Years ago in the summer of 1965, when George Wallace was governor, I was in the Lowndes County Courthouse covering the murder trial of Viola Liuzzo, the woman from Detroit who was shot by a Klansman the night “The March” ended.
Every major newspaper in the known world was there, including mine, The Birmingham News.
During a break in the trial, a New York Times reporter, the court reporter and I were comparing notes on the testimony that day from a paid FBI informant who testified that the Klansman who shot Mrs. Liuzzo said he shot her and she was “deader than hell.”
That’s the phrase I had written in my notebook — “deader than hell.”
The Times reporter had heard the same testimony, but he had copied down “dead and in hell.”
He asked the court reporter what he had copied? His response was “deader than hell.”
I smiled and said, “That’s what it sounded like to me, and I guess it’s because I have heard that phrase all my life.”
The court reporter was from Alabama, I was from Alabama, the Klansman was from Alabama, and the witness was from Alabama. The Times reporter was not from Alabama. I assume he wrote “deader than hell” in his story, and I figure his editor asked, “What does deader than hell mean?”
And I assume the Times reporter told his editor, “I think it means dead and in hell.”
Those were crazy times because there was a big “disconnect” in the use of the English language.
Not only were some words misunderstood because they sounded different but some words were misunderstood because they had different definitions to the people who were using them.
Circuit Judge T. Wirth Thaggard of Butler County presided over the trial, and he did an excellent job when you figure how he had to deal with theatrical lawyers from the prosecution and the defense.
Judge Thaggard was a little fellow. He reminded me of the actor who played Dr. Mead in “Gone With the Wind.” Dr. Mead was the doctor who took care of Ashley who had been wounded when he and other Southern stalwarts defended Scarlett’s honor when she got roughed up on the wrong side of town where she should not have been.
There was this one day during the Liuzzo trial when a reporter from Detroit, I think, said he had heard that the judge was a segregationist. “Yes,” I said, “you can’t be elected judge if you’re not a segregationist.” He seemed perplexed.
This was in 1965 when Wallace was governor.
Sometimes when I am walking in the Village Mall, I see two or three black and white couples holding hands, walking and talking.
And I say to myself: “What was that fuss all about in 1965?”
Gillis Morgan is an associate professor emeritus of journalism at Auburn University and an award-winning columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com