Based on actual events from Mississippi’s Civil Rights Movement, Justice for Ella is a story of two women—one black, one white—who fought and won against seemingly insurmountable meanness. For Ella Gaston and Jewell McMahan, the fight was about justice, in a time and place when it was rarely bestowed on either black people or women. On a Sunday afternoon in 1959 in Shuqualak, Mississippi, Ella and her husband Nelse were arrested in front of their children and hauled off to the notorious Noxubee County Jail. The Gastons were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time—caught up in a manhunt for Nelse’s cousin who had allegedly beaten up the city marshal. The court appearances and legal wrangling that followed resulted in Ella’s being found guilty of intimidating an officer and the all-white Mississippi Supreme Court reversing and remanding her conviction on grounds of racial prejudice in testimony—a first. To avoid retrial, Ella and Jewell engaged in multiple cat-and-mouse games that placed Ella “sick” in the hospital, Jewell standing guard, and would-be tormenters at bay. Eventually, the women prevailed, Ella remained free, and the story faded away into obscurity—until now. Justice for Ella tells just one of hundreds of stories experienced by nameless foot soldiers who risked everything so that all Mississippians could live as first class citizens in the Land of the Free. It is a story that needed to be told.
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Justice for Ella
A Story That Needed to be Told
By Pam Johnson
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2014 Pam Johnson
All rights reserved.
JUSTICE FOR ELLA
Driving While Black
Shuqualak, Mississippi-February 22, 1959, 3:00 p.m.
"Nelse! What's wrong?" Ella whispered.
He'd been slowing down and watching the rearview mirror. She could see blinking red lights reflecting off the dashboard.
"I don't know," Nelse said, carefully pulling his shiny green and white Ford Fairlane over to the shoulder. Their four children in back sat quiet as baby birds in a disturbed nest.
Within seconds, the Gaston family found themselves surrounded by white men with badges, guns, nightsticks, and nasty attitudes.
Nelse rolled down his window far enough to hear one of them yell, "Get out, nigger!"
As soon as Nelse's feet hit the ground, the officer dragged him to the back of the car, out of his family's sight.
"Put your hands up!" they could hear the officer shouting. "I said put your hands up, nigger!"
The distinctive sound of fist on flesh came next, and the car heaved as Nelse fell against it. He was on the ground, and all four officers were scrambling against gravel on asphalt to get a lick in. The family could hear their grunts and curses.
"Stop it! Quit!" a white man's voice shouted, and the thudding commotion ceased.
Pulled to his feet, scraped and bleeding, Nelse was handcuffed behind his back. He was weaving a little where he stood, and a welt on his forehead stuck out like a hen egg.
"What's in the trunk, nigger?"
"Aw, you gonna lie now?"
"There's nothing in there, man."
"Well, we're fixin' to find out."
"Wait, man! Wait! Get the key out of the ignition! Don't tear up my car, man!"
It was too late.
The hacking had already started as a broad-shouldered officer tore off the Continental Kit with a tire iron and jimmied open the trunk for a look inside.
"You were right, nigger. Nothing. How 'bout that?"
The passengers could hear chuckling and one or two loud guffaws.
"Be still, children," Ella ordered.
She took a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and stepped out of the car.
"What's wrong? Why are you doing this to my husband?"
"Shut up, nigger," a skinny officer said, grabbing her by the arm.
"Come on over here, and we'll see what kind of trouble you're in, gal."
He spun her around and slammed her head and face into the car while he pressed against her, running his hands along the length of her body and eventually slapping a set of handcuffs on her slim wrists.
The skinny one checked her all over one more time. Her blouse had lost a button by the time he was done.
Ella was silent. So was Nelse as he watched.
"Let's get them outta here," a uniformed one muttered.
As the couple was shoved into the back of the patrol car, Ella looked over her shoulder and shouted to her children, "Call Hermene! Tell her to call Mrs. Mac!"
Then they were gone — red lights flashing, tires spinning, and sirens blaring. Only the men in tan uniforms and the four children in the backseat of the Ford Fairlane were left on the road in front of the big white house that belonged to Pete Flora.
After a twenty-minute ride up Highway 45, the patrol car whipped into the graveled back parking lot of the Noxubee County jail, across the street from the courthouse.
The jail, though lovely from the outside, was rotten on the inside. This Nelse knew. He'd been told tales of what happened inside those beautiful brick walls all his life. It wasn't good for anybody, but it was awful for black men and rumored to be worse than that for black women.
He knew there was an eyelet in the tin ceiling in the middle of the cell block where the hangman's noose was supposed to go. He knew that sometimes there was an empty noose just hanging there, glowering. He knew that sometimes people went inside and came out beaten up or worse. He knew this was one place neither he nor his wife needed to be.
Soon enough, they were booked in.
Ella never told anyone exactly what she endured that night. But whatever it was caused her and her friend Jewell McMahan to make a solemn pledge that Ella would never spend another night in jail.
Never. Never again. No matter the cost and no matter what they had to do to prevent it.
Up in the eastern red dirt part of Mississippi, midcentury Noxubee County rested secure in its reputation as a place where black Mississippians dared not threaten the menacing and blustering societal structure that kept them "in their places."
A predominantly agricultural society that relied upon enslavement of people of African descent had left its remnants in a stark and vast divide between an elite white upper class served by a merchant and service industry-dominated white middle class and a black class with few acknowledged rights, scant wealth, insufficient educational opportunity, and little hope for change.
The system of exclusion and oppression pervading living arrangements of about 70 percent of the county's occupants hadn't been achieved overnight. As far back as the hopeful days of Reconstruction when black new citizens were actually participating in their government, the county christened "Stinking Water" by its native residents was making a name for itself in terms of racial terrorism-all the way to the halls of Congress.
As for the original nonwhite inhabitants of the area, they were essentially gone a generation before the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter.
In September 1830, colorful Choctaw chieftain Mushulatubbee (Choctaw for "determined to kill") signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek and ceded eleven million acres of ancestral lands to the United States government in exchange for land in Oklahoma and Arkansas. In so doing, he threw his tribe's homeland wide open to an influx of urgently pioneering white farmers, most with Scotch-Irish pedigrees, and their entourage of dark brown laborers.
In effect, Mushulatubbee's decision to participate in his tribe's three-year "removal" to Oklahoma took away one large nonwhite group from the Noxubee countryside and made way for another group, which was enslaved.
Noxubee County was organized as a county of seven hundred square miles on December 23, 1833, along with several other political subdivisions of the ceded Choctaw lands. Noxubee sidled up to Alabama to the east, bore a significant ridge running southeast to northwest that supported bountiful hardwood and pine forests to its west, and overlooked flat river plains to the east. The county seemed perfectly formed to support the plantation lifestyle of its new white settlers.
Established in 1836 as the county seat, Macon was a bustling hub of commerce, catering to its wealthy inhabitants. Town matrons orchestrated plenty of high-society occasions to rival legendary Southern seats of wealth on parade, like Charleston, Richmond, and Natchez. Macon boasted a fine courthouse, a secure jailhouse, an impressive bank building, and a variety of newspapers turning out news for at least a couple of decades by the time "The War" broke out in 1861.
Planters with thousands of acres of growing land and hundreds of slaves to manage them built large and impressive homes in Macon to shield their families from the realities of the system supporting them. Brooksville and Shuqualak had been incorporated a scant few years before war was declared, but the genteel ways of the county seat were replicated in the smaller towns just as well.
Before the "War for Southern Independence," the privileged children of the Noxubee ruling class had been privately schooled in much-sought-after institutions within the county, such as the Calhoun Institute, a private school for girls whose classic architecture rivaled that of Windsor down near Port Gibson, and the Summerville Institute for Boys. On the day Mississippi seceded from the Union, the Macon Beacon carried an advertisement for the Calhoun Institute wherein headmaster W. R. Poindexter extolled his school as "a limited select school for young ladies." Instruction was provided by men, and the modern languages were taught by European professors. Great emphasis was placed upon the playing of musical instruments by the students. The Summerville Institute was the only secondary school to continue operation in Mississippi during the later days of the war.
Isolated from major thoroughfares of battle, Macon enjoyed a relatively unscathed existence during the bloody turbulence that ravaged the rest of the state. So secure was Macon's sanctuary, Mississippi's state government fled from brief stopovers in Columbus and Meridian to the shelter of the Calhoun Institute in 1863 after Jackson's first fall. The town hosted a session of the legislature and provided residences for Mississippi government officials, including the state's twenty-fourth governor, Charles Clark, who took up domicile at John Morgan's house just east of town. Indeed, Macon was at the apex of prominence in the Magnolia State even as Confederate president Jefferson Davis, a Mississippian, was presiding over the dissolving Confederacy from his perch in Richmond, Virginia.
On May 6, 1865, the same day that Confederate general Richard Taylor surrendered to Union general Canby over in Meridian, Governor Clark, himself a seriously wounded rebel veteran, decided to convene the legislature in special session back in Jackson to determine the most advantageous way to surrender the state government. He departed Macon for the capital. Unsurprisingly, occupying Union forces in Jackson exercised the privilege of deciding the appropriate method of surrender. It was succinct: disband or be arrested. Legislators had barely made it into the capital city for the May 18 session when they turned around and fled to what was left of their homes, rather than face arrest. The governor himself was formally removed from office on May 22 and hauled off to Fort Pulaski in Georgia for a time in federal custody. Meanwhile, Union commanders were comfortably ensconced at the Governor's Mansion on Capitol Street.
By this time, a demolished Jackson had been the scene of at least five hard-fought takeovers by Yankee troops. For some white residents of Mississippi, the humiliation of watching their state government leaders running through the countryside while their proud capital was overrun by the looting, burning enemy time after time engendered a lasting hatred of anything federal, particularly when the national government told them what to do. Exacerbated by the postwar federal insistence on recognition of freedmen as equal citizens under the law, the entrenched hatred toward the victors never left the hearts of some diehard rebels.
Embittered survivors taught those lessons to following generations well into the twentieth century.
Despite the war's outcome, Macon hardly changed. For its white citizenry, who had lived through the degradation of defeat without much bloodshed in their own backyards, the bitter determination to maintain the "Southern Way of Life" remained a motivating cause for over a hundred years.
The fact that hundreds of thousands of people had given their lives to change how black people were able to lead theirs in the South seemed an unnecessary waste of human blood. At least it appeared so in Noxubee County. Other than the actuality that nobody held a title of ownership on their persons, most freed people's lives remained largely embroiled in hard labor and servitude to the familiar moneyed and landed white gentry of their past.
Just because black people had few opportunities to extract themselves from their impoverished conditions didn't for one minute mean they weren't still perceived as threats to their nervous white neighbors. And so, Noxubee County began to make a name for itself as a hotbed and a haven for the Ku Klux Klan, the notorious organization established to intimidate newly freed black people from attempting to exercise their basic rights as American citizens.
The May 14, 1870, Macon Beacon carried the following editorial commentary entitled "KU-KLUX":
It is generally believed in the North that a wide-spread organization exists in our midst, whose object is, by acts of lawless violence, to thwart the restoration of law and order, and make victims of all who are inimical to their proceedings. The frequency of these secret mobs, for such they are, has given color to that supposition, and legislation has been busy to counteract the evil tendencies of such associations. The existence of a Ku-Klux society, as understood there, we believe, is a myth, and this outbreak of disconnected bands, in all parts of the country, can be traced to no fountain-head, but seems to be the offspring of local causes wherever a few turbulent spirits imagine they must take the law into their hands and inflict vengeance on all who cross their path. This spirit is much to be deprecated, and ought to be suppressed, but we fear legislation will but aggravate the evil. It rests with the law-abiding citizens to frown down the violent Klans, who veil with secrecy the most revolting crimes, and stain a whole people with the guilt and darkness of their transactions. What they call executing the law is simply assassination, and often aggravated, too, by orgies from which an inquisition would shrink with horror. The good they do is simply nothing, the harm is incalculable. For men to make a common property of their prejudices and strike its objects in the dark is monstrous. When law and order is endeavoring to crystallize itself into shape, to obstruct it because it acts slowly, is nil [wort]hy of good citizens. These midnight banditti are doing more to thwart the peace and prosperity of our country than a wise legislation of years could counteract. Our people should persistently endeavor to remove these foul ulcers that now and then break out where bad blood exists, and apply remedies that will finally restore these diseased spots to healthy action. It can be done calmly, soothingly, but it must be done firmly. It should be made disreputable to aid or countenance such outrages, and the very perpetrators will then pause and look back with horror on the deeds of darkness which they have blindly committed.
One year later, on May 13, 1871, the Beacon carried the following excerpt of a speech that former Union general William T. Sherman gave at Vicksburg, as reported by the Vicksburg Herald: "I probably have as good means of information as most persons in regard to what is called the Ku-Klux, and am perfectly satisfied that the thing is greatly over estimated; and if the Ku-Klux bills were kept out of Congress, and the army kept at their legitimate duties, there are enough good and true men in all southern States to put down all Ku-Klux or other bands of marauders."
Despite the general's unusual, yet hopeful, outlook, reports of vicious mistreatment of blacks in the South by marauding thugs in costume created such a stir in Washington that Congress held a hearing on the subject that year. The Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States convened with the innocuous duty of merely checking into how the Southern states were faring during Reconstruction but in fact devoted much of its time to gaining sworn testimony about the activities of the Ku-Kluxers.
Congress had passed the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 in April, which made nightriders actual criminals, not just in deed, but also on the books.
In July, John R. Taliaferro, a Noxubee resident originally from Virginia, was one of fifty-two witnesses summoned to the nation's capital to testify before the congressional panel investigating reports of outrages against former slaves and their sympathizers. Taliaferro testified that there had been from fifteen to twenty murders within the previous nine months. He talked about murders of black men he was personally aware of, described a beating he had witnessed, and explained to the panel how the preferred method "to straighten out the niggers" was to strip them to the skin and beat them. Men, women, and children alike received this treatment. He personally knew of women of African descent who had been pulled from homes where they lived with white men and stripped and beaten as a lesson against miscegenation. There was hardly any mention made as to whether or not their white male lovers protested or in any way attempted to stop the attacks, but Taliaferro confirmed that none of the men were harmed during the raids.
Taliaferro also provided details of loose Klan organizations and their manner of "secret" communications with salutes like "Hail" and "Mount Nebo." Importantly, he revealed two main motives for targeting individual blacks: 1) they were renting land coveted by white would-be farmers, or 2) they were voting for Republicans. He also mentioned former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, as the generally recognized organizer of the Klan. His railroad-building operation was headquartered just north of Macon in Columbus at the time.
For his testimony, Taliaferro was characterized as a drunkard, liar, murderer, and mule thief by his neighbor, insurance agent Charles Baskerville, during his own sworn deposition to the committee.
Excerpted from Justice for Ella by Pam Johnson. Copyright © 2014 Pam Johnson. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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Table of Contents
Justice for Ella, 1,
Ella's Story, 4,
Jewell's Story, 31,
The Incident, 61,
The Trial, 126,
Ella Gaston v. State of Mississippi, 173,
Author's Notes, 213,
Selected Resources, 231,
Appendix - The Decision, 235,