LOUISIANA: Black Is the Color . . .

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"I reckon dyin' is black. Some folks say it's gold. Some say it's white as hominy grits . . . I reckon it's black."

Willie Francis ought to know what color death is. The skinny, slope-headed, 17-year-old Louisiana Negro saw and tasted death on May 3 as he sat and waited for it, strapped in Louisiana's portable electric chair. It tasted "like cold peanut butter," and took on "little blue and pink and green speckles, like shines in a rooster's tail" when the executioner whispered: "Goodbye, Willie."

But the executioner was crowding fate. For the first time in 24 tries, the chair failed to work. Convicted murderer Francis walked back to his cell to pray, and eat candy, and remember:

"They walked me into the room and I saw the chair . . . I knowed it was a bad chair. All I could think was: 'Willie, you goin' out'n this world.'

"They begun to strap me in the chair, and everything begun to look dazey . . . It was like the white folks watching was in a big swing, and they'd swing away and back and then right up close. When they put the black bag over my head, I was all locked up . . . with loud thinkin'.

"The electric man . . . could of been puttin' me on the bus for New Orleans the way he said 'goodbye,'" Willie recalled, "and I tried to say goodbye but my tongue got stuck in the peanut butter and I felt a burnin' in my head and my left leg and I jumped against the straps.

"When the straps kept cuttin' me I hoped I was alive, and I asked the electric man to let me breathe. . . . They took the bag off my head. . ."

While he waited for October and the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether he would have to face death twice, stolid, stuttering Willie Francis gave the world the sum of his experience. It was "plumb mizzuble."