Page 12 of The Last Juror

Baggy had some reservations about the Ruffin story. "It's really not news," he said as he read it. I'm sure Hardy had alerted him that I was considering a large, front page story about a family of Negroes. "This stuff is usually on page five," he said.

Absent a murder, Baggy's notion of front page news was a hot property line dispute being waged in the courtroom with no jurors, a handful of half-asleep lawyers, and a ninety-year-old Judge brought back from the grave to referee such matters.

In 1967, Mr. Caudle had shown guts in running black obituaries, but in the three years since then the Times had taken little interest in anything on the other side of the railroad tracks. Wiley Meek was reluctant to go over with me and photograph Callie and Esau in front of their home. I managed to schedule the picture taking on a Thursday, at midday. Fried catfish, hush puppies, and coleslaw. Wiley ate until he had trouble breathing.

Margaret was also skittish about the story, but, as always, she deferred to the boss. In fact, the entire office was cool to the idea. I didn't care. I was doing what I thought was right; plus there was a big trial around the corner.

And so, on Wednesday, May 20, 1970, during a week in which there was absolutely nothing to print about the Kassellaw murder, the Times devoted more than half of its front page to the Ruffin family. It began with a large headline - RUFFIN FAMILY BOASTS SEVEN COLLEGE PROFESSORS. Under it was a large photo of Callie and Esau sitting on their front steps, smiling proudly at the camera. Below them were the senior portraits of all eight children - Al through Sam. My story began:

When Calia Harris was forced to drop out of school in the tenth grade, she promised herself her children would be able to finish not only high school but college as well. The year was 1926, and Calia, or Callie as she prefers to be called, was, at the age of fifteen, the oldest of four children. Education became a luxury when her father died of tuberculosis. Callie worked for the DeFarnette family until 1929, when she married Esau Ruffin, a carpenter and part-time preacher. They rented a small duplex in Lowtown for $15 a month and began saving every penny. They would need all they could save.

In 1931, Alberto was born.

In 1970, Dr. Alberto Ruffin was a professor of sociology at the University of Iowa. Dr. Leonardo Ruffin was a professor of biology at Purdue. Dr. Massimo Ruffin was a professor of economics at the University of Toledo. Dr. Roberto Ruffin was a professor of history at Marquette. Dr. Gloria Ruffin Sanderford taught Italian at Duke. Dr. Carlota Ruffin was a professor of urban studies at UCLA. Dr. Mario Ruffin had just completed his PhD in medieval literature and was a professor teaching at Grinnell College in Iowa. I mentioned Sam but didn't dwell on him.

By phone I had talked to all seven of the professors, and I quoted liberally from them in my story. The themes were common - love, sacrifice, discipline, hard work, encouragement, faith in God, faith in family, ambition, perseverance; no tolerance for laziness or failure. Each of the seven had a success story that could have filled an entire edition of the Times. Each had worked at least one full-time job while struggling through college and grad school. Most had worked two jobs. The older ones helped the younger ones. Mario told me he received five or six small checks each month from his siblings and parents.

The five older ones had been so tenacious in their studies that they had postponed marriage until in their late twenties and early thirties. Carlota and Mario were still single. Likewise, the next generation was being carefully planned. Leon had the oldest grandchild, age five. There were a total of five. Max and his wife were expecting their second.

There was so much material on the Ruffins that I ran only Part One that week. When I went to Lowtown for lunch the next day, Miss Callie met me with tears in her eyes. Esau met me too, with a firm handshake and a stiff, awkward, manly hug. We devoured a lamb stew and compared notes on how the story was being received. Needless to say, it was the talk of Lowtown, with neighbors stopping by all Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning with extra copies. I had mailed a half dozen or so to each of the professors.

Over coffee and fried apple pies, their preacher, Reverend Thurston Small, parked in the street and made his way to the porch. I was introduced, and he seemed pleased to meet me. He quickly accepted a dessert and began a lengthy summary of how important the Ruffin story was to the black community of Clanton. Obituaries were fine, and in most Southern towns dead black folks were still ignored. Thanks to Mr. Caudle, progress was being made on one front. But to run such a grand and dignified profile of an outstanding black family on the front page was a giant step for racial tolerance in the town. I didn't see it that way. It was just a good human interest story about Miss Callie Ruffin and her extraordinary family.

The reverend enjoyed food and he also had a knack for embellishment. On his second pie, he became monotonous in his praise for the story. He gave no indication of leaving anytime that afternoon, so I finally excused myself.

* * *

Other than being the unofficial and somewhat unreliable janitor for several businesses around the square, Piston had another job. He had an unlicensed courier service. Every hour or so he would appear inside the front doors of his clients - primarily law offices, but also the three banks, some Realtors, insurance agents, and the Times  - and he would stand there for a few moments waiting for something to deliver. A simple shake of the head by a secretary would send him on his way to his next stop. If a letter or small package needed to be delivered, the secretaries would wait for Piston to pop in. He would grab whatever it was and jog it over to its destination. If it weighed over ten pounds, forget it. Since he was on foot, his service was limited to the square and maybe one or two blocks around it. At almost any hour of the working day Piston could be seen downtown - walking, if he had no package, and jogging if he did.

The bulk of his traffic was letters between law offices. Piston was much faster than the mail, and much cheaper. He charged nothing. He said it was his service to his community, though at Christmas he fully expected a ham or a cake.

He darted in late Friday morning with a hand-addressed letter from Lucien Wilbanks. I was almost afraid to open it. Could it be the million-dollar lawsuit he'd promised? It read:

Dear Mr. Traynor:

I enjoyed your profile on the Ruffin family, a most remarkable clan. I had heard of their achievements, but your story provided great insight. I admire your courage.

I hope you continue in this more positive vein.

Sincerely,

Lucien Wilbanks

I detested the man, but who wouldn't have appreciated the note? He enjoyed his reputation as a wild-eyed radical liberal who embraced unpopular causes. As such, his support at that moment gave limited comfort. And I knew it was only temporary.

There were no other letters. No anonymous phone calls. No threats. School was out and the weather was hot. The ominous and much-dreaded winds of desegregation were gathering strength. The good folks of Ford County had more important matters to worry about.

After a decade of strife and tension over civil rights, many white Mississippians were fearful that the end was near. If the federal courts could integrate the schools, could churches and housing be next?

The following day, Baggy went to a public meeting in the basement of a church. The organizers were trying to measure the support for a private, all-white school in Clanton. The crowd was large, frightened, angry, and determined to protect the children. A lawyer summarized the status of various federal appeals and delivered the distressing opinion that the final mandate would come that summer. He predicted that black kids in grades ten through twelve would be sent to Clanton High School and that white kids in grades seven through nine would be sent to Burley Street in Lowtown. This caused men to shake their heads and women to cry. The thought of white kids being shipped across the tracks was simply unacceptable.

A new school was organized. We were asked not to report the story, at least not then. The organizers wanted to gain some financial commitments before going public. We complied with their requests. I was anxious to avoid controversy.

A federal judge in Memphis ordered a massive busing plan that ripped the city apart. Inner-city black kids would be hauled to the white suburbs, and along the way they would pass the white kids going in the other direction. Tension was even greater there, and I found myself trying to avoid the city for a while.

It would be a long, hot summer. It seemed as if we were waiting for things to explode.

* * *

I skipped a week, then ran the second part of Miss Callie's story. On the bottom of the front page I lined up current photos of the seven Ruffin professors. My story dealt with where they were now and what they were doing. Without exception they professed great love for Clanton and Mississippi, though none planned to ever return permanently. They refused to judge a place that had kept them in inferior schools, kept them on one side of the tracks, kept them from voting and eating in most restaurants and drinking water from the fountain on the courthouse lawn. They refused to dwell on anything negative. Instead, they thanked God for his goodness, for health, for family, for their parents, and for their opportunities.

I marveled at their humility and kindness. Each of the seven promised to meet me during the Christmas vacation when we would sit on Miss Callie's porch and eat pecan pie and tell stories.

I finished my lengthy profile with an intriguing detail about the family. From the day each Ruffin child left home, he or she was instructed by Esau to write at least one letter a week to their mother. This they did, and the letters never stopped. At some point, Esau decided that Callie should receive a letter a day. Seven professors. Seven days in a week. So Alberto wrote his letter on Sunday, and mailed it. Leonardo wrote his on Monday, and mailed it. And so on. Some days Callie received two or three letters, some days none. But the short walk to the mailbox was always exciting.

And she kept every letter. In a closet in the front bedroom, she showed me a stack of cardboard boxes, all filled with hundreds of letters from her children.

"I'll let you read them sometime," she said, but for some reason I didn't believe her. Nor did I want to read them. They would be far too personal.


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