Sometimes a moment is so much bigger than you are.
In June 2007, I was sitting a few pews back in Federal Judge Henry Wingate’s walnut-paneled courtroom on the second floor of the James O. Eastland Federal Courthouse in downtown Jackson. As I listened, almost holding my breath, Kathy Nester, the defense attorney for James Ford Seale, argued vehemently that the jury should not be allowed to see a story I’d written detailing journals from 1964. During the week-long trial, Nester—who happened to be a friend of mine on all days other than those—also fought to keep my other reported narratives about the Ku Klux Klan murders of Charles Moore and Henry Dee out of the record.
I knew Kathy was doing her job, trying to give Seale a fair trial, but I was doing mine, too, and I had told those stories to help bring justice for those murders oh-so-belatedly. I also wanted to talk back, through the power of story, to people who said old Klan murderers are too old to bother with. I wanted to prove that native Mississippians, like Kate and me, craved justice and humanity and empathy enough to work really hard to make it happen. As I sat on the pews listening, or when I went up and down in the elevator, I knew it was out of my hands, but I prayed my stories would help those jurors and anyone paying attention truly feel what had happened to those families and how horribly wrong it was.
I was so focused on those outcomes that I could barely look at Kathy on one ride up in the elevator.
“So,” she said, clearly respecting the moment, “we’ll have to have a martini some day after the trial is over.”
I could barely answer. “Harumph,” I believe I managed to get out. I know she understood, even as she was a professional doing her job, too.
Kathy wasn’t successful at squelching my stories. Judge Wingate, a black judge I happened to know was sitting in front of a covered mural of slaves picking cotton that had been there since segregation times, didn’t buy her arguments. My detailed stories about two young black men who were beaten nearly to death, then driven across state lines and dumped into a river channel with jeep-engine parts tied around them so they’d drown would indeed help convict the man who had led the lynch party 40 years before, just as U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton had told me by phone before the trial that they would.
Lampton, now deceased, also told me that reading my stories had inspired him to push forward, that they made him really feel what the Moore family had gone through for so long. Just as it always does when someone tells me that stories, mine or others, make them really feel something that ought to be so damn obvious, my shrinking cynical voice growled, “Damn it, it shouldn’t take a journalist to make that happen, Mr. Lampton.” But I know in my heart that it does take storytelling to change the world, and people’s attitudes, and I thanked him for telling me that my stories had done it for him.
Make no mistake: All I had done, really, was bother. That is, I left my business and my partner Todd and my cats for about 10 days to drive 94 miles south to Franklin and Adams counties—once the epicenter of “Klan Nation”—to meet the brother of one of the victims and a Canadian TV producer who wanted to document his journey back to Mississippi looking for justice. I took with me a young, female, and very talented photographer from Jackson, Kate Medley, to help tell the story in pictures, which she does so beautifully.
Down there, we together asked questions, we listened, we poked around cemeteries, we interviewed old Klansmen, we listened some more, and we found Seale still alive. He’d been reported for years as dead—by reporters who weren’t bothering to drive down there to find out—but a former Klansman, Kenneth Greer, told Kate and me Seale was still alive and living in a trailer next to his brother in Roxie.
Soon, Kate and I snuck up on the road in front of his trailer to get some photos and then hightailed it away before we got shot or something. We ate boiled peanuts out of the can with Charles Moore’s brother, Thomas, a retired military officer, and we got chiggers because the brother forgot to tell us city fools to bathe in rubbing alcohol after hanging out in the humid and bug-infested Homochitto National Forest. There, Thomas had demonstrated how the Klansmen tied the young men to trees and beat and beat and beat them bloody with thin “bean sticks.”
And then we “bothered” to go with him to his brother’s grave, deep in the woods behind Seale Road, stood over it when the brother slowly told us that his mother said never to speak about Charles Moore’s death (he always calls him by his full name) again because it wasn’t safe to bring it up. I remember feeling the deep pain and shame that someone’s brother could be plucked off the earth because he was black and unlucky enough to be the one the Klan targeted that day, and just about no one cared enough to do anything about it, expecting his family to accept it and move on without causing a stir.
I recall thinking, under the oak tree that day, that it was up to writers to tell the stories that thrust the readers into other people’s shoes and to feel their joy and their sorrow. I knew that was what I was supposed to do. Somehow, I always knew that telling a powerful story, and the reporting and observation and listening it takes to tell it in a way that sticks to others like Velcro, was my destiny. I’m happiest when I heed that call.
I haven’t always, though. I’m busy, I procrastinate, I beat myself up for everything I have to do rather than doing it. Or I avoid the pain that stories I like to tell bring to me, even though I know it’s always better afterward.
Or, I don’t just start. It’s my favorite advice for people I mentor, my readers, my interns, my reporters, my students, everyone I talk to and try to motivate to follow their dreams and tell their stories. Just start. No matter what or where you are. Just get out there and find the story and then plop your butt in the chair and write it or, as I sometimes think of it, cry it out onto the page. (Because I do that a lot. Occasionally, I laugh the story onto the page as well.)
When I do start, I often have a hard time stopping because, to me, story is everything and can change anything and often does. If we bother to tell it.
My advice to you, as always, is to bother to start. Now.