A Time to Kill
A Small Town Inspires a Big Story Hernando, Mississippi
Jake’s office was a two-story building in a row of two-story buildings overlooking the courthouse on the north side of the square, just down from the Coffee Shop. The building was built by the Wilbanks family back in the 1890s, back when they owned Ford County. And there has been a Wilbanks practicing law in the building from the day it was built until 1979, the year of the disbarment. Next door to the east was an insurance agent Jake had sued for botching a claim for Tim Nunley, the mechanic down at the Chevrolet place. To the west was the bank with the mortgage on the Saab. All the buildings around the square were two-story brick except the banks. The one next door had also been built by the Wilbankses and had just two floors, but the one on the southeast corner of the square had three floors, and the newest one, on the southwest corner, had four floors.
– Chapter 3, A Time to Kill by John Grisham
Clanton, Miss., the setting of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, is a quaint town in northern Mississippi. Although Clanton is fictional, the town is inspired by real-life Hernando, Miss. Located just 12 miles south of Memphis along the Tennessee-Mississippi border, Hernando is 11.2 square miles and serves as the seat of DeSoto County government. With the Mississippi River flowing just 20 miles away, Hernando’s landmarks include the DeSoto County Courthouse (built in the town square in 1942 and placed on the National Registry of Historic Sites in 1997), Baptist Industrial College, and the Hernando Water Tower. Hernando first found itself in the national spotlight during the Civil Rights Movement. On June 5, 1966, James Meredith led the March Against Fear, an effort to show that blacks could exercise their freedoms without the aid of the National Guard. Scheduled to march from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., Meredith was shot en route while in Hernando. Fortunately, Meredith survived his wound and the march continued with the help of Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Floyd McKissick.
This history hung in the air in 1984 as John Grisham, then a young practicing defense attorney, sat as a spectator in the DeSoto County Courthouse and heard the gut-wrenching testimony of a 12-year-old girl describing the details of her rape. Grisham took her story to heart. Still working as an attorney, Grisham began arriving at his law offices at 5:00 a.m., giving himself two hours each morning to work on a novel in which the rape victim’s father retaliated. After years of work and rejections from almost 30 publishers, A Time to Kill was picked up and Hernando, through the guise of the novel’s Clanton, once again gained international renown.