This book tells the story of a fateful moment in America’s history; one that most people would not remember or even learn about. It is a story of a racial crime in southern rural Mississippi that gained national attention and was front page news for several weeks in 1950. The story relates a series of misbehaviors, mostly inconsequential, but when combined, led to a hideous crime.
As a measure of full disclosure, Stokes McMillan is an author I happen to be acquainted with at NASA, Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas where we were both engineers. Prior to becoming a NASA engineer, Stokes grew up in the part of Mississippi where the story took place. When I learned that he had written this book, I acquired a copy and spent the next few days absorbed in the story.
As McMillan states in the preface, the basis of the book is from a scrapbook of the events of his father’s collection and his mother’s organization. This was a story that needed retelling. It involves the interaction of people in southern rural life; but one night a series of events culminated in a homicide. Even though the murder was shocking by itself, the racial overtones led to a focus on our justice system and whether or not it is fair and impartial. The author’s research was impeccable as evidenced in the 24 pages of notes and references which included not only newspaper accounts of the events, but also interviews with many of the participants, including the victims of the crime.
McMillan uses third person to tell the story, much like a news account, and also uses some license to fill in detail not knowable. He was able to instill a foreshadowing of impending events without really giving away the outcome. He also didn’t use too many metaphors or try to overdramatize the facts of the case, which he could have easily fallen into during the description of the trial. Even so, during the first part of the book the characters are described such that I began speculating which actors should play which parts, should the book ever be made into a movie.
According to the descriptions, country life over a half century ago was unsophisticated where people survived on basic needs. A most interesting reality was the interaction of whites and blacks in the rural south. Even though there was discrimination, I was surprised to find how integrated the day-to-day life was between the two races. Interracial marriage was not uncommon, not so much because there was no racial bias, but because of the lack of the opposite sex in one’s own race. When it came to the more basic needs, folks were not discriminating.
The picture on the book’s cover was taken by the author’s father who was a photographer for the local newspaper. This picture won America’s best journalistic photograph of 1950 by the National Press Photographer’s Association. It shows the capture of two men by sheriff’s deputies and one prison trusty and tells a story within a story. Other photographs in the book were acquired from a number of local sources.
The book was a page-turner and not difficult to read and the descriptions were vivid enough to keep the imagination running. In my opinion, even the crime novel enthusiast should enjoy this story line.
I’ll admit that true-life crime is not my usual interest. The only other crime non-fiction I really enjoyed was Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, the events that transpired during the madness of Charles Manson and his “family”. Though the perpetrators in McMillan’s book were not as sinister, the telling of the story was about the same. McMillan describes the people, the events leading up to the crime, and the eventual results. The reader has an idea of what might happen, but the realism of what actually happened leaves the reader understanding that true life is sometimes more unexpected than fiction.
One Night of Madness by Stokes McMillan, Oak Harbor Publishing of Houston, Texas, 2009, and 412 Pages, non-fiction