Pam Johnson’s Justice for Ella is a story about a courageous battle against white supremacy in 1959 Mississippi. It’s an irresistible feel good story that would make an entertaining movie.
The book’s leading characters are Ella Gaston and Jewell McMahan of Hattiesburg. Ella is black. Jewell is white.
While visiting family in Noxubee County, Ella and her husband Nelse are pulled over and arrested for being black. Jewell McMahan and her husband Bryce come to their friends’ rescue by bailing them out of jail and funding their legal defense to the State’s bogus charges.
The book follows the case through the legal system from Justice Court to Circuit Court to the Mississippi Supreme Court to the State’s eventually throwing in the towel. The story contains all the good ole boy racism and intimidation you would expect from 1959 Mississippi.
Ultimately, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed Ella Gaston’s conviction due to inconsistencies in the cops’ testimony and improper rulings by the trial judge.
It is impossible to imagine the stress put on the Gaston and McMahan families by this event. This was as ugly of a time period as Mississippi has ever seen. Post Emmett Till and Brown v. Board of Education, white Mississippians were not handling well the prospective end of their “way of life.”
The same year (1959), Mack Charles Parker was kidnapped from the Pearl River County jail and lynched by a gang of vigilantes. No one was ever charged for the crime even though the entire community knew the identity of the perpetrators.
It had to take a huge amount of courage to fight an unfair and rigged system in that environment. It would have been much easier–and arguably safer–do just take the railroad job like so many other African Americans had to in that era. The fact that the Gastons and McMahan’s didn’t is an unbelievable testament to their character and courage.
Mississippians can’t have enough literature about this era in the State’s history. Justice for Ella is a rare feel-good story from this time period.
Here is journalist Bill Minor’s column on Justice for Ella.
Here is a Kirkus review of the book.