In the summer of 1988, Richard Rubin was a history major fresh out of the University of Pennsylvania and fresh out of "discernible skills." Sure, he could "compose solid sentences and proper paragraphs" and talk to you about his major interest in the civil rights movement. But could he see himself, as planned, as a lawyer? No. Could he find an entry-level writing job in his native New York City? No. Could he even type worth a damn? Another no. But could he answer an ad from a place that, in Rubin's words, was "a pure mystery, an abyss"? Tentatively, yes. That ad ran this way: "9,000-circulation six-day PM daily in heart of the Mississippi Delta seeks a sports editor. J-degree, experience preferred but not essential. Call Emmerich ... at Greenwood, Miss., Commonwealth."
Another question: Could Rubin fudge a phone interview having not only no journalism degree but no real reporting experience at all and no great interest in sports? Another yes. Which is how Rubin got the job at the Greenwood Commonwealth -- even if publisher John Emmerich, no dummy, could smell "fudge" a thousand miles away -- and why Rubin in September 1988 got himself on a plane from New York to Memphis, got himself on a bus from Memphis to "The Hospitality State" and, again, how, in the dead of night, Rubin found himself in the variously self-described "Cotton Capital of Mississippi," "Cotton Capital of the World," "Capital of the Delta," and, unofficially, "the most Southern place on earth": Greenwood.
Greenwood: site of a house party that left, in 1937, Robert Johnson three days later dead; nearby site of 14-year-old Emmett Till's murder in Money, Mississippi (1955); national headquarters of the White Citizens' Council; hometown of Byron De La Beckwith, killer of Mississippi NAACP head Medgar Evers (1963); site of Stokely Carmichael's first use in a speech of the phrase "black power" (1966); site of night riders nearly killing leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; site of a Bob Dylan concert in support of the SNCC; site of Dick Gregory's arrest for leading a voter-registration march, of Sidney Poitier's and Harry Belafonte's hosting of a civil rights rally; and stop-off point for Martin Luther King Jr. shortly before his assassination in Memphis.
Greenwood (1988): population roughly 20,000; 61 percent black, 39 percent white.
Rubin was scared stiff, and his parents thought he was "insane." But his parents weren't too worried. They gave their son at this job in this state at most a couple of days. Rubin, however, gave himself just under a year, until, indeed, he believed he was going crazy, but there's more to that phrase "found himself." What he found is what he reports in Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South (Atria Books).
Make that, more properly, "tales," because Rubin has much to tell, and it's a complicated act, a juggling act. More than a one-man memoir of a cub reporter learning the ropes, of an "Ivy League Yankee Jew" making his way (and discovering fellow Jews along that way) in the Protestant South, of a Northern son earning the respect of some thorough sons of the South, of a single guy chasing a string of Southern belles (and dodging at least one vomiting buzzard), the book is a front-page football tale on the trail of a star quarterback's rise from the projects and fall from college athletics, a murder mystery, police procedural, and courtroom drama, a record of common bigotry and uncommon courtesy, a small-town story, perhaps, but, at its more far-reaching, a story with big-time implications for the ongoing issue of race in this country no matter what state we're in. Confederacy of Silence, in short, is the education of one Richard Rubin, a past free-lance writer for the Flyer who's gone on to write for The New Yorker, New York magazine, and The New York Times Magazine and who currently contributes regularly to The Atlantic Monthly. And it's, finally, a fine lesson for us all.
"I'm frankly quite worried about how this book will be received down South," Rubin says. "But one thing I was determined to do from the very beginning was paint myself in the most honest light. When I was down in Greenwood, I was very young, very naive, and really cocky. I was determined not to cover that up and make myself look like a hero. I was concerned about portraying other people fairly, from both sides, not whitewash over the bad but also not diminish the good."
It's a strategy that also goes for Rubin's coverage of the pivotal figure in the second half of his book -- Handy Tyrone Campbell, the Greenwood High School quarterback who displayed on the field, according to former Ole Miss head football coach Billy Brewer, "the best arm he'd ever seen." Rubin quickly saw himself and Campbell on "parallel trajectories" in this sense:
"I arrived in Greenwood not knowing anybody and, much worse, not knowing how to do my job or even what my job was. Not only did I not have a background in journalism, I knew almost nothing about sports other than having grown up a Yankees fan and a Giants fan and not the most rabid fan at that. Handy Campbell's story, though, struck a chord, because here was a kid in the same situation I was. He was handed this opportunity 'to get out there.' He was confident of his abilities, as I was of mine even though I was nervous. The better he did on the playing field, the better I did in the newsroom. His success gave me confidence. I didn't doubt for a second that I would see him playing in the NFL. I knew he was going to go to the NFL. And not just me. His coaches ... These guys said Handy Campbell was good enough to play on Sunday."
Well, Handy Campbell never did play "on Sunday." In fact, he never played college ball at all, either for Mississippi State or for Ole Miss, two schools that courted and won him, because as a black quarterback as late as the late '80s, Rubin suggests after a number of hard interviews with those who should know, Campbell was never given the chance to be a playing member of either team. Valuable off the field and out of reach of rival programs, according to coaching theory: maybe. On the field calling the shots: no maybe about it, no. Just as Campbell was not calling the shots, definitely, in a courtroom in 1995 in Batesville. The charge: capital murder, alongside one Lanardo Myrick, in the death of one Freddie Williams. For a full rundown of that court's proceedings, no better witness could you find than Richard Rubin.
But, seven years after the jury's verdict, on the subject of Mississippi, on the subject of Rubin's year there, what he learned, the friends he made, this uninterrupted word-for-word from the author, wiser than when he first arrived and on the subject of leaving:
"I love Mississippi. I do. I consider it one of the most fascinating places on earth. I got to Mississippi, and I didn't know anything about it except what I'd seen in documentaries about the civil rights movement. And that's worth learning about, no doubt. But if that's all you know, it's like visiting New York and all you know about it is the crime. So I was ... my guard ... I was disarmed by the almost universal warm welcome. I was made to feel like a valued member of society. And that can be intoxicating. But I was wary.
"Then I started to think, Hmm, maybe this isn't so bad. This is really nice. And I started to think maybe I should stay. Then I had this moment when I was walking around the cemetery in Vaiden with these two wonderful ladies. I'd got to be friends with them, still am, and I had this burning desire to be of the place. I wanted more than anything else at that moment to be just completely of Mississippi and of the South. And then I noticed that the cemetery was segregated, and it was just ... To call it a slap in the face is not to do my feelings justice. It was as if someone had grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me very hard and doused me with cold water. In essence, I had overlooked ...
"Early on, I'd discovered that there were people who could be very nice to me and to other people and at the same time be really awful to another set of people just because that other set of people was black. And I never figured out what to do with that. I began to compartmentalize, to take the good and to a certain extent ignore the bad or at least not confuse it with the good. What happened that day in Vaiden was increasingly ... I wasn't able ...
"F. Scott Fitzgerald said, 'The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.'
"Clearly, I don't have a first-rate mind. I didn't know what to do with the fact that the same people who were so wonderful to me, some of the finest people I've ever met, were at the same time, a lot of them, racists. And that started to work on me. I felt I had to leave Mississippi to keep from going crazy. I actually made a point of not talking to my family too much. The 'disconnect' was too great.
"But this paradox ...
"This book is my way of saying I don't work in Greenwood anymore. Finally, I can say what I think about it all."
The late John Emmerich -- who told Rubin after his first full day in Greenwood, "I don't want to know when I read my newspaper what
Richard Rubin is thinking, and I don't want to be able to figure it out" -- must be, somewhere, all ears.