Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Book Review: The Final Curtain

Author: Judge W.O. “Chet” Dillard
Publisher: Outskirts Press, Inc.
ISBN: 978-1-4327-0443-8

Dillard writes from the unique vantage point of one who served for 45 years in the Mississippi state judicial system. This book is the third volume of Dillard’s account of pivotal civil rights events that took place in Mississippi, which may have been the most brutally oppressive of the Jim Crow states.

In The Final Curtain, Dillard focuses primarily on the legal proceedings related to the assassination of Medgar Edgars, the NAACP’s Mississippi field secretary, in 1963; the kidnappings and murders of three civil rights volunteers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, in 1964; and the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer’s home, in 1966. Dillard’s discussion includes information about the FBI investigations of these crimes, the agency’s use of Mafia informants to gather information and his personal insights into judicial theory and practice. The latter half of the book presents of many of the source documents that Dillard used in his research.

Dillard’s experience and research cover an immensely important era in American history. In fact, two of the cases have been documented in dramatic Hollywood films, a fact that Dillard notes in his book. The Evers assassination and the subsequent investigation and multiples trials of Byron de la Beckwith were portrayed in Ghosts of Mississippi. The case of the three collegiate civil rights activists was the subject of an earlier film, Mississippi Burning. It is probably safe to say that the Dahmer case is the one with which the American public is the least familiar. To my knowledge, no film about it has been produced, nor has it been chronicled in print as widely as the other two events.

In addition to providing some information that may not have been widely available previously, Dillard’s account includes interesting reflections on legal theory and processes. Dillard acquired these insights throughout a long and honorable legal career and they are valuable. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the book is badly marred by discontinuity. The book lacks any sense of narrative and scans like a disjointed memoir rather than a cogent account of significant and fascinating events. Dillard flits from chapter to chapter across themes that are strung together by weak transitional paragraphs rather than topical coherence. On occasion, Dillard’s text refers to the appended materials, but, for the most part, they are simply tacked onto the end of the book for readers to sort through on their own. He could have strengthened his account immensely by organizing his materials more lucidly and by integrating findings from his source materials more directly into the text rather than appending them. These two shortcomings detract significantly from the book’s appeal.

Aficionados of civil rights history in general, and events in Mississippi in particular, may find Dillard’s account a useful adjunct to materials they already have on hand. My advice to most readers, however, is to bypass this book and read some better-written alternatives instead. One such option that I recommend is John Dittmer’s Local People, an outstanding history of Mississippi’s civil rights movement that is more comprehensive, coherent and satisfying than Judge Dillard’s account.

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