Hardly an hour’s drive away from the village of Money, nestled in hilly woodlands and backed by a national forest, Oxford looked like a magnolia-scented citadel holding itself apart from the Delta’s social quagmires. Home of the University of Mississippi, the town mixed tranquility with student energy. I felt we’d stepped back in time from the raggedy world of campuses in the West. The kids we met were unfailingly polite, and so retro in the male students’ fashions of short-shorts or shirts tucked (!) into khakis. Old time Southern manners disarmed—I was “sir”ed more in one evening than in a whole year back home in Denver—all so sincere and natural that a Northerner used to brusqueness might just want to linger in the graciousness.
But the incident the campus is most famous for is not so gracious—just one more iconic case of Southern anti-hospitality. When African-American airman James Meredith won a Supreme Court appeal to attend the all-white university in the fall of 1962, he was met with local cruelty and state obstruction. The threat of mass hostility was so great that President Kennedy reluctantly sent in U.S. Army and Military Police battalions along with National Guard support for “battleground” conditions. On-campus riots against Meredith’s admission grew so violent that U.S. officers were shot in a burning car while armed locals killed a journalist and a young onlooker.
Visiting Ole Miss on a warm fall evening, George and I were told to “turn right at Meredith statue” as if it had been integrated, no pun intended, into mental models of the campus map, commemorating Meredith’s solitary steps into the administration building. Strolling, George and I did spot African-American athletes and cheerleaders around the stadium and random black faces in the central campus. Current black enrollment was nearly 17 % of the student body, but the overall impression was of a white fantasia, a bleached Mississippi spit-shined until it reflected back exactly what white Mississippi would like to be.
The 50th anniversary of Meredith’s admission was fully commemorated with educational programs, but the 79 year-old alumnus himself did not attend, finding nothing to celebrate and likening it to Germans celebrating the destruction of Berlin. In fact, Meredith called for the destruction of the 2006 statue erected in his honor, calling it “hideous.”
A month after the 2012 commemoration, on the night President Obama won re-election, a group of Ole Miss students rampaged on campus, breaking today’s apparent racial harmony when about 40 attendees at a pro-GOP rally felt blindsided by Romney’s loss. Animated by Twitter-fed fictions about counter-riots, fires, and gunshots, the group burned Obama signs, chanting “The South Will Rise Again” while the crowd grew to four hundred, including campus parents.
Though the rally remained a minor campus incident gone South, it made national news and stirred controversy in Oxford. Given the university’s tarnished image, Dr. Don Cole, assistant chancellor for multi-cultural affairs, told George and me that any racial incident on campus would be magnified. “We dug ourselves into a hole with our past and now we’ve got to dig out, above and beyond mere obligation.”
An African American and Mississippi native, Don has a startling story of his own, having dug himself out of a hole he most emphatically did not dig. He entered Ole Miss as a freshman only six years after Meredith’s admission crisis, experiencing the same raw racism. White students waved rebel flags in his presence, threw garbage at him, and shoved him off sidewalks. Eventually earning his PhD in mathematics, Don joined the faculty and later was tasked with raising racial awareness as part of student orientation. He added the Romney Rally Incident to the orientation program, insisting that students face misguided attitudes directly. He saw much of the misconduct growing out of the students’ range of backgrounds in social growth. Don saw racial awareness as a seamless part of the university’s educational mission, lamenting so much rigorous training in math and sciences but so little in social education.
George asked if there was any negative pushback from faculty.
“No, I have support from higher up,” Don said, adding a curiously measured phrase: “I’m not overly disappointed with the faculty on racial issues. Good guys in the North correct themselves quicker. It’s slower for folks to step up here, so bad guys get away with more.”
Though he saw the South’s social flaws so clearly, Don saw himself as “a black Southerner first,” before any other identity, whether American or Mississipian. “I still love the South,” he said, easing back in his chair with a wistful smile. “I still have hope for it. I want it to be the region that will liberate itself from the bondage of race.”
As I learned of Don’s work raising awareness and encouraging critical thinking about Mississippi’s past struggles and present progress, I felt satisfied that we’d ended our Mississippi journey in Oxford. We had travelled through what gets celebrated in the region’s history, what’s ignored, and what’s deliberately left out. We’d explored Vicksburg’s myths about its past, from getting stuck in that VFW pageant at the restored Civil War warship, through the military park historians’ still coping with warring views of history, and along the creaky planks of the Old Courthouse Museum. Greenwood seemed to be just waking from a prolonged nightmare, still stuck in racial divides, slowly revitalizing as it emerges from its long era of enforced inequality. Here in Oxford, our endless Southern conversation returned to how history is or is not commemorated, and how the collective memory grows dim unless we all keep on talking.
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.