Archive | Writing

Emmett Till Is Back To Haunt Us

I was speaking to a class of bright students at a good university last March when I began talking about my experience covering the Emmett Till murder trial in Sumner, Mississippi in 1955. The professor, who was sitting next to me, leaned in and explained “I don’t think they know about that.”

I thought “everyone” knew about that. I thought the murder of the 14-year old Negro boy from Chicago who was tortured and killed for allegedly flirting with a white woman while visiting his grandfather in Mississippi was part of American history, like The Gettysburg address. I wrote in my article on the trial for The Nation magazine (“Justice in Sumner”) that as soon as the trial was over the town returned to its silent, solid life “that is based on cotton and the proposition that a whole race of men was created to pick it.”

In those days we thought that racism was a problem of “The South.” We hadn’t yet awakened to the fact that it was and is an American problem, woven into the fabric of our history.

Now I imagine those students I spoke last March know about the murder, since The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson – or anyway its interview with the witness who admits she lied about the boy flirting with her – has prompted the Justice Department to re-open the case. (The book is out of stock now on Amazon.)

The two murderers who admitted their crime years later for a paid magazine article are now dead, as is almost everyone connected with the case. About five years ago I got a phone call from a man who said “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I have to speak to you because I’m writing a book about The Emmett Till murder trial, and you are the only one who was at the trial who is still alive.”

I was twenty-three at the time I covered the trial.

The caller was Devery S. Anderson, who wrote a comprehensive book on the trial called. Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movementpublished a year ago.

The New York Times reported that the case was re-opened by The Justice Department and the FBI in 2004 with exhumation of Till’s beaten body. Joyce Chiles, The Mississippi prosecutor who presented that case to the Grand Jury got no return of indictments and said recently that any truthful new testimony would not have changed the outcome.

The new attention to the case has resulted in one good thing –making the case known again to a new generation, bringing the brutality before our eyes again to match with the current shootings of blacks by police officers who are never indicted. Everyone in the courtroom that sweltering Friday sixty-three years ago knew what the verdict would be, based on knowing the hearts and minds of the jurors. The essence of the ritual drama we were watching was summed up by John Whitten, the last speaker for the defense, when he announced his faith that “every last Anglo-Saxon one of you men on this jury has the courage to set these men free.”

Evidence was not the point.

It took the Anglo-Saxon Twelve just an hour and seven minutes to set the murderers free. It took that long, one of them said, because they couldn’t figure out how to properly fill out the acquittal form to give the judge.

0

All the Way Home: Author Dan Wakefield on Returning to Indianapolis

Dan Wakefield. Photo by Tony Valainis

Photo by Tony Valainis

I wrote this piece for Indianapolis Monthly in October 2012. Evan West recently profiled me in the January 2017 issue. In light of that, I thought it worth re-sharing my side of the story again.

Here’s an excerpt:

Many people firmly believe that “fiction” really is “fact.” I still have people come up to me and say, “Hey, that must have been wild when you and ‘Gunner’ got kicked out of the Meridian Hills swimming pool because he had a beard!” In fact, I never knew anyone in Indianapolis who had a beard in 1954 (the year the novel was set), and I imagine that anyone who did would have been called a Commie and run out of town. But now I just smile when the scene is mentioned and say, “Yeah, that really was wild!”

My publisher sent me on a book tour that summer of 1970 and wanted to add Indianapolis when a local TV station offered to pay all the expenses. I reluctantly agreed, but the plane was forced down at an emergency airstrip in Pittsburgh due to a bomb threat. The flight was scheduled to go to Indy, Kansas City, and San Francisco, and the caller had told TWA, “That flight will never get to Indianapolis.” As we passengers waited in a concrete blockhouse pondering whether to accept the airline’s offer of continuing on when the bomb was not found or returning to New York, I confessed my fears to a woman standing next to me.

“I’m from Bloomington,” she said, “and I’ve heard about your book; if I were you, I’d go back to New York.”

Read the full piece at Indianapolis Monthly

0

Going All The Way Back

After many years of exile I was lured back to Indianapolis in 1987 by Ophelia Roop, the colorful events-planner back then for The Central Library. She assured me it was “safe” to return now that seventeen years had soothed angry reactions to my novel Going All The Way – and the once-controversial work was read and discussed in book clubs at The Library. (Kurt Vonnegut had predicted in his review of the novel in Life magazine that “Having written this book, Dan Wakefield will never be able to go back to Indianapolis – he will have to watch the 500-mile race on television.”)

Having a great time on that return and meeting old friends, I came back a year later when a New York publisher issued a new edition of the novel. [I still had no idea back then that I would ever come back to actually live here, as I did in 2011.] I was interviewed by Will Higgins, the young editor then of an alternative publication called The New Times, a kind of pre-cursor to Nuvo. In the course of the interview, Will proposed that we plan a Going All The Way Bus Tour, stopping at some of the sites I wrote about in the book, like The Red Key Tavern, The John Herron Art Institute, and Crown Hill Cemetery (where the young anti-heroes of the book go to muse on their future.) Now a star reporter of The Indianapolis Star, Will recalled “You and I met over breakfast at the old Stouffers Hotel, on the top floor of their dining room. The idea of the tour hit me then and there and I blurted it out and you liked the idea. The rest is history.”

Thanks to Will Higgins, history repeated itself last November, when he revived the idea of the Bus Tour, organized the whole thing, announced it in The Star, and the next day had enough responses to fill the forty-eight seats on the bus (plus a waiting list.) When the first tour was held in 1988, when my lifelong friend Ted Steeg, the former Shortridge and Wabash football star who served as the “model” for the character “Gunner Casselman” in Going All The Way, came down from New York to join me on the tour. The two of us passed the mic back and forth as we joked and reminisced and shared memories of high school days and “Indy in the ‘50s,” when the action of the novel took place.

The irreplaceable “Gunner” died last year, and I wondered if I could bring off a running commentary by myself. I knew it wouldn’t be the same, but I had the support of Will Higgins as co-host, and I enlisted the aid of friends who read appropriate passages from the book as we stopped or slowed. Travis diNicola, founder and director of IndyReadsBooks; Karen Kovacik, IUPUI professor and former Poet Laureate of Indiana, and Judy O’Bannon, widow of the former governor, were eloquent in their readings when we stopped at some of the featured sights.

As we had before, we began and ended the tour at the legendary Red Key Tavern,   where “Sonny” and Gunner” meet up in the novel. This time we added a stop in front of the house I grew up in at 6129 Winthrop, where I sat on the roof of the porch and looked for enemy airplanes as a “Junior Air Raid Warden” on The Home Front in WWII, just like the character “Artie” in my novel Under The Apple Tree. From there we went down Meridian Street and stopped at Shortridge High School. We went inside to the first floor hallway, where Judy O’Bannon and I and another Bus Tour traveler, the Pulitzer Prize photographer Bill Foley, have our plaques on the wall of The Shortridge Hall of Fame (along with Kurt Vonnegut, and my classmates from the Class of 1950, Indianapolis Indians President Max Schumacher and Senator Richard Lugar (he and I wrote sports columns for the Shortridge Daily Echo. )

We stopped outside the former Herron Art Institute, which is now one of the leading high schools in the state, and Karen Kovacik read the passage in Going All The Way when “Sonny” and “Gunner” go there in hopes of expanding their minds by “looking at art” and trying to figure out the appropriate comments and stances and length of time spent at each painting to appear to be aficianados. Instead, they spot an attractive young woman, who they find it far easier to appreciate.

Will directed our bus to The Riviera Club, which was one of the havens of summer for neighborhood kids in Broad Ripple when I was growing up, and we got out to stand by the November-empty pool with a gracious host from The Club. I read a passage of the novel when Gunner recalls a dark memory from high school of him and his friends being turned away because one of the boys with them was Jewish (based on an incident with me and some of my Shortridge friends back in the ‘forties.) Such an incident couldn’t happen now in the Club that identifies itself as “a place for everyone, a truly inclusive and unique club representative of the many diverse neighborhoods and individuals around us. Today the Riviera Club is a welcoming family-friendly environment for people of any background.” Some things do change for the better.

Our intrepid driver took us next to the top of Crown Hill Cemetery, which still affords the best view of the city. It was there that “Sonny” and “Gunner” went to contemplate their future, by the statue of James Whitcomb Riley, “The Hoosier Poet.” Everyone got off the bus to stretch and enjoy the view, when a cache of beer, soda and mineral water was found, with a note attached that said

“Hey, Bus Guys – As you’re contemplating your future, have one on me! – best, Tom Cassleman.”

“Tom Casselman” was the name of the fictional character known as “Gunner” in the novel. Now it can be revealed that the drinks and the note had been cleverly stashed there beforehand by tour organizer Higgins.

For the sake of historical accuracy, I explained when we got back on the bus that Crown Hill was not only visited by high school kids who went to the top to exchange deep thoughts, but also by those who found its darkened, winding pathways good places to “park” at night with a date, and not be interrupted by the intrusive beams of prowling police.

Back at The Red Key we told more stories, renewed acquaintance with old friends and made new ones, played old favorites on the legendary jukebox (surely no other jukebox in town or maybe in the whole country has Benny Berrigan’s classic 1939 recording of “I Can’t Get Started”), and ordered the famous Red Key burgers with Dolly’s home-made potato salad.  I thought of the words of poet William Herschell (often erroneously attributed to James Whitcomb Riley) “Aint God good to Indiana? Aint’ he fellers, ain’t he though?” That epic verse hung on the wall of the old Broad Ripple Branch Public Library, attached to School #80 (now a condo), where I learned to read.

0
Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield