I HAD THIS MISSING WORLD … OF SHAKESPEARIAN LANGUAGE AND GREAT LOGOS, PATHOS, AND ETHOS WAITING TO BE MINED. essarily want to be in a Legal Services or public services setting. I wanted to live in a rural area. That’s all I knew about what I wanted to do as a lawyer. So I started hearing about the work that was then being done by what was called the Voters League and, of course, the NAACP in the first wave of redistricting. You may recall that David Richards and Paul Ragsdale, who was then in the Texas Legislaturehe was born in East Texas but he represented a district in Dallassystematically went around the counties of Deep East Texas where there was a significant African American population and filed lawsuits in William Wayne Justice’s court to realign the city and county commission with the percentage of African Americans. It was exciting work, the first generation of voting rights cases, and people on all sides could tell that that was going to change the landscape of Texas politics. The courts were being used to support very strong movements for social changeas I would argue they are today in a different part of the political spectrum. So, that was the legal milieu into which I came as a young lawyer, although the necessity to make a living meant that I was more focused on my own individual clients and my own modest cases. TO: Why were you so intent on practicing in a rural area? MM: I spent a lot of my youth in rural New England. My parents were smalltown people who had moved to bigger cities, like many Americans. I knew people who loved their land and loved their environment. When I moved to East Texas, [it was as if] I had moved back almost two generationspeople were in the same situation as people of very advanced age whom I had known in New England, vis-a-vis literacy, visa-vis living in the country versus coming into town and getting the kinds of jobs that would require different skills. There were still many people who had had to drop out of school in the third and fourth grade in the Depression, who could not read or write and had grown up in very stern versions of Protestantism. There was a lot of stoicism and one respects that. Of course the straight-up, in-your-face racialism was extraordinary to me. I would say as a footnote that that’s not unique to Deep East Texas. It was just more straight-up and sanctioned and out in the open. TO: The death penalty obviously figures prominently in Praise at Midnight. Was that work that you were involved in? MM: No. In the acknowledgements I credit my 12th grade teacher. I had a remarkable junior high and high school education. When I was in 10th grade, every one of my teachers had a Ph.D. It was the last bloom of the kind of uppermiddle-class Irish and other Catholic women who did not have any other outlet in the labor force. They went into the convent to get their education and to teach. My 12th grade project was to write on the death penalty. I thought I was hot stuff in my little Catholic school uniform in the New York State Law library reading the British report; the British had abolished the death penalty in 1953. There I was a few months shy of my 18th birthday and reading these dusty tomes about the best evidence of that time that had been accepted by the British judiciary and Parliament that showed that capital punishment was not a deterrent and it was not a cost-effective tool for any of the things that the legal system was set up to do. It was very important for me to hear it, but it ended up causing huge dinner-table fights with my father. My father was old-school. He thought that the cost-effective thing to do was to abbreviate all due process. I say that glibly because when you live in Texas, you have to figure out how to cope with living in a place with such a brisk trade in the capital punishment arena. I mean that with no disrespect of any side of the discussion or to the victims or to the perpetrators. But it resulted in a big ruckus at the family dinner table as I became more convinced by reading the experts of the British report. I sat with that knowledge and information. It lay dormant for a long time. I never wanted to do a death penalty case. I always thought of myself after a certain point as a journeyman lawyer and felt that anybody who was on trial for their life needed a masterand that wasn’t me. I came across that wonderful William Humphrey story that Genie Summer [a character in the novel] refers to in her colloquy with Hayden Shipley. And in June 1973, there was an unbelievable floor debate in the Texas Senate on the subject of reinstating the death penalty after the Supreme Court had invalidated the Texas statute. Of course, the opponents of the death penalty were consistently outvoted. Then finally, Bill continued on page 27 DECEMBER 2, 2005 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23
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