Last week, I dove into the the first four chapters of “One Night of Madness” by Stokes McMillan.
I only knew the premise of the true store – In 1950, three white men were accused of killing a black family in Newport. I knew the accused were captured as you can see on the cover of McMillan’s book shown at right.
Were they tried and convicted? Were they set free? What happened to those left behind? I had to know.
Lucky for me some of my questions were answered in the 1950 bound volume of The Star-Herald. I will have to wait for the book, which is expected in December, to find out the rest.
McMillan, a native of Attala County, has connections to The Star-Herald. His great grandfather, Wiley Sanders, started the newspaper and his grandfather, Stokes Sanders, succeeded him as publisher. Next came McMillan’s father, Billy.
In 1950, his father snapped the photo of the killers’ capture and took home a national award.
For McMillan, it was the photo that began his journey into writing a novel.
Over the next several weeks, The Star-Herald has been granted permission by the author to publish excerpts of the first four chapters that focus the major players in the event.
I also hope that I am able to talk to some of those personally connected to the story.
–Leslie N. Dees
Taken from “One Night of Madness,” Chapter 1, The Turners
He felt it coming. Long before his ears heard the sound, his body sensed it—a faint tingling on the skin, a gentle drumming inside the chest.
Nineteen-year-old Archie Levy strolled slowly along a dirt road deep in the woods of the central Mississippi hills. The road’s red clay surface—scarred when wet with deep ruts from wagons and trucks—made walking treacherous for the hurried. But Archie didn’t hurry; he ambled, slowly, hands in his coat pockets, eyes locked on the ground a few feet ahead, his mind either lost in a thought or devoid of one.
Tranquility surrounded him. Only the throaty caw, caw of a distant blackbird interrupted the sound of the breeze flowing through the nearly naked trees on this chilly December day in 1949.
Now the wind carried a barely perceptible noise to Archie’s ears. Slowly the sound grew into a distant, clamorous rumble—the sound of a pulpwood truck. In a few more moments, Archie recognized the auditory fingerprint of his father’s pulpwood truck approaching from behind.
Six steps later he heard the high-pitched squeaking of the old truck’s springs, tortured by ungreased years carrying countless logs over the washboard roads of Attala County’s remotest areas. The ’34 Chevy flatbed still did the job, but it made a hell of a racket.
Archie nudged closer to the berm of dirt, rocks, and leaves at the edge of the road. He tugged his wide-brimmed hat down tighter onto his curly black hair and glanced behind him, the whites of his eyes contrasting with his light brown skin. A thin mustache below a narrow nose highlighted his face. His ragged clothes revealed poverty.
The truck topped a hill a quarter mile back and came into view, kicking up a cloud of dust; it was barreling toward him. “Leon,” Archie mumbled. He was the only person that drove so recklessly on this road. “Things sho’ has changed since he come back.” The rumble and squeaks crescendoed into a roar. The truck weaved left and right around big ruts and fallen limbs in the road. Archie could now make out its skeletal profile: a scratched white grill in front of the rounded hood; no cab—only a seat with a cracked windshield in front; and four thin metal stanchions sticking up at the corners of the truck’s bed.
Archie stopped walking and stared—arms at his side, fists clenching and unclenching—at the approaching menace. The truck straightened its path, and he could clearly see the driver. It was a white man, staring right at Archie, laughing. Archie held his gaze firmly on the truck and backed up to the road’s edge. He crouched slightly, ready to jump if need be into the protective wall of trees lining the road.
With a frightening clamor, the truck suddenly skidded and headed straight at him. At the last moment, it veered left and came to a sliding halt with the passenger door, had there been one, an arm’s length away. The trailing dust cloud caught up with and obscured the truck for a few seconds, then slid past the bumper and dispersed into nothing.
The driver let out a loud rebel yell and pumped his right fist in the air. He was a big, dirty white man, roughly twice Archie’s age, with curly brown hair spilling from a filthy hat and days-old stubble on his face. And an enormous grin. He brought his right hand down to his waist and quickly thrust it in the air again, this time holding a pistol pointed skyward. Two loud shots rang out. “Hey, brother,” the man yelled. “You shit in your pants or somethin’?”
Archie tried to act nonchalant, but his heart was racing. This wasn’t the first time the man had got his goat. It seemed like whenever he was around there was excitement. Archie liked him. “Leon, how come you got Pappa’s truck?”
The driver spit and answered, “Been down to Thomastown. Daddy done said I could borrow it. Hop on, Bug. I’ll take ya home.”
Archie, nicknamed “Bug,” climbed up onto the truck’s rusty metal frame. As he grabbed the cold steel of the front right stanchion, the truck shot forward. Archie held on for dear life with his right hand and clamped down his hat with his left, grinning broadly.
For miles they sped, through thickly wooded hills where the road lay atop the ridgeline like a stripe of reddish-tan paint; past areas of treeless flatlands, some filled with rows of white cotton stubble left from the recent crop, others overgrown with briars and sedge; past cemeteries where old gravestones stained dark with mildew proudly proclaimed in eroded letters: “C.S.A.”—Confederate States of America. A narrow wooden bridge across a small stream startled the landscape with a noisy bumple-umple-umple-lump as the truck hurried across its warped wooden planks.
They finally came to a lone cabin, set off the road in a small clearing surrounded by leafless trees. Leon swerved right onto a makeshift driveway leading to his and Bug’s home.
The four-room shack was constructed of wide, vertical planks of assorted shades of silvery gray; some even hinted at an ancient coat of white paint. A crooked front porch ran the width of the house. A trickle of smoke rose from a lone stovepipe protruding above the roof of uneven tin sheets of rust and silver.