In the Poorest Neighborhood in the Poorest City in the Poorest County in the Poorest State (or, Bless Your Heart, Mississippi)
Greenwood Pt. 2: Choking on History, Fake and True
The next morning, George confronted me about my (supposed) reluctance to exit possibly dangerous situations. I didn’t put up much of a fight, but felt bad that he thought I didn’t respect his position in strange Southern situations. It was true that I was easily distracted, like a cat with any shiny thing, and sometimes failed to consider where I was—where we were.
Already in the clueless-white-guy doghouse, still coffee-less, I was bummed and went to the motel’s breakfast room alone, ripe for one of the many mini-meltdowns inevitable on road trips. The coffee was nasty and weak, and no better with a heap of hydrologized “cream” and a “nutrition” bar drizzled with confection sugar. Eating healthy on the road wasn’t easy, any more than getting the truth from the overhead TV. A news review about the Supreme Court’s stripping of some voting rights protections was followed by an interview with TV contest dancers complaining “not enough people were voting”—for them. It was all brought to us by BP, a shiny happy commercial about saving the very Gulf they almost destroyed in 2010—along with miles of oil-slicked Mississippi shoreline. I wolfed down the tasteless energy bar, choking the fakery of it all. Why did we live like this, as if real information and real food were somehow so difficult to ingest and swallowing phony bullshit was so easy?
I ended up swallowing even more in the motel directory’s “history” pages—detailed accounts of the town and surroundings. Lauding the “high level of citizenship” among those who settled this swampy wilderness, the history pages told lie after lie, mostly lies by omission. The mythical Cavaliers, those refined English gents who supposedly settled the Southeast, got credit for spawning the area’s pioneers and making Greenwood safe from bears and panthers. The very name of the town, not a romantic evocation of woodlands, was glossed over; Leflore Greenwood was the last of the Choctaw chiefs, cheated out of agreements (surprise!) by white settlers eager to seize the native lands and exile Greenwood and his people to the Trail of Tears. Instead, the motel “history” informed me only that the Chief was unhappy because his cotton was exposed to the weather. The so-called War Between the States somehow “came to town,” unconnected to the previous mention of slave labor building lavish plantations or the later reference to Carpetbaggers who “molested or killed” families. Paragraphs upon paragraphs told Greenwood’s distant connection to the Battle of Vicksburg, but said not a word about Greenwood’s most famous event, the civil-rights Greenwood Movement and its role in enfranchising 40% of Mississippi’s citizens.
I needed a copy of the “Area History” pages for reference and asked the two young clerks at the motel desk for a Xerox. They giggled and told me I could keep the whole directory, that “nobody was interested in that stuff.”
“So what do your guests ask about Greenwood?” I asked.
“Not much.” The sprightly African-American clerk, still in her teens, shrugged. “Most people are just passing through. Some ask where the old time blues guy Robert Johnson is buried around here, and whether he really sold his soul to the Devil. Like I would know! But some people want to know about The Help and where scenes were shot.”
The other clerk was slightly older, sullen, and probably of South Asian descent. I’d been thinking about another Greenwood movie, 1991’s Mississippi Masala, Mira Nair’s interracial love story. I asked the sullen clerk if she’d ever seen it, since it portrayed an Indian-American family taking refuge in Greenwood, running (this very?) motel.
She showed a flicker of interest when I mentioned that it starred Denzel Washington, but then she collapsed back into closed-up sullenness. “I don’t know anything about old movies.”
So the motel girls let the curious aging nerd keep the Guest Services Directory. Now I could actually possess Fake History as George and I visited Greenwood by the light of day.
Despite a few larger homes and tidy blocks, the east side neighborhood near our motel was mostly a sad place pocked with emptied lots but busy with unoccupied men milling around shotgun shacks, many boarded-over. Not far was a school completely enclosed in barbed-wire fencing. We found the small neighborhood park where Stokely Carmichael gave a brief speech in 1966 that changed the tenor, and the course, of the racial equality movement. Carmichael became convicted that although admirable, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolent struggle might not be enough to bring real change. After being jailed prior to a Greenwood rally, Carmichael gave a talk in Broad Street Park, saying, “The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nuthin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!” According to his autobiography, the crowd agreed, chanting “Black Power!” Unusual for Greenwood’s civil rights locations, the Black Power site is commemorated with a Mississippi Freedom Trail marker, unveiled in Feburary, 2013. Shacks, abandoned lots, and the husks of once-intact homes ringed the park.
The contrast between east Greenwood and the slightly more prosperous black neighborhoods just west, not to mention the massively affluent white northern district, made me think of South African townships. Like them, the geographical separation between blacks in poverty and whites in prosperity was stark—demarcated by the fixed boundaries of railroad tracks and the river. But in another way, the situation was quintessentially American and easily seen in capitalist terms. There was simply no surplus wealth in east Greenwood except for the undervalued, undernourished human capital. Now we were in the poorest neighborhood in the poorest city in the poorest county in the poorest state—double the poverty rate of Mississippi as a whole. A public elementary school in north Greenwood had a state rating of 10 out of 10; the public schools south of the river were rated 1 or 3 out of 10. Pillow Academy, a “segregation school” founded by the White Citizens Council after court ordered integration in the 50s,
still flourished on the north side, siphoning off the white students when they leave that one good elementary school. All are welcome now, of course, provided they could afford the tuition, close to $6,000 a year–segregation 21st Century style, not measured so much by the color of skin as the thickness of bank accounts, which keeps Pillow’s black enrollment at 2% in a 70% black city.
We crossed the tracks back into downtown to explore Greenwood’s center in daylight, and, after passing through desolate blocks of once-grand, now abandoned stores, we did grow more encouraged about the town’s prospects. Near the courthouse, we found the only known coffeehouse in the Delta on a restoring corner of downtown, cater-corner from the old cotton exchange, and discussed the improving business climate with two blonde businesswomen. Businesses that had fled the south side of the river were moving back from the strip malls on Park Avenue. A jeweler with a newly relocated shop said that far from going downhill, Greenwood’s long decline was reversing thanks to reinvestment in the infrastructure.
Shazam. She was right. George and I looked around the immediate area,where improvements were obvious. We chatted with a contractor helping to restore the town’s old social center. Wrought-iron balconies graced Howard Street, now dolled up for a few blocks, complete with old-brick sidewalks and street pavings, before it declined to more empty storefronts, a wig shop, and of course, more empty lots.
It’s tempting to try out a metaphor of Greenwood as a microcosm of the South, but it’s probably more like America itself writ small, especially now, as we trick-out our Red and Blue versions of the same facts, contest the most basic truths of our history, and let the boundaries between haves and have-nots become as wide and inexorable as the Yazoo River. The jeweler’s perky optimism, though, rang in our ears as we left the town, passing the mini-and-mega mansions of Grand Boulevard. She told us the A-list Hollywood cast of The Help thought Greenwood was the “greatest place on earth, and now tourists are coming here from everywhere, imagine!” Crossing the Tallahatchie River, finally escaping town, I sighed a favorite Southernism, well, bless their hearts.
After the Tallahatchie Bridge, we entered a completely rural expanse of Delta farmland. Grand plantation houses dotted huge tracts of dark soil, bringing to mind that old Mississippi Delta play, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, set on a 50s plantation with the “richest soil this side of the river Nile.” Crossing the lands white interlopers stole from Choctaw, lands worked for untold decades by stolen people’s unpaid labor—through his harvest of America’s original sins, we were on our way to the town of Money. There we found the ruin of Bryant’s Grocery where Emett Till, a black schoolboy aged 14 in 1955, made his infamous “saucy” comment to the owner’s white wife and ended up mutilated and drowned in the Tallahatchie River .
We could see daylight through the remaining planks of the storefront, held up by vines. But a solid 2011 bronze Freedom Trail sign commemorating the event and its significance—it ignited Northern awareness of Southern white race violence—told the story true and forthright (bless your heart, Mississippi). Even after all this time and consideration of the event, standing there and reflecting on the last moments of that poor kid’s life was unspeakably sad.
Plus, What Billy Joe McAllister Really Did Throw Off the Tallahatchie Bridge
The Mississippi countryside north of Vicksburg looked exactly like it was supposed to—“a sleeping beauty,” I told George.
“I hope she doesn’t wake up,” he said, grumpy and travel weary as we crossed north into the Delta. Considering that George vowed he would “never set foot in Mississippi” before this trip, I was lucky to have him along. George’s father “mysteriously estranged” himself from his early roots in the state, and the way his son had talked, traveling to Mississippi would be as crazy as booking a journey to Hell.
Yet here we were, as deep as we could get into the state famous for its poverty and Jim Crow violence, following the Yazoo River along state route 3. As the late October afternoon grew darker, part of me freaked over what would happen if this sleeping beauty did wake up again, psychotic as she was in the 60s, when white-supremacist terrorism bloomed like cotton fields. But most fields were fallow now as the route went between quiet expanses of still-green pasture and tunnel-like tree groves, branches arching over the highway. Not a soul stirred around the modest farmhouses. Even the few dinky towns hid themselves, miles off the main road, down even quieter roads.
As we hopscotched country routes toward Greenwood, the heart of the old Delta economy (once the World’s Largest Inland Long Staple Cotton Market, don’t ya know?), where the Tallahatchie River emptied into the Yazoo. George, still grumpy, asked, “Why on earth we were going to Greenwood?”
“To discover once and for all why Billy Joe McAlister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge,” I joked feebly, but it worked. George, ever the chorister, started singing the great old Bobby Gentry song about a mysterious motive that drove Billy Joe to suicide. Soon, I would solve the mystery: Billy Joe McAllister jumped off that damn bridge because Greenwood drove him nuts, suspended too long between hope and despair.
I had lots of reasons to visit the town, which was an epicenter of civil rights history. The powerful segregationist White Citizens Council was formed in Greenwood in 1954. As with Selma, when local blacks were attacked for registering to vote in the early 60s, prominent figures such as James Meredith and Stokely Carmichael came to town to highlight the struggle, birthing the Greenwood Movement, and celebrities such as Dick Gregory and Harry Belafonte raised funds from afar. The very idea of Black Power was launched in a small Greenwood park.
But as night fell and we entered Greenwood, I wondered how solid my reasons were. Today it was probably another sleepy, dusty Delta town, maybe even a ghost of one. Our first impression was depressing. The main drag led through a block after block of empty, soaped-over storefronts–a dead zone. I had a horrible feeling that after the Movement’s successful store boycotts to gain voting rights, Greenwood had devolved into a place where no one shopped at all.
George was uneasy about hanging out in the town center after dark, so we walked across the Yazoo River and down Grand Boulevard. Though renowned for the grandeur of older and newer homes, some occupying entire blocks, used as a movie set in “The Help,” and now lavishly decorated for Halloween, Grand Boulevard was as lifeless as downtown. Crossing the river again, we did find a BBQ joint open near the courthouse. When we asked what else was available downtown, a bewildered young waitress stared as us blankly.
We got the message, but before we fled the abandoned streets, I wanted to ponder the inevitable Confederate statue at the courthouse. In 1962, when student Sam Block attempted to help register black voters here, the Citizens Council called to kindly inform him to stop or he would “never leave Greenwood alive.” This is before he was “beaten, shot at driven from SNCC headquarters by goons with chains and shotguns, and firebombed.” George told me the hell with the statue, we had to get going.
Trying to shut off my brain and act like a normal American in Vicksburg, Mississippi
How much mindless pageantry could I take? Our first morning in Vicksburg, I soon found out when we joined a “ladies auxiliary” ceremony in the Military Park. We faced the ruins of a Civil War battleship, spit-shined politicians, and rows of seated women arrayed in white, Old Glories resting on each shoulder.
Flagless, scanning the scattered Ladies Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, George and I took places in the back row. I tried to pass as a normal American, appreciative of our veterans while inside I seethed over how often we sent soldiers into pointless foreign battles. The speakers stood under the skeletal battleship, their speeches kicking off the Auxiliary’s national convention. Just waiting for my chance to interview the National Military Park’s superintendent, I didn’t belong here.
The whole ceremonial shebang piled cliché atop cliché, all of it as hollow and marooned in time as the USS Cairo hovering over us. I felt terrible. Like a heretic stuck in a church service—a familiar feeling—I knew I should shut off my brain and cede the field to the faithful people around me. Listening to the speakers’ endless invocations of the women’s sacrifices, I felt sure wives of war vets endured challenges beyond my comprehension. Their common costumes, shared songs, and flag ceremonies must bond them in comfort.
I hated the bind these pageants put me in. I didn’t want to be the prick who made light of war veterans’ spouses and their hardships. Yet judging by the ages of most attendees, the war most of these wives’ spouses served in was Vietnam. Vietnam. Since America’s interference in that Asian civil war was based on official lies and Cold War panic, it’s hard to reconcile that twelve-year nightmare with tears for America’s virtue or preserving our “freedom” in any way. This pageantry didn’t want us to think about that, only cover the bloody truth with showy patriotism.
George absorbed it all calmly beside me. He interpreted my freak-out as a non-military person’s naïveté. The son of an Army officer who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, he pointed out that I wasn’t a sports fan, either, so I didn’t get exposed to patriotic ceremonies at games. “It’s got a Southern spin to it, too,” he explained, “which you’d know if you ever watched NASCAR. These ceremonies just throw red meat at the audience. They don’t ask for reflection. That’s really how the ceremony dishonors these women, treating them as if they can’t think.”
After this one finally ended, George answered a VFW official’s inquiry by pointing out that the whole concept of a veteran’s “auxiliary” seemed dated. Following recent wars in which women soldiers played crucial roles, how would they and their husbands join or gain support from the future “wives” organization? And where would he, as the son of a three-war vet, find a place to fit in? The official hurried to agree and just as quickly, hurried away.
Maybe I wasn’t up on ballpark-and-racetrack patriotism, but I was already deep into another kind of competition. Our whole experience of Mississippi would set cruel truths against misty myths. Myths had the home advantages on the field.
Harrison, Arkansas Part 2
When four members of the town’s racial task force welcomed George and me into the meeting room at the Harrison Chamber of Commerce, we new immediately it was going to be okay. We just didn’t know it was going to be wonderful.
Maybe they’d been armed for bear, too, with snooping Northerners requesting this very meeting—only to bring more torment for their town? But their good humor, the warmth of their welcome and the sincerity of their tone made us all relax.
There might be grim comedy to this, the best hearts and minds in the all-white town trying desperately to reconnect to African Americans and getting nowhere because… well, whites had expelled the blacks over a hundred years before. But it wasn’t funny. Later I read some of the postings on articles about the billboard and felt what the task force was up against. In anonymous comments, citizens sparred with citizens over references to white power. Many posts showed deep confusion about white privilege in our country, an unexamined feeling of betrayal, and that whites were superior, yet under attack:
“If white people had a country of our own, none of this would be happening.
Racist white people lost the Civil War. Get over and stop being a whining b*tch!
Racist? You just call them that because they are white, that makes you anti-white. The greatest racists of our time is in power now, and they intend to use their power to make sure the are no white children in the future.”
On our visit, Harrison’s notorious new billboard was just another giant anonymous posting shouting over the town, the exact author or group sponsor unknown. Ironically, the task force measured its success in the wider community’s reaction to the billboard’s message. Phones lit up from random citizens demanding, “What are we going to do about it?” and in came donations from random folks, with letters objecting to the new billboard. Layne took that as validation of the task force’s place in the town’s consciousness as the go-to people to combat outbreaks of racism that shamed the community, insisting, “that’s the real story of Harrison.”
Of course, many people in Harrison suspected the Klan was behind the billboard. Nate explained that stirring up conflict was “the mating call of white supremacists” and wondered if global white power fanatics might be behind it, hiding racism behind accepted values. Such was the racists’ success at rebranding that a local Latina picked up a Klan flyer at a local event just to be polite.
All four task force members sighed in mutual exasperation. “We had to tell her,” Layne said, “that’s it’s okay to be rude to terrorists.”
Their candor pushed the meeting beyond small-town boosterism. I swear, it was something almost spiritual, which is hard for a non-spiritual, non-religious guy like me to admit. (In fact, for Patty, who was also the Chamber president, racial reconciliation was “almost a calling.”) To me, long-fallen Catholic, their work on the task force to improve racial relations had led them to embrace concepts similar to (gulp) Christian redemption. Not your usual Chamber of Commerce project.
It had been a long project, too, going back ten years, and without advisors or mentors. The task force found its way alone in the dark to overcome Harrison’s reputation. Their approach, after some stumbles, was simply to seek, then share, the light. “It’s just us, trying things out, nothing more,” explained Carolyn, who touched me with her quiet pride in the themes they’d gathered and settled on through the years—“Prepare our Community, Proceed with Civility and Respect, Reach Out in Reconciliation.”
George, ever the community activist, gently challenged the group to explain exactly they’d done to Reach Out. A lot, it turned out—prodding the community to celebrate MLK day, inviting speakers, encouraging links between Harrison students and diverse counterparts out there in the “real world.” But even Love Your Neighbor activities and peace forums didn’t guarantee success. They couldn’t engage the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a brainstorm about connecting black pastors hit a wall because Harrison had no black pastors. “I don’t know what do then,” Carolyn said of her failed outreach, repeating, “It’s just us, trying things out, nothing more.”
After our conversation and a whirlwind tour of Harrison’s town center, George and I found the scenic route to Little Rock, our next stop. Arkansas Highway 7 lived up to its promise as one of the most mind-blowing drives in the state, “if not the world.” As we crested over Ozark ridges exploding into autumn, I felt again the South’s seductive pull. It wasn’t just the scenery, though, but these encounters with Southerners doing their best to make the world a better place. They confronted the wrongs of their history, I thought, with more honesty and positive action than most Northerners.
It would be easy for any writer to play up stereotypes, whether those mired in Southern racism and its real hardships, or those of Southern hospitality and gracious living. That’s all just red meat to throw at Northerners, reassuring us in our smugness that the South is “special,” and “different,” like some brain-damaged stepchild. Even in these blogs I go for the catchy titles and clichéd lures about grits and the Klan. But everywhere in the real South there were people who really were special, moving forward, brave and persistent enough “to try things out, nothing more.”
Nothing more than the best we all can do.
George and I cracked stupid, nervous jokes about the likelihood we’d get in bad trouble on our way across the Ozarks in Arkansas. “You won’t be lynched,” George told me. “You have special white-skin immunity.”
“I think it wears off when I’m seen around a black guy,” I said. “Anyway, I might get lynched just for having Yankee license plates.”
We hid our uneasiness by playing up these ignorant Northern stereotypes about Ozark country. Never mind that local folks were cordial. Never mind that the autumn hills were drop-dead gorgeous, rolling through an outdoor-recreation mecca. Ever since I heard that Harrison, our small, isolated destination, had a notorious racial history I wanted to visit and see for myself.
George would later challenge how I dragged him into dubious or even dangerous situations. He was right about my impetuousness. I could always wear my white skin like a calling card while he wore a black one like a target.
That was no joke. Because nearly all of Harrison’s black community was chased out of town during racial turmoil in 1905 and 1909, the town had a terrible reputation in the region. On Halloween, Harrison kids in ghost costumes were accused of wearing Klan sheets. Even for racial reconciliation events, out of town students of color had to be coaxed to visit. Despite assurances and warm welcomes, minority visitors thought they’d need protection to survive their stay.
Inflicting one more gash in the town’s tarnished reputation, a Ku Klux Klan activist rented a Harrison Post Office box. Even though the Klansman lived in another town, he wanted that special Harrison address for his mailings. On our way to meet with town’s racial relations task force, George and I spotted a huge new billboard near our meeting place: Anti-Racism is A Code Word for Anti-White.
Huh? Maybe the weak motel coffee couldn’t wake our brains, but after a glance George and I didn’t really get the message. Then it dawned on us the billboard was accusing racial harmony advocates of attacking white people. Weird in a virtually all-white town.
In fact, the billboard had just recently attracted more unwanted attention to Harrison. Wikipedia had already posted that with the town’s “negative image…racial attitudes remain in question, as attested by a recent billboard sign on the eastern edge of town.” News media from as far away as Europe poised to pounce on Harrison’s need for “attitude” adjustment. The UK’s Guardian was already devoting ink to the town’s agony.
In town for only a day, I didn’t know what the hell to think. We arrived at our morning meeting with the task force unable to guess what would greet us behind the door—defensiveness, bitterness, suspiciousness of our motives for visiting? George looked grim. I figured he was loaded for bear.
But he would soon be disarmed, and so would I.
Free of fake history, but decked out in early 19th Century native Indian costumes, Travis and Jennifer spoke with straight-ahead 21st Century bluntness. In the hallway of Oklahoma’s only antebellum plantation, we had a hurried, intense conversation before a troop of giddy schoolkids arrived on a field trip. I was glad the kids would have these two student interns as guides.
When asked about Southern identity, Travis told us he was Cherokee first, Oklahoman second, and “not really much Southern at all.” From the eastern border with Arkansas, he seemed surprised that anybody would assume otherwise. His fellow docent at the Murrell Plantation, Jennifer, felt Choctaw first, but strongly Southern, too. She’d grown up close to Texas in far south Oklahoma and felt the pull of the heritage.
George and I met them in the rural, 1840’s mansion set in the rolling green pasture and woodland south of Tahlequah. Rumored to be haunted, it sure felt Southern, oozing gracious living with spacious interiors, period furnishings, and rough shacks just outside. This excellent restoration of Oklahoma’s only remaining antebellum plantation told the tale of rich European-American fortunes wed to Indian tragedy, just after the Trail of Tears exiled Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws and other tribes from Carolina and Tennessee. The plantation filled us with questions about the ownership of slaves and their role in the family’s success; Murrell himself had ties to the Confederacy.
Travis and Jennifer both felt their history educations steered them away from such Oklahoma atrocities as the 1921 Tulsa riots (not mentioned at all in their schooling). In their texts, the Trail of Tears “got a paragraph” Travis said, squeezing his thumb and forefinger. We talked about the pressure not to discuss painful episodes from history. The two young Indians felt their elders did not want to disturb the current peace under those old storm clouds.
The wood shacks turned out be early settler cabins moved to the grounds. When George and I walked a short distance into a natural area, a local man warned us about nearby “wild dogs.”
We learned about European-American wild dogs at the nearby Cherokee Heritage Museum. Exhibits told the Trail of Tears narrative, complete with 1830’s documents and re-created sound effects of the terrible conditions, the whiplash of cruelty. Not only did the whites steal the lands of the Southeastern tribes, but a staggering number of Indians died on the long forced march into Oklahoma.
This history is tough to face, but the museum presents it with dramatic clarity and elegance. A grace note is that upon leaving the Trail of Tears rooms, the exit takes the visitor through a gallery of native success stories in contemporary Oklahoma.
We had to hit the road, still freaked out by the cruelty of the Trail of Tears narrative. We were bound for a place that wasn’t necessarily going to make us feel any better: a town in Arkansas bedeviled by a rogue Klansman and notorious for having expelled its entire African-American population.
George, who is black, was not necessarily happy about my plan to stay there after sundown.