A Gay Congressman from Mississippi

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, and was 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.

My Father

Jesse L. Yancy, Jr. was an attorney, politician, and humanitarian who served the people of Bruce, Calhoun County and Mississippi from 1956 until his death in 1970.

Born in Springville, Mississippi in 1926, Yancy moved to Bruce ten years later, where his father, Jesse L. Yancy, Sr. established a general store. He graduated from Bruce High School in 1944, joined the Army Air Corps in 1945 and served overseas in the Pacific. He attended the University of Mississippi School of Business and School of Law, earning his J.D. in 1951. In 1952 he married Barbara Young. They had three children.

Yancy was first elected to office in 1960 as district attorney for the Third Circuit Court District. During the Meredith Crisis at the University of Mississippi, Yancy entered the national spotlight when a Lafayette County grand jury issued an indictment against Chief United States Marshall James P. McShane, Meredith’s escort to registration at the University, for inciting a riot. While serving as D.A., Yancy became president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association. Elected to the Senate in 1968, during his first term Yancy, as chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, guided the state’s first Open Election Law to passage. A member of the Senate Commission on Appropriations, he wrote and gained approval for the Idle Funds Bill, which authorized the investment of in place funding for the state, a key piece of legislation that has garnered Mississippi millions of much-needed dollars for over four decades.

Yancy served as an attorney for the City of Bruce for 17 years. His most influential act in that capacity came in 1961, when Bruce had outgrown its fledgling infrastructure and the city was badly in need of repairs and updates to its streets, water and sewer systems. Yancy commandeered a grant of $25,000 for the city to hire Cook Coggin, an engineering firm in Tupelo, to conduct a survey of what repairs and improvements were needed. On completion of this study, the city secured a loan of $500,000 to fund the improvements. Yancy helped Bruce to grow into a clean, attractive town, appealing both to current and potential citizens as well as businesses and industry. He was a president of the Bruce Rotary Club, the Bruce Chamber of Commerce, the Calhoun County Bar Association and a founder and commander of VFW Post 5571. He served on the Pushmataha Council of the Boy Scouts of America and taught Sunday school at the Bruce United Methodist Church.

For all his accomplishments, Jesse Yancy, Jr. is most remembered simply as a man, a friend and neighbor willing to help others. His generosity is legendary, encompassing all in his vision of community, unity, and compassion.

Mafiosos, Murder, and Gay Extortion in Missisippi

On September 14, 1987, Judge Vincent Sherry and his wife, Margaret, were slain in their Biloxi home at the hands of the so-called Dixie Mafia, a loosely knit group of traveling criminals performing residential burglary, robbery and theft based in what was called “the Strip”, a string of seedy bars, strip joints and gambling parlors that flourished along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast from the 1960s to the 1980s.

“It was out of control,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell, referring to the level of corruption in Biloxi and Harrison County—so much so that in 1983 federal authorities would designate the entire Harrison County Sheriff’s Office as a criminal enterprise. Special Agent Royce Hignight initiated the investigation of the sheriff and was soon joined by Bell. “They were doing anything and everything illegal down here,” said Bell, who grew up on the Gulf Coast. “For money, the sheriff and officers loyal to him would release prisoners from the county jail, safeguard drug shipments, and hide fugitives. Anything you can think of, they were involved in.”

Bell is quick to point out that there were plenty of honest officers on the force, and some would later help the FBI put an end to the culture of corruption in Biloxi. But for a long time, Sheriff Leroy Hobbs and his Dixie Mafia associates held sway. The Dixie Mafia had no ties to La Cosa Nostra. They were a loose confederation of thugs and crooks who conducted their criminal activity in the Southeastern United States. When word got out that Biloxi—with its history of strip clubs and illicit gambling—was a safe haven, the criminals settled in.

At the same time, members of the organization incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were running a “lonely hearts” scam extorting and blackmailing gay men with the help of associates on the street. Dixie Mafia inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola were behind a scam, led by Ringleader Kirksey McCord Nix—a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without parole—who believed that if he raised enough money he could buy his way out of jail. Inmates paid guards to use prison telephones. Then they placed bogus ads in homosexual publications claiming they were gay and looking for a new partner to move in with. The men who replied to the return post office box address got additional correspondence and racy pictures. But there was a catch—the scammers told their victims a variety of lies about why they needed money before they could leave where they were.

“A lot of money came flowing in,” said retired Special Agent Keith Bell. “There were hundreds of victims.” Men from all walks of life—professors, mail carriers, politicians—fell victim to the scam. “One guy in Kansas mortgaged his house and sent $30,000 to the scammers over a period of months,” Bell recalled. To add insult to injury, some of the inmates writing letters eventually confessed the scam to their victims—and then extorted even more money by threatening to “out” the men if their demands were not met. The scam brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars—money they entrusted to their lawyer, Pete Halat, but he spent the money.

When it came time to hand it over to the crooks, Halat said the cash had been taken by his former law partner, Vincent Sherry. So the Dixie mob ordered a hit on Sherry, a sitting state circuit judge who had no direct ties to the criminals. On September 14, 1987, Sherry and his wife Margaret, who was a member of the Biloxi city council, were murdered in their home. Pete Halat was of course not exactly dumbstruck when the Sherrys were murdered. Halat, called upon to give the funeral eulogy, delivered a bizarre, long-winded speech that ruminated on Biloxi’s need for “honest, open and accountable government.” The crowd packed into church on that somber September, 1987 day gawked at his unmitigated gall of turning a sad occasion into a political event. Halat even passed out copies of his speech to the media. A few weeks later, he announced he was a reform candidate for mayor of Biloxi. And he won.

Gulf Coast residents were shocked by the murders. Local authorities worked the case unsuccessfully for two years. The FBI opened an investigation in 1989, and Bell was assisted in the investigation by Capt. Randy Cook of the revamped sheriff’s office—Leroy Hobbs was convicted of racketeering in 1984 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The federal investigation into the Sherry murders lasted eight years. In the final trial in 1997, Pete Halat was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Kirksey McCord Nix—the Dixie Mafia kingpin at Angola who ordered the hits—as well as the hit man who killed the Sherrys each received life sentences.

Mississippi legalized gambling in the 1990s. Today, the funky roadhouses and strip joints on the beach road have been replaced by shiny casinos, wrung out and/or rebuilt after Katrina. Some say that a shadow of the Dixie Mafia still operates on Mississippi’s coast.

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.

Hobson 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. In 1948, the movie, produced by Darryl Zanuck, received the Oscar for best picture.

Nancy Reagan’s Viennese Chocolate Bars

I ran up on this recipe today 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 at all in the public weal, and both she and her husband should be exhumed and burned in public.

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.

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 Southern politics: 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.

Painting by John James Audubon

A Letter from Jackson

Darling Julia,

The project here at long last is over, and I should be coming home for good, back to the mountains, to the house you love, to the deep old woods I love, and to holding you, forever.

When I get home, I know you will ask me of this place, what it is like, what its people are like, how it looks, how they live, what makes the city what it is, but once home I do not want to think of it, not because I hate it, but because I want to clear my mind of it, so I’m writing you this letter to explain Jackson to you before you ask me about it one night when we’re settled on the front porch with a bottle of wine watching the stars wheel over Balsam Gap.

It’s been three months since I got here–I will never forget the heat hitting like a fist when I stepped out of the car onto the parking lot behind the hotel! This leads me to ask: how long does one have to be in a place to know it? My answer would be that it is not so much a matter of time as it is of engagement, not just of being but of living, of going out into the city and seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, tasting it, developing a feel for it. Surveying the streets has taken me all over the city, north, south, east and west, at all times of the day and often into the nights. Yet most of the work has been downtown, the strangest part of the city, yet its most characteristic.

Jackson doesn’t feel old, it doesn’t look old; there are no beautiful buildings save a few Modernist towers, none of the stately homes one would expect to find in a Southern city built before the Civil War, just blocks upon blocks of decaying buildings. The face of its main street, Capitol, is punctuated by vacant shops and offices with empty or shattered windows like broken teeth. Even the recent and prolonged transformation of Capitol Street itself into a two-lane thoroughfare with roundabouts and narrow verges cannot disguise the squalor. The city lacks grandeur, even faded grandeur, in any degree.

Poverty is one of two characteristics that shape Jackson; the other, closely intertwined, is racial tension, a volatile combination that composes more in discord than harmony the social, economic and political nature of the city. Time stands still here; though a great show of progress is made in the local media, there is no progress. The city weekly, which proclaims to be a smart alternative to the moribund daily, constantly aggravates the cauldron, and the political landscape is dominated by self-serving personalities motivated by a desire to stay in office. These people funnel federal funding to redevelopment projects designed not to improve the city, but to affect their political ends. No cohesive vision exists because Jackson is not a city, only a fractured collection of people in a place that has lost all sense of itself, a shattered glass best melted and recast.

I can see you smiling as you read this, thinking, “You fool, it’s Mississippi; what did you expect?” Well, darling, I did expect more. I told you that before I came here. I expected to find people working together, a marketplace of ideas, a common goal. Tell me that’s why you love me, because I am a dreamer, even though every night here I dreamed only of you in that old house on the mountainside under a starry sky.

All my love,

Timothy

 

Flip the Bird

The bill to designate the mockingbird the official state bird of Mississippi was approved unanimously by both houses of the Mississippi Legislature in 1944, which is probably the only time those assemblies totally agreed on anything. Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida followed suit, establishing the Northern mockingbird (fifteen species of the genus live outside Dixie) as the most popular state bird in the Union.

Mockingbirds are sleek and noisy, accustomed to human company, and an iconic bird for zones 6 and below, but speaking as a seventh-generation native, I’d like to have an avian symbol for Mississippi that sets us apart from our four Great Sister States. Let’s keep the mockingbird–which, I might add, is arguably the meanest bird for its size on the face of the planet–but adopt another winged denizen of our borders to represent us. My nominee is the Mississippi kite, a bird so at home in the air it’s said that “Only two powers of nature can defeat the wings of a Mississippi kite. One is rain, the other darkness.” These graceful birds can be seen sailing above our woods in summer, tumbling in the air as they catch prey on the wing. A pair will usually nest in the same location for years.

Another unanimous vote on a new state bird is absurd; some fool’s going to suggest a cardinal, another a blue jay, and you can be damn sure some legislator from the Delta will throw a duck in just for the hell of it. The ultra-conservative Democrats who represent me in the Mississippi legislature–for whom I voted, mind you–would never endanger their lucrative political careers by proposing a new state symbol—they’re even complacent with the racist flag and song—but I’d like to think we could have a bird of our own.

God help us, and give us that, at least.

A Mississippi Flag Primer

Most state flags were adopted between 1893 and World War I. Texas is an exception, her flag a holdover from the Republic of Texas (1836-46), but the Lone Star was itself adopted from an earlier flag, the Bonnie Blue flag of the Republic of West Florida. After a failed rebellion against Spain in 1802, American settlers in the coastal South revolted successfully in 1810. The Republic of West Florida was organized, a constitution adopted, officials were elected and application was made to President Madison for admission to the Union. Madison declared the republic a part of the Louisiana Purchase and ordered Louisiana Governor Claiborne to take possession. The Republic of West Florida’s flag had a blue background bearing a single white star that in time became known as the Bonnie Blue Flag. This flag flew over Baton Rouge, Pass Christian and Pascagoula for a short time and reappeared as the Lone Star in the flag of Texas.

When Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861, the Bonnie Blue was widely recognized as the unofficial flag of the Confederacy; it was raised over Ft. Sumter as well as the capitol building in Jackson. On January 26, Mississippi officially adopted a state flag which included a canton with the Bonnie Blue star and a magnolia tree in a white center field with a red border. This flag, usually depicted without the red border but with a red bar on the right, is now widely known as the Magnolia Flag. The Bonnie Blue remains an icon of the Confederacy, an image that while lesser-known in our day was just as emblematic as the battle flag to contemporaries. Take note that Scarlett and Rhett had their daughter baptized as “Eugenia Victoria Butler”, but she was called “Bonnie Blue”.

In November 1861 the Confederacy adopted an official flag, the “Stars and Bars”, a flag so closely resembling the Union flag that in the Battle of Manassas in July, 1861, Confederate forces fired on their own troops. General Beauregard, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, decided that a change must be made and in cooperation with General Johnston and Quartermaster General Cabell, they issued a flag designed by William Porcher Miles, a broad blue saltire on a red field, bordered with white and emblazoned with thirteen five-pointed stars. This design became known as the battle flag, and was later incorporated in flags adopted by the Confederacy in 1863 and 1865. The Magnolia Flag remained in use as the state flag of Mississippi until 1894, when a new one with the Confederate battle flag in the canton and a field of blue, white and red bars was adopted by the Mississippi Legislature. The only change since then has been the addition of a white border separating the canton from the blue and red bars; the original specifications were vague, and the flag was made in versions with and without the border until Governor Fordice issued an executive order requiring its use in 1995.

In 2000, the Supreme Court of Mississippi ruled that state legislation in 1906 had repealed the adoption of the flag in 1894, so what was considered to be the official flag was only so through “custom and usage”. Governor Musgrove appointed an independent commission that developed a design replacing the Confederate battle flag with a blue canton containing 20 stars representing Mississippi’s status as the 20th state admitted to the Union. The proposed flag, with the exception of a single undistinguished star in the inner circle of six signifying the state’s membership in the Confederacy among five other sovereign nations (the others representing France, the Republic of Mississippi, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States), had no outstanding symbolic reference to the Confederate States of America. On April 17, 2001, a non-binding state referendum to change the flag was put before Mississippi voters. The new design was defeated in a vote of 64% (488,630 votes) to 36% (267,812).

Another Levee, Another Body

On February 27, 2013, the beaten and burned body of Marco McMillian, the first “viable” openly gay candidate for public office in Mississippi, was found near a levee in rural Coahoma County, almost thirty-five years after Harvey Milk was assassinated in San Francisco.

Breaking Through” (www.breakingthroughmovie.com) documents the brutal struggle of gay, lesbian and transgender American citizens for the acknowledgement of their basic civil rights, more specifically their ongoing efforts to find open representation and responsibilities in the political arena. This film provides the stories of men and women who occupy positions of leadership in public service by having overcome both overt and embedded obstacles. As these people speak, historic newspaper headlines and photographs flash across the screen, emphasizing antagonism and threats yet stopping well short of the ruthless details of murders, beatings and ostracism which could easily have been offered. The camera cuts from left to right in the interviews as these people tell of being open but not publicly open, of living life half-in, half-out, describing the crippling limitations homophobia held for them and still holds for present and future Americans.

These stories provide a record of the challenges inherent in everyone’s desire to be a member of the family of mankind. See this documentary, and as you watch it, bear Marco McMillian in mind. The struggle isn’t over; not by a long shot.