Johnson's book brings Civil Rights Era to life

Mike Goree purchases a copy of "Justice for Ella" from author Pam Johnson, during Luncheon With Book
Staff Writer

Many people have no real grasp of what living in Mississippi was like for African-Americans during the 1950s and 60s. The news footage is available and there are books that broadly cover the Civil Rights Era. But when Pam Johnson heard the story of Ella and Nelse Gaston, who were arrested in front of their children and hauled off to the notorious Noxubee County Jail, she was horrified. She decided this was a story that needed to be told.

After realizing this was a book that needed to be written, Johnson worked on the tribute to not only African American women, but to all women, who at one time or another, have been marginalized and made to feel like second class citizens.

Johnson shared the story of "Justice for Ella" during Luncheon With Books, sponsored by Friends of the Library, at noon Wednesday.

"At the time I began my research, there was not as much talk about African American people and the police," Johnson said. "That has changed and is now being brought to light."

The situation that became the basis for "Justice for Ella" began on a Sunday afternoon in Shuqualak in 1955.

"It's about 'driving while black,’” Johnson said. "Now everyone is aware of what the phrase means. But during the time this took place, black people understood it all too well."

The couple and their children were pulled over, Nelse Gaston was dragged from his car by sheriff's deputies. He had done nothing wrong and didn't deserve how he was being treated. His wife, Ella, did not appreciate the treatment of her husband, and turned on the deputies, telling them to leave him alone. Both were hand-cuffed and taken to the Noxubee County Jail.

Johnson said the Gastons were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The couple were caught up in a manhunt for Nelse's cousin who had allegedly beaten up the city marshal.

"The court appearances and legal procedures resulted in Ella's being found guilty of intimidating an officer," Johnson said. "The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed and remanded her conviction on the grounds of racial prejudice, for the first time ever. But to keep Ella out of jail, and avoid a re-trial was the goal."

Her best friend, Jewell McMahan, concocts several plots to keep Ella from appearing in court.

"Justice for Ella" tells just one of hundreds of stories experienced by the brave souls who risked everything so that all Mississippians could live as first class citizens.