One of the great things about working on this book was that I made a lot of new friends I haven’t met yet. By which I mean: On many occasions, I communicated by email or phone with somebody new, interesting, and kind who was nice enough to help me out on a subject I needed to understand better. (There were a lot of them.)
Typical of many people I got to know this way was a Houston-based writer named Stokes McMillan, author of a book called One Night of Madness, which tells the story of a horrible episode that happened in 1950 near McMillan’s hometown of Kosciusko, Mississippi. It was known as the Attala County Massacre, and it involved three white ne’er-do-wells—Malcum Whitt, Windol Whitt, and Leon Turner—who had been arrested for drunkenly harassing several black families in their rural cabins on the night of December 22, 1949. At one home, occupied by a sharecropper named Thomas Harris, they tried to rape Harris’s wife, and they were arrested at the scene by a county sheriff who’d been called by one of the previously messed-with families.
The three louts escaped from jail about a week later, hid in the woods a few days, and, wrongly thinking that Harris had turned them in, went back to the cabin and exacted revenge. On the night of January 8, 1950, Turner went inside with a gun, wounding two people and killing three kids: Frankie Thurman, 12, Mary Burnside, 8, and Ruby Nell Harris, 4. Though the prosecution pressed hard for a death penalty in the cases of Turner and Windol Whitt, all three men got prison terms.
The Attala County case got a fair amount of newspaper coverage at the time, of course, but for reasons I’ve never understood, it didn’t become a national news story on the order of, say, the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till.
Why? All I can figure is that a lot changed between 1950 and 1955 in terms of how national newspapers handled such stories, which in the forties and early fifties often received cursory coverage, buried deep inside. For example, the New York Times reported on the capture of two of the men in a wire-service story that was marooned on page 54.
McMillan put a huge amount of research work into his account of this case, and it shows. The Attala County Massacre ought to be better-known, and his book is the place to start. He was also very generous about sharing his knowledge with me, because I hadn’t been able to put in enough research time in Mississippi to understand it properly.
Check out the book here.