Murder in Tall Grass -- A Civil Rights Story

I remember as if it were yesterday. I had flown from my home in Detroit to Jackson, Miss., for the funeral of Medgar Evers, the African-American civil rights leader who was working as a field secretary for the NAACP in 1963. His assassination shocked the nation. The day of his funeral was hot on the thermometer and even more so in terms of people's feelings. It was incredible that a major confrontation on the city's crowded streets was avoided.

Later, I was in a small group that made its way to the Evers' home to pay quiet homage. I recall when we caught sight of what I remember as the sight of tall grass near the house. Here, Evers' convicted murderer Byron De La Beckwith had hid, waiting to shoot him. I remember feeling devastated by sadness but also buoyed by hope for deep social change that might come to our wounded nation. I wondered how we could persevere in our practice of nonviolent opposition to such change when it seemed determined to resist. Shortly I returned to my work in Detroit where I was Episcopal chaplain at Wayne State University.

During this period I was completing the writing of a book of contemporary prayers, "Are You Running with Me, Jesus?" I badly needed a break from my demanding routine and an opportunity to concentrate wholly on writing. So I searched for a quiet place where I might isolate myself. I rented a small house in an outlying suburb for a month. I'd move in for a few telling weeks.

One of my friends, an African-American graduate student, drove me to the house with a few belongings. We shopped for a few staples I'd need such as bread, milk, canned soup, stuff for sandwiches. He'd return each week and we'd repeat our shopping again. After I settled in, my friend departed until a planned return the next week. Alone in my new environment, I placed my typewriter on a table in the livingroom. (Remember, 1963 was pre-computer time). I started writing when, suddenly, the telephone rang. But who knew I was here? Who could be calling me? I picked up the phone to greet my caller. No one responded. Yet the chilling silence contained heavy breathing. I tried to lighten the heavy scene in any way I could. But the only response was an ever heavier silence.

The phone rang. Then it rang again. Then it rang again. All through the night. I picked up the receiver -- what else could I do? -- to no avail. Finally it sunk in. This was a routine that would not end. Nor would there be anything like discernible communication. I was receiving a barrage of hate calls.

Well, my goal of writing my book of prayers was out the door. Finished. Trying to analyze the situation as coolly as possible, it dawned on me that the entire awful situation was sparked when I drove up to the house with my black friend. He brought a black face into what was clearly an all-white neighborhood. My telephone caller was determined to keep it that way. I was trapped in an utterly crazy situation where I couldn't discuss the situation in any kind of rational way. Actually I was trapped in a bizarre kind of nightmare.

Yet there was more. It had been obvious from the start. Was it simply so obvious that somehow I neglected to perceive it? A field of tall grass lay beside my rented house. Suddenly I realized that I was seated at my typewriter in front of a large window looking out at -- what? A field of tall grass. Not unlike a field of tall grass that I'd looked at in Jackson, Mississippi. A convicted murderer, Byron De La Beckwith, had hidden in that field. He held a gun. I wondered; what happens when communication breaks down, violence takes over, and what we call "dialogue" is at least momentarily relegated to a junk heap?

I perceived myself in that situation in Michigan as absolutely vulnerable. I could not continue trying to write in that situatiion or place. My life suddenly became more important than my book. I asked my friend to come and take me home.

What did I learn? There are real surprises in our lives. We have no control over many of them. Yet, in an ironic way, I won my encounter with the angry and determined individual at the other end of the telephone. I wrote my book. I finished it. It became a global bestseller. A million copies, including one in Chinese. I realized it would be a supreme irony if one purchaser of my book happened to become the angry soul on the telephone in the Detroit suburb.