JACKSON, Miss. – One of the most penetrating stories to come out of the south, one that confronts race and class and heritage with brutal magnificence, is Eudora Welty’s Where Is The Voice Coming From? It tells of the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers – in the voice of his assassin, at the time unknown.
“’I says to my wife,’” the story begins, “’You can reach out and turn it off. You don’t have to set and look at a black n—-r face no longer than you want to, or listen to what you don’t want to hear. It’s still a free country…’”
Medgar Evers was the first field secretary for the NAACP and lived in Jackson, leading campaigns to end segregation at the University of Mississippi and to enact voting rights and social justice for people of color. On June 12, 1963, Evers was returning home at night, late; moments after he shut the door of his car in the driveway he was shot in the back as he turned toward the front steps, the bullet from a hunting rifle ripping out through his chest. Evers staggered, then collapsed on the driveway in front of his wife Myrlie. He died at a local hospital.
Welty’s story was published in The New Yorker magazine a month after Evers’s murder. It was the only story, she said, that she ever wrote out of sheer anger.
Nine days after Evers’s murder, Byron De La Beckwith was arrested, charged with the crime. After two failed trials and a long federal investigation, De La Beckwith was found guilty in 1994. An account of that trial, its history, and the movie about it, is found in the work of another southern writer, Willie Morris’s The Ghosts of Medgar Evers.
Welty is one of America’s greatest writers, her genius acclaimed internationally. She was the first living author to have her works published by The Library of America, and among her scores of awards are the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1980), the Pulitzer Prize (1973), National Medal of Arts (1986), National Book Award (1983), the Chevalier Legion of Honor by the French Government (1996), a pile of honorary doctorates, and more. She lived and worked her entire life from a proud Tudor house on Pinehurst Street in Jackson, a place her father, Christian Welty, had built for his family in 1925 and which is a national historic landmark.
It was built as a home that had, for its time, stunningly modern conveniences, including two full bathrooms. (Rare was the home, in those days, with more than one full bath.)
It is filled with furniture just as it was when she lived there, and crowded with her books, with a sloping front lawn and a large, fenced back yard with abundant gardens that Welty tended for decades. The house had a “modern” kitchen with a gas stove, electricity throughout, a sleeping porch and three bedrooms, the largest for Eudora, the only girl among the three children.
We signed on for a tour of the place, furnished exactly as it was in the 1980s – including books in shelves, books everywhere, magazines on tables, sheets and covers on beds, papers, pencils and typewriter at the ready near the desk in Eudora’s bedroom where she did most of her work. Near the bed, a stack of Agatha Christie mysteries, among her favorite thrillers and detective stories for relaxation. There are photos, notes, old manuscripts there for the reading; when editing, Eudora would cut and “pin” (not paste), sections of her work in place just as one would secure, say, the hem of a pant leg before sewing it.
The kitchen takes the visitor back, to a time when there were no microwaves, no dishwashers, no espresso makers or food processors, no wall ovens, no granite counter tops or sunken sinks. In this one, the stove was plain, a coffee percolator the only “modern” appliance on the Formica counter. In a corner, a trove of liquor, prominent with bourbon, Welty’s preferred libation. Welty reserved evenings at six o’clock for the pleasure of drinks with friends on the open back terrace, or covered front porch, depending on the weather and number of friends who happened by.
We can’t get it all in this brief column, but in short, Eudora was an avid traveler, cultivated an extensive network of literary friendships – among them authors Reynolds Price, Katherine Anne Porter, Ross Macdonald, and Willie Morris. She was a goddess among great writers of the 20th century. Fame, which came early and stayed with her for five decades, never corroded her lifestyle or her manners, a southerner just as likely as the next to invite you in for iced tea, or something stronger, egg salad sandwiches and a good long visit. She died in 2001, in Jackson, at age 92, leaving countless friends idle and in grief, her readers at a loss, and American literature banked against the semi-colon of her death.