Elvis in Meridian …. More

December 11, 2015 § 1 Comment

Before his epochal appearance on Ed Sullivan’s TV show in February, 1956, Elvis appeared in Meridian in 1955 with his first pink Caddy in a Fall Festival parade. Here’s the video.

Here’s a post I made previously on Elvis in Meridisn.

MORE ON ELVIS IN THE QUEEN CITY

June 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

I posted here, here and here about Elvis Presley’s appearance in Meridian in 1955.

Here’s a photo provided by Jim Myrick of WMOX radio showing Elvis, Ann Ray and Mae Boren Axton at Meridian Junior College Stadium on Thursday, May 26, 1955.

And a bonus … Here’s a pic of Hank Snow, Anita Rodgers Court (daughter of Jimmie Rodgers), Ernest Tubbs, Carrie Rodgers (Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers), and Johnny Cash at the Jimmie Rodgers Memorial in Highland Park during the Jimmie Rodgers Festival in 1957.

MARK LEVY ON THE LEGACY OF FREEDOM SUMMER

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.

FREEDOM SUMMER IN MERIDIAN

May 23, 2011 § 17 Comments

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders’ attempts at integration of transportation and amenities across the south.  The arrival of the Freedom Riders in May, 1961 was met with mob violence and police brutality, but it did not end segregation in Mississippi.  The Freedom Riders did, however, pique public awareness across the nation of the inequalities in the south and the need to address them.

In 1962, representatives of four civil rights organizations — SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), NAACP and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) — met at Clarksdale and formed a new organization designed to coordinate their efforts and resources in Mississippi.  They called the organization COFO (Congress of Federated Organizations).

The primary concern was to register black voters in Mississippi.  At the time, Mississippi at less than 7% had the lowest percentage of black voter registration in the nation.  Blacks seeking to register to vote were subjected to poll taxes, examinations that they had to pass to become enfranchised, and, when that was not enough, violence and even death.

It was decided that COFO would spearhead a massive, concentrated voter registration and desegregation effort in Mississippi in the summer of 1964.  Volunteers were enlisted from across the country, primarily from the northeast and midwest, many of whom were college students willing to devote a summer to the cause.  The effort came to be known as “Freedom Summer.”

In January, 1964, Michael Schwerner came to Mississippi and opened a COFO office in Meridian at 2505 1/2 Fifth Street.  Schwerner was a member of CORE, and was a native of New York.  He and his wife, Rita, lived in a Meridian apartment, and engaged in various community organizing activities.  The COFO office was the headquarters of the Freedom Summer operation in Lauderdale County.

COFO HQ in Meridian

2505-1/2 Fifth Street

The headquarters occupied the second floor of the Fielder & Brooks Drug Store, an established and respected black business.

The Schwerners opened a COFO-sponsored community center where black children could gather and play games, socialize and access a lending library.

Reading Room

COFO in Meridian also operated one of the several dozen Freedom Schools that were opened across Mississippi that summer.  The Freedom Schools taught citizenship, black history, constitutional rights, political processes, and basic academics.  More than 3,500 students attended the Freedom Schools.  Meridian’s Freedom School was at the old black Baptist Seminary.

Here is the text of a 1964 COFO memo describing the Meridian operation:

Meridian is a city of 50,000, the second largest in the state. It is the seat of Lauderdale county. It is in the eastern part of the state, near the Alabama border, and has a history of moderation on the racial issue. At the present time, the only Republican in the State Legislature is from Meridian. Registration is as easy as anywhere in the state, and there is an informal (and inactive) “biracial committee”, which, if it qualifies, is the only one in the state.

Voter registration work in Meridian began in the summer of 1963 (for COFO staff people, that is), and by autumn, when Aaron Henry ran in the Freedom Vote for Governor campaign, there was a permanent staff of two people in the city. In January, 1964, Mike and Rita Schwerner, a married couple from New York City, started a community center. In Meridian’s mild political climate, the community center there has functioned more smoothly than either of the two community centers which COFO has organized in tougher areas. The center has recreation programs for children and teenagers, a sewing class and citizenship classes. It also has a library of slightly over 10,000 volumes, and ambitious plans for expansion if more staff were available. The COFO staff in Meridian uses Meridian as a base for working six other adjoining counties.

The Freedom School planned for Meridian will have a fairly large facility, in contrast to most places in the state. The Baptist Seminary is a large, 3-story building with classroom capacity for 100 students and sleeping accommodations for staff up to about 20. Besides this, there is a ballpark available for recreation. The school has running water, blackboards and a telephone. The center has a movie projector and screen which it probably would lend. The library lends books to anyone for two-week periods. The question of rent has not been decided for the school. Even if there is no rent, however, we can count on a budget of around $1300, for food for students, utilities, telephone and supplies.

One of the COFO volunteers was Mark Levy, who came to Meridian with his wife, Betty, from Queens College in New York.  He chronicled his sojourn in Meridian with his camera, and his impressive collection of photographs is in the Queens College archives, where you can view it online.

Mark and Betty Levy with students at the Freedom School

A remarkable fact documented by Levy is that the famed folk/protest singer Pete Seeger visited Meridian and played at the old Mt. Olive Baptist Church during Freedom Summer.

Seeger plays for the COFO workers

He performed for the COFO volunteers.  The next photo shows COFO workers and others joining hands to sing along with Seeger.  The young woman at the right with the flowered dress is COFO volunteer Patti Miller of Iowa, who pinpoints the date of Seeger’s performance as August 4, 1964.

Shortly after he arrived, Schwerner was joined by an eager young Meridianite volunteer named James Chaney.  As the summer drew near, other volunteers began to arrive from other places, among them Andrew Goodman of New York.

Despite its moderate reputation on racial issues, there was a dark underside to Meridian and the surrounding area.  The Klan was active, with members in law enforcement and in influential positions.  The Klan had its eye on COFO, and on Schwerner in particular.  They gave him the derisive nickname “Goatee,” for his beatnik-style beard, and spread rumors that he was having an affair with a black woman.

Michael "Goatee" Schwerner

Mississippi’s political leadership provoked the citizenry with accusations that the COFO workers were communists who had trained in Cuba.  FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover made the statement that “We will not wet-nurse troublemakers,” insinuating  that anyone who took matters into their own hands would not be bothered by the feds.

On June 21, 1964, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney had returned from a training session in Oxford, Ohio, to learn that the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba County had been burned by the Klan and some of its members beaten in retribution for allowing a Freedom School to operate there.  The three travelled from Meridian to Neshoba and met with the leaders of the church.  As they made their way back to Meridian, the three were stopped by a Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff and taken into custody on the pretext of a speeding charge.  After they were released from jail in Philadelphia, they were stopped again on Highway 19 South by the Sheriff, who allowed a group of Klansmen to take them to Rock Cut Road, between House and Bethsaida, where all three were murdered by gunfire.  An historical marker is set on the junction of Highway 19 and the road where they were killed.

When the trio did not return to Meridian as scheduled, their disappearance was reported and a manhunt ensued.  Hundreds of naval personnel participated.  President Johnson ordered Hoover to mobilize the FBI, and the agency began investigating, increasing the number of agents in the state from 15 to more than 150.  Posters went up.

The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission investigated and its reports took the prevailing view that the disappearance was a publicity stunt designed to stir up public opinion.  Governor Paul B. Johnson quipped that “Those boys are in Cuba.”

Before long, the searches turned up the CORE station wagon that the men had driven from Meridian.  It had been taken to the Pearl River swamps north of Philadelphia east of Stallo off of Highway 21, where it was burned.

The discovery of the car did not quell the public belief that the disappearance had been staged, but the denial, speculation and ridicule abruptly ended when the three bodies were discovered by the FBI in a dam being built not far from the Neshoba County fairgrounds.  It was conclusive proof of the atrocity.

The FBI autopsy revealed that all three young men had died of gunshot wounds.  The families were not convinced, however, and they demanded and got a second autopsy which revealed that Schwerner and Goodman had indeed been shot and killed.  Chaney, though, had been brutally beaten before being fatally shot.  The doctor who performed the autopsy said that he had never seen such extensive, catastrophic injuries, including smashed bones and damaged internal organs, not even in car or plane wreck victims.

Patti Miller remembers that that the bodies were found on August 4, 1964.  She remembers that date because it was Seeger himself who announced it that night to the COFO workers during his appearance at Mt Olive.

Nineteen men, many of whom were from Meridian, were arrested and charged with the killings, but state charges were soon dropped.  The federal government prosecuted them for violation of Schwerner’s, Goodman’s and Chaney’s civil rights, and seven were sentenced to varying terms up to ten years.  It took until 2005 for one of the defendants, Edgar Ray Killen, to be brought to justice in a Mississippi court.  He was convicted of manslaughter in Neshoba County Circuit Court.

Long before the legal proceedings, though, the families had to bury the dead as a prologue to getting on with their shattered lives.  Schwerner and Goodman were taken back to their homes far away in New York.

James Chaney's family on the day of the funeral

Chaney’s funeral was held in Meridian.  Mourners included his collegues, the COFO workers.  The funeral services took place at four different churches, culminating at First Union Baptist Church on 36th Avenue.

As for Freedom Summer, the results were mixed.  Some voter registration was accomplished in the face of resistance.  People were beaten and killed.  Churches were burned.  Violence across Mississippi escalated.  By any of those measures, it was at least a borderline failure.  But the deaths of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney galvanized public opinion.  The 1,000 or so COFO workers returned home from Mississippi with eyewitness testimony about the severity of the situation, many of them with scars to corroborate their stories.  The nation realized that the full weight of the law and the federal government would be needed to end the systemic injustice that fostered violence and hatred and shielded murderers.  The political pressure became irresistable, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed Congress  and was promptly signed into law by President Johnson.

Freedom Summer was not the end of apartheid in Mississippi, but it did help deal it a mortal blow.

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Thanks to Dr. Bill Scaggs for the info about Pete Seeger, Mark Levy and the Freedom School.

Patti Miller, the COFO volunteer mentioned above, has a Keeping History Alive site where I found several Freedom School photos.

ELVIS IN MERIDIAN: THE PINK CADILLAC

November 5, 2010 § 1 Comment

I posted about Elvis Presley’s appearance in Meridian in 1955 here.

Several people who saw the Meridian parade with Elvis in person told me they remembered that the car was pink.  Turns out their memories were on target.

According to this Elvis fan’s website, Elvis had purchased the car, a 1954 pink and white model, in March, 1955, only 2 months before the Meridian parade photos that I posted.  He used it to transport himself and his back-up musicians, Scotty Moore, D. J. Fontana and Bill Black, who were billed as the Blue Moon Boys, to various gigs around the south.  Elvis had made it known to all of his friends and fellow performers that it was his dream to own a pink Cadillac.  The one he rode in Meridian was his first.

On June 5, 1955, Elvis and his band had completed a show at Hope, Arkansas.  The next show was in Texarkana, and  Elvis invited a local girl to ride with him in the Cadillac, while Moore, Black and Fontana rode in another car with some friends.  Near Fulton, Arkansas, about half-way to Texarkana, a brake lining on the Cadillac caught fire, and the car burned up.

Elvis's dream car goes up in smoke

Neither Elvis nor his passenger were hurt, but Elvis was probably sad to see his dream car, the one he rode on in the Meridian parade, in flames.

On July 7, 1955, Elvis bought his second pink Cadillac.  Actually, it was a blue 1955 Fleetwood Series 60 with a black top.  He had a neighbor formulate a pink color for it that the neighbor named “Elvis Rose,” and the neighbor painted the car for him.  This second Cadillac is the famous Pink Cadillac that Elvis gifted to his mother and became her proudest possession.  It is still on display in the auto museum at Graceland.

Gladys Presley's "Elvis Rose" Cadillac in the driveway at Graceland

MYSTERY SOLVED: THE BUILDING WITH THE THREE ARCHES

October 30, 2010 § 1 Comment

In the post below about Elvis in Meridian I posed the question about the building with the three arches.  Turns out it was the YMCA located on the corner of 23rd Avenue and Ninth Street, which is now the location of WTOK-TV.  The television station renovated the building and removed the arches and porch roofs.  Tom Williams, the President of Meridian Regional Airport, sent me an aerial photo of the building in its pre-WTOK state.  Here is the pic that Tom sent …

Recognize the three arches and the porch roof from the Elvis parade photo? That’s the Temple Theater directly behind the YMCA Building.

Tom pointed out that he had an interest in the building because his father, Marvin Williams, Esq., at one time had an office in the building. 

Thanks to Tom for unlocking this mystery for us. That building would most certainly have been on any downtown parade route.

THE KING OF SOWASHEE

October 30, 2010 § 2 Comments

I have to confess to my second tour this weekend of that mystical shrine of tackiness, Graceland in Memphis, home of Elvis Presley and spiritual Mecca for his adherents.  We took some Louisiana relatives who had never been there.

It got me thinking about what I had heard for years — that Elvis had performed in Meridian.

What I had been told was that the King had been in Meridian years ago to perform at the fair and calf scramble before he became famous.  I even heard that there were photos.  So I dug around on the internet, and actually found a couple of photos.  The photos are both dated May 26, 1955, which would predate Elvis’s 1956 appearances on the Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan shows, the gigs that propelled him into national attention.  The pictures show him in his more princely days, before he was anointed king.  

The photo below shows Elvis and Jimmy Snow riding on a Cadillac in the parade for the 1955 Fair in Meridian.  Anybody recognize that building?  It’s interesting to me that the crowd appears more interested in whomever is coming up behind Presley and Snow; of course, Elvis back then was merely a musical act from Memphis who was mostly known for his performances on the Louisiana Hayride.  Those folks on the parade route had no clue then that they were seeing a future international superstar.  Jimmy Snow, incidentally, was the son of country music legend Hank Snow, and deveoped his own career eventually performing on the Grand Ole Opry before becoming a minister in Tennessee.

The other photo, below, shows Elvis with Bill Black and Jimmy Snow on the same Cadillac. 

Nobody I know in Meridian has developed any oral history about this or any clearcut description of the event. 

Here’s an interesting wrinkle:  a Wikipedia article on Elvis gives a different time frame …

“The audience response at Presley’s live shows became increasingly fevered. Moore recalled, “He’d start out, ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a Hound Dog,’ and they’d just go to pieces. They’d always react the same way. There’d be a riot every time.”  At the two concerts he performed in September at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, 50 National Guardsmen were added to the police security to prevent crowd trouble.”

According to the article, this was in 1956, after Presley had appeared on both Milton Berle’s and Ed Sullivan’s tv shows and created a national sensation.  Of course, the reference to the Mississippi-Alabama State Fair and Dairy Show is Meridian’s own and was back then.  Not enough info for me to resolve the discrepancy in dates beyond doubt.  My best guess is that the source for the Wikipedia info, who was part of Elvis’s entourage back then, may be a little confused as to the timing. I would go with the dates of the photos for two reasons:  first, that the dates of the pictures are part of their provenance; and second, after the national tv appearances, the crowd in the parade picture would have been far more focused on Elvis.

Steve Labiche did a little more research and found that the Cadillac had been purchased by Presley in Florida, and he had the dealer paint “ELVIS” on the door. 

NOTE: the mystery of the building above with the three arches is solved here.

It’s an interesting little tidbit of Meridian history.

FIVE YEARS AFTER

August 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

It was five years ago today — August 29, 2005 — that Hurricane Katrina brought death and devastation to New Orleans, the Mississippi Gulf Coast and south-central Mississippi.

The news this weekend cast the familiar images of flooded homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, Bay St. Louis reduced to piles of debris, the Superdome, victims clamoring for help, and on and on.

The storm was still powerful when it crossed east Mississippi near Newton, bringing 85-mile-per-hour winds with gusts to 105 here in Meridian.  More than one thousand homes in Meridian suffered serious damage.  It took nearly two weeks to restore electric service throughout the city and county, and the damage to structures took years to repair.  The devastation was astonishing considering that Meridian is nearly 200 miles inland. 

In the years since Katrina the Mississippi Gulf Coast has rebounded well.  Rebuilding is a continuing process, and there are ongoing battles between property owners and insurers, but the resilience of the Coast makes all Mississippians proud.

New Orleans, on the other hand, has struggled.  The dysfunctional near-anarchy of the Big Easy that has always been one of its most endearing features as an entertainment center has not served it well in its efforts to recover.  The city’s population is significantly reduced (the poverty-plagued Lower Ninth Ward had 18,000 residents before the storm and now has around 1,800), and many damaged neighborhoods, particularly in the east, remain mostly boarded up and abandoned.  There are still 50,000 abandoned homes in the city.  Convention business and tourism, the lifeblood of the city, are greatly diminished.  New Orleans is down, for sure, but not out.  New Orleans is now the fastest-growing city in the US.  The New York Times has an interesting article, with video, showing evolution of two streets near the Industrial Canal in the Lower Ninth both before and since Katrina [Thanks to nmisscommentor for letting us know about it].  There is a University of Southern California study of damage in the area, with video, here.  

Today, three tropical cylones are churning across the Atlantic, with yet another tropical wave trailing them out of Africa.  Is our next Katrina among them?  We pray not.

LOOKING BACK AT WEIDMANN’S

August 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

A Weidmann’s photo gallery …

Weidmann's in 1950, and pretty much how it appeared until 2004

An original peanut butter crock. There was one on every table

The counter as it appeared in 1979

The place for lunch in downtown Meridian in 1979

Steamboat wheel chandelier in the 1870 Room

New look 2004

Today

Thanks to The  World According to Carl for these photos, except for the bottom one, which was taken by my wife.  Reminiscences of the original Weidmann’s are at Carl’s website.

WEIDMANN’S & SUCARNOCHEE REVUE

August 7, 2010 § 1 Comment

We made it to the newest version of the new Weidmann’s last night.  The food was pretty good.  The company was great.  I’ll withhold a review while they get through their shakedown period.  We’ll be back, and I am eager to try them out for lunch.  Here are  a few pics …

The old logo is back

An old icon returns

Enjoying the meal

Stuffed flounder

 After dinner, we ambled over to the Sucarnochee Revue at the Temple Theater, beginning their seventh year.  As it happened, the show was being recorded by MPB for airing later, and it was announced that the public network will televise 26 shows.  Last night’s production featured music of Elvis and Meridian’s Jimmie Rodgers.  It was the first time for Lisa and me.  The music ranged from bluegrass, to mountain folk, to jug band, to blues, to rock and roll, to country.  The quality was surprisingly good, although that should not be surprising, given Meridian’s history of talented musicianship. 

The show was a great reminder that Mississippi is indeed, the birthplace of America’s music, and that Jimmie Rodgers played a major role.

Performers included Britt Gulley and Water Mocassin, Jakeleg and the Stompers, Dr. Jim Matthews, and Track 45.  There were many others, but I never could put my hands on a program, before or after the show, and I didn’t have pen and paper to write them down.  Next time I’ll try to do better.  Here are a couple of pics …

Audience grows

Entertained by the house grand organ before the show

The show

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