Supreme Court appeal, and the racial divide


Last week the phone rang at my office and the man on the other end of the line said “this is Bob Barnes, I’m in a deserted corner of the Memphis airport — I think there are a lot of deserted corners in the Memphis airport — do you mind if I put you on speaker phone so I can take some notes?”

I was expecting the call. Barnes, who covers the United States Supreme Court for the Washington Post, had called the day before to set up an interview concerning the murders of four people in Winona, Mississippi in 1996. I was the editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper there at that time and Barnes wanted to know a little about the town and the mood following the shooting deaths of Bertha Tardy, Carmen Rigby, Robert Goldman and 16-year-old Bobo Stewart, in what has since become known as the Tardy Furniture Store Murders.

In the years since that hot July  when life changed in Winona, Curtis Giovanni Flowers has been tried six times for the murders. Three convictions were overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court, two trials ended with hung juries and in the sixth trial Flowers was again convicted and sentenced to death. Arguments in that case, now on appeal, are being heard before the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

On Tuesday, July 16, 1996, I was stuck in a long-running board of supervisor’s meeting in Carrollton, which is a small town about 10 miles west of  Winona.  Already late for my regular weekly appointment with one of our largest advertisers, I fidgeted with my pad and pen and thought surely those guys would wrap it up soon. Everyone knew that Bertha Tardy didn’t like to be stood up. As a matter of fact, that’s the reason this publisher called on her as a regular account rather than anyone else on staff. She insisted that it be done that way.

The supervisors continued piddling around until there was a knock at the boardroom door and the deputy clerk said there was a call for me in the office. I excused myself and headed up the corridor of the historic Carroll County Courthouse to take the call.

On the other end of the line was Sondra Pettit, the owner of local radio station WONA. She told me there had been a shooting in Winona and that everyone in Tardy Furniture Store had been killed.

I suppose if I had not been late that morning I could have been a fifth victim or could have discovered the bodies. I’ve thought about that many times  during the past 23 year, especially when there would be a new trial or another appeal. I thought about it again last week while talking to that reporter holed up in the Memphis airport.

As I told Barnes, I still remember every aspect of that day. I always parked my car behind the newspaper office as I do here in Forest. Back then I left the keys in the ignition and we left the back door to the building open. I would walk from my office downtown to the Tardy Furniture building and never think twice about. In an instant that all changed. Keys were then kept in our pockets and doors were locked as they are here now. Everyone in town was kind of looking over their shoulder for a very long time.

Tardy, Rigby and Stewart were all white. Goldman was black, as is Flowers. Barnes asked me did I think there were racial problems in Winona back then. My answer was that I believe there were racial problems everywhere in America then as there are today. I said that if anyone says there are not that I believe that is just a lie. “Winona,” I said, “is no different.”

Forest and Scott County are no different either, but we can work on that. Think about it.