Ink in our Veins

“One time when I received a letter from De La Beckwith, threatening to blow up or otherwise get rid of Frank Ahlgren, editor of the Commercial Appeal, if the paper ran a bad picture taken of him [De La] in the jail at Jackson, I sent the letter on to [Bill] Street [CA Assistant Tri-States Editor]. I asked that he show it to no one, but at least I would not be the only one who knew of the threat and asked that he try to locate the picture, which had been made when De La was arrested for the murder of Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader. I knew if someone else at the paper got hold of the letter and printed it Frank Ahlgren and I would probably both go.

Byron De La Beckwith at a Klan rally near Greenwood. This is one of Sara's photos.

“Street probably knew more about Mississippi politics than any other person except Ken Toler in Jackson. He could tell some very funny stories on the politicians, and I was always glad when he came to see us. He and I covered some of the Freedom Schools being held here during the summer of 1964, and I remember some of those characters were so filthy that we rushed in when we got home and washed our hands before eating lunch.

“When Street dropped dead with a heart attack in his office in the early ’70s, I felt as if I had lost my best friend. He was only in his late forties, and it was a big loss for the Commercial Appeal.

“I continued to send stories to the Jackson Daily News until the teletype was put in, and then decided I had better not jeopardize my job with the Commercial since I wasn’t getting much out of the Jackson paper.”

Are you starting to get a feel for Sara’s precarious position as Greenwood correspondent for the Commercial Appeal? Through the dark years of the Civil Rights era, she walked a daily tightrope, trying to gather and report the news in an independent manner, always conscious of journalistic ethics and responsibility, while not drawing attention to herself and her family from people who were irrational at best, vicious at worst. She had grown up with De La Beckwith and knew that he was more than capable of slithering up to Memphis and blowing up her editor’s home. Beckwith was certain that Frank Ahlgren was Jewish and was only using the “bad photograph” story as a ploy, and he just refused to listen to Sara’s protestations that Mr. Ahlgren was an active Presbyterian. You cannot deal rationally with lunatics, and Sara kept her guard up where Beckwith was concerned until the day he died in jail.

She adored Bill Street, and I remember his visits to our house fondly. He was one of those very talented journalists who could hold his own with the national newsmen and broadcast correspondents who wound up in our teletype kitchen, but he would also sit down and have a serious conversation with a ten-year-old. I think his steady hand and faith in Sara got her through those challenging years in the ’60s, and much of the fun of newspaper work for her died with “Street” that day in his office.

I also remember a few trips up to the Commercial Appeal offices in Memphis. The paper was published out of a multi-story building somewhere downtown (it has since moved out a bit from downtown) and it was like a scene from that classic movie, The Front Page. A huge open newsroom was filled with dozens of desks and clattering typewriters and copy boys bustling out with the latest stories for the editors to look over. There was a low-hanging cloud of cigarette smoke above the desks and everyone had a cup of coffee going. I’m sure there were a few bottles of Jack Daniels in the side drawers, but I never saw that. It was such a vibrant, lively space and I longed for someone (who would have had to look like Spencer Tracy) to burst in and yell, “Stop the presses!” My husband and kids laugh at me because I remain, to this day, a newspaper junkie. There is nothing finer than to have a stack of clean papers just waiting to be read, pristine and chock full of good writing. I read a few on the internet but real newspapers must be held and folded, their ink leaking off onto your fingers and staining your clothes. When you are raised on the rhythms of a daily deadline and the clicking of teletype keys was the background music of your earliest days, you’re an addict forever. I will probably be the last person in America standing on my sidewalk in the dark, waiting for that rubber-banded gift to land at my feet each morning.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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2 Responses to Ink in our Veins

  1. Jenny Adams says:

    Oh De La ….
    Wasn’t he in love with Tiny? Didn’t he write her letters from jail?
    I remember hearing stories about him and in my head, he always looked like Freddy Kruger from Nightmare on Elm Street. Shudder. What a complete lunatic
    I love actual newspapers too. the ink stains are so worth it.

    • sec040121 says:

      Hey, Jenny. Yeah, he was a piece of work for sure. There are several letters from him in Sara’s collection. She really did acknowledge his capacity to cause big trouble even when he was very old, very sick and very incarcerated.

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