By Reilly Morse
I rode on the Mississippi Center for Justice's Great Mississippi Road Trip last weekend. For some folks, the most memorable moment may have been the stops at the BB King museum, the lunch at Club Ebony, the visit to Delta State's wall of life casts of blues musicians, the Bentonia blues performed at Po' Monkeys or the Dockery Plantation. Maybe it was the surprising fireworks shot off in downtown Greenwood as part of the wrap party for "The Help," or the music and storytelling at the Little Zion Church on Money Road, the truest, most authentic of the three true authentic gravesites of bluesman Robert Johnson.
For me it was being among the group of people who accompanied Hank Thomas on his return to Parchman for the first time since he was imprisoned there in 1961 as one of the original Freedom Riders. Also along for this ride was Eric Etheridge, author of the terrific "Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders," a book that visually documents the participants in this moment in history. Hank is chairman of Mississippi Freedom 50th, an event that will commemorate the work of the Freedom Riders in Mississippi next May.
After his civil rights protest work in the South, Thomas fought in Vietnam and, decades later, he returned to Vietnam. On the way to Parchman, he recalled going to the Vietnam Memorial and how, just like with the memorial, the closer you get, the more you feel the power. He was reliving part of his life story, and his generosity to share it with a bus load of people was extraordinary.
Just before the gate, we were cautioned to turn off our cell phones because otherwise a newly installed system would scramble and wreck our phone's software. Parchman Farm 1, Silicon Valley 0. At the entrance was a red drum with a slot to unload any ammo in your weapons. We were welcomed by Emmitt Sparkman, the superintendent of the penitentiary. A group photo was taken by the official photographer and we were instructed to leave all phones and cameras on the bus. After our IDs were checked, Sparkman invited us into a meeting room where there were refreshments, a welcome banner, and a Powerpoint prepared by the staff. We sat down with our plates and the first slide said, "Mississippi State Penitentiary welcomes the Freedom Riders."
Then we got into the bus and drove into Parchman to see Unit 17, which is where the Freedom Riders were imprisoned back in 1961. This was the first unit on the left past a long row of guard homes on the right -- a flat-roofed, one-story structure. It was isolated from all the others by a great distance. Nothing growing around it -- just dirt. It was surrounded by three or four tall closely-packed barbed wire fences. One of the inner fences was a series of exposed power lines spaced inches apart and drawn taut across small porcelain insulators. As our bus pulled in, the razor wire almost scraped against the windows -- the bus was a very tight fit.
The unit itself had an entrance foyer and then as we went to the right we saw the cell block. There were 25 or so cells on each side, maybe five or six feet wide, 12 to 15 feet deep, with stained walls, a metal bed, a metal toilet and running water. The gate was made of open bars with a slot to slide in a tray. There were grate-covered windows up at the top of the wall that let in sunlight, but you could only see the soffit of the roof. At the end of the hall were two rooms. One currently is used to execute prisoners in Mississippi by lethal injection. One of our group's members had attended an execution of a client here earlier this year. It had a table with straps, an overhead microphone, and two viewing rooms.
In the next room was the gas chamber, now no longer used. The chamber was built out of thick walled, bulbous iron forms and hardware that seemed to have been borrowed from a submarine. Coming out of the top of the chamber were some pipes. The chair was black with a box grate and a container beneath the seat. One of the corrections officers described how it worked and recounted his first execution there. Some go ahead and breathe, he said, and some fight it, trying to hold their breath. It would take about three minutes, and their bodies would jerk and contort. I noticed right behind the officer there was an ordinary door where you could simply walk outside. So I did, just to see what was on the other side of the wall where that gas chamber stood. Just some flat Mississippi delta dirt and grass.
As I was walking out, I found myself alone walking back along the hall by the cells next to Hank Thomas. I asked him if he recalled which one he was in. He said no. I mumbled something like, I'll let you be, and I kept walking on. I turned around and the hallway was empty. He had stepped into one of the cells for a minute. I later learned those may still be used as a holding cell for a prisoner just before he is executed. We milled about outside a short while longer, some more pictures were taken. We were given a fried chicken bag lunch and a slice of pound cake wrapped in tinfoil. We got back on the bus quietly and then the bus went back through the gate, the barbed wire slowly scraping on the windows right at my eye level.
When I was a city judge several years ago, I had to do arraignments at the county jail with scores of prisoners once or twice a week for several years. I always felt the tension going in, the bitterness of the prisoners inside, and the relief when I got in my car and drove off home. But it was nothing compared to this -- "destination doom," as it is referred to in the Faulkner book "The Mansion."
On our way back home several people shared their thoughts, including Hank. I don't want to write about all that right now. I am still amazed at his doing what he did at 20 and coming back at 70 to face the welcome the superintendent gave him: the access and the very evident but never explicitly-stated recognition of his status as an American hero mistreated by our state's system.
Reilly Morse is a senior attorney and a founding staff member in the Biloxi office of the Mississippi Center for Justice; for more information on the Center, please click here and sign up for the newsletter. For more on Parchman's history, go here for photos from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History Collection and here for an essay by David Oshinsky that dips into Parchman's pardon files.
(Top photo of Hank Thomas standing in front of Parchman's gates by Reilly Morse. Thomas' mugshot from "Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders.")