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Mon September 8, 2003
My Mother's Witness
Carolyn Haines, who has for the last few years been writing the delightful "Bones" mystery series, set in Mississippi, has here written her first nonfiction book. My Mother's Witness: The Peggy Morgan Story is a kind of dual biography of both Peggy Morgan and her mother, Inez.
By Don Noble
My Mother's Witness: The Peggy Morgan Story is a kind of dual biography of both Peggy Morgan and her mother, Inez. Carolyn Haines, who has for the last few years been writing the delightful "Bones" mystery series, set in Mississippi, has here written her first nonfiction book.
Haines has gone beyond what Peggy Morgan told her and has researched into the events which Peggy Morgan and her mother found themselves tangentially touching. Haines has also brought to bear her skills as a fiction writer, so this book is organized into scenes, with a great deal of dialogue from thirty years ago, and at its best reads like a novel.
The heart of this volume is a tale of almost unbelievable spouse and child abuse. No cruelties are beneath the men in this book. Inez Albritton was married to Gene, a real monster. She weighs about seventy pounds and bears, in the course of about fifteen years, ten children. Gene is a violent redneck who sometimes brews moonshine and keeps a little store, but spends all the profits on himself and his women.
When Inez got home from 12 hours of picking cotton, Gene might beat her, not an occasional slap, but with his fists. Horrible, horrible. Finally, after years of standing by her Neanderthalic man, Inez developed tremors, epilepsy, and a dull vacant stare, and became an alcoholic. Although she was almost always utterly docile, on occasions when she wasn't, Gene would call the sheriff and have her committed to Whitfield, the Mississippi state mental asylum. Horrible, horrible.
Inez seldom spoke back or rebelled, but she did have an additional burden on her mind. Some of Gene's buddies and Gene himself spoke freely of having been involved in the Emmett Till murder. Two white men, Bryant and Milam, had been arrested, tried, and found not guilty, but it was widely thought others were involved. Others were.
Caroline Bryant, the white woman wolf-whistled AT, was one of Gene's adulterous lovers. Inez wanted to tell the authorities. She burned to. Her perfectly respectable parents had instilled in her a need to speak the truth. But anytime she mentioned telling, Gene beat her up extra.
Only a reader new to this planet would fail to know what kind of a man daughter Peggy married and what kind of married life she had. After the absolute worst wedding night in literary history--she is raped by her husband in a cotton field right after the wedding--Peggy commences on a nightmarish marriage. Lloyd Morgan cheated on her openly, spent his paycheck on booze and women, and beat her often. She recapitulated her mother's life almost exactly.
So exactly, in fact, that one day, forced to accompany Lloyd to visit his brother at the Parchman prison farm, Peggy is seated between her husband and a Delta gentleman named Byron De La Beckwith, called DeLay by his friends, who brags, "'I want y'all to know I killed that . . . Medgar Evers and I'm not afraid to kill again,'" adding menacingly, "This better not never get out," and pulling his coat aside "to reveal a pistol, tucked in the waistband of his pants."
In a nearly unbelievable coincidence, mother and daughter have direct knowledge of two of the most notorious hate crimes of the twentieth century.
Like her mother, Peggy now has a terrible secret, and it drives her crazy. Eventually, though, when she learns in 1993 that Bobby DeLaughter, a Jackson prosecutor, has reopened the Evers case and, finally, thirty years after the June 12, 1963, killing, is out to convict De La Beckwith, Peggy testifies. Her mother had told her, "You have to tell the truth. Even when it hurts, the truth is the only way, you hear me."
It turns out Inez was right. Peggy is liberated by speaking up. She divorces Lloyd for the third and last time and begins, in her forties, to enjoy a decent, happy life.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.