Malcolm Wright

Background*

Born in 1900, Malcolm Wright grew up in Chickasaw County, in the northeast corner of Mississippi. In 1949, the year he was killed, Wright and his wife Virginia were tenant farmers on another man’s land. On Saturdays, the farm families in the area would take a break from the tedium of the cotton and soybean fields and gather in the small town of Houston, the county seat, to enjoy each other’s company, share some gossip, shop for the week, and perhaps send the children to the movie theatre.

July 2, 1949, was such a day. Around 3 o’clock that afternoon, the Wrights were on their way into Houston in a mule-drawn wagon, with Malcolm holding the reins on the two mules, Virginia sitting next to him, and the children in the back, balanced on the boards that lay across the wagon and holding umbrellas to shade themselves from the sweltering heat. Five of the couple’s seven children were in the wagon while the two older boys, both teenagers, were in town working on their Saturday jobs. Trying to keep her young ones amused, Mrs. Wright had given them each a stick of gum and was singing with them when a black Ford truck, travelling in the opposite direction on two-lane Thorne Road, passed the wagon about a mile and a half from town. One of the occupants hurled a racial insult at Mr. Wright and shouted that he should quit “hogging the road.” The driver of the truck drove some distance and then made a U-turn, pulling in parallel to Mr. Wright’s wagon and positioning the truck so that the wagon could go no further. Mr. Wright stopped, turned back to his children and told them to keep quiet. Three young men alighted from the Ford. The men later testified that as they passed him the first time, they heard Mr. Wright say to them, “you boys are drunk,” which is why they double-backed to confront him. One of the men, James Moore, removed a bumper jack from the back of the truck, came up to the left side of the wagon and, with James “Red” Kellum’s help, pulled Wright out of his seat. As Wright knelt on the road, Moore stood over him and struck him with the bumper jack. The mules skittered along the road, and Mrs. Wright looked back and saw her husband’s skull split open and blood gushing out on the ground.

The three men in the Ford truck were James Moore, 20, Eunice Gore, a 22 year old serviceman on a pass from Keesler Field in Biloxi, and James “Red” Kellum, 23. After the attack, Moore drove directly to town, where he confessed to Deputy Sheriff T.A. Bryant that he had killed Wright. Returning to the scene of the crime with the three men, Deputy Bryant was shocked to find the victim’s body prostrate in the road, his head “popped wide open.” “His skull,” Bryant later reported, “was burst open clear down to his temple.” One of the officers observed that there were two wheel tracks in a ditch at the side of the road, indicating the wagon had pulled over. The officers placed the three men under arrest and detained them on a murder charge.

Legal Status

The slaying of Malcolm Wright alarmed and outraged much of the Chickasaw community, for Wright enjoyed an excellent reputation as a hard worker and honest family man. It was well known that two of Wright’s brothers who lived in the area were white: Ed Watkins, Malcolm’s father, was a white man. Many of Wright’s Chickasaw neighbors, white and black, contributed over a thousand dollars to hire a prosecutor from Greenville, Willard McIlwain, to assist the Chickasaw county attorney. The widely publicized case was handled, on both sides, by well-known lawyers from around the state.

At the arraignment for the three men on July 8, before a panel of three justices of the peace, a thousand people crowded the courthouse. Deputy Sheriff Bryant observed that feeling in the community had been “running pretty hot” since Wright had been, as one local newspaper put it, “mauled to death.” Forecasting their defense, attorneys for the accused told the three justices that after Wright was told to “stop hogging the road,” he became indignant and grabbed a piece of scrap iron, at which point one of the men in the truck went for the bumper jack to defend himself. Apparently unimpressed by the self-defense claim, the panel held two of the three defendants without bail; it was said to be the first time in the history of the state that white defendants accused of crimes against blacks were denied pre-trial release. The soldier, Gore, was released after posting a bail and sent back to Biloxi, while Kellum and Moore were detained until November 9, when a $5,000 bail was set in their cases. Defense requests to sever the cases and for a change of venue were granted.

The case was set for trial in April 1950 in neighboring Calhoun County. The prosecutor, A.T. Patterson of Calhoun, proceeded first against James Moore, who he described as the most culpable of the three men. An all-white male jury comprised largely of farmers was sworn in and the trial commenced before a courtroom filled with 350 people, mostly white Chickasaw Countians, the largest crowd in memory. About a dozen African-Americans, most of them family members of the Wrights, occupied the last row in a corner of the packed second floor courtroom. Three prosecutors and two defense attorneys constituted the legal teams.

The victim’s thirteen year old son, Henry, pointed to the bumper jack and demonstrated for the jury how Moore wielded it to strike his father, bended on his knees in the road, on the head. Mrs. Wright and her eldest daughter, Mary, testified that the men in the black truck were the aggressors, but that they did not actually see Moore strike Wright because the mules skittered when Wright was pulled from the wagon, and the jolt knocked them off of their seats on the wagon boards. One of the other children, Inez, who was 8 years old, had seen Moore beat her father, but she was deemed to be too young to take the stand.

Moore testified on his own behalf, asserting that he acted in self-defense. On the stand for thirty minutes, he claimed that after Malcolm Wright said “you boys are drunk,” he circled back around and Kellum climbed up the wagon wheel to grab from Wright a piece of iron he was holding. Wright fell out of the wagon, Moore claimed, which led him to go back to the truck for the three foot long bumper jack. Six-foot three inches tall and 185 pounds, Moore told the jurors that, fearing for his life when he saw Malcolm Wright “come at” him with a piece of iron, he swung the bumper-jack at the victim. Eunice Gore supported Moore’s claim of self-defense. Gore testified that “Kellum put his foot on the. . . wagon wheel and reached up to Wright,” at which point “the negro drew back his right handing holding the iron and Kellum jumped back.” Gore claimed Moore then “swung the jack,” causing Wright to roll out of the wagon.

Casting doubt on the defendants’ version of events were two Houston police officers and two Chickasaw County deputy sheriffs. The four lawmen conducted the initial investigation of the slaying, and informed the jury that when the men were apprehended, nothing on their bodies evidenced any kind of a struggle.

In his closing argument, defense counsel observed “we’ve had quite a bit of the racial question in newspapers… with all this publicity, I still don’t believe we’re so jittery that we’d convict a white man for killing a negro simply because of this situation.” For his part the prosecutor admonished the jurors that “you cannot murder for past-time – let’s cut that out and we’ll save our reputations and our boys.” The jury returned with its “not guilty” verdict on April 4, 1950. In September 1950, the prosecution dismissed the charges against Kellum and Gore.

Post Script

After the trial, the victim’s widow and her seven children remained in Chickasaw for two years. The two eldest sons, Malcolm Jr. and Sid, dropped out of school to care for the family. Finding it impossible to make ends meet, and fearing for their safety, Virginia Wright moved her family to Missouri in January1952, where they farmed. This proved almost as challenging as Mississippi, for they had left all their farm animals and equipment behind in Chickasaw. In August 1952, Mary Wright, then 18, left Missouri to finish high school and find work in Chicago, and finally, by 1960, all the family members were able to join her there. Virginia Wright, who never remarried, passed away in 1990 at age 83. One of her children, Sid, died in 2005, and the remaining six live in Chicago, Texas, Phoenix, and Demona, Israel. Virginia Wright and Sid Wright were not interviewed about their experiences before they passed away.

James Moore, who was one of ten children, married after the death of Malcolm Wright in July 1949 but before his trial in April 1950. He farmed and raised his family in Chickasaw County, and passed away there in 2010. His wife and children live in Houston. James’ only surviving brother, John “Pap” Moore served for many years as the Mayor of Houston and as a county supervisor, and he owns a restaurant in town. James “Red” Kellum also remained in Chickasaw County. He suffered from ill health for much of his life and passed away in 1971. As for Eunice Gore, after he was discharged from the service he spent his whole life in Chickasaw County, raising a family and working as a carpenter. He passed away in January 2012. His wife and children live in Houston.

January 2013

*These facts are drawn from newspaper accounts, court records, and interviews with Malcolm Wright’s cousin, Columbus, with whom he grew up, and his children – Malcolm, Jr., Henry, Mary, Alice, Inez, and Columbus.