A Psychotic Sleeping Beauty: On the Road to Greenwood, Mississippi
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.
This American Life aired a good segment in November (2013) about housing discrimination, and the terrible repercussions that ripple out from it.
They based the hour on a Propublica report: Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law, by Nikole Hannah-Jones.
That law was the Fair Housing Act of 1968, a law that was a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed in large part because of the Birmingham campaign, and the nation’s coming face to face, in their living rooms, with what discrimination and segregation looked like.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was, of course, the figure we most associate with that legislation because of his leadership in Birmingham.
King was also the man behind the Fair Housing Act. His blood was what finally spurred northern legislators to vote for it.
This Greenwood visit reminded me of that in a couple ways.
First, the South’s slightly whiny self-defense that the North is just as racist. The Fair Housing Act is evidence on their side. As long as the ideal of civil rights wasn’t in their backyard—or rather, next door, down the hall, or across the street—Yankees were all for it. Once it was a matter of their own neighborhoods, the ideal went out the door and the rocks flew, like in Cicero, Illinois, where a white mob hurled bricks and injured King.
Second, the right-wing/South’s/Tea Party’s idea that government should stay out of people’s business because regular people know better than the feds and because a do-gooder social-engineering government may mean well but they’re bound to be ineffectual because, well, they’re the government.
Their leaders, in their hearts, know that’s not true. Hannah-Jones’s work shows how horribly effective the racist federal government was in the 1930s and on in segregating neighborhoods through red-lining, a practice that began with the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, created in 1933. They gave home loans to white people living in white neighborhoods, and were a powerful force in building the white middle class. They intentionally and systematically excluded African-Americans.
The Federal Housing Administration followed suit. Hannah-Jones writes: “A 1938 manual for the FHA encouraged officials to avoid mixing ‘inharmonious racial or nationality groups’ and ‘the occupancy of properties except by the race for which they are intended.’… It took just 60 years—not even a lifetime—to divide communities in nearly every metropolitan area along racial lines. Northern cities had become the most segregated in the country, analysis of census data shows.”
The right-wing, as far as I know, never had a problem with this kind of government interference in the marketplace. Why is it only when the government appeals to our better angels that it becomes, in their minds, tyrannical?
In our corrosive meantime, what we inherit from malign governmental neglect and outright state-sanctioned injustices is an ever-more-damaged world. The social, economic, and psychic hurt that injustice and poverty inflict is so long lasting, more like an infected, open wound than a scar unless the infection is contained. Redeemed, even.
Time to be brave, and stop being so afraid of our sisters and brothers, and their children.
Easy to say, harder to do.