An Ill Wind from Mississippi

In February, 1944, Laura Z. Hobson, a 43-year-old, divorced Jewish mother in Manhattan, read an article in Time magazine that reported Mississippi Rep. John Rankin had called Walter Winchell a “kike.”

Hobson was outraged, even more so to read that nobody in Congress protested, particularly during the height of the Holocaust. She wrote about the Rankin incident in her first draft of Gentleman’s Agreement, the story of a Gentile reporter who pretends to be Jewish to investigate anti-Semitism.

That someone as all-American as the reporter, played by Gregory Peck, succeeded with such a masquerade was a twist on the traditional black “passing” story. The novel was serialized by Cosmopolitan in 1946 and published by Simon & Schuster in 1947.

The movie, produced by Darryl Zanuck (a Gentile) in 1948, received the Oscar for Best Picture.

Jack Myers: Civil Rights Pioneer

Jack Myers stood at the forefront of gay rights in Mississippi for over fifty years, running a series of gay bars and clubs in the capital city of Jackson. In this interview Myers talks about the many places he ran and shares his memories of others.

This all started back when I was in high school, we’re talking 1962-63. I finished radiology school, lived in Memphis for a while, lived in Eupora for a while, worked at the state hospital and at the VA. While I was at the VA they sent me to Duke for a year for in-service training, and was hoping for a position in Jackson, but they never got the position open. I gave them 30 days to decide if they were going to give me more money, but they just kept putting it off, so I left after 30 days.

The first gay bar I can recall going to was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. You go down here and you turn on Mayes Street, Cowboy Malone’s used to be right there by the tracks, and there’s a little bitty building on the other side of the track and it was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. As a matter of fact, I had my 21st birthday there. I worked there when I was… it was in ’60-something. I was in X-ray school at UMC at the time. There have always been clubs in Jackson that weren’t openly gay but where gay people were welcome. I remember T.C. Schilling, one of the first people I met when I came out here, he used to own Jackson Commercial College, and he talks of some places that he used to go and one was down there on West Capitol Street, and there was a place off Robinson Road, you know where East Ford used to be? Where Robinson Road crosses Hwy. 80? If you leave here and go out Robinson Road you’ll cross Ellis Avenue, and right before you get to Hwy. 80 on the left facing Hwy. 80 used to be East Ford. You get behind the Ford place and you turn right, there’s a long road that goes through there, and he said he used to go to a place, there was a woman that had a bar out there. He said she’d take up for the gays in a minute, wouldn’t let anybody bother anybody. And there’s a lot of (gay) people I know used to go to the Walthall Hotel downtown. That was in the ‘60s.

I worked at the Sportsman’s Lounge, then he closed that bar and opened a place on McDowell Road where the police shooting range is now. That was all wooded then, it had a drive that went up to this big old house; it was called the Mansion. The guy lived upstairs, and one side of the downstairs was the bar. And if the sheriff’s department or the police came by and two guys and two girls were dancing, they’d just switch partners.

I know when I first came out, on Woodrow Wilson, where you take a left and get on Bailey Avenue, they took several old houses and made them into businesses and there was a place called Chez Pierre’s that was gay-friendly. The Glass Kitchen on Five Points was a popular restaurant. When I was in school at UMC from ’64-66 all of us who were in school would go to Delta Drive because they’d taken a lot of old houses up there and turned them into bars and they had bands, you took your own bottle, they only sold beer. There was the Pepper Mint Twist Lounge, the Hilltop A-Go-Go, the Sirloin Room; the Sirloin Room always had this great band called the Poppas.

I can’t remember the exact year I opened my first bar, but it was in the early ‘70s. It was on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King Drive. And I moved from there downtown to the old Wagon Wheel which was on Capitol and Farish Streets upstairs. The entrance was on Farish. Then we bought the old Amite Theatre. It was behind Jack’s Saloon, it was on the corner of Amite and Roach; they were back-to-back. There was a Dr. Wade Windham who opened a bar there, a straight bar called the City Dump, I think it was. They took old cars and made benches and booths out of them. We sold them all for scraps. We completely remodeled it.

Bill’s Disco (black bar) was on the corner of Amite and Mill Streets there by the train station. It was called the Interchange when we had it. I’m thinking that when the old theatre burned we moved there and called it the Interchange and Bill Rimes ran it for us… well, the old theatre was called Bill’s Disco and it burned in 80-something. And then we moved on the corner across the street to that small building, opened it was the Interchange on Amite. They tore the old Amite Street Theatre down and built that monstrosity in the back; I can’t remember what it’s called (This is the catty-corner building on the corner of Roach and Amite.)

The dance bar on Capitol was Jack and Jill’s. It wasn’t the first bar; it was the first big dance bar. I don’t know if it was this article (in a local paper), but there was also one in the Washington Post that quoted me as saying that I had the first (gay) bar in Jackson, and no, I didn’t. There were bars years before I had one here. There was a girl bar where Amite Street gets to Capitol and crosses Capitol and turns into Robinson Road. I’m thinking that’s where it was. The road that goes by the train station, Amite, comes in (at an angle) there and crosses Capitol. There’s a little bar that sits there, there’s a parking lot out front. There’s been a bar there for years, but there was a girl that had it for a while. Her name was Polly Wilmer. In fact, I hadn’t seen her in years and Harry and I went by the Waffle House to get something to eat and this girl came by and said, “Are you Jack Myers?” I said, “Yeah.” “Well, this is Polly Wilmer,” she said. Oh, my God, I hadn’t seen her in years, and she’d gotten big, huge and she used to be a little tiny thing. We talked for a while; she used to have that bar, it was on Robinson Road, I think, used to be a Waffle House or something that sat right in here. It wasn’t Mississippi Street.

When I first opened Mae’s Cabaret on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King, we got some hassle from the police. I was working at the Raincheck on Northside Drive; going west on Northside drive, you cross over the train tracks and as soon as you crossed over the tracks you took a left and there used to be a brickyard there. The only thing left there was an office; it was very small. It had a nice-sized room in the front, and a nice-sized room in the back, but to get to the back, you had to go through a hallway where the bathrooms were. And then you had the back room, where people could dance. When the police came in, the lady who ran the door would push a button under the desk and a light would flash and everybody would know to sit down. Because in order to have a dance license, you had to have an emergency exit off the dance floor, and there wasn’t a door back there. But one of the policemen said something to Doris about, “We know you have that light,” and she said, “I’m not worried about having a door back there, you know, trying to hem in a queen… (laughter).”

Doris wanted me and her to go into business, I worked with her for a long time, she wanted to open up a bigger place. I think I got a mortgage on my house; I had it paid for. So we opened up the place (Capitol and Farish?), and the police chief said, “The only thing I ask, you know, it’s fine having the show, but I want someone from vice and narcotics to come see the show.” And he did. It was Officer Fitzgerald. After that was over, he said, “Man, I don’t see anything wrong with these shows.” And I said, “Well, I did the right thing, paid the first people off when you told me not to have a show, and sent them back to Atlanta, but it’s not a strip show.” He said, “Well, I see that now, but somebody told us you were going to have a strip show.” That’s when we saw the chief and he said if the church could have their womanless wedding, then we could have a drag show.

 

When we had the old Amite Theatre downtown, we had a bunch in a pickup came by, they did not get out, just came by yelling stuff out to us. That’s the only incident we ever had like that. We always had off-duty city policemen working for us. Just a uniform; they could wear their uniforms. 95% of our protection was just them being at the bar. If you had an off-duty policeman working for you, you had to carry liability insurance and name the Jackson police department on that policy. That’s how you got to hire them. If you’re going to use a policeman, they want their ass covered. It wasn’t that expensive. It either paid a half a million or a million.

(In Jack’s bars) Momma and Daddy ran the door. And if Momma didn’t recognize you, the first thing she’d say was, “This is a gay bar, you’re welcome, and if you don’t like it or whatever, you can leave. If you cause trouble, we have a policeman here.” If it was someone (like a public figure) who might be looking around to see what was going on, she’d tell them not to be nervous, to come on in. Well-known people who were on the make’d go to New Orleans or somewhere like that where nobody could see them. People would come to me all the time and say, “I saw So-and-so (in this gay bar) in New Orleans.” They couldn’t come out here but could there.

Sewing a Shroud for the Ivory-Bill

In 1943 Mississippi Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr. along with the governors of three other Southern states—Sam Jones of Louisiana, Prentiss Cooper of Tennessee, and Homer Adkins of Arkansas—joined in an action that remains unique in the annals of American history: a last-ditch effort to save a species from extinction.

Magnificent in flight, majestic in repose, the ivory-bill was the largest woodpecker in North America, second in the world to its closest relative, the imperial ivory-bill of Central America and the Caribbean. The ivory-bill at first sight is said to have caused newcomers to the primeval woodlands of the South where it once lived to exclaim, “Lord God, what is that thing?!”

As the vast virgin woodlands of the South fell to the axe during the late 19th and early 20th century the ivory-bills, which required extensive tracts of timber to survive (an estimated 2.5 square miles of old-growth forest for a mating pair), began to starve.

By the first decades of the 20th century, only one sizeable portion of virgin Southern woodland remained intact, an area of dense mixed long-leaf pine and deciduous trees that stretched from the Brazos River in Texas to the Tensas in Louisiana. Once covering over 2 million acres, by the 1930s the “Big Thicket” had shrunk to a mere 800,000.

In an an odd twist of fate, an extensive section of this forest had been purchased by the Singer Sewing Machine Company to secure hardwood for machine cabinets. This, the so-called Singer Tract, was the last documented home of the ivory-bill, and the fate of this splendid bird indeed hung by a thread. In 1937 Singer sold the logging rights to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, and in the next year cutting began. Under the agreement, land logged by Chicago Mill and Lumber became that firm’s property, but until then, the Singer Company still held ownership.

The survival of the ivory-bill became a subject of national consideration (a significant gesture during the war years) involving not only the four aforementioned governors, but President Roosevelt, the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the directors of the National Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the War Production Board, and the National Audubon Society.

In December of 1943, the chairman of the board of the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company met with the brokers of a potential land deal that would have established a national park and refuge for the ivory-bill. The other participants were Louisiana’s conservation commissioner, the refuge director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their attorney John Baker.

But despite the offer of $200,000 from the state of Louisiana to purchase the remaining Singer Tract, James F. Griswold, chairman of the Chicago Mill and Lumber board, refused to deal. In what is perhaps the ugliest and most blatant admission of corporate greed and irresponsibility in the history of the United States, Griswold said, “We are just money grubbers. We are not concerned, as are you folks, with ethical considerations.” In a similar vein, Singer Company treasurer and vice president John Morton told Baker that Singer “didn’t care.”

Subsequent offers proved fruitless, and the Singer Tract was clear-cut (by German POWs, no less), creating a wasteland of baked mud studded with stumps, sending the Lord God bird over the abyss into certain extinction.

A Certain Justice: Faulkner, Mitford and McGee

Best known for her work The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford was a British aristocrat, writer, and political activist who came to Mississippi in 1951 to publicize the unjust execution of Willie McGee, a black man from Laurel who was sentenced to death in 1945 for the rape of Willette Hawkins, a white housewife.

McGee’s legal case became a cause célèbre that many find has striking similarities to the trial Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird nine years later.. William Faulkner wrote a letter insisting the case against McGee was unproven, and Mitford sought him out in her effort to rally support against a travesty of justice that many find has striking similarities to the trial Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird nine years later. This excerpt is from Mitford’s memoir A Fine Old Conflict.

‘We had already overstayed our time in Mississippi. The four weeks allotted for the trip stretched into five, as we did not wish it to appear we had been chased out by the Jackson Daily News. But we decided we could not leave the state without attempting to see Mississippi’s most (indeed its only) illustrious resident, William Faulkner.

The reserves having drifted back to their respective homes, it was the original four of us who drove down to Oxford. We asked a gangling, snaggle-toothed white boy for directions to Faulkner’s house. “Down the road a piece, past the weepin’ willa tree,” was his response, which I took as augury of our arrival in authentic Faulkner country. We turned through a cast-iron gate into a long avenue of desiccated trees leading to a large, run-down plantation-style house, its antebellum pillars covered with grayish moss. Through the window we saw Faulkner, a small man in a brown velvet smoking jacket, pacing up and down, apparently dictating to a secretary.

We gingerly approached and rang the front doorbell. Faulkner himself came to the door, and when we explained the reason for our visit, greeted us most cordially, invited us in, and held forth on the McGee case for a good two hours. Faulkner spoke much as he wrote, in convoluted paragraphs with a sort of murky eloquence. I was desperately trying to take down everything he said in my notebook, and frequently got lost as he expatiated on his favorite themes: sex, race, and violence. The Willie McGee case, compounded of all three, was a subject he seemed to savor with much relish; it could have been the central episode in one of his short stories.

Later it was my job to edit down his rambling monologue as a brief press release to be issued by our national office. He said the McGee case was an outrage and it was good we had come. He cautioned us that many people down here don’t pay much attention to law and justice, don’t go by the facts. He said in this case they are giving obeisance to a fetish of long standing. He expressed fear for McGee’s safety in jail.

When we left he wished us good luck. William Patterson was jubilant when I telephoned to tell him of our interview with Faulkner. It was a major break- through, he said. The release would certainly be picked up by the wire services and flashed around the world! But he insisted we show it to Faulkner and ask him to initial it, for fear that pressure from his Mississippi compatriots might later induce him to repudiate it.

This time I drove alone past the weepin’ willa tree to find Faulkner in dungarees and hip boots, up to his knees in dank manure, working alongside one of his black farmhands. I showed him the release and explained why I had come: “Mr. Patterson thought I should ask you to sign this, for fear you might later repudiate it.”

He read it through, initialed it, and as he handed it back murmured softly, as though speaking to himself, “I think McGee and the woman should both be destroyed.”

“Oh don’t let’s put that in,” said I, and clutching the precious document made a dash for my car.

One can only conclude that Faulkner gave expression, in his own distinctive voice, to the deep-seated schizophrenia then endemic among white liberals and racial moderates of the region.’

Daddy at the Movies

Jess Jr. was an expressive soul with little reserve, a candor celebrated by many, but trying for my mother. It was especially difficult when they went to the movies, since my father’s tastes in films ran to maudlin melodramas.

She said he would hear about these movies from a slew of waitresses, secretaries, and beauticians-–Daddy never passed a beauty parlor without going in; he said it caught the girls at a disadvantage-–who kept him up with the latest Hollywood tear-jerkers.

He’d drag her to see films such as Peyton Place–“It’s bad Faulkner!”)–Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Daddy had a lot to say about the legal issues in that one)–and Madame X, which, during the courtroom scene, he turned to her and said for the entire theater to hear: “My God, Barbara! Can you imagine what she must be going through!?”

Mother simply stared with resignation at the screen, studiously avoiding chilling glances. Some scenes reduced Daddy to great heaving sobs, like when they had to pull Susan Kohner off Juanita Moore’s coffin at the end of Imitation of Life.

His only child to inherit this sense of cinematic drama was my sister, Cindy, who bolted out of a Memphis theater during The Snow Queen and was half-way down Union Avenue, screaming, “She’s gonna get me!” before we finally caught up with her.

The Pearl River’s Gold Coast

During the heyday of Prohibition, the speakeasy districts of New York and Chicago became dazzling gathering places, filled with music, dance, and drink–as well as a few bullets, mind you–as did similar areas in the South, notably Beale Street in Memphis and of course the French Quarter in New Orleans, which doesn’t shut down for a damned thing.

In Jackson, Mississippi, it was the Gold Coast. Also known as East Jackson or even “’cross the river”, the Gold Coast comprised the area of Rankin County directly over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at the end of South Jefferson Street. Though barely two square miles, its infamy was nation-wide.

In 1939, H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury, published a rollicking account of the Gold Coast, “Hooch and Homicide in Mississippi”, by Craddock Goins. “There is no coast except the hog-wallows of the river banks,” Goins wrote, “but plenty of gold courses those banks to the pockets of the most brazen clique of cutthroats and bootleggers that ever defied the law.”

Goins cites Pat Hudson as the first to see the possibilities of lucrative gambling near the junction of the two federal highways (Hwys. 80 and 49) across the river from Jackson where before then there were only gas stations, hot dog stands and liquor peddlers. Then San Seaney began selling branded liquor at his place, The Jeep, which soon became a headquarters for wholesale illegal booze.

Others sprang up like mushrooms. The sheriff of Rankin County did his best to restore some semblance of law, but as soon as he cleaned out one den of iniquity another opened. Not only that, he was severely beaten and hospitalized for two weeks after one raid, and he simply bided his time until his term ran out. Goins reported that whites and blacks were often together under the same roof then, albeit shooting craps and whiskey on the opposite sides of a thin partition.

This lawlessness did not pass unnoticed in the nearby state capitol. Governor Hugh White, who in December of 1936 ordered National Guard troops into a business on the Pearl owned by one Guysell McPhail. Liquor was seized as evidence that the place should be shut down, but a Rankin County chancellor later dismissed the case, ruling that the evidence had been illegally obtained and at any rate the local authorities, not the governor, should handle law enforcement

The Mississippi Supreme Court later overruled the decision, but by that time liquor was flowing and dice were rolling. The governor bided his time.

In the late 40s, a thriving black nightclub culture was in place. Places like the Blue Peacock, the Stamps Hotel (the only hotel in Mississippi that catered to Negros) with its famous Off-Beat Room, The Blue Flame, the Travelers Home and others, where national jazz and blues acts performed. These establishments ran advertisements in The Jackson Advocate, including one that offered a special bus from Farish and Hamilton.

By 1946, Rankin county was paying the highest black market tax in the state., but these high times came to a crashing end one hot day in August of 1946, when Seaney and Constable Norris Overby met at place called the Shady Rest and gunned each other down. Others had been killed, of course—often that big-ass catfish you hooked turned out to be someone you hadn’t seen in a while—but this double homicide so inflamed public opinion that illegal operations never dared be so blatant.

In the 50s, black businesses withered in the backlash against Brown vs. Board of Education, and the Gold Coast became dominated by a white gangster named “Big Red” Hydrick, who brought area as securely under his suzerainty as a corrupt satrap. Red’s little kingdom withered with urban sprawl.

Beale Street is back–sort of–and the French Quarter will–Dieu merci!–always be the French Quarter, but the Pearl’s Gold Coast is gone, lost in a little enclave under the interstate, a puzzle of gravel, asphalt, and weathered walls.

Nancy Reagan’s Viennese Chocolate Bars

I ran up on this recipe while thumbing through the Giant Houseparty Cookbook put out by the Philadelphia-Neshoba County Mississippi Chamber of Commerce in 1981.

Ronald Reagan appeared at the Neshoba County Fair in August, 1980. Many—including me—consider both Reagan’s choice of an appearance in a locale with a bloody and brutal history in the struggle for civil rights as well as his speech, in which he stated, “I support states’ rights,” and promised to “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them” perpetuated Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” a game plan that eventually made the Old Confederacy the Republican party’s home field.

Reagan defeated Carter by a landslide, winning every Southern state except Georgia, ushering in an era of tax cuts that enriched corporate interests and decimated the middle class with a profound recession, reduced wages, and the highest level of unemployment since the Great Depression. I seriously doubt if Nancy Reagan ever saw the inside of an oven in her life—more the pity—and this homespun recipe most likely was fabricated by a giggly public relations intern. Mrs. Reagan, like her husband, had no interest in the public weal.

Cream 2 sticks softened butter with two egg yolks and a half cup sugar. Add 2 ½ cups flour to make a soft dough, and pat out to about a half inch on a buttered cookie sheet or baking pan. Bake at 350 until lightly browned. Remove from oven, cool, and top with a 10-oz jar of raspberry jelly or apricot preserves and a cup of semi-sweet chocolate bits. Gently spread with a meringue made of 4 egg whites. Bake for another 20 minutes or until lightly browned.

Farish: Jackson’s Dead End Street

After over forty years and $25 million, the prospect of transforming Farish Street into an urban oasis of bright lights, great food and memorable music has lost its luster.

In January 1980, a month before Farish Street was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the city of Jackson launched plans to revive the area by making a contract with the National Business League for a $200,000 revitalization study. The contract as well as the cost of its extension a year later (an additional $34,000), was paid out of a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The result of this study was the city’s ambitious 1984 Farish Street Revitalization Plan, which proposed to restore commercial and cultural activity in the district by enforcing codes, upgrading the infrastructure, improving housing and constructing a park between Farish and Mill streets. These improvements were to take place over a five-year period, but by 1989, the effort had failed; businesses had not moved into the area, crime was rampant and what housing existed was substandard.

But the revitalization of Farish Street retained its glamour, and in 1999, by far the largest infusion of money came from the State of Mississippi and Fannie Mae, $6 million from each. This money went to upgrade the infrastructure of the historic district, which began in 2002, the same year the city signed a contract with Performa Real Estate to develop the area at an estimated cost of $20 million. Six years later, Performa left the city after a bitter imbroglio with Mayor Frank Melton.

*(Community Development Block Grant – HUD)
(Not included in this document are amounts for donations of real estate (e.g.: from state of Mississippi; donation of Alamo from Sunburst Bank), funding for the Smith-Robertson Museum and contract fees paid to Performa Entertainment and subsequent developers, among other costs.)
1) Hester, Lea Ann. “City expected to extend study of Farish Street.” The Clarion-Ledger 19 October 1981: 1B. Print.
2) Ibid.
3) Hester, Lea Ann. “Farish: Older than thought?” The Clarion-Ledger 23 July 1801: 1B. Print.
4) Scruggs, Afi-Odelia E. “Development plan fails to revitalize Farish Street.” The Clarion-Ledger 10 December 1989: 1A. Print.
5) Ibid.
6) Simmons, Grace. “Farish Street consultants to share info.” The Clarion-Ledger 9 October 1993: (no page cited)
7) Gates, Jimmie. “Renovation closer for Farish Street’s Alamo Theatre.” The Clarion-Ledger 22 November 1995: (no page cited)
8) Harris, Barbara. The Jackson Advocate. “Farish Street Historic District gets infusion of national, state funding.” 7 March 1996: 1A. Print.
9) Ibid.
10) Fleming, Eric. “Farish Street renovation under way.” The Mississippi Link. 26 March 1998. 1A: Print.
11) Henderson, Monique H. “Draft document targets Farish St. Historic District:12M allotted for development of district.” The Clarion-Ledger. 27 April 1999. 1B Print.
12) Ibid.
13) Mayer, Greg. “$1.5M grant going to Farish Street.” The Clarion-Ledger. 22 March 2001. 1B: Print.
14) Ibid.
15) _______. “Black museum receives grant.” The Picayune Item. 12 January 2000. (no page cited)
16) Mitchell, Jerry. “$2M-plus in grants awarded to state civil rights sites.” (“$210,000 will help stabilize the foundation and repair the Medgar Evers House Museum in Jackson.”) The Clarion-Ledger. 3 August 2011. (no page cited)

Prospective investors have been discouraged by the unaccountability of financed development in the area, particularly by the Farish Street Historic District Neighborhood Foundation, the steering organization for the revitalization project, which was founded in 1980, moved to the Office of City Planning in 1995 and disappeared (along with its documentation) in 2006. The ensuing decade brought diminishing appeals for Farish revitalization, and in 2015, Mayor Tony Yarber, faced with what was to become a chronic city-wide breakdown of essential infrastructure, stated in 2015 that the project was “on the back burner”.

Once considered the keystone project towards the revitalization of decaying downtown Jackson, Farish Street has instead become a byword for boondoggle and corruption as well as a forlorn Potemkin village in the heart of the city.

Remember Jon Hinson

Jon Clifton Hinson was born in Tylertown in Walthall County in southwestern Mississippi, in 1942, and attended public schools. In 1959, he worked as a page for Democratic U. S. representative John Bell Williams, who subsequently became governor of Mississippi in 1968. Hinson graduated from the University of Mississippi at Oxford in 1964, and joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve, in which he served until 1970.

Hinson worked on the U.S. House staff as a doorman in 1967, and then served on the staffs of representatives Charles H. Griffin, a Democrat, and Thad Cochran, a Republican. In 1978, Cochran ran successfully for the United States Senate, and Hinson was elected to succeed Cochran in the U.S. House of Representatives for Mississippi’s 4th congressional district. With 51.6 percent of the vote, Hinson defeated the Democrat John H. Stennis, the son of U.S. senator John C. Stennis, who finished with 26.4 percent of the vote. The remaining ballots were cast for independent candidates. Hinson entered the House in 1979.

During his re-election campaign in 1980, Hinson admitted that in 1976, while an aide to Senator Thad Cochran, he had been arrested for committing an obscene act after he exposed himself to an undercover policeman at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Hinson denied that he was homosexual and blamed his problems on alcoholism. He said that he had reformed and refused to resign. He won re-election with a plurality of 38.97 percent of the vote. Independent Leslie B. McLemore polled 29.8 percent, and Democrat Britt Singletary received 29.4 percent.

Hinson was arrested again on February 4, 1981, and charged with attempted sodomy for performing oral sex on an African-American male employee of the Library of Congress in a restroom of the House of Representatives. At that time, homosexual acts were still criminalized even between consenting adults. The charge was a felony that could have resulted in up to ten years in prison, as well as fines of up to $10,000.

Since both parties were consenting adults (and social attitudes were changing), the United States Attorney’s office reduced the charge to a misdemeanor. Facing a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine, Hinson pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempted sodomy the following day and was released without bail pending a trial scheduled for May 4, 1981. Soon thereafter he checked himself into a Washington, D.C.-area hospital for treatment. Hinson later received a 30-day jail sentence, which was suspended, and a year’s probation, on condition that he continued counseling and treatment.

Hinson resigned on April 13, 1981, early in his second term. He said that his resignation had been “the most painful and difficult decision of my life.” He was succeeded in the House by Wayne Dowdy, a Democrat, who won the special election held in the summer of 1981. Soon afterward Hinson acknowledged that he was homosexual and became an activist for gay rights. He later helped to organize the lobbying group “Virginians for Justice” and fought against the ban on gays in the military. He also was a founding member of the Fairfax Lesbian and Gay Citizens Association in Fairfax County.

He never returned to Mississippi but lived quietly in the Washington area, first in Alexandria, Virginia, and then Silver Spring, Maryland. Hinson also disclosed that he survived a 1977 fire that killed nine people at the Cinema Follies, a Washington theater that catered to gay customers. He was rescued from under a pile of bodies, one of only four survivors.

It’s safe to assume that there are closeted government officials at every level—federal, state and local, doubtless from both parties—who are representing their electorate in good faith to the public trust with which they’re invested. From our perspective Hinson’s crash and fall seems not so much a tragedy as it is a farce, the ridiculous result of a man coerced, perhaps even forced into a role he could not play. It’s impossible for us to imagine the pressures put upon him to become a pillar of the Republican Party in its struggle for a stranglehold on the state of Mississippi, but the weight broke the man, reduced him to disgrace, poverty and exile.

Hinson himself is far from blameless; as an openly gay man he would never have been elected to any office in the state of Mississippi, but there’s no reason to doubt that he could have represented his district capably had he exercised more discretion if not to say caution in his personal affairs. Perhaps that’s what he was trying to do, but it’s more probable that like many gay men of his generation in the South, he only knew clandestine solicitation as a venue for sexual commerce.

Hinson, unremembered for any legislation and with no other legacy than creating an eddy in the incessant tide of Republication domination in Mississippi, died in July, 1995 in Fairfax County, VA.

Governor from Calhoun

On February 26, 1944, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoon syndicate published a panel featuring a tall, austere gentleman in a black suit. The caption beneath read, “Dennis Murphree has been governor of Mississippi twice although never elected to that office. In 1927 and 1943—as Lt. Governor—he became chief executive through the death of the incumbent.”

True, Dennis Murphree was never elected governor of Mississippi, but that’s not to say he didn’t try, running unsuccessfully in three gubernatorial races. Few people ever wanted to be elected governor more than he did, but the political scales in Mississippi never tilted his way.

He was born in Pittsboro, Mississippi, on January 6, 1886, the first child of Thomas Martin Murphree and Callie Cooper Murphree. His father served four years in the Confederate army and two terms as justice of the peace. He was a member of the school board, twice served as circuit clerk, and was twice elected state representative from Calhoun County. Martin Murphree was also a newspaper editor and died during his second term as state representative.

Dennis Murphree assumed the printing and newspaper office at his father’s death. In 1911 he was elected state representative from Calhoun County, Mississippi, the youngest person elected to that office from Calhoun County up to that time. His formal education was limited, but he obtained a vast amount of experience in the newspaper business. He was reelected state representative in 1915 and again in 1919. He married Clara Minnie Martin of Pittsboro. They had three daughters and one son.

Murphree was a fine orator, and in 1920 he was unanimously elected as temporary speaker of the house of representatives to serve during the illness of Mike Conner, the regularly elected speaker. He served thirty days and obtained valuable experience that he later used as presiding officer of the senate as lieutenant governor.

When Murphree ran for lieutenant governor in 1923, he defeated Hernando De Soto Money, Jr., son of U.S. Senator (1897-1911) Hernando De Soto Money, Sr. During his tenure, Murphree helped promote legislation to help the farmers, Delta State Teachers College (now Delta State University) was established, and the mental institution in Jackson was moved to Rankin County and later named for the incumbent Governor Henry Whitfield.

In 1925, Governor Whitfield called a meeting in Jackson with the object of adopting “some plan whereby the opportunities, possibilities and resources of Mississippi might be effectively presented to the outside world.” Lieutenant Governor Murphree proposed a plan of a “Know Mississippi Better Train,” a special train to carry representatives of Mississippi, exhibits of Mississippi resources, literature, and public speakers to visit across the country. The first KMB train pulled out of Jackson in August of 1925. Except for four years during World War II, the Know Mississippi Better Train ran every summer until 1948.

When Whitfield became ill in the summer of 1926, Murphree acted as governor much of the time. On March 16, 1927, Governor Whitfield died, and Murphree was sworn in as governor on March 18, 1927. A little over a month later, the levee broke at a ferry landing at Mounds, Mississippi, flooding an area 50 mi. wide and 100 mi. long with 20 feet of water, threatening the lives of almost 200,000 people.

FOR GOD’S SAKE, SEND US BOATS! blared the headline in the New Orleans Times-Picayune¸ quoting a plea from Governor Murphree. “For God’s sake, send us boats! Back from the levees, where the land is flooded by backwaters, people are living on housetops, clinging to trees, and barely existing in circumstances of indescribable horror. The only way we can get them out of there is by boat, and we haven’t the boats at present. Please try to make the people of New Orleans realize how urgent this is.”

The disastrous flood of 1927 that almost took Governor Murphree’s life required so much of his time that he was unable to campaign properly. As an additional handicap, he was twice forced by law to call out the National Guard to prevent lynchings in Jackson. Even though he had no choice in either instance, the whole matter was used from one end of the state to the other by his opponent, Theodore G. Bilbo, an ardent and notorious advocate of both white supremacy and white economic democracy to arouse prejudice and inflame hatred by his opponent, Theodore G. Bilbo, an ardent and notorious advocate of both white supremacy and white economic democracy.

Murphree himself was a personal target of Bilbo’s crude and scathing campaign rhetoric. Family legend has it that when Bilbo died in 1947, one of Murphree’s daughters told him he should not go to “that horrible man’s” funeral, to which Murphree replied, “Daughter, I just want to see them throw a ton of dirt on the son-of-a-bitch.”

In 1931 Murphree ran for lieutenant governor and won. When he ran for governor in 1935 against Hugh L. White and Paul B. Johnson, Sr., he failed to get into the second primary. In 1939 he ran his third successful race for lieutenant governor. As lieutenant Governor Murphree helped Governor Johnson carry out most of his proposed legislation, including free textbooks for the schoolchildren of the state, an increased homestead exemption (from $3,500 to $5,000), and an expanded membership for the Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning to remove the board from political influences.

Murphree ran for governor the third time in 1943 in one of the most hotly contested gubernatorial races in Mississippi history against former Governor Mike Conner, Thomas L. Bailey, and Lester C. Franklin. Murphree failed to get into the second primary by less than 400 votes. Bailey won the election in an upset.

Then a little more than a month after the November general election, Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr., died on December 26, 1943. Once again, Murphree was elevated to the governor’s office to serve the remainder of the Johnson term. He served as governor from December 26, 1943, to January 18, 1944, when Governor-Elect Thomas L. Bailey was inaugurated.

After a life devoted to public service, Murphree died of a stroke on February 9, 1949, at the age of sixty-three. He was buried near his home in Pittsboro, Mississippi.