October 18, 2019 § 3 Comments
April 4, 2018 § 6 Comments
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis fifty years ago today.
Rev. King’s footprints crossed Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. He led a March Against Fear in North Mississippi, visited Jackson, Meridian, Philadelphia , and other locales, was instrumental in “Freedom Summer,” and spread his message of nonviolent change — but unrelenting, inevitable change — across the South. He died a southerner in the South, murdered while encouraging striking garbage-workers in Memphis.
Those of us alive back then recall how he was libeled as a “Communist,” charged with fomenting Black revolution, and hated because he insisted that America’s unjust, hateful system of Apartheid must end. His message was condemned by white politicians, many of whom capitalized on fear of desegregation among white voters to feather their own political nests.
But King, a martyr to his own cause, has over time prevailed. His remarkable life and untimely death were the catalyst for much change. Much of the racial interaction and Black achievement that we take for granted today would have been unimaginable in 1968.
King was right. History has proven him right.
1968 was a devastating year. In January alone, in Viet Nam the bloody seige of Khe Sanh began, the USS Pueblo was seized by North Korea, and the Tet Offensive rocked America’s confidence in the ever-expanding Viet Nam War. Later in the year, the nation was shocked by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and unsettled by the violent protests and police reaction in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. Prague Spring, led by Alexander Dubcek, brought the light of hope to Czechoslovakia in January, only to have it cruelly crushed by Warsaw Pact troops in August. “The Troubles” began in Ireland when police brutally beat protesters in Northern Ireland. Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not be a candidate for reelection as President after losing to Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary.
It would have been understandable were the Civil Rights Movement to have flickered out in the face of all this trauma, but the flame that Rev. King had lit was strong, and it burned bright, consuming and defeating hate, political expediency, and bigotry in its peaceful heat.
Fifty years along, our progress toward racial peace is not as advanced as Rev. King would have wished, but we are much further along than we would have been able to be without him.
January 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
We visited the National Civil Rights Museum the weekend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, birthday. The museum is in downtown Memphis, where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Dr. King had come to Memphis in support of a strike by Memphis garbage workers for better pay. He and his cohort, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, checked in at the Lorraine in adjoining rooms. The motel was their customary lodging whenever they were in the city. They stayed at the Lorraine so frequently that motel staff and the guests jokingly referred to their rooms as the “King-Abernathy Suite.” Dr. King was staying in Room 306. At around 6:00, p.m., he was standing on the second-floor balcony, chatting about plans for supper with some friends in the parking lot below, when the rifle shot took his life.
People were not as security conscious in 1968 as they are now. Police were posted nearby, but they were there primarily to keep away anyone who approached on foot or by automobile. No one gave any thought to securing the shabby boarding house across the street. The killer, James Earl Ray, shot Dr. King using a .30-06 rifle with scope. He shot from the small, upper-right window in the building with the white door, about 100 yards from his target.
Ray had to stand in a bathtub in his boarding house bathroom, resting his rifle on a widow sill, to fire at his target. You can see the motel through the window. For a rifleman with a scope, the shot was not challenging.
Much of the museum is closed now for refurbishing, so most of the exhibits one sees now focus on Dr. King’s assassination. When the museum is fully open, however, it offers exhibits interpreting the entire scope of the civil rights movement. Visitors during the renovation are able to access the balcony, which includes a look into Dr. King’s room as it was the evening of the assassination.
Exhibits … The first picture below depicts the exhibit showing the rifle used by the murderer, his jacket, a box of ammunition, and some other items discovered in the investigation that linked him to the crime.
The story of Ray’s stalking and murder of Dr. King, and his subsequent international pursuit and arrest by the FBI, are captured in riveting detail in Hampton Sides’ book, Hellhound on his Trail, which I posted about here.
October 5, 2012 § Leave a comment
Last week marked the fiftieth anniversary of James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss. The tumult and combat that surrounded the diminutive Meredith’s entrance to the university has often been characterized as “the last battle of the Civil War.” It’s an event we have talked about here before.
But as much as Meredith did to bring down the oppressive reign of white supremacy, there was much struggle to come after. The bloody summer of 1964 — “Freedom Summer” — was especially noteworthy, because its murders sent a shiver of revulsion through the collective conscience of the nation that directly gave rise to the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act. Gradually, with the weight of the federal government behind it, the civil rights movement demolished barrier after barrier.
And so, as the weeks click by, we will be clicking off fiftieth anniversary after fiftieth anniversary of milestones in the Civil Rights Era.
I saw that one of the events to commemorate Meredith’s feat was the unveiling of a marker on the Mississippi Freedom Trail at Ole Miss. To date, the Freedom Trail has markers at Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Medgar Evers’ home in Jackson, The Greyhound Bus Station in Jackson, Jackson State University, and Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.
A list of the sites planned for the first 30 markers is here.
It’s a bit of a surprise to me that there is no marker slated for Meridian, which: had the biggest COFO operation and Freedom School in the state in 1964; was the base of operations for Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, who were murdered in nearby Philadelphia; and was the site of the state’s Freedom School Convention in 1964.
There is a group in Meridian that has secured ownership of the old Fielder & Brooks drug store, which housed the COFO headquarters. They plan to restore it and create an educational center there. As always, funding is the main obstacle.
Knowing and understanding our history is vitally important. We have to comprehend the forces that have shaped us, our ethos and the place where we live in order to be able to see clearly where we can and should go from here. The history of racial conflict and gradual reconciliation is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we must know and understand it so that we can know and understand ourselves.
No place on earth is better equipped by experience to show and tell the way out of racial oppression than Mississippi. Others can talk about it, but we are living it, day by day, increment by increment. To bear that witness, however, we must be able to tell our history.
James Meredith bravely blazed a trail to freedom in 1962. Many others, in ways large and small, blazed similar courageous paths. Mississippi’s Freedom Trail will help us remember.
July 31, 2012 § 6 Comments
This is not a political post, I swear. You who have read this blog for any length of time should be aware that I eschew politics here.
But this is a post about a subject that has reverberated in Mississippi politics for quite some time.
The issue is education, and, specifically, early childhood education, as in pre-k.
TIME magazine on July 27, 2012, published an article online entitled “Mississipi Learning: Why the State’s Students Start Behind — and Stay Behind.” I encourage you to read it.
Some of the article’s major points:
- Mississippi has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the country and test scores that are consistently among the nation’s worst.
- Neighboring states have made great strides in early education, but Mississippi remains the only state in the South — and just one of 11 in the country — that doesn’t fund any pre-k programs.
- Researchers have found that high-quality pre-k programs can improve long-term outcomes for low-income children and help close an achievement gap for minorities that tends to worsen over time. Being able to stand in line, listen to directions or make eye contact with the teacher play in an important role when it comes time to try to teach kids how to read and write.
- Failure to prepare children for kindergarten or first grade costs the state a lot of money. One of every 14 kindergarteners and one of every 15 first-graders in Mississippi repeated the school year in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics are available. From 1999 to 2008, the state spent $383 million on children who had to repeat kindergarten or first grade, according to the Southern Education Foundation. who repeat one or more grades are much more likely than their classmates to drop out of school, decades of research have shown.
- The state’s academic results, which trail other states’ significantly, don’t improve as the children grow older. In 2011, the state’s fourth-graders were outperformed on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress by their peers in 44 states. In math, they finished second to last in the nation, ahead only of fourth-graders in the District of Columbia.
- Just 61 percent of Mississippi’s students graduate from high school on time — more than 10 percentage points below the national average.
- More than 75 percent of young Mississippi residents are ineligible to join the military because, among other reasons, they failed to graduate from high school on time.
Whether to fund early-childhood education in Mississippi is an issue wrapped up in budgetary, educational, political, and socio-economic considerations. Some legislators believe the state can not bear the cost. Some are not persuaded by the data that it would be beneficial. Some are motivated negatively by the political repercussions they believe they would feel back home. A few are motivated by lack of interest in any further funding for public education.
As a chancellor, with Youth Court responsibilities in Clarke County, I see the crippling cycle of poverty and poor education that keeps an underclass trapped in a perpetual dead end. We who are more fortunate tend to look down our noses and sniff that “those people” can lift themselves up by their bootstraps if they will only try. But a child who shows up for the first day of kindergarten not knowing her colors, or his street address, or his letters, or how to interact in a disciplined fashion with other children, has miles to go before ever reaching the starting line. And quite often those children come from homes in which there is a heritage of generation after generation in the same circumstances.
The results I see in my court include chronic unemployment and underemployment, malnourished and neglected children, reliance on costly government programs that often have dubious success, inability to pay child support, rampant teen pregnancy and the resulting reliance on the dole, school dropouts, child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse, shattered family structure, subhuman living conditions, and on and on in a panoply of human misery. As chancellor charged with the responsibility as superior guardian of children and incompetents, I can not overlook what I see.
I am not saying that throwing more money at this problem would fix it. I am saying that the overwhelming evidence from other states is that early childhood education pays dividends. Until we get moving, we will fall further and further behind.
A society is only as strong as its weakest members. When we reach out and give a hand up, we all benefit.
July 16, 2012 § 2 Comments
If you missed Dateline NBC’s piece last night on Greenwood in 1965 studying white citizens’ racial attitudes, here is a link that will take you not only to the original 1965 report, but also to last night’s that focused on Booker Wright, a black waiter at the then-segregated Lusco’s restaurant, who spoke from his heart about the humiliation of segregation, a statement that cost him his job and other indignities.
For those of us who lived through it, the 1965 report is a disturbing reminder of the way things were, and how desperately unequal were our two ways of life — black and white.
For those of you too young to have experienced it, I urge you to see this to help understand where we were, and to help you evaluate where we are.
Ray DeFelitta, the son of the photojournalist who filmed the 1965 study, has a post on his blog about the Dateline segment. Ray is working on a documentary showcasing his father Frank’s work on Mr. Wright, along with Mr. Wright’s granddaughter, Yvette Johnson.
I recommend you take some time to view these.
November 13, 2011 § Leave a comment
To his everlasting credit, Governor Hayley Barbour exercised his executive prerogative and installed signs at the entranceways into Mississippi with the legend, “Birthplace of America’s Music.” Indeed.
It’s no secret that Mississippi — and the Mississippi Delta in particular — is where America’s quintessential music was born, took hold, and grew into an irrepressible force. It was the blues, the music of heartfelt pain, that was born out of the oppression and destitution of a people. It was the blues that made its way down the river to New Orleans, cross-bred with barrelhouse and ragtime and grew into Jazz. Jimmie Rodgers melded the blues with the music of hill whites and gave birth to country music. The blues directly spawned rock-a-billy, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and soul, and almost every form of popular music in the past 100-plus years has a blue tinge.
The Land Where the Blues Began is Alan Lomax’s engrossing portrait of the Mississippi Delta, its culture and history, its blues artists, its oppression and exploitation of black people, and how this region of contradictions, savage racism, plantations, and juke joints gave rise to such formidable music.
Lomax ranged across the south from the 40’s through the 70’s, recording not only the music of original blues artists, but also their stories and recollections in their own words. The author continued the work of his father, who had begun the project in the late 20’s and 30’s.
What emerges from the stories he captured is a picture of the struggles and suffering of poor blacks in the Delta, and how they found release in music. Here are the stories of the cruel levee camps, the muleskinners, plantation life, the escape to Memphis and the factories of the north, Parchman farm. It becomes plain to the reader that the civil war did not end slavery, but merely transformed it into other forms of enforced servitude and destitution for blacks in Mississippi.
The main focus of this book, though, is the music. Lomax expertly analyzes the music’s African genes and the religious and early American musical strains that influenced and deepened it.
Lomax was a Texan who died in 2002. He is renowned as one of the great field collectors of indigenous music, particularly American music, although he did field work in Europe, the Caribbean and Africa as well. He had Mississippi roots that helped his understanding of the tortured Delta folkways. At page 186 of the book is this passage: “My father’s people were ‘peckerwoods’ from Meridian, Mississippi, ‘from the upper crust of the poor white trash,’ he used to say.”
If you want to understand Mississippi, you have to understand the blues and the music’s astonishing breadth of influence. The blues is merely one manifestation of Mississippi’s disproportionate impact on American literature, music and entertainment, dramatically belying the state’s stereotypical backwardness and reactionism. Lomax’s book is an excellent starting point.
If you want to understand the blues, you have to experience the Delta. Steve Cheseborough’s Blues Travelling is a travel guide that will open doors and by-ways to the region. Here you will find the towns and villages, grave sites, joints, monuments and historic locations, restaurants, museums and venues of the blues culture. There are maps and suggestions, along with articles telling the story.
If you are a Mississippian, you can explore the Delta in several easy day trips. This book will enrich the experience for you, telling you the stories of the places and people you encounter. You will probably find yourself stopping to explore places you would have bypassed.
As a bonus, the book includes forays into Memphis, Jackson, north Mississippi, and even Meridian.
Lisa and I have found this book particularly helpful in our blues explorations. I recommend it to you.
June 8, 2011 § 13 Comments
Mississippi’s history, and by extension that of Meridian, is intertwined inextricably with issues arising out of relations between the races. The major historical forces that shaped much of the modern south, including the culture of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Populism and the Revolt of the Rednecks, Vardaman and Bilbo, sharecropping and peonage, the great emigration north, Jim Crow, the Klan and lynching, the Civil Rights Movement, the southern strategy, all had race at their root. It is essential that Mississippians of all races know and understand how these forces evolved and continue to influence us if we hope to know and understand how we can grow beyond them and explore how best to make room for each other in our common life. The only way to do this is to do it purposefully, with reflection and care, preserving the history so that we will not be doomed to relive its mistakes.
As Mark pointed out in his response, and Richelle Putnam in her comment, the voices of the civil rights era are aging. Already many of the most significant figures of the Civil Rights Movement have passed. Who will carry their story and its understanding forward to the leaders of the future?
The year 2014 will be the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer. Meridian was at the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement in those blastfurnace-hot months. What better opportunity than the fiftieth anniversary will we have to focus reflection and thoughtful attention on the epochal events of the summer of 1964 as a catalyst for further discourse?
Taking some of Mark Levy’s thoughts as a springboard, I came up with the following modest proposal for an observance of that silver anniversary. It’s merely a starting point for discussion, and I am sure that there’s much more that can be done. I propose that between now and the summer of 2014, we do the following:
- Acquire the Fielder & Brooks building on Fifth Street as the site of a Civil Rights in Meridian interpretive center and museum. Part of the building could be devoted to the history of black entrepreneurship in Meridian, and specifically in the Fifth Street area. It could include a re-creation of the old Fielder & Brooks pharmacy. Upstairs, the COFO Headquarters and Community Center would be re-created, with displays of materials and memorabilia devoted to Freedom Summer and the COFO workers. Other displays would tell the story of Meridian’s civil rights leaders and accomplishments. If that building proves to be unavailable, the project could go forward at another site, but a location in the Fifth St. area would serve beneficially as an anchor in an area where so many buildings have been lost.
- Establish a trail of sites with importance to civil rights in Meridian and make a map available in the interpretive center.
- Plan an observance of Freedom Summer in 2014, and invite all of the surviving Meridian COFO and other workers who devoted that summer to change. The event would include reminiscences, lectures, social events, and even worship and singing. If enough money were available, a noted speaker could keynote and draw attention to the event. Use the event to promote racial reconciliation and promote discussions about how to establish common ground. Enlist the schools and colleges to focus course work on these issues in the months leading up to that summer.
- Establish an organization to gather, preserve, display and promote the materials, artifacts, oral histories and other memorabilia of the Civil Rights Movement in Meridian. Perhaps one day Meridian could become the site of a Civil Rights Archive.
These are ideas that have been percolating in my head since I read Mark’s response. I am sure there are many other worthwhile approaches to this, but we have the advantage of time to work toward the goal. If you have other ideas to share, please feel free to comment. I will definitely be in touch with those of you who have expressed an interest, as well as others.
This is definitely something I am willing to work to attain. Will you work with me?
May 26, 2011 § 9 Comments
I posted Monday about Freedom Summer in Meridian. One of the courageous COFO workers who spent time in Meridian in that summer of 1964, and whom I mentioned in my post, was Mark Levy, who came with his wife Betty to Meridian from Queens College in New York.
Mark took the time to send me a thoughtful response to my post, and I think it is worth your time to read. He raises some intriguing points about preserving the story of how the civil rights movement touched and changed Meridian, and how it can be passed on. There is food for thought here, and a call to action.
As Mark says, there are the seeds of the beginning of a conversation here. Will you join the discussion?
“Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things”
Meridian Civil Rights Stories Worth Remembering and Telling
The summer of 1964 touched on people’s lives in Meridian in many different ways. Chancery Judge Primeaux’s narrative is an important and sensitive step in opening up that conversation. I’m glad that my old photos of daily life in the Freedom School are a contribution.
Similarly important was last month’s April 29th recognition by the Mississippi Heritage Trust in Jackson that the Fielder and Brooks Drug Store building and site of the 1964 COFO office at 2505 ½ 5th Street is an endangered but historically significant building in the state, well worth preserving. The Meridian civil rights story needs to be documented and shown. The 2505 ½ 5th Street site would be perfect not only as an interpretive, but also as an educational center and local attraction.
In addition to the pictures I found in my files, I also found the names of about 250 students – ages 8 to 18, at the time – who attended summer classes in the Freedom School. We, the volunteer teachers, learned as much from our students that summer as we were able to teach them. The students were brave and serious young people who took all sorts of risks to come to school. The former students are now in their late 50s and 60s. Where are they today? How did those experiences touch their lives? Who stayed, who left, and who has come back to Meridian? What contributions have those former students made to their respective communities?
The decisions for students to attend — or not attend — Freedom School were family decisions. In 1964, that meant that parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. all decided to take on some family risk in sending their kids to the Baptist Seminary. Not only should a history of Meridian tell the story of how a famous folk singer like Pete Seeger performed in Meridian, but it should also be noted that the room was packed with people who took a risk in coming to hear him. Another footnote to the Meridian civil rights story is that the Meridian Freedom School at the Baptist Seminary had the honor to play host in August to a state-wide convention of young delegates from Freedom Schools all over Mississippi. The resolutions passed by the students attending reveal a wide range of issues, concerns, and hopes – worth looking at again to see what progress, if any, has been made since those times.
Similarly, in my files, I’ve found the names of about 45 out-of-state volunteers, in addition to Mickey and Rita Schwerner, who participated – at one time or another — in COFO-sponsored community center, voter registration, freedom school, and MFDP work in Meridian during 1964-65. We stayed in the homes of some very brave local people, rented some living and office space, ate in selected establishments, cashed personal checks in some stores, asked cab drivers and others how to get around, attended some church services and used some churches for meetings. In the highly charged atmosphere of the times, those ordinary decisions could have life and death – in addition to job – consequences. We, the volunteers, took risks; but the local families and organizations who invited us to come took far more risks than us.
Several of the pictures I found in my files show a Lauderdale County meeting of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party where Meridian and county “precinct” and “beat” representatives elected ordinary people as local delegates to go to the national convention in Atlantic City. The MFDP was formed to show that people prevented from registering in 1964 truly wanted to participate in the electoral system. The civil rights movement in Meridian involved commitment and participation from both young and old. The pressures against taking a stand were powerful and frightening.
Does anyone know where Martin Luther King Jr. came to speak in Mississippi during the summer of 1964? I believe he spoke in just two places – and that included speaking at two churches in Meridian.
The civil rights summer of 1964 should be taken as just one moment in history – with important precedents and ongoing effects. For example: a) In Meridian, an NAACP chapter existed for a number of years prior, sometimes recruiting with quiet, hand-collection of dues. They had a growing youth membership that later became part of the local COFO movement in 1964. That NAACP chapter continues to exist today. b) The Fielder and Brooks pharmacy, itself, was just one example of black professional accomplishment that had been developing for years in Meridian. c) 1965 and the years thereafter, school, college and public facility de-segregation and voter registration brought other challenges and additional sets of heroes and heroines who stepped forward and deserve to be respected and remembered.
What does all of this mean today – especially for younger people? What can research projects in Meridian’s high school, junior college, and senior college contribute to finding, recording, and telling about local people’s hopes, fears, and contributions? What remains to be improved? What stories do old-timers – both black and white – have to tell of those times in Meridian? How would preserving the Fielder/COFO building help in both saving and using that history?
I believe that Judge Primeaux has done a great service in his blog starting a new discussion of those questions.