And now for the post that I’ve been working up to: Meridian, Mississippi.
To us, it was just a random dot on the map on our way home to Austin, Texas on a recent trip. We were going to spend the night in Jackson, but I stupidly stuck my credit card in the dollar slot of a vending machine at a rest stop outside Meridian. The vending machine, very happy with the change in diet, promptly ate my card. We wanted to cancel the card as soon as possible, but first we needed it to check into a hotel, so we stayed in Meridian.
We had dinner at a nice local restaurant downtown, where we had our last “pah” for a while. Because the downtown area had a lot of older buildings, T googled Meridian the next morning, while I took the first driving shift. What he read to me sounded like it could be a movie, were it not that it has a depressing ending.
I could just refer you to the Wikipedia link, but how many people actually follow links? And I want to tell the story here.
Remember the movie Mississippi Burning? About the three civil rights workers who were lynched by the KKK in 1964 for helping blacks register to vote and boycott white businesses? Well, that was in Meridian.
But we need to go further back for the story neither of us had ever heard about and that I want to share with you. I imagine that similar things happened all over the South.
So, Meridian. 1871.
It’s the Reconstruction Era. Ulysses S. Grant, the Union army general, has succeeded Andrew Johnson as president of the United States. The South is divided into five military districts with a federal army presence to ensure and uphold the rights of blacks. They can vote, sit on juries and run for office. This does not sit well with most white folks.
The governor of Mississippi is a Union army general and a Republican. A carpetbagger to the disgruntled local whites. As mayor of Meridian he has appointed Sturgis, also a Republican, from Connecticut. So he, too, is a damn carpetbagger.
Sherman, the Union general known for his “scorched earth” tactics, had burned Meridian down during the war, but six years later it has been rebuilt. So imagine nice new buildings.
Now, a group of freedmen, under leadership of a guy named Price, has recently arrived in Meridian from Livingston, Alabama. Price is a teacher and it isn’t hard for him to get a job at the new government school for black kids in town.
A lot of freedmen are leaving Alabama, so the farmers there are suffering a labor shortage. The deputy sheriff of Livingston, name of Kennard, has gotten a group of KKK together and they now ride into town, aiming to arrest Price and his men and take them back to Alabama.
Mayor Sturgis refuses to cooperate with Kennard and his klansmen, but he can’t make them leave, either. So they’re hanging around Meridian, being intimidating, and that does not sit well with Price and his men.
A few nights later, Price and his men disguise themselves, sneak into the house where Kennard’s staying, and proactively beat him up. Kennard presses charges the next day.
And here’s the kicker:
There has been a law in effect since 1866 that’s meant to keep the KKK in check. It classifies committing violence while in disguise as a federal crime. However, in all the years of the law’s existence, it has never actually been used to prosecute any KKK members for violence against blacks, and now the prosecutor uses it to prosecute blacks who are trying to run a gang of KKK out of town.
Price and his men are furious that the anti-KKK law is being used against them. Price is arrested, but rather than being scared and repentant like a good negro (I’s so sorry, massa) he says that if he’s convicted, his men’ll put up a fight. The news quickly makes it to Livingston, Alabama, and before long an additional group of fifty armed white Livingstonians arrive in Meridian for the trial.
The people of Meridian are getting pretty darn nervous. The trial’s put off for a week, but in the meantime Kennard has arrested some of Price’s men on trumped-up charges. When the trial’s supposed to take place, a witness for Kennard is sick, so it’s put off for another week.
Can you imagine the tension in town?
Some townsfolk approach mayor Sturgis and say they’re afraid of a shootout if the trial takes place. Sturgis and a few others discuss this with the prosecutors and they agree to cancel the trial if Price leaves town.
But that doesn’t settle the matter. The black folks of Meridian are furious that Price is being forced to leave, and that Kennard’s klansmen can just come in and arrest Price’s men and force them back to Alabama. On the other hand the whites are furious that Sturgis lets Price go without punishment.
The whites of Meridian want Sturgis removed from office and the blacks petition Alcorn, the new Republican governor, to let him stay. Sturgis stays on as mayor, but he’s uneasy being the man in the middle.
He requests federal troops to deal with the unrest and to get rid of Kennard and his men. The troops arrive, but since there’s no violence to speak of, they can’t do much and they leave again after a few days. So Sturgis starts legal proceedings against some of the whites himself.
The whites of Meridian try again to get Sturgis to step down as mayor, but he sends some men to the Governor for help. They come back with a Republican member of the state legislation, Aaron Moore, who calls a town meeting to try and persuade the whites to keep Sturgis on as mayor. However, hardly any whites show up to the meeting.
The black men at the meeting are getting worked up and they form an armed band under leadership of Clopton, one of Sturgis’s advisors. At the same time, in another part of town, the whites have gotten equally worked up, and they have formed an armed band to run Sturgis, Clopton and Tyler (another of Sturgis’s advisors) out of Meridian.
About an hour after the end of the town meeting, a fire breaks out on the second floor of Sturgis’s brother’s store. Two-thirds of the nice, recently rebuilt business district burns down before the fire’s put out. Whites spread the rumor that the blacks plan to burn down all of Meridian.
Sturgis’s advisor Clopton gets hit over the head in the melee, and appears dead (though he isn’t). The blacks, until now mostly armed with sticks and kitchen knives, start handing out guns. The white armed bands patrol the streets for the next couple of days and they arrest Clopton, Tyler and Moore for inciting a riot–the riot so far being the starting of a fire by person or persons unknown.
A committee is formed to again try to oust Sturgis. The same committee investigates the fire and comes to the predictable conclusion that Sturgis must have started it. That makes perfect sense, right? Why wouldn’t he burn down his own brother’s store?
The sheriff orders all the blacks to hand in their weapons.
On the morning of the trial against Copton, Tyler and Moore, the committee of whites have a meeting and condemn the violence on both sides on the night of the fire.
Before the trial, Tyler wants to get a haircut, and the sheriff, after checking that Tyler is unarmed, lets him go to the barbershop. (The barber later says he saw Tyler was packing a pistol.)
Anyway, the trial gets underway. Hundreds of people are crowded into the courtroom. After the second witness for Kennard–Brantley–is done, Tyler wants to introduce two witnesses who can prove Brantley is lying.
Brantley loses it, grabs a cane from a bystander and lunges at Tyler while the owner of the cane tries to stop him. At that point a shot is fired. It was never clear who fired the first shot, although many believe it was Tyler.
Either way, a general shootout takes place in that crowded courtroom, which lasts about five minutes and I, personally, think it’s a miracle that only the judge was killed and only Clopton was injured, again.
Tyler flees, jumping off the second-floor veranda into the street and running through the barbershop with armed white men in hot pursuit. (The barber later said he saw Tyler throw away his pistol as he jumped from the veranda. ) A black man finds Tyler lying injured in a ditch; my guess is that, having jumped from a second story, he had a broken ankle. A few guys take Tyler to a store, where the white band eventually finds him and shoots him several times.
Meanwhile, Clopton, who’s badly wounded, is placed under protection of guards in the courtroom. The guards, probably pissed off that they’re left out of the action, get tired of guarding Clopton and throw him off the second-floor veranda, saying they can’t be bothered with a black murderer. Folks carry him back into the courthouse, but during the night someone slits his throat.
That leaves Moore.
The governor’s aide was standing near the judge when he was shot, and had the presence of mind to play dead beside him. He now escapes and hops a train back to Jackson. Moore has a house near Meridian, which the white mob burns down, along with the school for black children where Price was a teacher. Several people are killed in those fires.
The local KKK kill as many prominent blacks in Meridian as they can lay their hands on. They kill some in the courthouse, some they “arrest” but kill before the day is out. By the time the federal troops finally get there three days later, about thirty blacks are dead.
And what about Mayor Sturgis?
When the shootout began, he hid in another building his brother owned, and now that the worst is over he negotiates for his life and is eventually escorted by a large group of white men to the train station, where he catches the midnight train north. He writes about the incident in a letter to the New York Daily Tribune and his anger and frustration are obvious:
I am much a sufferer in pain and feeling, but I believe that the State of Mississippi is able to indemnify me. Let me urge the necessity of having martial law proclaimed through every Southern State. The soldiery to be sent there should be quartered on the Rebels. Leniency will not do. Gratitude, they have none. Reciprocation of favors they never dream of.
Folks up north are angry at first, but over time the KKK and other white supremacist groups manage to run all the Republican office holders out of the south and after 1876, when Rutherford is elected president, the South is firmly back in white hands.
Read the next post in this series here.