“The past is never dead,” wrote Mississippi writer William Faulkner. "It’s not even past.”
I grew up in Missouri, digging up Civil War relics and arrowheads from the nearby woods and thought it was the Midwest until I came north and realized how southern my upbringing really was. Southern, yes, but I learned how ironies of the South reflect our ambiguity as Americans. We are a people, both violent and caring, earnest and lazy, righteous and mean, rich and poor. We totally believe we're right, even when we're wrong. Often there's a huge gap between our manners and morals.
The South might be by turns peculiar, but it is certainly as American as anywhere else. Millions of people moved from the South to Chicago and Indiana during the Great Migrations of the 20th Century, bringing their southern-ness with them. Now when I read terrible stories about Mississippi, the most southern of the southern states, I always see connections to the poorest places up north and wonder why, why, why?
Why does Mississippi have such a large black population—and so many white elected officials? Why has it provided such poor education—and count as its own so many Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners? Why are Mississippians the most religious, church-going folks in the country—and continue to bear witness to institutionalized injustice? Why do the majority of its schools teach abstinence-only sex education—to students who have the highest rates of teen-age pregnancy, unwed motherhood, HIV/Aids, gonorrhea, infant mortality and divorce?
In October I went to Mississippi to try to figure some of this out. My friends Mary Shaw, Betsy Nore and I went on a road trip sponsored by the Mississippi Center for Justice. Along the way, many of my questions found answers involving racism, voter suppression, redistricting, huge changes in farming, the collapse of an untenable economy, and what another Mississippi author, Willie Morris, calls “the sad barbarism of intransigence."
We also discovered that the people of Mississippi are far, far from giving up. They are proud, at once celebrating pieces of the past (which indeed, isn't even past) and they're working from “kin to cain’t” (sunrise to sunset) to figure out how to build a better future.
The people who designed our road trip (there were about 40 of us on a nice new bus) managed to create memories from the memories of others; to put us in places where the meaning of moments, past and future, surrounded us. They shared incidents recorded in books and on film, and those of legend and lore. People told stories. Bubbles intersected. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
We started out with the Mississippi Justice Center's "Champions of Justice" dinner, where more than 600 guests listened to great speeches from people who had worked hard for civil rights.
William F. Winter, who is white, served the state in various leadership positions and as governor from 1980 to 1984. He spoke passionately. "We live in a country under a social contract. We pledge to each other our lives, our futures, our social honor. We are all in this together. . .the human race."
"This is the richest country in the world," he said, "and don't tell me we can't afford to do the right thing by all!"
Winter was preceded by Myrlie Evers, the wife of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Myrlie described her life as a black woman, her neighborhood, her husband's life, and the terrible night he was murdered on their carport. The next day we visited that house, saw the bullet holes, the press accounts, the remains of a normal life that was never really what most of us think of as normal.
That night I was reading a great book, "Freedom Summer" by Bruce Watson, who describes the summer of 1964 when more than 700 Americans, many just out of law school, came to Mississippi to encourage black people to register to vote. The movie, "Mississippi Burning", addresses this time. Only seven percent of the state's black people voted then; many lost their jobs or were targeted with violence if they tried. They were scared. That's the summer when some of those civil rights workers were murdered by segregationists.
Back on the bus, I realized that some of the people on our tour were having kind of a reunion—they had come to Mississippi that summer of '64. They went door to door; they staffed "Freedom Schools" to help people know their right to vote. They helped conduct "parallel voting" in churches for people who couldn't officially vote. Later they worked as lawyers to help ensure fairness under the law regarding voting rights, education, disaster relief and foreclosures. It was fascinating to hear them talk, reminding each other of what cases they took, what judges they stood before, what they won and lost.
It felt like a pilgrimage, drinking with 20 or 30 Atticus Finches from "To Kill A Mockingbird"—only we weren't drinking, and the lawyers were black and white and men and women.
As the bus wound it's way through (genetically modified, we learned) cotton fields (brown-black prickly plants with puffs of soft white) and one-after-the-other Pay Day Lending stores, Justice Center staffers described what they were doing. Little lightbulbs brightened in our heads.
Mississippi juries were selected from almost completely white voting rolls—no wonder white men were never convicted of killing black men. Towns changed their borders to ensure majority white populations—there could never be a black majority. Segregation of public schools lasted much longer in the south—white academies were set up and White Citizens' Councils were formed to stifle legal rights of black people. The concept of "separate but equal," many said, was pure "spin."
We went to the terrific new B.B. King Museum which made sense of the great musician's life—through sound, photos, words, videos and memorabilia. The Blues sound different when you see the cotton fields where the singers toiled; the shacks where they lived; the dirt roads where they hitched-a-ride.
Lots of people around here remember reading about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. His cousin, Wheeler Parker, was on the bus with us. Emmett came south to visit relatives that summer. He ended up dragged from his grand-uncle's home at gunpoint, mutilated and murdered for "flirting" with a woman who ran a small grocery store where he went to buy candy. Wheeler Parker, 16 at the time, described how he went to the store with Emmett on a Wednesday, and was in the next bedroom that Sunday night, when armed men came and took Emmett away. We went to that store.
"He was a funny, wise-cracking kid," said Parker. Folks up north were a little worried how he'd relate to Jim Crow." He didn't remember Emmett doing anything close to flirting with the woman in the store, but someone testified in court that he whistled at her. "He was a stutterer," said Parker. "His folks always told him to whistle when he started to stammer. He whistled, all right, I'm here to tell you. But not the way they said."
We went to a little white church in the middle of nowhere, the Little Zion M.B. (Missionary Baptist) Church, that was featured in the movie "The Help", and heard about the great composer and guitar player Robert Johnson, who wrote "Sweet Home Chicago" and lots of other classic blues tunes. Folks who knew folks who knew who killed him told about how he died and where he was buried. We listened to four delta women, The Heavenly Voices, sing the most beautiful harmonies we ever heard. Afterwards, a lapsed Catholic and a lapsed Jew agreed they'd both go back to church again if those gals were singing.
That night, while another old guitar player sang the blues, we rambled in the moonlight, whiskies in hands, to Robert Johnson's grave.
Next day, we stopped at Poor Monkey Lounge, one of the last remaining Delta juke joints, a one-room house lived in and operated by William Seaberry. "It used to be open two nights each week," said our fabulous guide. "That's when the girls from Memphis used to come down on Mondays, so they started calling Thursday night 'Family Night'.”
No way, we thought, could we all fit into this gray wooden shack. But we did, easily. It was a living metaphor of the trip; we were surrounded by the past, but very much in the present. Toys and photos and doo-dads and streamers dangled from the ceiling and stuck to he walls. Music oozed from the stage. They served us three kinds of locally-made hot tamales, beer and wine. There was no way to take a picture—the whole thing was just too 3-D. In our world of "just-like-the-last-one" roadside restaurants, Poor Monkey stands as testimony—authenticity can not be franchised.
Then we went to the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss, and visited an elegant and relevant presentation of artifacts from times of slavery, the civil rights movement, plantations, blues and the KKK.
Afterwards, we sat on the steps of the lyceum where Curtis Wilkie, a grey-haired journalism professor, described the riots 50 years ago, when James Meredith tried to integrate the university. Wilkie was there. He described the unending suffocating tear-gas cloud, the dorm he hid in "right over there." That evening, he circled around and watched trucks pulling up with segregationists out to fight the national guard. "Doubt if most of 'em made it through the sixth grade," he said, "and there was a definite dearth of dental work."
"I wish I was one of the few students who went up to Meredith later and asked if he wanted to have a cup of coffee," he said. "I didn't. I wish I did, but I didn't."
Then we had a great dinner in Oxford. One of the 1964 lawyers told me how fondly he remembered Dr. Ernst Borinski, a Jewish professor from Eastern Europe, who conducted forums where black and white students got together and talked about how to achieve social justice. He was part of a PBS documentary and an exhibit called "From Swastika to Jim Crow" about professors forced to leave Nazi Germany, who came to black colleges in the south like Tougaloo College.
Next day it was time for William Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak. Again, we had a terrific docent who told us stories about the amazing writer, who showed us once and for all in "Absalom, Absalom" why the South is different and yet the same as the rest of America: miscegenation. Our guide told us about other authors who stole Faulkner's words now and then, and how the people he was cranky with probably deserved it.
The great southern writers say that each and every one of us human beings carry our pasts into our presents—in our genes and memories and histories and families and land. We embody all the lessons learned and not learned, all the wars won and lost, all the money made, saved, lusted-after or squandered, all our ancestors' unions loving and unloving. We carry all this inside of us—north, east, south and west. In that flat cotton delta land of Mississippi, we were honored to see and feel our shared past rise up around and through us in higher relief.
Denise DeClue is a playwright and screenwriter, whose credits include the movie "About Last Night" and the musical, "City on the Make." Denise lives in Beverly Shores, Indiana.