almost 80 percent of their votes.

The applause was loud and long, and at some point Warren disappeared. So did I. I was tired of speeches and politics.

* * *

Four weeks later, around dusk on the first Tuesday in August, much of the same crowd gathered around the courthouse for the vote counting. It had cooled off considerably; the temperature was only ninety-two with 98 percent humidity.

The final days of the election had been a reporter's dream. There was a fistfight between two Justice of the Peace candidates outside a black church. There were two lawsuits, both of which accused the other side of libel and slander and distributing phony sample ballots. One man was arrested when he was caught in the act of spray painting obscenities on one of Theo's billboards. (As it turned out, after the election, the man had been hired by one of Theo's henchmen to defile the senator's signs. Young Warren still got the blame. "A common trick," according to Baggy.) The state's Attorney General was asked to investigate the high number of absentee ballots. "Typical election," was Baggy's summary. Things came to a peak on that Tuesday, and the entire county stopped to vote and enjoy the sport of a rural election.

The polls closed at six, and an hour later the square was alive and wired with anticipation. People piled in from the county. They formed little groups around their candidate and even used campaign signs to stake off their territory. Many brought food and drink and most had folding lawn chairs as if they were there to watch a baseball game. Two enormous black chalkboards were placed side by side near the front door of the courthouse, and there the returns were tallied.

"We have the results from North Karaway," the clerk announced into a microphone so loud it could've been heard five miles away. The festive mood was immediately serious.

"North Karaway's always first," Baggy said. It was almost eight-thirty, almost dark. We were sitting on the porch outside my office, waiting for the news. We planned to delay press time for twenty-four hours and publish our "Election Special" on Thursday. It took some time for the clerk to read the vote totals for every candidate for every office. Halfway through she said, "And in the Sheriff's race." Several thousand people held their breath.

"Mackey Don Coley, eighty-four. Tryce McNatt, twenty-one. T. R. Meredith, sixty-two, and Freck Oswald, eleven." A loud cheer went up on the far side of the lawn where Coley's supporters were camped.

"Coley's always tough in Karaway," Baggy said. "But he's beat."

"He's beat?" I asked. The first of twenty-eight precincts were in, and Baggy was already predicting winners.

"Yep. For T.R. to run strong in a place where he has no base shows folks are fed up with Mackey Don. Wait'll you see the Clanton boxes."

Slowly, the returns dribbled in, from places I'd never heard of: Pleasant Hill, Shady Grove, Klebie, Three Corners, Clover Hill, Green Alley, Possum Ridge, Massey Mill, Calico Ridge. Woody Gates and the Country Boys, who seemed to always be available, filled in the gaps with some bluegrass.

The Padgitts voted at a tiny precinct called Dancing Creek. When the clerk announced the votes from there, and Coley got 31 votes and the other three got 8 combined, there was a refreshing round of boos from the crowd. Clanton East followed, the largest precinct and the one I voted in. Coley got 285 votes, Tryce 47, and when T.R.'s total of 644 was announced, the place went wild.

Baggy grabbed me and we celebrated with the rest of the town. Coley was going down without a runoff.

As the losers slowly learned their fate, they and their supporters packed up and went home. Around eleven, the crowd was noticeably thinner. After midnight, I left the office and strolled around the square, taking in the sounds and images of this wonderful tradition.

I was quite proud of the town. In the aftermath of a brutal murder and its baffling verdict, we had rallied, fought back, and spoken clearly that we would not tolerate corruption. The strong vote against Coley was our way of hitting at the Padgitts. For the second time in a hundred years, they would not own the Sheriff.

T. R. Meredith got 61 percent of the vote, a stunning landslide. Theo got 82 percent, an old-fashioned shellacking. We printed eight thousand copies of our "Election Edition" and sold every one of them. I became a staunch believer in voting every year. Democracy at its finest.

Tags: John Grisham Thriller