The paper trail

I made my way down to the archive by mid-morning, intent on finding something that would help me in my search.  There was no sign of Gabe.  I spent most of the morning reading over the files on Jim Madison, the man who’d integrated Southern after Clyde King died, following in the footsteps of other public university integrations.  Around noon, at the tail end of the Madison files, I located the Commission’s report on Clyde King.          

The investigator, Alex Vanderbilt, had done his homework, managing to compress King’s life into forty pages of every fact and figure conceivable: everything from his credit history to his academic achievements to his military record to his preference when he went out for dinner.  The commission would follow him when he left his farm, they had access to his savings account, and they kept tabs on his sister and two little brothers.  They had tracked his every move since he first expressed an interest in enrolling at Southern.  I learned that Clyde King envisioned leading an army of colored students through the schoolyard gates.  Previous to his final attempt he recruited ten black students who would follow his lead once the color barrier was broken.  But as I read further I saw he never stood a chance.  The admission requirements at Southern included an application, medical exams, five recommendations from alumni, and a transcript.  If these seem achievable, well, they would be in today’s south.  But back in the day any school south of the Mason/Dixie line used admission requirements as filibuster.  A medical exam, for example, can be a very subjective thing. And where does a black farmer in rural Mississippi go to find recommendations from five white alumni?

A ways into the report I located a letter Clyde King had written to the Clarion Ledger.

I felt an eerie chill when I saw his name.  Throughout my search Clyde King had been more of a rallying cry than an actual person; a vague historical afterthought who had crossed paths with some Calverts.  Reading his words I was struck with the reality of his life, and with the viciousness of his death.   

The report went on to detail how the commission had tried to coerce King’s friends and family into talking him out of his plans.  Commission agents approached everyone from religious leaders to casual acquaintances, finding little success.  When nothing else worked the commission fixed on a more direct solution:


Gov. Waktins expressed the desire for the Sheriff of Poscataw County to go immediately to Poscataw City, Mississippi, to conduct an investigation to find out what other means could be used to keep King from enrolling at Southern.  The Governor suggested to the Sheriff that he should use any means at his disposal to prevent King from making another attempt at integrating Southern.


So Jefferson Calvert had met with Pappy Watkins, and Watkins had authorized Jefferson to go to nefarious ends in keeping Clyde King out of Southern University.  It didn’t take much of an intuitive leap to connect my grandfather’s gubernatorial-bestowed fiat power with the framing of Clyde King.  Still, there wasn’t even a mention of my father.  I dug further, but from that point on there was nothing useful in the file.  Just when it was getting interesting the report ended.  Surely the Commission had documented the days surrounding King’s arrest—they were the most active and important of the Clyde King story.  So what the hell happened to the rest of the files?  I went looking for the archivist.  I approached the front desk and saw my white-haired mookie friend. 

‘Excuse me,’ I said.  ‘There seem to be some pages missing from one of the files.’

‘Oh yes, my dear.  There’s a bunch of information missing.  Some was destroyed years ago.  Some is being withheld, pending court-cases.’

‘Yes, I know, but would it be possible to see what happened to the rest of this report?’  I waved a printoff of the King report in front of her.  She smiled. 

‘I wish there was, Dear.  But we aren’t at liberty.’ 

‘What about freedom of information?’

Her smile was an invitation to eat my own shorts.  I returned to the computer and stared at the last line of the report.  “It is my intention to return to Poscataw, Mississippi, on Wednesday, September 2, 1959, in the company of Jefferson Calvert, Sheriff of Poscataw County, to conduct the investigation requested by Gov. Watkins.”  Nothing I’d found yet would justify my father’s paranoia that day on the phone, and nothing I’d found would cause Earl Watkins to call me in for a personal chat.  There had to be more.  I pulled the strip of paper from my wallet.  ‘Eleanor King,’ it said.  ‘New Orleans, 504-296-3845.’  If I could find Clyde King’s sister, maybe I could locate the information that so many people didn’t want me to uncover.


Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: