THE MEEK REPORT AN IN-DEPTH PUBLICATION OF THE MEEK SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM AND NEW MEDIA AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MISSISSIPPI
LAND OF BROKEN PROMISES
A look at 50 years of the Voting Rights Act in the Delta.
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THE MEEK REPORT EDITORIAL EDITOR Bill Rose
REPORTERS Katie Adcock • Karson Brandenburg • Cady Herring • Logan Kirkland Mary Marge Locker • Mollie Mansfield • Phil McCausland Eliza McClure • Kayleigh Skinner • Clancy Smith • Debra Whitley
MULTIMEDIA & PHOTOGRAPHY PHOTO & MULTIMEDIA EDITOR Mikki Harris
PHOTOGRAPHERS Jared Burleson • Thomas Graning Ignacio Murillo • Phillip Waller
DESIGN TEAM PRESENTATION EDITOR Darren Sanefski
DESIGN EDITORS Kristen Ellis • Allison Moore
ASSISTANT DESIGN EDITOR Ellen Whitaker
DESIGNERS Christina Cain • Taylor Davenport • Conner Hegwood • Jessica Hotakainen Lauren Keosseian • Savannah Pounds • Kimberly Sanner • Madisen Theobald cover design by ALLISON MOORE
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White Mayors Win On Black Votes
22 28 36 44 50 56 62 68 74
In the Mississippi Delta, it’s too late to turn the clock back now. Nowadays it’s about green - not black and white.
The Senator Who Feeds The Delta
The Rest Stop
The Fighting Editor
The Little Town That Worked A Miracle How a former segregationist stronghold built a $15 million museum celebrating the life of a black man.
Not Just A Museum The B.B. King Museum aims to improve the health and education of an entire town.
The Showdown If the feds change Cleveland’s schools, will the white folks stay or go?
The Almost Martyr John Lewis very nearly died on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But he says it was worth it.
The Peacemaker Andrew Young fought racism by reasoning with white leaders. Listen, he told them, I only want to help you.
The Man They Tried To Ignore When Robert Clark became the state’s first black legislator, his peers gave him the silent treatment. It didn’t work.
The Foot Soldier Charles McLaurin was beaten, threatened with guns and thrown in jail. And never stopped fighting.
He Changed Mississippi Politics Aaron Henry was firebombed twice, jailed and forced to pick up the garbage. But he got a lot of what he wanted.
Bennie Thompson worries that Mississippi, left unchecked, “will begin to turn back all the hands of political progress.” Greenville tries to pull together to conquer its problems. “I had a gun in every damn place I could have a gun.”
The Education of a Journalist Jim Abbot grew up in segregation but quickly figured out that to be a newspaperman, he had to be fair to everyone.
Funeral Home Politics
The Hero You Never Heard Of
The Cop Who Ran the County
Sick and Tired of Being Sick And Tired When Fannie Lou Hamer became the voice of the movement, people had no choice but to listen.
Willie Simmons picked cotton, fought in Vietnam, and opened a restaurant. He couldn’t have found better training for the legislature.
After 20 years of meetings in the White House, Henry Espy is content to dig graves with a backhoe and help care for the dead. “If you don’t have a say about what’s going on, you don’t have no voice.” Margaret Block battled the Klan, opposed the Vietnam War and had a run-in with Black Panthers. At 72, she’s still ready to rumble. Al Rankins went from patrolling a beat to running the board of supervisors. Ask the teachers and they’ll tell you parents need to help.
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BLACK POWER In the Delta, itâ€™s too late to turn the clock back now. By Phil McCausland
Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting. It outlawed literacy tests, poll taxes and other devices used to disenfranchise minorities. -- It required southern states and a few others to get approval from the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia before changing voting procedures. This was known as the “preclearance clause.” -- It allowed for mass enfranchisement of racial minorities and is considered the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted. -- In Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 struck down the preclearance clause. It said singling out states with a history of discrimination was no longer necessary. Mississippi quickly implemented a law that required voters to show identification to vote. -- The rest of the law is intact. It is still illegal to discriminate in the election process. But civil rights groups complain that challenging discriminatory laws is now slower and more expensive. -- U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is pushing an amended version of the law, restoring the preclearance clause with provisions he hopes will pass Supreme Court muster. But it has been slow to advance.
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The snipers lay in wait on top of a nearby building. Two sharpshooters in black jumpsuits with high-powered rifles set in the crotch of two gleaming tripods. It was a Friday morning in early March. The sky was a pristine blue, perfect weather for shooting. A radio crackled with news that the buses would roll in at 11:45 a.m. The snipers pushed their scopes to their eyes and squinted, controlling their breathing. They set their sights on the entrance to Ground Zero Blues Club – Bill Luckett’s and Morgan Freeman’s juke joint in Clarksdale. When the buses rolled up, the first one out was John Lewis. In the 1960s, he might have been the snipers’ target. But today, the gunmen were there by order of a white mayor and police chief, assigned to protect the black congressman and 20 colleagues on a nostalgic victory lap through the Delta, celebrating what civil rights has wrought in a place that resisted it as strongly as any.
year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. AfricanAmericans, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis, protested loudly, recalling the way things were before the law was passed. Nowhere in America was the protesting as heartfelt as it was in the Mississippi Delta where the law, which banned discrimination in voting, represented nothing less than salvation to a desperately poor, heavily black population. Finally, after a century of oppression, African-Americans were no longer threatened, fired, kicked off plantations, beaten or killed for aspiring to vote. Besides banning discrimination, the law specifically outlawed literacy tests, poll taxes and other devices routinely used to disqualify black voters. The Supreme Court kept all of that intact. But the court struck down a clause that required federal approval before any change in election procedures in states with a long history of racial discrimination. In the South, the preapproval clause was a potent weapon used to prevent a white majority from turning the clock back. The Justice Department objected to Mississippi voting changes more than 170 times. The Delta became the law’s crowning achievement, proof positive of its radical power to abruptly change the political landscape and, in the process, the culture of an entire region. Today, nearly 50 years later, Mississippi has 950 black elected officials, almost 200 more than any other state. And the Delta is a big reason for that. From Tunica to Vicksburg, where white cotton and white people used to rule, blacks control politics. Today, in this region where blacks outnumber whites nearly five to one, white politicians know that to win a countywide or citywide election, they must consider what black voters want. That’s a radical change from the way it was. “When I came to the Delta in 1962 to do voter registration, there was not a single black elected official in this whole state, yet the population of blacks was nearly 40 percent,” said Charles McLaurin, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) foot soldier. “They had only between 5 and 6 percent total registration in the state. … Black people were hostages in this state.” In a fit of hopeful optimism, the late state NAACP chief
Aaron Henry once declared that black people would use their votes to make the Delta their “Promised Land.” But today, that dream is still unrealized. Indeed, it often seems as if blacks are still hostages here, but this time to economic forces largely beyond their control. Since the 1960s, white flight, NAFTA and farm mechanization have left the rural Delta with limited capital, few jobs, and an emaciated tax base. The Promised Land has become a resource desert, forcing public officials – black and white –¬ to deal with some of the toughest political problems in America: rampant poverty, runaway unemployment, a deeply entrenched dependence on welfare, failing schools, segregated schools, epidemic teenage pregnancy and nation-leading rates of obesity, heart disease, asthma and strokes. John Lewis was beaming as he hopped from the bottom step of the bus. Bill Luckett, a white mayor elected by black votes, stood at the front door to shake his hand. Twenty other black and white congressmen, their friends and staff slowly filed from the buses. Lewis cracked jokes, hugged old friends, met new ones, thrilled to be back in a state that once caused him so much trouble. In the cool cocoon of the blues club, the deputy Democratic whip of the U.S. House of Representatives paused to look back and pinpoint what made such a pilgrimage possible. “I grew up in rural Alabama and my own mother and father, my grandparents and great-grandparents couldn’t register to vote until the Voting Rights Act was passed. It gave people a sense of control of their own destiny. It changed the South and America forever.”
oday, despite their differences, white and black people in the Delta get along as well as anywhere in America. Carver Randle, a black lawyer and former NAACP leader who became a Sunflower County supervisor, has seen a real metamorphosis in his home town of Indianola. He lived through the tough civil rights battles, fought racism in the trenches. Now, he says, people are making an honest effort. “The people here have become very decent,” he said in a law office filled with warm wood and plush chairs, just a few steps from where Fannie Lou Hamer’s proud signature jumps from the pages of an old voter registration book in the county courthouse. The walls are yellowed by cigar and pipe smoke and covered by various degrees and congratulations. “If a white person goes out of a door, he wouldn’t slam it in your face. He’d hold it until especially a lady walked through it, even if she’s a black. That kind of courtesy, that kind of intelligence. I don’t think people are going out shouting the N-word openly, because it would hurt us.” Randle agrees the vast cultural divide has not been completely bridged, and it is often quite obvious. For the most part, blacks still TOP RIGHT: Highway Patrol officers push Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other marchers off a highway during a march through the Delta to Jackson in 1966. PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS BOTTOM RIGHT: In the early 1960s, federal registrars were sent to Mississippi to register black voters and were promptly overwhelmed with applicants. PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
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go to black churches. Whites go to white churches. Public schools are almost all-black. Private schools are almost all-white. It’s rare for either race to go to the other’s home for Sunday dinner. Yet, recently a startling new trend has emerged. Despite the fact that 70 to 75 percent of the population is black, 5 of the Delta’s biggest cities – Greenville, Greenwood, Clarksdale, Indianola and Cleveland – have elected white mayors. Weary of grinding poverty, black voters looked to anyone they believed might be able to help them fix their streets, find them jobs and get the stray dogs to the pound, regardless of race. It would be easy to read too much into what may be a temporary development. But in terms of bridging the racial divide, it is a hopeful sign. And there are other signs of hope. An innate survival instinct has kicked in. Having realized they must work with each other or see the Delta perish, small groups of white and black leaders are coming together to push communitybuilding projects they believe could save the region. The crown jewel of these efforts is the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, erected as a joint project of the white and black communities in Indianola, once the cradle of the White Citizens Council. In effect, this too is fallout from the Voting Rights Act. The powerful preclearance clause may be gone, destroyed by a conservative Supreme Court, but the law’s overall influence remains. At Ground Zero Blues Club, local blues musician James “Super Chikan” Johnson sat on stage, twiddling and tuning his guitar, which was a sight unto itself. It glinted in the dim lighting, not because it was a finely polished piece directly off the factory-line, but because he builds his own and customizes them with bottle caps and old Army gas canisters. Suddenly, Johnson leaned back and released the truest of blues licks. The kind of lick that makes your back vibrate in waves and your feet stomp uncontrollably. And that’s when it happened. Out on the floor, in front of the stage, John Lewis started dancing. And not like a man who’s been beaten or broken by racial intolerance, not like a man in his 70s with the heavy responsibilities of a congressman, but like a problemless 18-year-old kid who finds freedom in face-melting guitar solos. House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer threw off his suit coat and lost himself in the music, as well. Then Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton got up to join them and danced without a concept of past or future. Three mid-seventies veteran members of the U.S. Congress swung hips to the mind-blowing guitar playing of “Super Chikan.”
ylvester Hoover was born and raised in Greenwood. He runs Hoover’s Grocery in Baptist Town, an area of clapboard homes on one particular side of the railroad tracks, and takes tourists on civil rights and blues tours.
TOP LEFT: From left. Stokely Carmichael, sweater over shoulder, and Floyd McKissick, right, lead marchers toward Jackson. A coalition of civil rights groups rallied to finish James Meredith’s March Against Fear after Meredith was shot south of Memphis. PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS BOTTOM RIGHT: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., left and Stokely Carmichael, right, had different philosophies but they marched together after James Meredith was shot. PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Most importantly, he was born just before the Voting Rights Act passed. He well remembers when, at age 5 and 6, he was expected to pick cotton, dragging a 20-pound bag behind him. But being born in 1956 had its advantages. He didn’t have to live under the daily strain of a Jim Crow South for long. His siblings weren’t so lucky. Hoover was the only one of his parents’ children to graduate from high school in Mississippi. His brothers were sent north to Chicago to escape the cotton fields when they turned 15. His mother sent his sisters when they were 13. “She didn’t want the boss man flirting with her daughters,” Hoover said. This created a disconnect between Hoover and his siblings because he never had to experience the true long-term brutality of the cotton fields and the hopelessness that AfricanAmericans felt before they could vote, eat where they wanted or use whatever water fountain or bathroom was closest. That’s why Hoover remains in the Delta, while his siblings have chosen not to return. “They say, ‘Bastards! They’ll never change!’ It’s because of the experience they had when they were here, it wasn’t civil rights,” Hoover said from behind his cash register. The store is a simple one-room quick stop. Regulars float around the room drinking Budweiser or Coke. Hamburgers sizzle, racks are stuffed with chips and candy. Hoover’s siblings might not understand how black voters could elect white mayors. Bill Luckett in Clarksdale. Steve Rosenthal in Indianola. John Cox in Greenville. Carolyn McAdams in Greenwood. Billy Nowell in Cleveland. All of them have something in common. Their histories are deeply entrenched in the Delta. They’re respected by their peers and have worked with the black community to move their towns forward. They realize they must be sensitive to black needs or lose the next election. For decades, race was the overriding issue. White people voted for white candidates. Black people voted for black candidates. But black voters proven to be more pragmatic. “Black voters have been historically more likely to consider a white candidate than vice versa,” said Tim Kalich, editor of The Greenwood Commonwealth. “It’s been tough for black candidates in local politics to get white voter support. But black voters have been a little more open to vote for a candidate of another race.” It’s a break from what used to be the norm. No longer can politicians solely depend on the same playbook of polarization, using partisan and racial politics to divide and conquer. It happens, but not nearly as often. Some black leaders say some white politicians in the Delta owe their success, at least in part, to the fact that they have more resources to throw at a race. They can hold fish fries and campaign dinners and feed people, while a black candidate may not be able to afford that. Whatever the reason, race is no longer always the trump card. It could be argued that the Delta can no longer afford to play the typical political games. For a time, black and white mayors and commissioners could get away with doing the bare minimum, while allowing their towns to fall into debt and disrepair. But voters are losing patience. Broken streetlights are to be fixed, drug dealing and violence are to be investigated, derelict homes are to be salvaged
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and bettered. Race can’t be the number-one factor for Delta voters. That doesn’t mean that it never is. That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. There are quite a few, and white mayors, like their predecessors, have to deal with them. Bill Luckett had not been mayor very long when black Clarksdale Commissioner Buster Moton became a thorn in his side. Finally, when Moton ignored frequent warnings and persisted in talking even when he wasn’t recognized, a frustrated Luckett resorted to having him removed from the dais. A police officer then arrested Moton and charged him with disorderly conduct. For 13 years, Moton has represented Ward 4, composed predominantly of poor African-Americans. He doesn’t like it when he doesn’t get his way and when Luckett voted against him a few times, he went on the attack. “Bill was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. It’s either Bill’s way or the highway. So Bill don’t understand that he’s a one-term mayor,” Moton said. “He will never be mayor again because you don’t do people like that. Bill don’t know politics, he don’t understand politics.”
The Effect of the voting rights act Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, federal examiners moved into the South to register voters and black voter registration spiked sharply upward. The chart compares black registration rates with white rates in seven southern states in 1965 and 1988.
96.8 Black White
69.2 68.4 62.6
37.3 31.6 27.4 19.3 6.7
Source: Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies
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Virginia GRAPHIC BY KRISTEN ELLIS
The backlash against white mayors is often racially based, and Moton, for one, doesn’t mind playing that card. “The way Bill is doing things here in Clarksdale, it’s like he’s trying to put all black people back in chains, like in the slavery days,” Moton added. Luckett is utterly frustrated by this because, he says, he is trying his best to unify both races. And Moton helped Luckett get elected. Yet when Luckett voted against Moton at commission meetings, Moton began calling him racist. Luckett finds this ridiculous. “I joined the NAACP about 25 years ago as a lifetime member,” Luckett said from his City Hall office. “I’ve promoted racial equality. I’ve invited the [William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation] over here as soon as I took office to try to avoid some of the tension that I saw coming.” The interview is interrupted by a black police officer. He has a subpoena for Mayor Luckett requiring him to be a witness at Moton’s upcoming trial in city court. (He was eventually fined $364.) After the mayor signs and the officer leaves, Luckett shakes his head and continues. “The former mayor, who happens to have been black, warned me about the racial tension that would be on the board, because he typically did not vote the same way that one of these commissioners [Moton] would have liked him to vote on certain issues. I have tried to do my best to remediate the situation, but it won’t go away.” It’s a tough line to walk for citizens and politicians. There are almost two different societies, two different cultures, in such close proximity and yet so vastly dissimilar, with each one jealously guarding its prerogatives and traditions. This then, is the big challenge left to the Delta. And it is one that has vexed the world since time immemorial. Nevertheless, people in the Delta are trying to work out this tired problem. The Winter Institute has been invited by several towns to create biracial committees, called “Welcome Tables,” to work through race-based growing pains. The Smithsonian-quality B.B. King Museum has helped put Indianola on the map. Then there is Greenville’s attempt to breathe new life into its waterfront and downtown. Cleveland has broken ground on a Grammy Museum. All these have at least some potential to bring whites and blacks together to work towards that Promised Land. “Super Chikan” wails a screeching solo, which Tim Kaine, Virginia’s junior senator, takes as an invitation to jump on stage. He pulls a harmonica from his pocket and puts it to his lips. Everyone is dancing now, all of them with bellies full of catfish and sweet tea. Kaine is killing it. He manipulates his blues harp like a champ, sliding his mouth up and down, amplifying the energy of the everenthusiastic Super Chikan, who pauses for a second, slightly stunned to be accompanied by a United States senator.
TOP RIGHT: Sylvester Hoover in his Baptist Town grocery store in Greenwood. PHOTO BY JARED BURLESON BOTTOM RIGHT: Bluesman Super Chikan lays down some licks at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale for visiting congressmen and senators on a civil rights pilgrimage. PHOTO BY IGNACIO MURILLO
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Lewis is still bouncing. Hoyer is still swinging. Norton is still rocking. And for that moment, everyone forgets the struggles that brought them here. Just for a second, it feels OK to call this the expected. It’s OK to call this normal.
ithout the protection of the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance clause, black people expect the troubles of the past to resurface. Those fears were fanned this year when Mississippi implemented a law requiring a photo ID to vote. Early response immediately broke down along racial lines. Blacks thought it would decrease black turnout. Whites claimed it would combat voter fraud. Bennie Thompson, the state’s only black congressman, saw it as proof of institutionalized racism in state government. He warned that it would disenfranchise black voters. “Given Mississippi’s history, I can say that this voter ID bill by itself is one of the prime reasons I think that the need for a new voting rights bill is there. Mississippi left unchecked will begin to turn back all the hands of political progress in this state.” But Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann took steps to avoid such criticism, including an outreach effort to offer rides to the courthouse to get free IDs and a policy that allowed 10-year-old driver’s licenses and student IDs and the like to suffice at polling places. In the end, there – ANDREW YOUNG were few if any ID complaints in the hotly contested Republican primary for U.S. Senate, a race where a heavy black turnout in the Delta made the difference in Sen. Thad Cochran’s victory over Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel. Perhaps the conservative-leaning justices are right, and Mississippi no longer needs to be under the watchful gaze of the federal government. Perhaps they’re wrong and, encouraged by the success of voter ID, the Legislature will pass laws to disenfranchise voters and push the Delta back toward its scary, intolerant past.
“When she was poor and hungry, you could take advantage of her, but with a degree in biochemistry, she is not going to take so much crap.”
It’s early May in Oxford and a little more than a hundred University of Mississippi law students sit in the hot sun of the Grove, covered in thick, black graduation gowns, trying to find shade under the branches of the trees. Congressman John Lewis has returned to speak to the graduates. On the platform behind him flies the Mississippi state flag, the one with a smaller Confederate battle flag conspicuously embedded in its upper left-hand
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corner. This is a campus where three students recently hung a noose and a Confederate flag around the statue of James Meredith, the school’s first black student. If anyone has the right to be outraged at this, it is John Lewis, arrested 40 times and almost beaten to death fighting for civil rights. But Lewis is not discouraged. “When people tell me nothing has changed in Mississippi, I say, ‘Walk in my shoes!’” Lewis says. “This is a different state. We are a better people. We are on our way to the creation of a beloved community.”
ndrew Young sat in his comfortable office and stared out his window on the ninth floor of an Atlanta skyscraper. This close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations pondered the high court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act. He found himself underwhelmed. “We never depended on the Supreme Court in the first place,” Young said. “We never even depended on the president. It was good we had them on our side, but it was, basically, the people’s determination that they were going to vote or die.” Three years ago, Young said, he returned to Memphis, where he saw King assassinated, to give a speech. He felt a tug from the Delta, just an hour or so away. He wondered if the old battleground had changed. So he headed down to Marks, where he and a few others started the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 and set out for Washington in a mule train. In Marks, he came upon a church. A young black woman walked out, and he approached her. “I said, ‘How you doing, little sister?’ “She said, ‘Fine.’ “I said, ‘What are you doing with yourself these days?’” She explained that she was a biochemistry senior at Ole Miss and was visiting family in Marks. She wasn’t sure what she would do with her degree. But she wasn’t worried, there were plenty of jobs to be found in biochemistry. That struck Young silent for a moment. This was such a drastic shift from the Mississippi he’d seen in the early 1960s, when black people weren’t welcome at Ole Miss. Then, the Delta had been a place of segregation, protests, beatings, boycotts. He couldn’t help himself. He flooded her with questions. What about the racial makeup of Ole Miss today? Was it 5 percent black, 10 percent? “She said, ‘It might be somewhere around 15 to 20 percent.’ I was shocked. See? To me, that’s more indicative of what’s happening in Mississippi than what the Supreme Court says. “When she was poor and hungry, you could take advantage of her, but with a degree in biochemistry, she is not going to take so much crap.” He reflected for a moment. “They can’t turn the clock back now. It’s too late. People won’t let them.” Design by Kristen Ellis
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Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett won with a heavy black vote. PHOTO BY THOMAS GRANING
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White Mayors win on Black Votes Nowadays itâ€™s about green - not black and white. By Karson Brandenburg
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r. Clyde Glenn had lived in Clarksdale for four years. So in 2002, the 46-yearold psychiatrist had an idea: applying for membership at the Clarksdale Country Club, he reasoned, would get him more involved with his community. But, much to his surprise, he was rejected. It wasn’t for lack of money. It wasn’t for lack of education. It was for something else: He was black. Flash forward 12 years later. An elderly black man wearing a denim jacket and frayed jeans walks into the mayor’s office. “Coley, come on in. Is there something I can do for you?” “Yes, Mr. Luckett. Some drug dealers shot up my street last night. They shot up my truck and now I can’t make it to my house-painting job. I just wondered if the police had had a chance to come by yet?” says Coley White. Mayor Bill Luckett pivots on his chair, grabs a phone and calls the police department. “Can you get a detective out to 1450 Choctaw?” he asks. The mayor’s response did not go unnoticed by his visitor, who later explained how a white mayor got elected in a community 70 percent black. “Before Mr. Luckett, we had a black mayor,” said White. “But from the people’s point of view, he was never doing anything to help the people. Whenever you wanted his help, he was never around. So a lot of us worked really hard to get Mr. Luckett elected.” It didn’t always work that way. In Clarksdale and throughout the Mississippi Delta, race has long been a topic of heated discussion and an intractable problem. For generations, black voters were in electoral chains and a kind of apartheid system had evolved: white mayors, boards of supervisors, school superintendents, police chiefs and sheriffs occupied the Delta’s most prominent public positions decade after decade. Then came 1965 — and with it, passage of the federal Voting Rights Act. Empowered with full citizenship rights for the first time, the Delta’s heavily black electorate slowly began leveling the political landscape: They started electing black mayors, city councilmen, aldermen, commissioners, boards of supervisors and sheriffs.
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But now, a half century after passage of the Voting Rights Act, significant change has swept across the Delta. For much of the last decade, black voters in some communities have elected white mayors. Today, the Delta’s five largest cities — Clarksdale, Greenwood, Greenville, Indianola and Cleveland — all have white mayors. The reason: Black voters have become if not more colorblind, certainly more concerned with electing people who can fix potholes, sweep up trash, take out junker cars and shore up dilapidated housing. As black empowerment across the Delta seasoned and became reality, voters matured in their ways of thinking and at the ballot box. “I think some people realized that just being black is not a good qualifier for anything —nor is being white,” said Luckett. “They started looking for quality people with leadership skills, and what’s happened (in the mayoral races) in the Delta is that whites are being elected because they are the betterqualified candidates at that particular time.”
t’s December 2012, and the streets of downtown Greenville are awash in holiday cheer. Mayor John Cox motors along the parade route, his wife, Lynn, at his side. As they cruise toward the levee, his car reaches the peak of a hill. Cox can see all the way down Washington Avenue, can see sidewalks crammed with residents. “Can you believe this?” he asks his wife. It’s Greenville’s biggest Christmas parade in half a century. A year later, Greenville’s Hot Tamale Festival morphed from a one-day event to a three-day festival with more than 8,000 people clogging the streets to celebrate the popular cuisine. “I really think that those kinds of events started changing the attitudes of groups,” said Cox. “They help everybody feel good about themselves and about Greenville and about the fact that color and race are just no part of this.” But that wasn’t always the case. In the 1920s, Greenville experienced its share of tense racial history. After the historic 1927 flood, the Delta was underwater. Thousands of black people lived in tents amid squalid conditions on the Greenville levee. There
Flags outside of Clarksdale City Hall. PHOTO BY THOMAS GRANING
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were complaints of discrimination as white farmers sought to keep their sharecroppers on the levee rather than allow them to be moved someplace else. They feared they might not come back if they were moved out of the county. Those complaints eventually led to a federal investigation. Despite these shortcomings, Greenville long has been noted for a kind of liberal progressiveness. Black residents got jobs in downtown stores, its police department integrated and the schools desegregated—all earlier than other Delta communities. The city even came to be known as the “rest stop” for weary civil rights workers throughout the 1960s. By 2011, that progressive mindset led to a different type of change. That year, Cox was elected mayor of Greenville’s 33,000 residents. He triumphed over a black opponent, Carl McGee, winning 57.5 percent of the vote in a city where 78 percent of the voters are black. “In the Delta, it used to be about race. Not now,” said Greenville contractor Willie Sullivan. “It’s about who can bring money to town and is the best qualified candidate. Nowadays, it’s about green—not black and white.” Or as Cox puts it: “Black and white people can get past race if there is a trust factor that they have about the candidate. A lot of politicians think it’s all about them. This is not about me. This is about Greenville.”
cross the Delta, similar seeds are taking root. And in many of those places, accessibility seems linked to mayoral popularity. For example, in Greenwood, Mayor Carolyn McAdams initially had little knowledge of where the mayoral boundaries were drawn. Then one afternoon, during her first term, a black man walked into her office. “I could tell he was real upset, you know, very emotional,” recalled McAdams. So she walked out and asked how she could help. “I need to see the mayor,” he said. “Well, that would be me,” she replied. The man then told her how his wife had left him the night before, wringing his hands as he spoke. “I need somebody to tell me what to do,” he finally said.
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Go see a preacher or a therapist, she suggested. But the man wanted her personal advice. “Well, you know, sir, I’ve been in your shoes before,” she told him. “And I did go to my priest, and then I went and got help from somebody who was very objective and didn’t take sides.” Two weeks later, the man returned. “That was the greatest advice,” he told her. “I don’t know that I’m going to get my wife back, but now I’m straightening my life out.” McAdams said these impromptu encounters have become typical, part of her job, and she welcomes them. But in Greenwood, like many other Delta towns, that hasn’t always been so. Once upon a time, this Delta community of 15,000 symbolized an ugly racial history. It was the hometown of Klansman Byron De La Beckwith, who killed Medgar Evers. In 1963, the city made The New York Times’ front page after civil rights activist Bob Moses led hundreds of residents to the Leflore County Courthouse, protesting the shooting of a young activist, Jimmy Travis. They were met by politicians and snarling dogs. The Times’ headline the next day read: “Police Loose Dog on Negroes’ Group, Minister is Bitten.” But as the decades unfolded, an air of change began to sweep across Greenwood, culminating in 2009 when McAdams got 56 percent of the mayoral votes, beating out the black incumbent, Sheriel Perkins. In 2013, that change continued as McAdams won again, this time with 52 percent. “There’s still room for growth. There’s still room for improvement,” said Tim Kalich, publisher of The Greenwood Commonwealth. “We still are too focused on race more than we should be. But it’s worlds different than it was 50 years ago.” And looking down the road, the mayor hopes it stays that way. “Black, white, green, yellow, at the end of the day, it just doesn’t matter because we’re all going to be here,” said Mayor McAdams. “I mean, I’m going to be here until I die, so I want Greenwood to sustain itself as a city. It can’t do that with just one race.”
ometimes, it seems, the personal relationships mayors have formed with voters have made more of
a difference in election years than race. In Indianola, Mayor Steve Rosenthal attributes his election victory to his deep city roots. In 1913, his grandfather started a clothing store in Indianola called Ben Fried’s. “We used to joke that we go from birth to burial. We had christening gowns, and I sold suits for the local funeral home,” said Rosenthal, who was born and raised in Indianola. That position allowed Rosenthal to form relationships throughout Indianola, from the wealthiest in town to the most impoverished neighborhoods. “When Indianola was 60 percent African-American, that was my business: 60-40,” he said. “When we became 75-25, that was my business. So as the population shifted, so did my business base because our store was moderate, middle-of-the-road merchandise.” However, merely being friends with everyone wasn’t enough. After the family business burned down in 2001, he realized he had an opportunity to speak out about a troubling political climate. “Typically, when you’re in retail, especially in a small town, you stay as politically neutral as you can,” he said. “But after I got out of the retail business, there were a lot of things I was frustrated about that I was not able to take action upon publicly.” Those frustrations centered on financial control of the city and its failing school systems. In 2006, before Rosenthal decided to run for office, then-Mayor Arthur Marble encouraged the Board of Aldermen to approve a 60 percent pay hike for him and a 50 percent raise for the board. They did so in an executive session, and at the next board meeting, an angry crowd gathered at City Hall in an uproar over the increased salaries. Marble publicly admitted that the raise was meant to boost his retirement benefits, but that didn’t quell the town’s outrage. Rosenthal felt the need to step up. He also believed the city’s largely black public school system was rapidly deteriorating. “I didn’t feel, at the time, that the administration was equipped to run a system of that size,” said Rosenthal. But the white community wasn’t interested in helping. “They had pretty much said, ‘That’s your all’s school. We’ll do other things.’ But I felt like we needed to be involved,” Rosenthal said. “Whether their children are attending or not, the future of Indianola is dependent on a quality public school education.” Dissatisfaction with Indianola schools has long been a community issue. In 1986, black residents boycotted Indianola’s businesses after the school board selected a white man, W.A. Grissom, as superintendent of a system in which 97 percent of the students were black. The boycott lasted 37 days until Grissom’s contract was bought out, and Robert Merritt, a principal of 16 years, became the
Black Power It’s easy to see why black people dominate politics in the Mississippi Delta. They make up 70 percent of the population. Black Population
37,328 (73%) 51,135
22,535 (66%) 34,145
23,591 (73%) 32,317
15,997 (57%) 28,065
19,613 (75%) 26,151
8,765 (57%) 15,378
8,191 (76%) 10,778
7,031 (75%) 9,375
5,756 (70%) 8,223
3,490 (71%) 4,196
914 (65%) 1,406
153,211 (70%) 221,889
Sources: 2010 U.S. Census
GRAPHIC BY KRISTEN ELLIS
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system’s first black superintendent. In a city that gave birth to the White Citizen’s Council — a group dedicated to enforcing segregation — Mayor Rosenthal, who is Jewish, won the 2009 election with 76 percent of the vote in a city where 80 percent of the citizens are black. Then he won again in 2013. “People chose Mayor Rosenthal because they weren’t satisfied with the predecessor,” said Ben Gaston, general manager of the Indianola Super Value. “It wasn’t a blackwhite issue. Steve is well-known throughout the community and people trust him.” The mayor agrees – then frames
Veteran Clarksdale City Commissioner Buster Moton helped Luckett get elected but has attacked him for voting against him on the commission. PHOTO BY PHILLIP WALLER
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the issue in a larger context. “Now we’re seeing that race is not the deciding factor — that people are choosing people,” he said. “So we’re getting back to what democracy’s all about — freedom of choice and not choosing based on race.” When the Voting Rights Act was passed, white leaders warned that black voters would only vote for black candidates. That may have been mostly true in the beginning, but the claim was undermined over the years when black support kept re-electing a handful of long-time white officials in each county. The theory was finally and emphatically
debunked again in a dramatic way in June of this year when long-time U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, a Republican, was forced into a runoff by Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel. The challenger, an ultraconservative, had been an honored speaker at gatherings of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and had railed against government spending and Obamacare, both of which are dear to the hearts of poor blacks in the Delta. In the runoff, black Democrats by the thousands rushed to the polls to vote for Cochran, who won by a little over 8,000 votes. Both candidates’ camps agree that all those black Delta votes made the difference.
eing a white mayor, of course, doesn’t guarantee you’re better than a black mayor. And sometimes, just as black officials were occasionally hounded by claims that they ignored white constituents, white office holders are finding that they aren’t exempt from racial controversy, either. In Greenville, Cox came under fire when he was featured in a NBC Today report highlighting academic struggles at a local middle school. He said socioeconomic reasons were part of why local schools weren’t integrated. He also said he didn’t send his two daughters to public school because “it was not up to what I felt they should have.” Black state Sen. Derrick Simmons quickly called for an apology. The senator’s twin brother, Greenville Councilman Errick Simmons, called for the mayor to resign and engineered a no-confidence vote in the council that broke down along racial lines. Since then, Cox has said he supports public schools and will work with school officials to improve academic performance. And in Clarksdale, race often is still stage center at city commission meetings. Commissioner Buster Moton, who is black, has made clear his animosity toward Luckett. “The only thing that really needs to happen is that the mayor needs to be fair,” Moton said in an interview. “We made phone calls and got him elected. Then he turned right around and spit in our faces. “The way Bill is doing things around here — it’s like he’s trying to
put black people back in chains.” Those remarks draw a sharp rebuke from the mayor, who has worked to reduce crime and remove dilapidated buildings besides using his own money to help rekindle commerce in downtown Clarksdale through blues shops and restaurants. “He’s called me all kinds of things,” said Luckett. “He’s called me a Republican, a racist, a one-term mayor, a slave driver … It doesn’t feel good being called a racist. People can suggest it, but it’s simply not true. I look at people’s character and abilities and I try to completely overlook color. I think the best policy is to move right on past it.”
“Black, white, green, yellow, at the end of the day, it just doesn’t matter because we’re all going to be here.” – GREENWOOD MAYOR CAROLYN MCADAMS
And based on the votes, Luckett has widespread support throughout the Delta community of about 18,000. In the 2013 Clarksdale election, he swept to office in a landslide, capturing 70 percent of the vote and taking all four wards. Some days, it seems nearly impossible to grasp the dramatic changes in Clarksdale that native son Luckett has seen in his 66 years. “When we were all kids growing up here, no white people ever crossed the tracks unless it was to buy tamales or pick up their maid,” Luckett said. “But a lot of that has changed. In many neighborhoods, blacks and whites now live next door to one another.” And some days, it’s just as hard for Coley White to grasp those same changes. “Nowadays,” he said, “a lot of people really aren’t into that color thing. We’ll vote for who we think can get the job done. Period.” Design by Lauren Keosseian
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A display at the B.B. King Museum.Â The 20,000 square-foot shrine has drawn visitors from all 50 states. PHOTO BY JARED BURLESON.
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THAT WORKED A
MIRACLE How a former segregationist stronghold built a $15 million museum celebrating the life of a black man
By Clancy Smith
t’s early afternoon, mid-September 2008, and the sparkling double-glass doors slide silently open. Soon, a large man shuffles through the doors before seating himself in a wheelchair. A hushed group of onlookers trails behind. The wheelchair glides down the hallway, then abruptly stops. The man stares hard at the gleaming Gibson guitars, as though he can’t quite believe someone arranged them so neatly on the walls. He kindly greets them all with the same name: Lucille. Yes, there she is – his beloved Lucille. THE MEEK REPORT 23
He keeps going, stops again – stunned at halfcentury-old photo displays of all those Memphis friends and all those good times. He wheels down a high-gloss hallway, then stops on a dime. Wait! Can that really be? A replica of the home music studio? The same carpet. The exact same piece of carpet? The man in the wheelchair slowly turns away. Alone now in a hushed corner of the museum, he drops his head and begins to weep. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen B.B speechless,” said Jim Abbott, former editor of the Indianola Enterprise
Tocsin and one of the museum’s founding members. The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center opened in the small town of Indianola in 2008 after more than eight years of planning, plotting and producing. Six years later, visitors from all 50 states and 30 countries – including Denmark, Japan and South Africa – have made the pilgrimage to the 20,000 square-foot shrine to the native son-turned-international blues legend. The project ended up topping out at a cool $15 million. And it’s not only outsiders who benefit. The museum has spun off afterschool programs for children and health
Museum director Dion Brown says some black folks wondered if the museum would be mainly for white folks. But the museum has proved them wrong. PHOTO BY JARED BURLESON
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and fitness programs for members of the community. In fact, continued growth and support have transformed the Smithsonian-quality museum into one of Indianola’s prime economic engines – an engine that has also helped unify a once-splintered community. Since the blue ribbons were cut, two new restaurants have opened in the Delta community of 10,495, and a new motel is scheduled to break ground soon. “The financial support and the support from the white community to make something happen that honored an African-American that played guitar is not something that would’ve happened a few decades ago,” said Bill McPherson, president of the B.B. King Museum Board.
ruth be told, it almost didn’t happen. Not the lavish display cases. Not the stateof-the-art sound system. Not the posh auditorium. And not the afterschool program for the town’s children. None of it. By the 1970s, B.B. King had become a global superstar. When he played San Francisco, he stayed at the Top of the Mark. When in New York, he stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. When in London, he gave private concerts for the queen. But when he came home, he and his band couldn’t sleep in local motels, couldn’t eat in local restaurants. “I came home to Indianola with my band, but we couldn’t stay at the motel out on (U.S.) 82, we couldn’t eat at the Cream Cup,” a disheartened King once told his friend Abbott. So, in 1983, Abbott began searching for a way for the town to embrace its famous native son, encouraging the Indianola Chamber of Commerce Board to assist with King’s annual homecoming concert. But it didn’t go down with some of the board members, many of whom had the same problem: They couldn’t see past the color of Riley B. King’s skin. “I said, ‘Well, you don’t even know the guy,’” Abbott told those who rejected the proposal. “’He’s the nicest guy. I mean, come on. He’s been received by the queen of England. He’s represented the United States in Moscow for the State Department. He is a true gentleman and he’s proud of this town.’” But the board wouldn’t budge. Enter four white couples. They concocted a plan to host a party to bridge the racial divide. Of the 250 people invited, 125 were white, 125 were black. The garden party along the bayou on June 9, 1983, to which the media was not invited, was unlike any the guests could remember.
“We kind of had a list of some white people that we knew would be challenged to come to the party, but they would have to come – the movers and shakers and all,” said Abbott. At one point during the evening, King asked guests to gather around the patio. He toasted the crowd. As he looked out at all the black and white faces, he almost began to cry. “They got to see,” said Abbott, “what a great guy he is.” A much older, increasingly feeble King, now 88, gave what was billed as his last annual concert in late May. For years, Indianola eagerly awaited those concerts.
“The financial support and the support from the white community ... is not something that would’ve happened a few decades ago.” -- BILL MCPHERSON They saw it as a time to come together, to enjoy music by a man who made a difference in his hometown.
t got serious over lunch one day in July 2000. The lunch group of five – banker, lawyer, restaurant owner, editor and bank teller – started brainstorming ways to turn their museum dream into reality. Their goal was to pay tribute to the man who had put Indianola on the map. They wanted to convey a saga that included both civil rights and an American success story in the music industry. “We were kind of like nomads in the wilderness,” recalled Randy Randall, a local banker and one of the museum’s founders. “We didn’t know really where we were going or how we were going to get there, but we were all determined to stay focused on our goal.” So the group wrote King a letter, asking approval to use his name for the B.B. King Museum. After his goahead, they sought two things: location and money. Auburn and Mississippi State architecture students squared off to find the best spot. Ironically, both groups chose a site with an old brick cotton gin near downtown. When they asked King’s approval, he gave a startling response: It was the same gin he had worked at as a young man helping grease the gin machinery. “That gin was actually a part of his life,” said Evelyn Roughton, another founding member.
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“We didn’t have any clue about that.” Fundraising quickly became another major concern. After speaking with museum experts, the initial $75,000 estimate morphed into the millions. What to do? Enter Bill McPherson and Allan Hammons. McPherson, an Indianola native, put his career on hold to work on the project full-time. Hammons, owner of Hammons & Associates Advertising, used his business expertise to help jump-start the project. “I became a little intrigued by the thing, so I guess I kind of tried to talk myself out of it and at the same time talk myself into it,” said Hammons, who was not initially ready to commit to the time-consuming project. Eventually, in Indianola alone, the team raised over a million dollars to back the museum. “Oh gosh, I can’t even tell you what, it was so generous,” said Roughton, owner of the Crown Restaurant downtown. “The people here in town were extremely generous and believed in its scale.”
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Meanwhile, McPherson and Hammons relentlessly badgered the Legislature with a tax plan to help underwrite the costs. They also got help from Washington, D.C., after pitching the project to the feds with an assist from U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. Fundraising events became a frequent affair. “It was shocking,” said Hammons. “Every time [the estimate] would go up, there were collective gasps from the board like, ‘We can’t do this. It’s not possible.’ But it was a fun project, and Bill and I literally worked coast to coast to make it happen.” The museum also got $300,000 from Gibson, the guitar company B.B. King had remained loyal to throughout the years. The most generous individual donation came in a nondescript manila envelope. The $2.5 million check from former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale and his wife Donna almost got tossed in the trash with a pile of junk mail. For six long years, McPherson and Hammons worked seven days a week to corral donations. As
Those museum video clips ultimately snagged a bronze medal in the Muse awards, an international awards ceremony that recognizes outstanding achievement in archives, libraries and museums. Along the way, the bond the museum forged with the community became evident. “It’s the first time I’d ever seen groups, black and white, work together on a common thing that both of them felt strongly about,” Roughton said. Today museum visitors continue to stream in from all over the world. And everything inside those sparkling double-glass doors continues to provide the social glue for a community with a racially fragmented history. Summed up Dion Brown, the museum’s executive director: “I wasn’t raised that way, so to me everybody’s equal, and so that’s the way we go forward – making the museum all-inclusive for everybody.” Design by Kim Sanner
Greenwood advertising executive Allan Hammons used his business expertise to help jump-start the project. PHOTO BY THOMAS GRANING
money piled up, the design team cranked up as well. Gallagher & Associates rounded up items significant to King’s life. At one point, he allowed the team to slap sticky notes on anything in his home they wanted for the museum. “If an institution can tell a powerful story, I really do think it affects the community and it draws tourists, first of all, because it’s authentic and it’s real and it shows people something that they didn’t expect to find there,” explained Cissy Foote Anklam, founder of Museum Concepts. “Then it also revitalizes the community. Not only economically, which is great, but also just in terms of civic pride and understanding their story better.” In the end, King left most of the museum’s creation to those spearheading the project. “He was involved as little as he could be, but we wore him out,” McPherson said. “I mean, he was playing and busy, and we really worried him to death trying to tie him down and get him on film.”
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Not Just A
Museum The B.B. King Museum aims to improve the health and education of an entire town. By Clancy Smith
he children giggle and fidget as they gather together in a spacious room carved out of a renovated brick cotton gin. The instructor signals. Silence. Every eye watches her with an almost scary intensity. She waves her arms, slowly at first, then faster and faster. Giggling again, the children copy her every move. She stomps her feet. Dozens of little feet pitter-patter against the wood floor. Laughter from dozens of excited elementary school kids fills the room. They jump up and down, up and down, begging for more.
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The museumâ€™s exercise program is a godsend for a place plagued by juvenile obesity. PHOTO BY PHILLIP WALLER
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To passersby at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, this silly copycat game might seem out of place. But in the Mississippi Delta, where obesity, diabetes and related health issues kill people at a record pace, exercise for kids is nothing less than a godsend. Since it opened its doors in 2008, the B.B. King Museum has pumped new life into a little town that desperately
needed it, luring busloads of tourists and folks from surrounding cities to ogle a museum that is the envy of the Delta. And now, without much fanfare, the museum has embarked on something even more ambitious. It offers a wide range of educational programs, an attempt to provide the kind of hope and opportunity that the young Riley B. King was often denied. It has become a sort of community center that seeks to improve the lives of young and old alike. Exercise. Dance. Art. Math. Reading. Healthy eating and cooking. And so much more. To hear them tell it, the museum’s founders never expected it to double as a community center. It just evolved. “I did not realize the impact that would have,” said Randy Randall, a co-founder. “It’s just been a real important nucleus for the community. It’s given so much opportunity, and just a wonderful venue for the youth, especially.” The lively dance class in the old cotton gin was a part of Spring Fling, a program held during the one-week spring break for local schools. It offers instruction in art, music and dance, culinary arts and physical fitness. “These programs go out of the realm of education and academics so as to build the child all the way around, the whole child,” said the museum’s education coordinator, Verna Ransom. Spring Fling is just one part of what the museum offers. There is an ambitious afterschool program and an eight-week summer day camp. Jim Abbott, left, and B.B. King at the dedication of Indianola’s King statue. PHOTO COURTESY JIM ABBOTT
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It’s all part of “The Art of Living Smart,” an attempt to improve the life of every kid who wants to come, free of charge. “Where the school stops, we pick up every day in our afterschool,” said Gloria Macintosh, the director of education, better-known as “Dr. Mac.” “When the school is not in session during spring break, we pick the children up and bring them here with us.” The B.B. King Museum has 80 children – ages 8 to 17 -- at both the summer camp and Spring Fling, plus 45 students in the afterschool program. Even in summer, children are encouraged to keep learning. The summer camp teaches reading and math, an opportunity to get extra help outside the pressure of a grade school classroom. “If you just did it for the summer and then we get to the next summer, you can’t make a change,” said Bill McPherson, chairman of the museum board. “It’s got to be year-round to make a change. And they measure results.”
Bill McPherson, president of the museum board of directors, says the interracial cooperation couldn’t have happened even two decades ago. PHOTO BY JARED BURLESON
t’s a sleepy summer day in Indianola, the kind of hot, humid day when people seem to move in slow motion. Suddenly, a small army of children invades a grocery store, zipping up and down aisles, startling shoppers. They snatch healthy snacks off shelves, scrutinizing the labels carefully, just like bargain-conscious mommies in a hurry. It’s not all fun and games. These kids are counting calories. Museum teachers give them each $3 and take them to the store with orders not to go over budget and not to buy more than a specified number of calories. “Once they hit the calorie limit, they are through spending. They don’t think they can do it, but they come back with change in their pockets,” said Dion Brown, the museum’s executive director. The idea is to help them identify nutritious food. Dieticians reinforce the lesson by teaching them to decipher nutrition labels. Along the way, children brought up on fast food discover things such as eggplant and asparagus for the first time. “It was amazing, just common vegetables, that they didn’t even know
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Kids have fun at the museum’s Spring Fling event in Indianola. PHOTO BY PHILLIP WALLER
what they were,” said McPherson. In an area where the poverty level is 38.8 percent and grocery stores are few, many people struggle to maintain healthy lives, turning instead to fast food and cheaper processed foods, often purchased at convenience stores and gas stations. No wonder that obesity levels are sky-high, heart attacks are common and Mississippi is known for the fattest children in America. The museum seeks to tackle the problem
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by changing how kids eat. Eating fresh vegetables and drinking water is a much better diet than sugary sodas and fast food. Kids are taught to make healthy snacks in the museum’s kitchen. But it doesn’t stop there. They take the information home and teach it to their families. “I had a grandmother come to me one time, and say, ‘Because of this program, I have to start eating healthier because my granddaughter is reading the labels,’ and
money to good use on planning speakers, crafting agendas and advertising. She also goes into the community to tell people what the museum has to offer and get them to come see for themselves. “I see us as being a great asset to the community, which is what I like,” said Macintosh. “I like promoting education because I know education is the key to getting out of poverty. It’s the key to success.” The museum tries to develop future leaders through the B.B. King Youth Leadership Program. It gives high school students a chance to become one of B.B.’s Bridge Building Ambassadors. Students spend two Saturdays a month studying the museum and earning up to 48 hours of community service credit. They’re also trained to lead museum tours and are eligible to participate in a national youth leadership program in Washington, D.C. “The ambassador program doesn’t just teach you about B.B. King, but it teaches you about the Delta and music and culture,” said 16-year-old Dantarrius Collier, who recently graduated from the year-long program. The programs are not just for kids. For example, adults can take music lessons. Macintosh found a teacher to give keyboard lessons every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. The 30-minute sessions cost $10. Guitar lessons are offered in 30-minute sessions for $20. A recent federal grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, partnered with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and Bridging Cultures, brought the museum $1,200 for a program called, “Created Equal, America’s Struggle for Civil Rights,” a topic of some interest in a place where the vast majority of black people couldn’t vote until 1965. It requires that the museum host three documentary films with a facilitator and
“Once they hit the calorie limit, they are through spending. They don’t think they can do it, but they come back with change in their pockets.”
that’s what we teach the kids, to count the calories, so they pass that on to their parents and grandparents,” said Brown. “One of the reasons we went with health is that B.B. has diabetes,” said McPherson. “It was a natural connection to him, and grant funds were available for health, especially in the Delta.” The museum pays for the programs with grants from the Delta Health Alliance and other groups. Ransom puts the
–– DION BROWN
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The museum’s after school program is increasingly popular. PHOTO BY PHILLIP WALLER
panel to lead audience discussion. They’ve gotten good attendance. One recent panel on the documentary “Slavery by Another Name” included former NAACP leader Carver Randle, civil rights activist Charles McLaurin and newly elected school board member Deborah Johnson. “They did a really good job at getting the audience involved,” said Macintosh, “just exchanging and having a really good dialogue.” So far, the kids and the audiences have been mostly African-American. But the museum is working to increase white participation. “If we continue with our programs, encouraging people to come of all races,” said Macintosh, “I think it will get better and better. It’s a process. I know we’re making a little progress at a time.”
hen the museum opened, some black residents suspected it might be just another white community project. Since then, the staff has tried hard to create an environment
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where everyone feels welcome. Dion Brown experienced the problem firsthand when he arrived in 2011. “When I got here, I was told, ‘So you’re the token they’ve brought in here,’” said Brown. “That’s what the black community told me, ‘So you’re the token.’” Instead of getting angry, Brown went to work. He expanded programs and worked to lure more local residents to the museum. Once they see it in action, they become fans, he said. “I like changing people’s minds by action, not sitting here trying to argue to get you to see my point of view, but though continuous work,” said Brown. When people say they love what the museum is doing, Brown has his reward. He remembers one little girl in particular. “She had so much fun here during the summer camp, she says, ‘I cannot wait to get up so I can come to the B.B. King Museum,’” said Brown. “That’s powerful, and that means we’re doing something right.” Design by Jessi Hotakainen
The museum is an attempt to give kids the kind of opportunities Riley B. King never had. PHOTO BY PHILLIP WALLER
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The Showdown If the feds change Clevelandâ€™s schools, will the white folks stay or go? By Eliza McClure
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aurice Lucas walks the long corridors of Cleveland High School, peeking into classroom after classroom where every desk is filled, every space crammed with students. The president of the School Board pauses by a row of lockers. Senior class portraits line the walls. In the Class of 1972, young women wear their hair long and parted, young men sport splotchy facial hair. Step by step, trends change. But one thing stays the same: every portrait displays beaming white and black faces.
“Every community you can name where they did that, that school went to pot.” – MAURICE LUCAS Barely a mile drive to the other side of the town, Lucas prowls the halls of East Side High School, where a stern-faced principal barks the seconds before final period. Lucas slaps the principal on the back, giving him credit for raising East Side’s school grade to a B and pushing to go higher. “Things are really changing here,” Lucas says, reading a bulletin board titled “IB MISSION STATEMENT.” Again, the halls are lined with graduating class portraits. Senior class after senior class stares straight ahead, smiles fixed. As much as things have changed, the skin color of every graduate remains the same: black.
he railroad tracks that once separated white from black neighborhoods have been removed. But Cleveland, home to 12,000 residents, remains a town divided. Public schools on the east side of town remain all black, while schools on the west side are more integrated, with white students clinging to a bare majority. Compared to the rest of the Delta, schools on the west side of the old tracks stand out. Cleveland High, with 562 students, is about 50 percent white, 50
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percent black—just like the town itself. Cleveland High, in fact, holds the rarest of distinctions. It is the Delta’s only integrated public high school. Meanwhile, all of East Side High’s 346 students are black. Now the Justice Department wants to change all that. In what seems a flashback to the integration wars of the 1960s and 1970s, the department has accused the school district of operating predominantly onerace schools nearly 45 years after a federal judge first ordered it to desegregate. With an eye on all-black east side schools, the Justice Department argues that Cleveland “has fallen woefully short of its affirmative duty to do everything in its power to desegregate schools.” Some here fear that if the courts try to engineer more integration, it could lead to the same wholesale white flight that has plagued schools in every other Delta city. “Every community you can name where they did that, that school went to pot,” says Lucas, one of two black members on the five-member school board. After a brief visit, U.S. District Judge Glenn Davidson called Cleveland “an oasis” in the Delta. He implemented a “freedom of choice” plan, giving all students the right to choose their school. But in April, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Davidson to show how “freedom of choice” would satisfy the Supreme Court’s longstanding desegregation mandate. A judge questioned whether white parents would enroll their children in primarily black schools. Either prove “freedom of choice” works, the court said, or consider the Justice Department’s alternatives. In January, as this magazine went to press, the school board and Justice Department had given U.S. District Judge Debra Brown, who inherited the case, competing plans. And now Cleveland waits. And worries. The school district wants to keep both Cleveland High and East Side High but use incentives – for example, prestigious magnet programs and the ability to take early college credit courses at Delta State University – to lure white students to East Side. The Justice Department wants to consolidate, creating one fully integrated middle school and one fully integrated high school. That could create a high school
Tenth grader Denisha Cook, left, and 11th grader Makayla Kimble discuss the school desegregation lawsuit in Cleveland.Â PHOTO BY JARED BURLESON.
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Cleveland Alderman Gary Gainspoletti says the city’s healthy economy is at least partially due to “a school system that’s worked.” PHOTO BY ERIN SCOTT
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75 percent black, 25 percent white. Historically, in the Delta, these numbers have led to white flight. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, black students became dominant in integrated public schools from Tunica to Vicksburg. White students fled to segregation academies that sprang up almost overnight. Bayou Academy, founded in 1964, is a product of those times. Today the sprawling Cleveland private school on the western edge of town enrolls about 350 students, nearly all white. Over time, this sort of white flight added to the Delta’s already crippled economy, discouraging new business and driving some residents to move to areas with better schools. Cleveland has been the only Delta town that has maintained a healthy economy, vibrant downtown, and an integrated high school. With stable employers like Delta
State University, with 4,785 students, and Baxter, a medical supply company, Cleveland has not suffered nearly the economic slide experienced by surrounding communities. The school district produced an expert witness with extensive experience in school desegregation cases. Christine Rossell of Boston University, a public policy scholar whose books include School Desegregation in the 21st Century, noted that the student body at Cleveland High is already steadily becoming blacker. In her report, she warned that combining the two high schools would inevitably lead to white flight, destroying the very integration the government wants to foster. The Justice Department called her findings irrelevant. It is no wonder that, in a town once divided by train tracks, emotions and
opinions over the court case likewise divide. Parents, students, alumni, teachers, and even those unaffiliated with the school system all have an opinion. But this is not the 1960s. And these opinions are not as clear-cut as a train track. Some black citizens support consolidation, while their neighbors worry that consolidating East Side High would strip students, alumni and the community of a school legacy that has become so much a part of their identity. “There are individuals on the east side who want to maintain that East Side symbol. Their father, their mother, their auntie, their brothers, their sisters, played football on the Trojan field, they went to those classrooms, they fell in love, they got married,” says Willie Simmons, a black state senator. White citizens almost uniformly oppose consolidation, but for varying reasons: the risk of jeopardizing the quality of their children’s education, the threat of white flight, and the fear of messing up a good thing – Cleveland High, a racially balanced school in its own right. Still others welcome the potential for change. Tonya Short, whose son, Konnor, attends all-black D.M. Smith Middle School, testified for the government. “I think the school district emulates the city itself,” she says. “You have whites who live on one side of the track or what used to be the track. Then blacks living on the other side.” Short says that her son performed at an above-average level when he attended Hayes Cooper Elementary. At the middle school on the east side, however, he has dropped to borderline proficient. “I have yet to see him pick up anything and study it. Whereas at Hayes Cooper, he was spending three to four hours a night on homework and preparing for tests or doing assignments,” she said. Short, like many black parents, supports a single high school because she believes it would improve her child’s education.
Other parents are not so eager. Brandyn Skeen, a white mother of three children in Cleveland’s public schools, worries that the town could face a fate similar to Indianola and Clarksdale, where all-black schools continue to struggle. However, she is reluctant to pull her children out of public schools. “I would have to let it play out. I would have to see what happens to my child’s education and monitor the progress or lack thereof,” she says. Lucy Janoush, a former booster club president whose daughter, Mary Parker Janoush, recently graduated from Cleveland High and took International Baccalaureate science and math courses at East Side for the advanced instruction and college credit, fears white flight. “I think that it is absolutely critical for the community for people to have choices.” When asked why whites might leave, she cites perceived differences between the two sides of town. “There are significant cultural differences between the blacks and whites of this area. I just look and listen and decide. I don’t think there’s any race that’s any worse than another. But there’s definitely cultural, ethical, moral differences,” she says. “I think there are concerns among parents of their
Judson Thigpen of the local chamber of commerce says schools are important for economic expansion. PHOTO BY ERIN SCOTT
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children being around more of that kind of situation than you would want them to be.” Janoush’s daughter would not like to see her alma mater disappear. She believes that much of the conflict stems from a generational divide. “This is an adult fight. If you go around and ask kids, the people who are actually going to school, they don’t care. It’s not fair, because I think everybody’s standing around, all these adults are pushing to combine. We should let the kids decide,” she says. She worries that if the schools are combined, many white parents would pull their children from public schools and that the decision “wouldn’t necessarily be the kids’ choice.” Sitting in a gas-station-turned-coffee shop, Denisha Cook, a black 10th grader at Cleveland High, and friend Makayla Kimble, a white 11th grader, sip coffee from Styrofoam cups and ponder issues that seem to have vexed this area forever. Even if kids could decide this case, Cook thinks a lot of white students would not want to go school with so many black kids. “There’s a lot of kids who aren’t exactly … accustomed to having that many colored people at the school. I can name a couple. They say, ‘If that happens, then I will certainly change schools or go to Bayou [Academy],’” says Cook. Kimble nods in agreement, adding, “Most of Cleveland High would go to Bayou Academy and other private schools that have white people in the majority.” Sit long enough with students and other problems of race arise. When Angel Trigo, a Filipina 7th-grader at majority-white Margaret Green Middle, began dating a black student in her class, word spread quickly. “I told one person about it and he got all mad. He called me words that didn’t need to be said. I was like, ‘You don’t need to be racist about that because we’re all the same, just different colors.”
TOP: Former booster club member Lucy Janoush outside Cleveland High School, where her daughter graduated. “It’s absolutely critical” for parents to have choices, she said. BOTTOM: Mary Parker Janoush, a 2013 Cleveland High graduate, says the adults should let the kids decide. PHOTOS BY JARED BURLESON
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little out of breath after visiting schools on both sides of the tracks, Maurice Lucas flops down into a plush leather office chair in the back of the windowless, fluorescent-lit school district office. Lucas believes the schools are fine
the way they are. “Everything that we are doing is working,” he says. To Lucas, it doesn’t matter if schools on the east side stay 100 percent black. What’s important is how well they perform. “I remember in 1989, we did surveys at East Side. A black boy asked, ‘Mr. Lucas, what does having a white child sitting next to me do to help my education?’ “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ “He said, ‘I’m going to tell you. Nothing. I’m going to do well wherever I go.’ “That young man is a general now, and he keeps in touch with me. He’s at Fort Bliss, Texas. Look at this: 90 percent of all black doctors, black lawyers, guess where they go to school? Historically black colleges and universities.” For civil rights activist Margaret Block, those are fighting words. “I mean, how are you going to be on a school board and have some simplistic crazy thought like that?” Leaning forward in her burgundy armchair, in a living room filled with African art and civil rights books, she adds, “It doesn’t matter who you’re sitting next to in a classroom. This is a global society, a multiracial society.” White schoolteacher Eron Jenkins, who teaches eighth grade at all-black D.M. Smith Middle School, agrees students need a dose of the real world. And that includes students of other races. “Our students need diverse schools,” Jenkins says. “It’s not that they need to see white faces. But they need a greater worldview. A worldview that goes a little bit outside of, not even Cleveland, Mississippi, but that particular community. They need that. Everybody does.”
ne thing all sides can agree on: a healthy public school system is important to Cleveland’s future. Rare is the town that survives without one. “From the economic development standpoint, we need a very strong public school system,” says Judson Thigpen of the local chamber of commerce. “That’s one of the first things companies look at when they’re wanting to locate.” Gary Gainspoletti, a Cleveland alderman, used to live in Clarksdale, where a desegregation plan created a nearly all-
black public high school. “Clarksdale used to have 20,000 people. Their sales tax revenue used to be double what Cleveland’s is. “Today, population-wise, we’re about the same size, but the sales tax revenue in Cleveland is remarkably higher than Clarksdale. And it’s all a product of a school system that’s worked.”
“From the economic development standpoint, we need a very strong public school system. That’s one of the first things companies look at when they’re wanting to locate.” – JUDSON THIGPEN To Sen. Willie Simmons, it’s a matter of dollars and cents. One school is more efficient than two. A local business owner himself, he sits at the back of his spacious restaurant, the Senator’s Place, off of Highway 61. A line in the shape of a question mark snakes the buffet counter. Customers — ranging from white to black, young to old, silk ties to muddy work boots — sit side-by-side, sharing conversation and cornbread across tables. “Because it’s so new to us, it’s very emotional,” he says. “But I think Cleveland and Bolivar County as a whole is an area where citizens adapt, adjust and move forward. “If the court steps in and says it’s time to change, Cleveland, home to Delta State University, which is a great institution, the future home of the Grammy museum, second in the world to exist…” Simmons eyes two grade-school boys— one black, one white—hiding under a table. As a waitress counts to ten, they whisper and giggle, unable to contain themselves. The senator cracks a wide, lopsided smile. “…We’ll step up to the plate and say, ‘Let’s go forward.’ It will work,” he says. Design by Taylor Davenport.
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The Almost Martyr John Lewis very nearly died on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But he says it was worth it. By Clancy Smith
John Lewis (in the foreground) is beaten by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. on March 7, 1965. PHOTO BY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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unlight filters through tall leafy oak trees in the center of the Ole Miss campus as graduates and parents wait restlessly for law school commencement. On a shaded wooden platform, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, the featured speaker, is flanked by two flags. On his right waves the American flag, on his left the Mississippi flag with the age-old symbol of the Confederacy in its upper right hand corner. Lewis doesn’t give it a glance. He could speak about the troubled history of this most southern of southern schools, how in 1962 a bloody riot accompanied the enrollment of its first black student, James Meredith. He could speak of how, just a few weeks ago, some students placed a hangman’s noose around the neck of the statue of Meredith on the same campus. He could speak of how he was once beaten nearly to death for the cause of civil rights. Instead, he preaches a sermon of hope, a sermon of love. “If someone had told me when I first came to Mississippi on the Freedom Ride that I would be standing here today, I would have said you are crazy, you’re out of your mind, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says. But today, at 74, he says he loves Mississippi. “When people tell me nothing has changed in Mississippi, I say walk in my shoes! This is a different state. We are a better people. … It doesn’t matter if we are black or white. We are one people and one family. We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters and live in peace.” When he is done, the overwhelmingly white audience gives him a standing ovation, a stark contrast to what he experienced when he visited the state for the first time in 1961. At that time no one would listen to him at all.
ven now, almost 50 years later, it is hard to watch the film. John Lewis leads a band of unarmed protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Suddenly, state troopers attack with billy clubs. Deputies on horseback charge the marchers. A defenseless John Lewis is clubbed to the ground from behind. The blows crack his skull, rendering him unconscious. The images of that attack helped
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prod Congress into passing the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, which changed the face of the South by making it easier for black people to vote. For Lewis, Selma was just another day at the office. During the 1960s, he absorbed hate and violence like few ever have. He was hit over the head with a Coca-Cola crate, pummelled with the fists of angry white men, jailed 40 times, all for daring to challenge segregation. Through it all, he never abandoned his vow of non-violence, never stopped believing that one day race would no longer be an issue in this nation so long divided by the color of a man’s skin. Today, the young preacher boy who couldn’t get a public library card or drink from the “Whites Only” water fountain is the Democrats’ deputy whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, a senior statesman of civil rights whose gentle spirit is legend. As a young boy growing up in the country outside of Troy, Ala., John Lewis was acutely aware that black and white were treated differently. He didn’t like the overcrowded classrooms, hand-me-down books or raggedy school bus that drove him and his friends past the newly renovated school for white children. “I kept asking questions. Why? Why?” Lewis said. “And my mother and father and grandparents would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.’ ” In 1957, at 17, Lewis applied to allwhite Troy State University without telling his family. The college never responded. Instead of giving up, Lewis wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “I told him I needed his help. He wrote me back and sent me a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket,” said Lewis. “He invited me to come to Montgomery to meet with him.” Meanwhile, Lewis’s mother, who worked in the laundry room at a Southern Baptist orphanage, learned about the American Baptist Theological Seminary for black students in Nashville. In September of 1957, Lewis hopped on a Greyhound bus to Nashville to study religion and philosophy, working his way through school. At spring break, Lewis accepted King’s invitation and traveled to meet him at the First Baptist Church of Montgomery.
“I was lost for words to say, and he said, ‘Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?’ And I said, ‘Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis.’ I gave my whole name,” said Lewis. “And that was the beginning.” Lewis and King became fast friends. “I loved him,” said Lewis. “He was my hero and if it hadn’t been for him, I don’t know what would have happened to me. He gave me a way out.” King offered to help Lewis file suit to get into Troy State. He urged Lewis to talk with his parents before making a decision. “I went back and my mother and father were so frightened,” said Lewis. “They didn’t want to have anything to do with my attempting to go there. They thought they would lose the land, my home would be bombed or burned.” Lewis returned to Nashville to continue his education, working first in the kitchen, then on the food line and eventually as a janitor in the administration building. The janitorial position became particularly helpful when the student sitin movement swept through the South. “I was able to get a secretary in administration to do the typing,” said Lewis. “And I liberated a ream of paper and we had these do’s and don’ts: don’t laugh out, don’t talk out, don’t talk back, look straight ahead, read your book, do your homework, sit up straight and all of that.” He graduated while imprisoned in 1961. “I didn’t even march or participate in my graduation,” Lewis said. Instead, he was in a maximum security cell at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, more famously known as Parchman Prison. In the spring of 1961, he had joined the Freedom Riders who traveled on buses through the South to help desegregate interstate transportation, including bus station restrooms and cafes. One bus was attacked and burned as the riders narrowly escaped. During a stop in Montgomery, white thugs ambushed the Freedom Riders and beat them. Dozens were injured. “I was hit in the head with a wooden crate, a Coca-Cola crate of all things,” said Lewis. “Had to get a big patch on my head.” When the riders got to Jackson, they were shipped off for a 44-day stay at Parchman.
There, prisoners were not allowed to go outside and only showered twice a week. “Once people were singing their freedom songs and the guards would say, ‘If you don’t stop singing your freedom song, we are going to take your mattress,’ ” said Lewis. “So people started improvising and making up songs so they couldn’t take our mattress.”
n 1963, President John F. Kennedy invited a small group of civil rights leaders to the White House. Lewis, who only days before had been named chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was the youngest of the group that included Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Phillip Randolph, among others. They told Kennedy they planned a peaceful march on Washington. On August 28, 1963, that dream became a reality. What leaders expected to be 60,000 to 70,000 participants turned into 250,000. The dramatic scene is credited with helping pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “We were coming down Constitution Avenue, and we saw hundreds and thousands of people coming out of Union Station, so we knew then it was going to be many more people,” said Lewis. “It was very moving, just gratifying.” Lewis, the youngest of six speakers at the March on Washington, was 23 the day he stepped up to the podium between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. “I looked to my right. I saw all these young people, black and white, standing there cheering me on, and then I looked straight ahead and I saw all those young people, men, women,” said Lewis. “I’ll never see a sight like that again.” In 1964, what would later be called “Freedom Summer,” thousands of students from the north came south to help register black voters. As chairman of SNCC, Lewis recruited people to travel to Mississippi. “Back in 1964, the state had a very large AfricanAmerican population, but only a few people were registered to vote,” said Lewis. “We wanted to change that.” Few people registered
“When people tell me nothing has changed in Mississippi, I say walk in my shoes! This is a different state. We are a better people.” – JOHN LEWIS
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Hundreds flocked to Selma this year to recreate the historic march on “Bloody Sunday.” PHOTO BY THOMAS GRANING
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that summer, but the group made progress in organizing and energizing young blacks. They were also met with violence. Three civil rights workers, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, went missing that summer near Philadelphia, Miss. Murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, their bodies were discovered six weeks later. “That was a very sad and difficult time,” said Lewis. But the seeds of political activism had been planted. “I think in Mississippi, during the summer in those early years, the African-American community in the state became probably the most politically involved and aware than any African-American community or any other southern state,” Lewis said. Though progress remained slow, Lewis said Freedom Summer had an impact not only on Mississippi, but on the entire nation. “What happened that summer and years following, it helped educate and sensitize and motivate people all across America,” he said. A year later, a peaceful march in protest
of the killing of a young man shot by a state trooper stands out as one of Lewis’ most frightening experiences. SNCC began its protest walk from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Lewis came prepared. He assumed the group would be arrested so he wore a backpack with two books to read, an apple and an orange to eat and toothpaste and a toothbrush to brush his teeth. When they paused to pray after being ordered to disperse, state troopers and deputies advanced, hitting people with nightsticks and bullwhips, trampling them with horses and releasing tear gas. “I thought I was going to die,” said Lewis, who suffered a concussion. “I thought I saw death, but somehow I survived.” Amidst the beatings, hatred and imprisonment, Lewis never considered giving up. Fear never hindered him. “For a lot of people, fear is natural for them,” he said. “But you come to that point, you lose that sense of fear and you find something that you believe in that is so right and so necessary that you’re prepared to stand up for it, fight for it and, if necessary, die for it.”
hrough his many trips to Washington, D.C., and conversations with elected officials, Lewis got interested in politics as a way to change things. When Robert Kennedy announced that he was running for president, Lewis offered to help. Soon he found himself organizing voter registration efforts for the RFK campaign in Indianapolis. It was there, on April 4, 1968, that he heard of King’s assassination. “I was stunned and saddened, and I cried like the great majority of the people,” said Lewis. “I went back to Atlanta and helped prepare for the services, and sort of dropped out of the campaign for a week or so. Then I got back on the campaign trail.” Lewis worked hard, knocking on doors to help Kennedy win the Democratic primary in California. On election night, after the victory, Kennedy invited Lewis and a few others to his hotel suite to celebrate. Kennedy joked lightheartedly with his visitors and invited them to stay while he went down to give his victory speech. “So we watched his speech on television that evening, and later when this bulletin came on that he had been shot we all just dropped to the floor and cried, and I just wanted to get out of L. A.,” said Lewis. “I just wanted to make it back to Georgia.” Disheartened by the passing of two dear friends, Lewis made a promise to himself to continue the work of those leaders whom he so greatly admired. “I said to myself then if I could do something to pick up where Robert Kennedy and Dr. King and others left off, I would do it,” said Lewis. After losing a first race for Congress, Lewis went to work for President Jimmy Carter in Washington, D.C. He returned to Atlanta after three years and got elected to the city council. A U.S. House seat in Atlanta came open again in 1986 when incumbent Rep. Andrew Young resigned to become Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations. Lewis ran again. This time, he was elected. “And I haven’t had a tough race since,” he said. “This year, not anyone is running against me.” Lewis is a member of the Ways and Means committee, dealing with issues related to taxes, revenue, Social Security and Medicare.
He is also heavily involved in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform. In fact, his most recent arrest in October 2013 centered on a protest against lack of immigration reform. It marked the fortieth time Lewis has been arrested while standing up for what he believes is right. “It’s a form of speech almost,” said Lewis. “As Dr. King would say, you have a right to protest for what is right. You have a right to petition the government. So it’s a different way, a different means of petitioning your government, to make your concern known, to help to dramatize the issue.” After the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act, Lewis began pushing a new voting rights law to restore some of the protections the court eliminated. He wants to make voting less complicated and more accessible so everyone can participate. “My own feeling is that the national election, the general election, should be a holiday,” Lewis. “If voting is so important to our democratic society, just make it a national holiday and let everybody vote.” Lewis credits his faith for helping him handle the challenges thrown his way. “Without my faith, I’m not so sure I would have survived,” he said. “It’s that belief … , that sense of hope, that sense of optimism, that sense that you can overcome, and it’s also that sense of you have to work and believe that what you’re working toward, in a sense, it’s already done.” Though harboring resentment would be easy, Lewis has never succumbed to anger. “I tell young children all the time ‘never hate,’ ” said Lewis. “Dr. King would say ‘hate is too heavy a burden to bear.’ You destroy yourself. The best thing to do is be hopeful, be optimistic, and continue to work.” He knows there is work still to be done, but the change he has already seen leaves him encouraged. “I see the changes that have occurred in the state, and it gives me so much hope,” said Lewis. “The state of Mississippi has the highest number of black elected officials in any state. I meet people, young people, people not so young, all over the country who say, ‘I’m from Mississippi, I grew up in Mississippi, I followed you.’ Design by Lauren Keosseian
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A young Andrew Young comforts 19-year-old Abbie Kimble who was struck by a flying object hurled by angry whites during a civil rights march in Grenada, Sept. 14, 1966.
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PHOTO BY AP/BILL HUDSON
Andrew Young fought racism by reasoning with white leaders. Listen, he told them. I only want to help you.
By Kayleigh Skinner
e can still picture the flag, the swastika billowing in the wind just blocks from his childhood home in downtown New Orleans. “Why?” 5-year-old Andrew Young asked his father. “Why are the neighbors shouting ‘Heil Hitler?’” “He told me that white supremacy was a sickness, and these were sick people,” Young said. “You don’t get upset with sick people. You find a way to help them.” Minister. Civil rights icon. Congressman. United Nations ambassador. Mayor of Atlanta. Each is a title Young held during his long career as activist, pastor, politician and diplomat.
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e marched with Martin Luther King Jr., faced snarling police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, was beaten by the Klu Klux Klan. He negotiated with leaders of nations, helped organize the Atlanta Olympics and runs a successful private foundation. And at every step, he followed a personal philosophy born of his father’s deceptively simple advice: Know the people you are talking to. Listen to them. Help them. Show them a way out of the hole they dug. Now, at 82, he runs the Andrew Young Foundation, which from a comfortable office on the ninth floor of an Atlanta skyscraper teaches students of all ages his theory of creative nonviolence while at the same time raising and spending millions for good causes. This life wasn’t always the one Young planned – after he graduated from college his father wanted his son to follow him into dentistry. But Young felt called to the ministry, becoming a United Church of Christ minister. As black protests stirred to life
in the 1950s, Young felt another calling: The movement. He joined King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, quickly becoming a minister to the ministers who ran the movement. It wasn’t long before he became King’s chief negotiator. When the SCLC faced a tough town, King sent Young in to talk to the other side. His easygoing, analytical manner helped put white leaders at ease. Time and again, he earned the trust and respect of those who seemed least likely to compromise. It earned him a nickname: “The Peacemaker.” Then came Birmingham. In the summer of 1963 it was a city divided. The white community clung fiercely to segregation. The black community was in no mood to take it anymore. Things grew tense. Some called it “Bombingham” because nearly 50 African-American homes were bombed by white supremacists. King took to the streets to push for change, but white leaders pushed right back.
Young, left, in SCLC days with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., center. COPY PHOTO FROM ANDREW YOUNG
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Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor was the epitome of a tough Southern cop. He turned highpressure fire hoses on protesters, ripping their clothes off and knocking them off their feet. He let police dogs shred and tear the marchers’ skin and clothing. While the battle raged on in the streets, Andy Young was talking. He met with white businessmen who were alarmed at what was happening but couldn’t see a way out. “I met with them regularly trying to help them understand that we could not shop there and give them our money in places where we were not respected,” he said. “We said. ‘All you have to do is show us a little respect, and the business will come back.’” Young told them African-Americans hated to see only whites working as sales clerks in department stores. When white businessmen claimed they could not find black people qualified to be sales clerks, he showed them a way. Young suggested they promote maids who had worked in their stores for years. These women were familiar with the products, so customers often approached them with questions anyway. He suggested allowing the women to wear the clothes that were for sale with a nametag, and get a small commission for each sale. It worked. Next, Young focused on desegregating Birmingham’s lunch counters. He spoke with owners and asked them if he could send in one African-American couple a day trained in non-violence. A week passed without incident, and so he sent in two couples a day. Then three. Soon the businessmen said, “I guess it doesn’t matter.” “I never argued in a negotiation and I never tried to let them know what my opinion was,” he said. “My thing was, ‘How can I help you get out of this?’” Over time, what seemed headed for more violence was resolved through talking. “That negotiation went very easily,” Young said. “All negotiations go easily if you’re not afraid, if you listen to your opponent.” That philosophy helped whenever the movement called him to Mississippi, a state that resisted integration more violently than any other. “We would stop at the first grocery store or gas station and go in and sit around and talk to people, buy a few things, ask them about the weather,” Young said. “We put them at ease, and they would never see us as troublemakers.” Young said he never had any unpleasant incidents in Mississippi. He found that if he asked, most gas station clerks would let him use the restroom. If they said no, he would leave quietly and not buy gas there. Again and again, he returned to the advice his
father gave him in kindergarten. Once, his father took him to see a movie about U.S. Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens. Owens won gold in his first race at the 1936 Olympics in Germany, but Hitler snubbed him, refusing to congratulate a black athlete. “Jesse didn’t get mad. He just went on and won three more gold medals and broke four world records,” Young’s daddy told him. "Don’t get mad. Get smart. If you lose your temper in a fight, you lose the fight.” Young always kept his cool, even when Stokely Carmichael shouted “black power” on a march through the Mississippi Delta. James Meredith had been shot walking down Interstate-55 on his “March Against Fear.” Major civil rights organizations joined forces to finish the march to Jackson. Enroute, in a Greenwood park, Carmichael began his controversial call for “black power.” Young thought it was silly. "People who really have power, don’t go shouting about it,” he said.
Andrew Young in his downtown Atlanta headquarters. PHOTO BY ALEX EDWARDS
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businessmen ever to meet outside their country. “The Meredith march was a farce to begin with,” he said. “Who gives a damn about his fears? … He had kind of “We gave them some of the history of the civil a neurotic streak that I didn’t want to be bothered with.” rights movement,” he said. “Next thing you know, the Young believed SCLC needed to be in Chicago where money started flowing in. The Dutch had a it was making progress, or preparing for upcoming lot of Saudi money. (They) put $1.5 elections. Instead, they were slogging through the Delta billion into Atlanta in my first term. on a march that threatened to spiral out of control. “That’s what turned our In Canton, police used tear gas on marchers. fortunes around,” Young said. Carmichael “panicked” and some of his followers He led an expansion of the city’s threatened to charge the police. Young objected. international airport. Since it was "Wait a minute, you know, they’ve got guns,” built with private money, Georgia Young said, grabbing the arm of one angry protester. taxpayers never paid a thing. “They’ve got billy clubs and you’re going to run Young also worked as an unpaid after them with all these women and children? I volunteer on the Atlanta Olympic said, ‘That’s not black power. That’s stupidity.’” Committee. The 1996 Games brought an In 1972 Young won a seat in Congress. He spent nearly estimated $2.5 billion into the city. six years there before joining the United Nations under At times, it was as if his faith President Jimmy Carter. As U.N. ambassador, he built guided Young’s fortunes. bridges to African and Middle Eastern countries. Then, his “I learned after college that the only world unofficial meeting with a representative of the Palestinian view that made sense to me was, essentially, Liberation Organization blew up into controversy. the religious world view,” he said. No one in the U.S. government was supposed to meet Indeed, Young sees the hand of God in much of with the PLO until the Palestinian group recognized his life. Christian faith and the black church played a Israel’s right to exist. Young saw no reason to follow critical role in the success of the civil rights movement. strict rules of diplomacy if he had the opportunity How else to explain unarmed men, women and children to negotiate. At the urging of Israeli and Egyptian singing hymns as they faced cops with guns? leaders, he met with the PLO’s U.N. representative, and Black people living under Jim Crow quickly got it transcripts of the meeting were leaked. Young resigned. when King related the biblical story of how God rescued “There wasn’t anything the Israelites from secret about it,” Young oppression and led them said. “I kept saying I was to the Promised Land. only doing my job.” “We succeeded because His knowledge of we kept our narrative international affairs proved involved in the biblical helpful during his time as narrative,” Young says. mayor of Atlanta from 1982 “It was, ‘We’ve been to 1989. His contacts and through the segregation his skill as a negotiator of Egypt. We’ve wandered helped him lure almost in the wilderness of $70 billion in private – ANDREW YOUNG separate but equal, the development to the city. slavery of Egypt, the How does a segregation of 40 years Southern pastor go from civil rights leader to politician in the wilderness and now we’re on the verge of moving to private developer? Young was never trained in into a Promised Land of creative integration.’ Well, economics or finance, but he knew that foreign everybody in the South understood that,” he says. investment would benefit Atlanta tremendously. Faith, Young was saying, carried black people “We found a way to run a city’s economy through hard times to victory. Even now, when according to a new world economic order trouble arises, he falls back on a Bible verse that no one else knows about,” he said. (Matthew 6:34) his grandmother taught him: In 1982 Young traveled to Saudi Arabia to “Be not anxious for the morrow. Let the day’s tout Atlanta’s business potential. Soon, a group own trouble be sufficient unto the day thereof.” of nearly 200 Saudi businessmen flew to Atlanta
“All negotiations go easily if you’re not afraid, if you listen to your opponent.”
to check it out, the largest group of Saudi
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Design by Kim Sanner
Atlanta magazine featured Young on its cover because of the enormous growth the city enjoyed during his two terms as mayor. COPY PHOTO FROM ANDREW YOUNG
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State Rep. Robert Clark helped push through Gov. William Winterâ€™s public kindergarten program and other education reforms. PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
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MAN THEY TRIED TO THE
When Robert Clark became the state’s first black legislator, his peers gave him the silent treatment. It didn’t work.
By Mollie Mansfield
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t’s spring 1968 and the first black Mississippi state representative since Reconstruction strides briskly from the state Capitol. He’s had enough. Every time he tried to speak, they silenced him. Every time he tried to share his ideas, they ignored him. Every time he sat down to eat, they avoided him. So now there’s 121 white men hootin’ and hollerin’ as he heads out the door.
The hell with all of them. Robert Clark keeps going, trudging through a steady rain, one arm clutching his legislative files, the other reaching for the door handle of his ’66 silver Chevy. The white journalist follows Clark to his car and grabs his arm. “If you quit now, you’re giving them what they want,” Bill Minor said solemnly, then spun around, returning to the Capitol. Clark clenched his car keys. If you quit...I wasn’t elected to quit...giving them what they want...
In 1967, Robert Clark became the first African American elected to the Mississippi Legislature since Reconstruction. COPY PHOTO BY ROBERT CLARK
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since when did I become a quitter? A life time’s worth of “no” had turned him into a man of many firsts. Would he now be the first black legislator to quit? He buried the keys in his pocket and returned to the capitol.
ilence. When Clark opened the door, the hootin’ and hollerin’ evaporated. Silence. He walked to his isolated seat, front right, directly in front of the press box. “Robert had been a teacher, an educator. His primary interest was in education. And he was hoping to be able to make some contribution in education legislation,” Minor, then a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, would later say. To understand this story, you need to understand a few other things about Robert George Clark: He is earnest, selfreliant, honest as the day is long, with a ferocious work ethic and an unwavering social justice conscience. He’s the kind of guy who mowed lawns for penny change to pay for his education. The kind of guy who knew the answers to his teachers’ questions when nobody else did. The kind who feeds his dogs cinnamon buns because that’s all they can eat in their old age. And, of course, there are also a few things his wife of 17 years can attest to. “I can witness first hand that his life role is a servant for the church, community, for mankind, for dogs,” said Joann Clark. “He even hates to cut a tree down -- he just wants to preserve life.”
college. The few coins left clash with his desire for an education. Less than a dollar remains--not even enough to get home. “Young man, I understand you want to go to Jackson College and you don’t have any money,” the president says, peering over his desk, evaluating the country boy who boldly sits before him. Clark nods. “You can lead a horse to the water,” the president continues, “but you can’t make him drink. We’re gonna give you a chance to get an education. We can’t make you get one, but we’re going to bump your head against the wall.” So, for 25 cents an hour, Clark hauls cow manure around campus, fertilizing trees to earn his education. Towards the end of his freshman year, he goes out for track. He outruns everybody in everything except the 100-yard dash and receives the school’s first track scholarship. After graduation, Clark sacrificed his dream to attend law school and moved to Louise to teach. He believed that education meant an identity. Somebody had to tell students in the Delta that they were somebody. And, if not him, then who? “Everybody,” says Clark, “is somebody. God created you with certain capabilities. If you don’t use those capabilities,
“His life role is a servant for the church, community, for mankind, for dogs. He even hates to cut a tree down -- he just wants to preserve life,”
here once was a time when Clark’s grandfather used to feed from a pig trough, slop staining the pants he didn’t own until he was 11. A slave with no future. When the boy was too young to work the fields, he would sit with his grandfather beneath the shade trees, listening to those kinds of stories, listening to him preach about a better day. Education meant a better day. The year is 1948. A 19-year-old Clark sits in the president’s office at Jackson College in the state capitol. The bus ride there has wiped out the $2.50 his family gave him to get to
— JOANN CLARK
they’re going to rust away.”
ne day, at age 30, Clark found himself sitting in Superintendent S.N. Brown’s office at Louise High School in the Mississippi Delta. Someone had overheard Clark casually suggest that
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integration should start in first grade. “You mean you think it’s all right for black children and white children to go to school together?” “Yes, sir, Mr. Brown. I do.” Turns out, there was a ticking time bomb in the form of a misplaced book casually sitting on the shelves of the high school library. The cover boldly pictured a white rabbit and a black rabbit. If the black students saw that book, they would think it was OK to play with white students. Can’t have that. Not in 1959. Not in Mississippi. Sends the wrong message. Tick. Tick. Tick. So Superintendent Brown sent a message to Principal Clark: The book must go. The stability of the school system, the cornerstone of Mississippi politics -- it all rested on the removal of two bunnies. One black. One white. Tick. Tick. Tick. “You tell Superintendent Brown if he wants that damn book pulled, come down here and pull it himself,” Clark said. Boom. It wasn’t long before Clark began searching for another job. In the end, he had conveyed the wrong impressions to black students. Nothing, it seemed, was more dangerous than giving the people of the Delta a stronger identity. “I know that was God Almighty -- His way of moving me because He had something else for me to do,” said Clark. Eventually, Clark made his way back to Holmes County to teach. By 1966, legislators had passed a law allowing the school district to have an adult education program. Many of the school’s black parents couldn’t help their children with homework, so he campaigned for an adult education class. But the local school board said no. So Clark decided to do the unthinkable. He would try to become the first black state representative in 90 years. There were obstacles. Many of them. “When I first participated and came to the Freedom Democratic Party, some of the African-Americans weren’t fond of me. They thought the white folk had put me up,” Clark said. But the children knew better. The trustworthy relationship he’d built with his
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students enabled them to convince their parents that Clark was an honest man. The adult students he taught knew the same. Still, this was 1967, deep in the Delta, deep in a segregated Mississippi. After dark, Clark would secretly campaign on plantations. He’d stand up in the bed of a truck to speak despite the many death threats. He packed a .38-caliber under his car seat just in case. One evening, on his drive back to Lexington, a pair of lights flashed in the night. Clark turned south onto Highway 17. The white car behind him turned south onto Highway 17. Clark slowed down. The car behind him slowed down. For 14 miles, the car trailed Clark. In one mile, he would be home. The pistol. He reached under his seat and felt the cold steel in his hand. If they pulled into his driveway, Clark wouldn’t hesitate. He held his breath. He turned onto his street. The lights disappeared. Eventually, Clark defeated the 12-year incumbent by 10 percent. Was it worth it? t’s Jan. 2, 1968 -- his first day in office. Fannie Lou Hamer, a prominent civil rights leader, had organized a march on the Capitol if they didn’t seat Clark. But they did and after he was sworn in, Hamer approached. “Young man, if that white folk had not seated you, I had led a group down here and we were going to march on them. But you get down here and vote wrong, we going to march on you,” she told him. Clark understood. He knew why he was there. He knew whom he served. He was willing to live and die by his principles. It took Clark 14 years to pass his first bill -- the 1982 Education Reform Act. It included compulsory attendance and public kindergarten. The Mississippi Legislature had thrown out compulsory attendance as a result of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Eventually, Clark gained the respect of his colleagues. He became friends with the Rev. Rims Barber, who set up an office for him in Jackson. And, much to the confusion of those around him, he also befriended the ultraconservative
speaker of the house, Buddie Newman. In fact, Clark signed Newman’s petition to become speaker. That went a long way with Newman who, in 1976, appointed Clark to chair the education committee.
e got along with other legislators and was able to get some things done because he was able to work with people -- even if their ideas of what ought to be done was quite different from what his were,” Barber said. But when Newman made an antifeminist statement, Clark objected on the floor of the House. That evening, he went to Newman’s apartment to apologize. Clark hadn’t meant to be rude. “Shut up. I don’t want to hear that,” the speaker snapped. “Mrs. Bessie, go get a plate and bring it here, and cut half of this steak. Give this guy the other half.” Clark was a friend. He knew how to agree to disagree. And, according to friends, he saw the best in people without compromising his own beliefs. In 1982 and 1984, he ran for Congress, losing both times. But losing only meant staying. Staying only meant more opportunities. His last 12 years as a legislator, he was speaker pro tempore and chairman of the powerful management committee. He’s currently serving his last year postretirement on the Ethics Commission. It’s spring 2014 and Clark sits in his son’s law office. He talks about the past. There’s no contempt for those who opposed him. He recognizes no enemies. It’s not that he thinks Mississippi has solved all its problems; it hasn’t. But Clark persevered and paved a new way. And now he’s passing the torch to his sons and the next generation. His wife listens intently -- as if hearing his story for the first time. A broad smile softens the large frame of his shoulders, at times lifting his glasses off the cradle of his nose. At 85, he is still honest. Still a servant. And there’s one other thing. “I’m just thankful that he’s still my friend. And I’m his friend,” the white journalist says 46 years later. Design by Madisen Theobald
Present Day: Robert Clark Sr. poses for a photo in Lexington. PHOTO BY THOMAS GRANNING
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SICK and TIRED of being SICK and TIRED When Fannie Lou Hamer became the voice of the movement, people had no choice but to listen. By Katie Adcock
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FANNIE LOU HAMER
Hamer testifies at a committee hearing. PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
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he trudged into the “bullpen,” a cell in Mississippi’s voters, traveled to the Delta. Hamer decided to attend Montgomery County Jail. Forced to lie face one of their meetings. When they called for volunteers down, the 45-year-old Delta plantation worker to be among the first group to try to register, Hamer heard what the Highway Patrol officers said: was the first to volunteer. She no longer wanted to be “We’re going to make you wish you were dead.” just a sharecropper in Sunflower County. She wanted Two black prisoners stood off to the side. The something more. She wanted to make a difference. At one point in the long struggle, Hamer cops handed them a black-jack and told them to called for action in her typically blunt way. pummel the civil rights worker, threatening to beat “It’s one thing, it’s one thing I don’t want you to them if they didn’t. So the first prisoner beat her until say tonight after I finish — and it won’t be long—I he was exhausted – then the second took over. don’t want to hear you say, ‘Honey, I’m behind you.’ Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten until her body burned, “Well, move. I don’t want you back there. Because you until she couldn’t bend her fingers, until she couldn’t could be 200 miles behind. I want you to say, ‘I’m with move. Then they dragged her back to her cell and left her, battered and bleeding. When she was finally you. And we’ll go up this freedom road together.” released, she learned that Medgar Evers – the spiritual In August 1962, Hamer and 17 others took that road leader of Mississippi’s civil rights movement – had to Indianola in their first attempt to register. When they been assassinated in his front yard, in front of his wife pulled up to the courthouse steps, there were white and three young children. men waving guns, shouting That June 1963 beating “niggers, niggers.” So Hamer began singing “This Little Light would not be the last time of Mine” to bolster the resolve Hamer endured tragedy and of her comrades. It worked. hardships in her long struggle for The music filled the bus, taking civil rights. In fact, the beating the focus away from the fear that she never recovered from of being stopped. For the rest happened months after she of the civil rights movement, joined the movement. By then, for the rest of her life, the Hamer had tried to register to –– FANNIE LOU HAMER vote, lost her plantation job of song became her anthem. 18 years, attended a Student “She wanted everyone to Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) rally and see what she was doing for civil rights,” said Jimmy had become a dynamic force in the fight for equality. Lacy, Hamer’s nephew. “She made sure the world Before that fight ended, Hamer would become a knew what was happening. She always said the light household name, not only in her Delta hometown was her life, shining on the events taking place.” of Ruleville, but also in homes across the nation. Hamer had seen the light several times before. After A sharecropper with a 6th-grade education, she the trip to Indianola, her white plantation boss told her eventually would champion her struggle from the to take her name off the registration book. She declined. plantation to the White House. Threatened, jailed, “Mr. Dee, I didn’t go down there to register severely beaten, it didn’t matter. Someone had to for you. I went down to register for myself.” do it, and it would be her. She became a hero. He fired her the next day. “We have a job as black women to support whatever And it wasn’t long afterward that the story of is right, and to bring in justice where we’ve had so much a black woman sharecropper standing up against injustice,” Hamer said of the struggle against oppression. her white boss in Sunflower County spread across the civil rights battlefield – and beyond. he youngest of 20 children, Fannie Lou After she got kicked off the plantation she had called Hamer was born Oct. 6, 1917, and grew up home for nearly two decades, Mary Tucker, a civil rights worker in Ruleville, took Hamer in. Ten days later, in Montgomery County. Her parents were “night riders” shot up the town. They shot into Tucker’s sharecroppers and she began working the fields home trying to kill Hamer, but she’d already left. at 6. When she and her husband, “Pap,” couldn’t In the fall of 1962, Charles McLaurin, a young SNCC have children, they adopted two girls and raised worker, was asked to find Hamer for a rally in Nashville. a third. She remained a sharecropper until 1962, McLaurin pulled up to a shanty cabin when voter registration reached her doorstep. on a hill in pouring rain. He knocked on That year, SNCC, a powerful force composed mostly of the door. A voice beckoned him in. African-American students who worked to register black
“We didn’t come for no two seats when all of us is tired”
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Jimmy Lacy (left), Hamer’s nephew, recalls how Hamer used to worry about other people more than herself. PHOTO BY PHILLIP WALLER
“I’m looking for Fannie Lou Hamer,” he said. A stocky woman, sitting in a chair in front of a pot-bellied stove, turned around. “I’m Fannie Lou Hamer,” she said. The two traveled to Tougaloo College in Jackson first. Hamer talked the entire 100 miles, so McLaurin knew her life story by the time they reached their destination. In Nashville, Hamer became the center of attention. She’d been a sharecropper brave enough to stand up for her rights and the rights of others. She embodied all of SNCC’s goals. After the rally, she went on a national tour, using her powerful voice to raise money for the battle in the South. That next June 1963 was when Hamer was nearly beaten to death in the Montgomery County jail. The experience kept her awake night after night for months. But it would become the driving force in her effort to get more black voters registered. In 1963, Hamer also represented the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, formed to integrate the state’s virtually all-white Democratic Party. To that end, she traveled to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., in August 1964 to challenge the seating of the Mississippi delegation.
“We didn’t come for no two seats when all of us is tired,” Hamer told the convention after a compromise was proposed to give the MFDP two delegates. She not only told the country of her treatment in the jail, but of the treatment all blacks were receiving across the South. Later that year, McLaurin again would have to retrieve Hamer for a SNCC mission – this time to help her qualify to run for Congress. The pair traveled to Jackson to the secretary of state’s office. There, Hamer surprised the white secretary by asking for the necessary forms to run for Congress. After paying $500 and naming McLaurin her campaign manager, Hamer officially was registered to run in the Democratic primary. She lost by a landslide. But the experience showed just how unfair the election process could be when blacks were denied an equal opportunity to vote. After the election, Hamer returned to Ruleville, dedicated to changing the way of life in her hometown. And she wasted no time. First, she created a Pig Bank that raised pigs until they could be given to families. The families would raise
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them and pay the Pig Bank with piglets. Then, she created the Freedom Farm Cooperative, in which volunteers helped plant and cultivate crops. Once the crops were ready, they could take what they needed for free. She also helped launch a sewing factory and a program with the Federal Housing Administration to give land to those who’d been kicked off plantations for registering to vote. Sitting on a striped couch in a wood-paneled room with family photos lining the walls, Jimmy Lacy recalls the work his aunt did for Ruleville. “She said, ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ She was tired of being misused, abused and tired of people being in bad situations.” That quote was carved on her tombstone when Hamer, who was 59, died on March 14, 1977, after a battle with cancer and complications from the kidney damage she received from the jailhouse beating. McLaurin, who had shared a close 15-year friendship with Hamer, remembered the call he received from her family: “Mrs. Hamer died last night. What you gonna do?” McLaurin had visited her in the hospital a few days earlier. She didn’t want to be buried on a plantation. “I owed her that,” said McLaurin. Instead, she was laid to rest on Freedom Farm land in Ruleville. Andrew Young gave her eulogy. Long after her death, Hamer’s legacy lives on. Hattie Jordan, a former Ruleville alderwoman, and Edgar Donahoe, District 5 supervisor, are just two of the many people who have worked hard to keep her memory alive. Together, they have created the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden and the Fannie Lou Hamer Museum. And there are plans for a Fannie Lou Hamer Cancer Foundation.
n a gray, chilly day in early March, three buses arrive at the memorial garden gates in Ruleville. A crowd of 150 congressional members, their staff, wives and children, Hamer’s friends and relatives, local preachers and residents all file toward the pavilion near Hamer’s grave. After a short service commemorating her life, the audience stands to offer its respects. Led by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the crowd gathers up the enormous wreath and begins walking the 50 feet to the gravesite. After a few steps, an elderly black woman at the back of the crowd begins to sing: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” Soon, everyone joins in. They lay the wreath to rest and continue singing as they file back onto the buses. Many are crying as they walk up the last few steps. Then everyone’s aboard, the doors snap shut and they’re off to Selma, Ala. Design by Savannah Pounds
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“We have a job as black women to support whatever is right, and to bring in justice where we’ve had so much injustice.” — FANNIE LOU HAMER
A statue of Fannie Lou Hamer in her hometown of Ruleville. PHOTO BY LOGAN KIRKLAND
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FootSoldier Charles McLaurin was BEATEN, THREATENED WITH GUNS AND THROWN IN JAIL. And never stopped fighting. By Katie Adcock
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PHOTO BY JARED BURLESON
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s 5-year-old Charles McLaurin stood outside the whites only bathroom in the hectic Jackson train station, a big 6-foot-two white man lumbered towards him. “Nigger,” he said, “what you doing peeping in the restroom at white women?” A crowd gathered. McLaurin was too scared to run, too scared to explain that his grandmother had gone in the restroom and told him to wait there. “It Former Indianola journalist David Rushing says that to white people in the 1960s, Charles McLaurin was “the most feared man in town.” PHOTO BY JARED BURLESON was more white people than I had ever seen,” he says now. Then his grandmother, of the White Citizens Council made him the “most a light-skinned, wavycussed man in Sunflower County,” according to haired woman who could pass for white, walked out David Rushing, a former Indianola journalist. “He of the bathroom and grabbed him by the arm. brought fear, total fear, to the power structure.” When the white man told her McLaurin had been McLaurin thinks he understands why. peeping in the restroom, she raised her voice: “You’re a “When you’ve got these people with all of that liar. This is my boy, and he’s standing right here where I left power, they don’t want to give it up. I wonder him.” She and McLaurin turned around and walked away. myself, if I would want to give it up,” he said. It was his first brush with racism -In 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. was leading his troops almost 10 years before the 1955 murder of through the South, marching for change. In Jackson, the Emmett Till -- but he never forgot it. news that King was coming electrified a black community hungry to be freed from the yoke of segregation. King spoke at all-black Jackson State University. McLaurin, 19, joined several hundred students squeezed into a sweltering auditorium. He listened as King and the NAACP’s Medgar Evers called them to the road of freedom. It changed his life. After talking to a SNCC recruiter, he told his mother he was dropping out of school to become a civil rights worker. “My mama said I’d get killed. That’s all she said. She said that the voting will get you killed. Fooling — DAVID RUSHING around with Medgar Evers will get you killed. It was a challenge to me. I was going to get killed anyway. Who knows? Everywhere I went, some white man wanted the space I was in, and I didn’t like it. More than likely, Charles McLaurin would go on to join the Student I would have wound up in Parchman, or killed.” Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, travel to Sunflower After joining SNCC, McLaurin and other recruits County to register black voters, and become a civil were summoned by Medgar Evers. He assembled them rights legend in the Delta -- the fearless foot soldier who around a big map of Mississippi. He drew a circle tackled the tough towns. He was beaten, threatened around the heavily black counties of the Delta. with guns, and jailed. But he kept at it. Never again “This is a start,” said Evers, who knew that would a big white man with “nigger” dripping from more than any place else, the huge black majority his lips scare him away from where he wanted to be. there could grasp power if it were able to vote. He McLaurin’s voter registration work in the home
“He was the most cussed man in Sunflower County. He brought fear, total fear, to the power structure.”
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dispatched McLaurin to Sunflower County, home of segregationist U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, with a single mission: get blacks registered to vote. “Ella Baker, a little school teacher, a beautiful, little woman who organized SNCC in the early days, told us when we came to the Delta, to go and work among those who have the least. They may first be hesitant or frightened, but once you get them to understand that they can change their own lives, their own way, they don’t have to be in poverty. They can have leaders among themselves,” McLaurin said. McLaurin was introduced to the Delta in the blazing heat of August 1962. It was an interesting first day. He and two other SNCC members had just reached the small town of Ruleville, their new base of operations. A little white man wearing a hat drove up to them and ordered, “Niggers, get in the car.” They looked at one another, perplexed.
“Why?” The stranger reached into his car and pulled out a .38 pistol. He drove them to City Hall. After rattling off their names, the white man threatened them. “You niggers, get out of town. I don’t want you niggers here. Get out of town.” He drove them back to the black neighborhood and put them out. There, a young, black kid told them the man in the hat was none other than the mayor. “There were numerous attempts to intimidate us,” McLaurin said. “I got in jail almost every month, for some reason. It seemed again, here I am, faced with a situation where some white person wants the space I’m in. I’m being asked to ‘Move over. Get out. Nigger, run,’ and that kind of infuriated me, all the time.” And not just in the Delta. In 1964, McLaurin and several friends were on their way to help train summer volunteers in Atlanta when the blue
The Bryant Grocery where Emmett Till allegedly offended a white female store clerk. As a result, he was beaten and killed. PHOTO BY LOGAN KIRKLAND
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Charles McLaurin outside the ruins of the Bryant Grocery at Money. It is on his civil rights tour.PHOTO BY LOGAN KIRKLAND
lights of a state highway patrolman appeared behind them. He pulled them over near Columbus and took them to jail. There, officers forced McLaurin to stand in front of a deputy sheriff and two patrolmen. “Why did you all run that white lady off of the road?” the deputy demanded. “We haven’t seen any white lady,” McLaurin replied. “You’re a nigger, ain’t you?” McLaurin answered, “No.” The patrolman on the right punched him in the jaw. The deputy repeated the question, “You’re a nigger, ain’t you?” Again, “No.” The patrolman on the left threw the next punch. “I look at them,” said McLaurin, beginning to catch on. “I look at this guy that’s asking me the questions on this side, and I look at this little deputy standing in front of me. I look at this guy here, and it seems like they’re so anxious. They’re anxious for me to say that I’m a nigger.”
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The deputy continued the interrogation. “Ain’t you a nigger?” McLaurin finally replied, “Yes.” The men relaxed. The civil rights workers were glad to get out of town alive. In August 1962, McLaurin took a busload of 18 people to Indianola to try to get them registered. As they approached the courthouse, the passengers became frightened. Men waved guns at them from passing trucks and hung out of their windows yelling, “Niggers, go home. We’re going to kill you all.” Suddenly, a stocky, black woman McLaurin had never met started singing This Little Light of Mine. It broke the tension, and everyone joined in. McLaurin – and the rest of America – would soon find out the singer’s name: Fannie Lou Hamer. She was to become one of the biggest names in the fight for freedom. McLaurin calls her one of his dearest friends. He recalls when he was asked to deliver her to a SNCC rally.
tell her I don’t know anything about being a campaign manager,” he said. “But she said, ‘I don’t know anything about Congress, so sign the papers.’” Theirs was a 15-year friendship. He was her driver, bodyguard, assistant, friend. When asked why he stayed in the Delta after the movement ended, McLaurin replied, “I had a Fannie Lou Hamer.” After deciding to stay in Indianola, McLaurin found himself working for the same government he once tried to tear down. He was the city’s assistant public works director for 19 years. Today, in retirement, he finds satisfaction in giving young people civil rights tours for a “historic perspective” on the events of the 1960s. He’s guided dozens of college and civil rights groups from all over the country.
“They tried to intimidate us all the time. … I’m being asked to ‘Move over. Get out. Nigger, run,’ and that kind of infuriated me, all the time.” — CHARLES MCLAURIN
Hamer was living in a little shack on a hill. In a pouring rain, McLaurin knocked on the door, and a voice from inside told him to come in. A red-hot wood-burning stove illuminated the room, and a wingback chair sat in the center with its back to the door. “I’m looking for Fannie Lou Hamer,” he said A small, stocky lady stood up. “I’m Fannie Lou Hamer.” McLaurin told her that Bob Moses of SNCC had sent him to pick her up to go to Tougaloo College and then on to Nashville. “Have a seat. I’ll be with you.” That was all she said. In a few minutes, Hamer, destined to become one of America’s most famous civil rights leaders, returned packed and ready to go. McLaurin and Hamer became a strong pair in the movement. In 1963, McLaurin was told to take Hamer to Jackson to get her qualified to run for Congress. Under protest, he became her campaign manager. “I tried to
earing a torn, blue Jackson State University baseball cap, Charles McLaurin sits in the B.B. King Museum gift shop in Indianola. “My wife tells me I need to throw it away,” he says with a mischievous grin. McLaurin isn’t good at letting go of the past. He feels a duty to tell new generations what happened during the civil rights era. Hence, the tour. As he shows off historic sites such as early civil rights leader Amzie Moore’s house, a “safe house” for activists in Cleveland, and the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden, the symbol of the movement in Ruleville, McLaurin says he is eager to “put life back into the movement.” “Once a soldier, always a soldier. You can’t let go,” he said. “You are always fighting for values we hold dear.” Even now, he can’t give it up. Standing before a group of students at the Emmett Till civil rights marker in Money, McLaurin’s eyes focus on something far off. “Where is the civil rights movement now?” He peers down at the young faces before him and thinks back to the little boy who stood in the train station almost 50 years ago. With hope in his voice, he answers, “It’s in you.” Design by Alli Moore
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He Changed Mississippi Politics Aaron Henry was firebombed twice, thrown in jail and forced to pick up the garbage. But he got what he wanted. By Karson Brandenburg
Summer, 1964 t was late at night and the four civil rights veterans were cruising up lonely U.S. Highway 49 through the Delta on the way back from a meeting in Jackson. Aaron Henry drove, careful to stay within the speed limit. His passengers talked strategy, not paying much attention to the road. Suddenly, Henry stopped the car and rolled down the window. Thatâ€™s when Leslie McLemore noticed a man dressed in ragged clothes. He was looking for a ride. And he was white.
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Aaron Henry, leader of the Freedom Democratic Party, argues for seats at the Democratic National Convention at a meeting of the credentials committee in Atlantic City, NJ, August 22, 1964. PHOTO BY AP
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In the Mississippi of 1964, picking up a hitchhiker wasn’t so bad. For four black civil rights leaders, though, picking up a white man could get you killed. Everyone exchanged nervous glances. Doc’s not going to let this guy in the car, is he?
impact in Mississippi, and as much courage, as anyone. His Clarksdale home and drugstore were firebombed. He was jailed 33 times. Threatening calls were a nightly occurrence. But he never flinched. Doc, as he was known to friends, hosted and helped countless young civil rights workers from the north during Freedom Summer. He led a successful boycott of downtown Clarksdale; saw to it that Jackson TV station WLBT lost its license for racial bias; then became the station’s chairman; and filed the suit that integrated Clarksdale’s public schools. He spearheaded the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and used it to force the integration of the state’s all-white Democratic Party. Born in Coahoma County, Aaron Henry grew up working on the Flowers Plantation outside of Clarksdale. He spent his childhood chopping weeds among young cotton stalks, hard work to collect such soft material.
“This is the place where all the civil rights and political planning of the movement took place for three decades.” — AARON HENRY
“It was his car, so we couldn’t do anything … but I wouldn’t have picked up this guy,” said McLemore. “Here’s Aaron Henry, state president of the NAACP. This guy could have been a plant to do something to him.” After Henry dropped off the man a few miles up the road, he sheepishly explained why he’d brought the hitchhiker aboard. “Well … he needed a ride.” “It said to me: How human is he, how caring, that he would pick up this hitchhiker,” said McLemore. “But Aaron was Aaron, and the beauty of Aaron Henry was that he was consistent in terms of what he believed, what he stood for, and who he was as a person.” It was that consistency, that caring human touch coupled with a bulldog tenacity that helped Henry do what many thought impossible. He brought Mississippi’s turf-conscious civil rights groups together under one umbrella—from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. “Aaron got to know you almost too quickly. He was sort of overwhelming in his personality in that not only did he shake your hand, he hugged you … He didn’t know any strangers,” said McLemore. Henry, who died in 1997 at age 75, is not as well-known as the flashier media darlings of the movement, such as King or Andrew Young. But he had as much
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or the rest of his life he would tell his friends, “I despise everything about cotton.” After graduating high school in 1941, Henry was drafted into the Army, where he became a staff sergeant. In various interviews with historians, he credited his military service—from Alabama to the Pacific—with driving him to fight for equality for black Americans back home. He was not alone. Time and again, civil rights activists have pointed to their service in World War II as leaving them unwilling to return to segregation. “These were all World War II veterans who fought in the war, and had come home and discovered that the freedom they fought for overseas was not theirs at home,” said former SNCC activist Charles McLaurin, who used to plot civil rights strategy with Henry. Henry’s passion sparked people such as McLaurin to be heroes for the cause. They risked their lives to help Henry and others reach their goals. “In Clarksdale, one of my co-workers and I were walking around the community, talking
to people about registering and voting. This white policeman came up and told us that we were under arrest … He took us down to the police station and Doc Henry had to come down and get us,” recalled McLaurin. “It was an attempt to intimidate us—to make us leave Clarksdale. Of course, we didn’t leave. We stayed around until we had taken care of what Henry had asked us to come there for.” McLaurin could leave, but Henry, a pharmacist who owned a drugstore, had to be in Clarksdale every day, firebombs or not. He put Clarksdale on the map, but not in the way the chamber of commerce might have hoped. His drugstore became a tourist attraction of sorts, where on any given day you might see everyone from King to Jackie Robinson to Bobby Kennedy. The store didn’t look like anything special—it had the usual Coca-Cola signs out front and posters cluttering the picture windows—but it became a civil rights shrine. Walking through the door, a little bell would ring and customers would see Henry peeking over a cluttered counter in the back, his glasses falling down his nose. There were posters everywhere—civil rights rallies, candidate placards, boycott fliers, movement slogans, and always the “Missing” poster for civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner. That flier remained even after their bodies were found. Henry also made sure that his drugstore catered to African Americans in his community, from hair straighteners to Lover’s Moon Pomade. “This is the place,” he liked to say, “where all the civil rights and political planning of the movement took place for three decades.” He didn’t just plan. In 1961, in his first speech after being elected to lead the Mississippi NAACP, Henry startled white leaders by calling for a direct assault on segregation: “Our actions will probably result in many of us being guests in the jails of the state. We will make these jails temples of freedom.”
e didn’t have to wait long. That same year, a new Clarksdale mayor, a segregationist hard-liner, persuaded the chamber of commerce not to invite black marching bands from a local high school and Coahoma Junior College to the annual Christmas parade. The bands had been part of the parade for decades, a matter of great pride to black residents. Black students wanted to lead a march on City Hall. Henry, however, knew that planning and patience were the keys to getting a point across. He started a boycott of white merchants. Fliers asking “If we can’t PARADE downtown, should we TRADE downtown?” covered the city. Well over half of Clarksdale was black, so the boycott was sure to get the attention of anyone working a cash register. In time, the boycott’s demands grew to include better jobs in stores, courtesy titles, and a biracial committee. The white community did not respond well. In March of 1963, with the boycott still in place, two white men tossed a Molotov cocktail into Henry’s home. It lit the place up, and everyone ran. Henry rushed to slap out the flames. One of his guests, U.S. Rep. Charles Diggs of Michigan, escaped by climbing out a window.
“In another era, in another time, if he’d have been another color, right, he’d have been governor of Mississippi.” — LESLIE MCLEMORE Later that same month, someone threw a firebomb into the drugstore and it blew a hole in the roof — a hole that some say was never fully repaired, but rather left so that the charred edges of the roof and the makeshift repairs to keep the rain from coming in acted as a reminder of the dangers civil rights leaders had to endure. Today, the drugstore is gone. Only a vacant lot remains. But black people still stop there, stare at the empty space and nod
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Leslie McLemore says that Aaron Henry was one of the most courageous men he ever met. PHOTO BY JARED BURLESON
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their heads, a way of paying their respects to a man who helped rid the state of Jim Crow. Henry loved to tell how when he was arrested for leading a voter registration protest, the city made him work on a crew picking up garbage. It was intended to humiliate him, but he did the work enthusiastically and won the undying admiration of the black community. He also got revenge of sorts. It took over two years, but the boycott wrung concessions from white businessmen and the black bands returned to the Christmas parade. And newly registered black voters swept Henry into the state House of Representatives, where he served from 1980 to 1996. It was the only place where he did not accomplish a lot. He spent much of his time fighting for doomed legislation, including an attempt to remove the Confederate battle flag from the corner of the state flag. Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett grew up hearing about Aaron Henry. “I heard of him from the white perspective,” said Luckett. “He was some rabble-rouser activist. ‘Uppity.’ Those are the words you used to describe people of that yoke in that day.” Still, the two formed a friendship after Luckett finished law school. “I learned a lot from him,” said Luckett. “He taught me there really are two sides to every story. He made me appreciate that I need to look at things two, three times over to make sure that the greater good is truly served.” However, even Henry’s friends in the white community understood that there was danger in associating with one of the state’s most visible civil rights leaders. Luckett kept that danger in mind years later, when he attended the wedding of Henry’s daughter, Rebecca. “I was in the living room of his house
at 646 Page Street in September of 1982. I remember how proud he was,” said Luckett. “I also remember how scared I was. I didn’t want to see a firebomb come hurtling through that plate-glass window, knowing it would ruin that nice time.” Henry also took time to cultivate a friendship with Curtis Wilkie, then a reporter for the Clarksdale Press Register who would go on to become a reporter for the Boston Globe. In time, Henry felt comfortable enough to tease the young journalist and deliver a light-hearted lesson in pronunciation. “He taught me how to pronounce ‘Negro,’” said Wilkie. “The common white pronunciation was ‘Nigra’ with an ‘a.’ ‘Curtis, you gotta clean up your pronunciation. It’s “Negroes.” ‘Well, Aaron, that just sounds affected. I can’t say it that way.’ ‘Well, goddammit. You can pronounce ‘hero,’ can’t you?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, then you can pronounce “Negro.” “And from that day on,” Wilkie said, “I could pronounce ‘Negro.’” Henry’s friendly, hug-prone nature sometimes disguised just how smart he was. “In another era, in another time, if he’d have been another color, right, he’d have been governor of Mississippi,” said McLemore. McLemore called him one of the most courageous men he ever met. “He wasn’t on the line everyday like Medgar Evers was because he was a working pharmacist. … But he was intricately involved and he paid the price. His home was bombed. His drugstore was bombed. All of that happened, but Aaron Henry still didn’t know any strangers.” Design by Alli Moore
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Senator Willie Simmons, right, at his restaurant, The Senatorâ€™s Place, in Cleveland.
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PHOTO BY LOGAN KIRKLAND
Who Feeds the Delta Willie Simmons picked cotton, fought in Vietnam and opened a restaurant. He couldn’t have found better training for the Legislature. By Eliza McClure
hard rain falls. Clouds shooting swiftly across a bulletgray sky. French-style townhouses tangled in vines. A muddy road littered with tin cans, canvas tarps, broken china. Mortar shells crying in the distance. Five men in uniform squat near the steps of a townhome. White, black, Chinese-American, Samoan-Indian, Italian—they wear olive fatigues caked with mud, M-16s slung across their shoulders. All five huddle around a fire topped with chicken wire. A can marked “Ham and Lima Beans” simmers on the mesh. The baby-faced black man, still wearing a helmet, uses his pinky as a thermometer. He feels the ground tremble beneath his muddy boots but ignores it. It’s the rain. Worse than April in the Mississippi Delta. “We got any more crackers?” he asks, licking his finger. The white man — more boy than man — plucks a package from his rucksack, passing it to his left. “Think we got enough to go ‘round,” says the blue-eyed, acne-pocked boy. He passes the crackers to his left. Each soldier takes a cracker, dipping it in the can. THE MEEK REPORT 81
“Doesn’t beat my Mama’s ham and limas,” the man in the helmet chuckles. The men laugh, hands reaching for the same can, minds drifting to the same place —home — where a scene like this might never happen. Fear, they’ve discovered, is color-blind.
illie Simmons, a 66-year-old Mississippi state senator, learned a lot about himself during his 11 months in Vietnam. “I think [the war] helped me find myself and motivated me to reach out and love and care for all people,” says Simmons, sitting in his spacious restaurant in Cleveland, a place where you’d be hard pressed to find a table for two. Noted Cleveland Mayor Billy Nowell: “The tables are close enough so that you can carry on conversations to your right and your left.” Perhaps this setup plays to the senator’s sense of community: the more people huddled around a table, with varying perspectives and experiences, the more productive the conversation. After the war, Simmons devoted his life to public service, whether that meant passing legislation in Jackson, approving school board budgets or doling out collards to hungry customers. It’s something else he learned in Vietnam: food has the power to bring all types of people together — transcending skin tone, background, beliefs, age. He sees it play out in his restaurant every Saturday afternoon. On a Saturday afternoon 50 years ago, Willie Simmons was chopping cotton alongside his mother, father and 10 siblings in Utica. Although his parents never finished high school, they instilled in their son the importance of education. And at age 20, he left the stage at Alcorn State University, a bachelor’s degree in social science in hand. He wanted to be a teacher and so it wasn’t long before he ended up in Rosedale, where he taught high school social studies. After his — MAYOR BILLY NOWELL stint in Vietnam, Simmons became the first black part-time carrier at the Cleveland Post Office. Later he worked for the Department of Corrections, creating a program that helped ex-prisoners find jobs. In 1992, after nearly 15 years in corrections, where he rose to deputy director, Simmons sought a new way to serve his community: He decided to run for the Senate. That idea came from an unlikely source. His son had served as a Senate page in Jackson as a high school junior and called his father each night, relaying the day’s events. “I was seeing a lot of tomfoolery in the Senate at that time,” recalls Reggie. Hearing the son’s stories of legislative inefficiency eventually motivated the father to take a shot.
“The tables are close enough so that you can carry on conversations to your right and your left.”
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But something else also motivated Simmons to take that shot: As a black man running for political office, he wanted to stand out, wanted to defy odds, wanted to unite members of his community. So the former Army machine-gunner decided to battle Sen. Robert Crook, a 28-year legislative veteran. Asked how he won, Simmons credited voters. “It was fun, challenging and very, very inspiring to see how people came together to be supportive.” Truth be told, the community that came together for him then is much like the community that comes together now — at his restaurant.
old on a minute,” Sen. Willie Simmons says under his breath, turning to the buffet. He leaps from the table, tying loose apron strings around his waist, and rushes toward a young woman in a blue work shirt, gives her a big hug, then kneels to greet her son. Despite her cries of “that’s plenty,” the senator piles collards, black-eyed peas, two cornbread muffins, brown sugar-crusted sweet potatoes and a large breast of golden fried chicken onto her plate, passing it over the buffet top. The woman grabs the plate from underneath, her hand trembling under its weight. Located on U.S. Highway 61, The Senator’s Place has served Cleveland for nearly 10 years. And its popularity extends far beyond the sleepy Delta town. Tourists visit the restaurant from around the world—ranging from a Nebraska student group to a married Dutch couple. And then, of course, there was the most recent stranger from afar: noted New York foodie Anthony Bourdain, filming for his CNN show, Parts Unknown. Today’s special is neck bone. Eager customers line up to get a taste of this Delta delicacy. Soon the senator returns to his seat, balling plastic gloves in his palms. His daughter, Sarita, flies through the kitchen’s swinging door, a legal pad in the crook of her arm, cell phone pressed against her ear. She’s the restaurant manager. But don’t be fooled by the title: She makes a mean homemade biscuit. And now Reggie barrels through, lugging a tray of steaming grilled chicken to the buffet. A self-titled “Meat Man,” he works the grill in the back when he’s not printing register receipts. Still chatting, the senator eyeballs Reggie’s path. When Reggie tosses the last wing into the buffet, the father points to an elderly white man leaning against the counter, cash in hand. Soon after, the man hobbles over to the senator’s table. “No matter what the senator’s telling you,” the slump-shouldered man says to a nearby customer, “he’s not telling you enough about what a good worker he is and how much he’s helped everybody around here.” Hard work. Yes. Before he knew anything else, Willie Simmons knew about hard work.
Cotton field, Utica, Miss. – August, 1956 sea of cotton. The cicadas’ cries rise and fall — the only sense of movement in the late afternoon heat. Even the boy stands still, thumbing a small boll of cotton. He wears thick gloves, a sweat-stained T-shirt, a canvas sack across his shoulder. Willie Simmons is 9 years old. A boy holler. A boy whoop. A boy crying, “Willie, I’m gonna beat ya!” Six boys, to be exact. All six brothers race through the field, leaping across tidy parallel rows, pushing each other out of the way. Willie’s hand closes around the soft white globe in his palm. The little brother approaches, eyes wide with excitement. “Daddy says whoever picks the most before dark gets to go to the rolling cart store!” he squeals. Willie chucks the fluffy boll into his sack. He weaves down the row, fingers moving quickly, rhythmically, the cotton rising and falling into his bag with the sound of the cicadas. He keeps a steady pace, never running, never jumping, scavenging every fully blossomed boll before moving to the next plant. He feels the weight of the cotton, feels the sack’s strap blistering his bony shoulder. In his mind, the white fibers crystallize—becoming sugary and sweet and hard as marble. Becoming jawbreakers, his favorite candy from the rolling cart. The more cotton in his bag, the more likely he’ll fall asleep that night tasting the fruity residue on the tip of his tongue. And that’s what happened. He collected four pounds more than any of his brothers. With the nickel from his father, he bought a rainbow-flecked jawbreaker. Candy that’s impossible to break. But he almost did. After fighting on the front lines for 11 months, Simmons returned to Cleveland thinking those diverse companionships from the battlefield would not be lost when he came home. In reality, he returned to a country where employers refused to hire him for one reason: the color of his skin. “That was very, very frustrating,” Simmons says matter-of-factly. But he came to see the inequality as a challenge. A challenge not so different from the cotton races back in Utica. “It challenged me to continue to go forward and work to do other things, to eventually try to own my own business, and just work through it.” And work he did, making a career of breaking barriers. When his children were in school, he served five years on the school board. When he joined the board, Cleveland faced a dual school system. East Side High School, predominantly black, did not get the same equipment as predominately white Cleveland High School. East Side’s business center was littered with broken typewriters; Cleveland High’s was lined with shiny new machines. He wondered: Would students at East Side “receive the same quality of education if the equipment and
materials were in fact different, older, or not properly functioning?” So he set out to level the playing field. In the legislature, Simmons has taken a number of equally bold stances, using community needs as his moral compass. Favoring charter school legislation, he challenged the anti-charter advocates in the community. Touring the district’s schools, he saw magnet schools were out-performing other public schools. So based on community needs, as well as a national trend toward charter schools, he decided this bill would best benefit those who elected him. When Simmons makes these political decisions, he says, party, race and religion are always secondary. “I think when we get into developing and supporting public policy based upon race, religion, region— then the state, or country, is in big trouble.” Instead, he sounds out voters when forming his political decisions. And what better way to hear them than over catfish and spaghetti?
t’s 2:30. Most of the Saturday lunch crowd has vanished, leaving behind polished plates, save for neat piles of chicken bones. For three hoursplus, the restaurant has been bustling with white, black and Hispanic patrons, from 2 to 92. Now, four men eat fried chicken around a table, their greasy fingerprints blotting the back pages of the Bolivar Commercial. At the register, Reggie counts out the money. Nearby, a man in a Vietnam Veteran cap gently spreads flyers across the counter. “Is it OK if I leave these here?” he asks. The senator points at the man’s cap. “How many tours you do?” “Two rounds,” the vet replies casually. “You?” “Only one,” the senator says. “I was sent to Hue when the 1st Cav was blown up.” “My cousin was in Hue, too. They called him White Eye. Because the night they bombed his platoon, all you could see was the whites of his eyes.” Laughter. Then it dies. The vet’s smile fades. He leans in. “You know, a large part of the country has forgotten about us,” he says, fingering the brim of his cap, VIETNAM VETERAN written in gold. “Can’t hardly find one of these caps anymore.” Across the restaurant, chicken bones pile up. One of the four men at the table neatly folds his newspaper. “Hey, senator! Why ain’t you making news anymore?” Sen. Simmons turns, grinning. He clasps the veteran’s shoulder, easing him forward. “Let me introduce you to some of my friends.” Design by Conner Hegwood
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Thompson, shown here with bluesman Super Chikan, greets congressmen in the Delta on a civil rights pilgrimage. PHOTO BY IGNACIO MURILLO
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Bennie Thompson worries that, â€œMississippi, left unchecked, will begin to turn back all the hands of political progress.â€? By Debra Whitley
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he first-grader never had school lunches because his school had no cafeteria. He never checked out a book because his school had no library. And he never had a chance to play ball at school with his friends because Bolton Colored School had no gym or playground. But, the white school, Bolton Elementary, did. And even at 6 years old, Bennie Thompson noticed the difference. Walking past the city school, the young boy saw all the things he and his friends were denied. The cafeteria. The library. The gym. Even the baseball field. Today, the path that Bennie Thompson walks offers a much different view. Mississippi’s veteran U.S. representative has traded the sidewalks of Bolton for the halls of Congress, where he’s been a frequent advocate of education and equality. “I think when you deny a child an adequate and appropriate education you are denying the next generation the opportunity to be the best they can be,” Thompson said. Starting right out of college, Thompson has spent 45 years in public service. — BENNIE THOMPSON In Bolton, he served as an alderman, then as mayor before being elected to the Hinds County Board of Supervisors in 1980. And for more than two decades, he’s been a U.S. representative, serving a sprawling district that runs 300 miles from Tunica to Jackson. His 11 consecutive terms have made him the longest-serving AfricanAmerican elected official in Mississippi. There’s a reason for that. “He’s very constituent-oriented and he spends a lot of time in this district. I think he’s back here every weekend and he goes to a lot of events,” said Tim Kalich, editor of The Greenwood Commonwealth. None of this would have been possible had it not been for the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. “The Voting Rights Acts provided direction and a comfort for that process
“My whole public school career, I never had a new textbook.”
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of elections to take place without fear of threats or intimidation,” said the 66-yearold Thompson. “It was because people did not fear economic reprisals and other things attributed to running for public office that they decided to do so.” efore 1965, segregationist policies — such as literacy tests and poll taxes — prevented many blacks from registering to vote. And those who tried faced intimidation and outright violence. Their jobs were threatened. They were evicted from their homes. If they made it to the polling place, they might be insulted by white clerks. Although they were technically free, blacks in Mississippi remained slaves to the electoral system for more than a century. Eventually, however, the political landscape would change. By far, the most significant change occurred in 1965 — a change that for once was enforced by the federal government. Local volunteers helped out by watching for violations of the Voting Rights Act and made sure blacks were registered. One of those workers was a young college student — Bennie Thompson. As an undergraduate at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Thompson got interested in voting rights when he met civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., comedian Dick Gregory and entertainer Harry Belafonte. “Tougaloo was the only college campus in the state of Mississippi,” Thompson recalled, “where they were allowed to speak. If you were in a state school, it was against the law to even have that kind of meeting.” One day, one of Thompson’s professors assigned him to help the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a major force in the civil rights struggle, with black voter registration in Ruleville. The goal was to support Fannie Lou Hamer in her pursuit of a congressional seat. Thompson and his classmates fanned out across the community, registering blacks to vote. “When I came back home, I was telling my mama about this wonderful experience that I was having helping those less-fortunate people in the Delta,” Thompson said. His mother told him that elections like that
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson outside Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. For two decades, he has represented a sprawling district that runs 300 miles from Tunica to Jackson. PHOTO BY IGNACIO MURILLO
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had never taken place in his own hometown. “I said, ‘What?’ There I am, 150 miles from home and the town that I live in was actually doing the same thing.” Infuriated, Thompson — with the help of the NAACP, Delta Ministry and Hinds County Action for Progress — created a voter registration drive for the first-ever municipal election in Bolton. “It was that exposure of seeing what people had to contend with in trying to register that really got me focused on living conditions and economic conditions in this area,” he said. ennie Thompson was born in Bolton in 1948. Growing up in a black neighborhood, he regularly saw the substantial differences between the black and white communities. For one, the water lines in black communities were significantly smaller. “I knew when the neighbors were running bath water because the water pressure for our house would be so low,” he remembers. White neighborhoods had
Doris Lee says Thompson’s office is quick to act on constituent requests. PHOTO BY JARED BURLESON
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sidewalks and fire hydrants. Black neighborhoods had neither. When Thompson was old enough for high school, he had to travel 52 miles roundtrip from Bolton to Utica to attend Hinds County Agricultural High School because he was not allowed to go to Raymond High, Clinton High or even Utica High — all much closer, but still segregated. “My whole public school career, I never had a new textbook.” Thompson and his classmates were always given old, worn textbooks from the white schools. “While that’s not as traumatic as a lynching or beating, nonetheless, the long term impact of what you create by operating a system like that, it will take generations to overcome it,” he said. n 1968, Thompson ran his first political race, for alderman, and won. He lost his high school teaching job in Franklin County as a result. “The superintendent called me in and he said his teachers didn’t get involved in politics. ‘His teachers.’ As if I was his property.” Thompson went on to become mayor of Bolton. In 1975, he joined a successful lawsuit to increase funding for Mississippi’s historically black universities. “It was a landmark case on the issue of equal funding and education,” said Bob Boyd of Greenville, a former member of the District of Columbia Board of Education. “There had been some similar suits filed at the K-12 level, but this was nationwide, and it was the most permanent one affecting higher education.” In 1993, he captured 55 percent of the vote in a special election and replaced Mike Espy as Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District representative. Since then, he has served on several committees, including Agriculture, Budget and Small Business. In 2000, he wrote legislation that created the
National Center for Minority Health and Health Care Disparities. He became the first Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee in 2006. Thompson is occasionally accused of being obsessed with race and not representing white constituents. But he says he represents everyone and is determined to help those who need help in perhaps the poorest congressional district in America. “Every opportunity I get to pass legislation that does away with any vestige of trying to separate us, I do,” he said. Recently, Thompson helped secure $2.3 million in federal funds to restore the Taborian Hospital in Mound Bayou. The hospital, financed by the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, was the first medical institution in the South with an entirely black staff and equipment owned by a black hospital. “We don’t get enough efforts to preserve African-American history in the Delta, it just fades away,” he said. “But the efforts for the Taborian Hospital are to make sure that the history of the how and why gets preserved.” The Taborian Urgent Care Center will provide health-care services to those in Mound Bayou and surrounding areas. Formerly, some poor people in the area had to travel more than 100 miles to Jackson to receive care. Thompson and Tougaloo graduate Derrick Johnson also have created the Mississippi Leadership Institute, a ninemonth program that teaches 25 candidates problem-solving skills so they can develop into leaders and fix local issues. The program — whose first graduating class boasted the mayor of Meridian, the president of the Jackson City Council and the vice president of the Columbus City Council —encourages participants to stay in the state and try to make it better. Thompson is also a swift provider of constituent service. He has seven congressional district offices that try to make sure residents get the help they need. Recently a staffer helped Doris Lee, program director of Our House, Inc., a family wellness center in Greenville that provides counseling and support for victims of domestic violence
and sexual assault prevention. Lee came to the office on behalf of a mother and her five young children who had been evicted. The mother came to her and Lee went straight to the congressman’s office where she sat down with a staffer. “We got to her office around 10 a.m. and did not leave until about 4 or 4:30,” Lee said. ”She made call after call.” When Lee and the mother left, her housing had been reinstated. Lee attributed the quick results and compassion of the staffer to Thompson. “She knows she’s working for Bennie Thompson. She knows the heart of the congressman.”
“Every opportunity I get to pass legislation that does away with any vestige of trying to separate us, I do.” – BENNIE THOMPSON
t’s also not unusual to see Thompson in Bolton. His Sundays are spent attending Asbury United Methodist — the church he’s been a member of all his life. Thompson loves his hometown and the people who live in it. “I know the guy who makes coffee at 7 o’clock in the morning and I know the guy who drinks beer at 7 o’clock in the evening because I know my people.” Although Thompson believes the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought dramatic change to Mississippi’s political landscape, he said there is still much to be done because “Mississippi left unchecked will begin to turn back all the hands of political progress in this state.” “My daddy died in 1964,” Thompson said. “My daddy never voted in his whole life. He lived here in this town, and I think for somebody who never voted a day in his life whose son has now represented (it) in Washington for 20 years means we’ve come a long way.” Designed by Jessi Hotakainen
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PHOTO BY CADY HERRING
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REST STOP Greenville tries to pull together to conquer its problems.
By Mary Marge Locker
ehold, how right and good it is when brothers dwell together!” The Rev. Joseph Wright Jr.’s voice booms and echoes throughout the sanctuary of the New White Stone Baptist Church in Greenville. It’s just past seven on a Tuesday morning and cars have already filled the chain link-fenced parking lot. Many in today’s audience have never been to New White Stone before. Some have never been to this side of town.
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“I don’t care what part of the neck of the woods you’re from. Or what’s your educational background. Or financial status. We all need Him this morning!” The reverend is rolling now and the congregation gets into the act. Yeah! Amen! All right, preacher! Greenville has hosted the local branch of the Mission Mississippi program, Mission Mississippi Delta, for almost 10 years now, sponsoring Tuesday morning prayer breakfasts. These alternate each week between traditionally white and traditionally black churches. They bring together those the reverend speaks of : black people, white people, black pastors, white pastors, women dressed to the nines, men in dirty work boots and torn T-shirts, people who dropped out of high school, people with multiple postgraduate degrees. In the words of Washington County Chancery Clerk Marilyn Hansell, “Eleven o’clock on Sunday is the most segregated hour.” Mission Mississippi seeks to combat that. Gatherings like the one at New White Stone once helped Greenville earn a reputation as one of the state’s most racially progressive cities, a prosperous, more enlightened place, especially when it came to race. But
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today, battered by hard economic times, it’s easy to find plenty of people who think the reputation is in doubt.
reenville, the Delta’s largest city, was always a little different, and proud of it. In the 1960s, “Black Power” proponent Stokely Carmichael nicknamed it “the rest stop for the civil rights movement,” a place where civil rights leaders could plot strategy in peace, without fear of harassment. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Greenville became the first Delta town to integrate its police force and gradually integrate its public schools. Greenville also avoided a major Deep South stigma: the community drove out the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century. It was never saddled with a violent reputation. No police dogs. No bloodied marchers. Greenvillians are well versed in their progressive history: they’ll rattle off the names of landed gentry who helped distinguish the city as if they’re reciting the names of the 12 Apostles in catechism. Landmark members of Greenville’s high society were seen as sophisticates, and they were proud of that. The Percy family—led by the paternalistic poet-planter William Alexander Percy, and including the literary icon Walker Percy—considered racial conflict to be déclassé,
and that attitude largely infiltrated the town psyche. Along with the presence of perhaps the state’s most progressive newspaper, The Delta Democrat-Times, most people credit the town’s enlightenment to the liberal attitudes of the press and the image-consciousness of the aristocracy. These major figures set a certain tone. But it wasn’t all altruism. Greenville was a place devoted to making money, and racial unrest could easily be seen as “bad for business.” On Washington Avenue, downtown Greenville’s former epicenter, there stands a historic testament to the business-minded nature of the town. The Greenville History Museum is housed in what was once a prominent women’s clothing store called The Fair. Ring the buzzer at the front door, and instead of a store in this prime piece of real estate, you’ll find relics of the city’s past—a maze of old yearbooks, pinball machines, soda counters, Ole Miss practice footballs, photographs of the 1927 Mississippi River flood, a genuine 1950s voting booth, and a copy of a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial from The Delta Democrat-Times. Benjy Nelken, the owner and curator, is a lifetime local. In the 1960s, his family owned The Fair, one of the first stores in the Delta to hire black women as sales clerks. When he was young, they were working in the back and cleaning up after hours. A
few years later, they assisted black customers and wrapped presents for everyone at the holidays. By the time Benjy inherited the store, his most important sales assistants were black women, helping all customers and working in the storefront all day. Nelken talks about this progressive period happily, almost nostalgically, while sitting among his cherished collection of Greenville’s historic stuff. It comes as a shock when he says, seemingly out of nowhere, “Greenville is more segregated today than it was 50 years ago.” It no longer deserves its progressive reputation, he says. The schools are failing, and they are segregated. White children attend private schools almost exclusively. The economy is down, crime is up. Nelken, and others like him, believe their town’s progressive era ended more than 20 years ago. But the eyes of some beholders see something drastically different. Born and raised in Greenville, 96-yearold L’Vee P. Martin retired as an elementary school teacher years ago and has become more active in local civic affairs ever since. Martin is soft-spoken but opinionated. She’s so glad to talk to you that you might feel like you and she go way back, as if you’ve known her all your life but can’t remember how.
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She reaches out her arms, as if she wants to hug the whole room, or spread the good news to an assembly. “It’s not just a church movement,” she says. “It starts here [at Mission Mississippi] as Christian work, but it becomes something else. … I do things across Greenville that continue that Christian work in different ways, not just limited to church … and make it involve the whole community.” And she’s right about — BENJY NELKEN that. She’s the president of the local AARP, a steering member of Church Women United (another integrated religious group), and is involved with the work of the Delta Foundation, so plenty of Greenvillians know her name. Her late husband Robert T. Martin was a prominent figure in the local civil rights movement, and when a friend mentions him she smiles, closes her eyes, and shakes her head. As if paying homage to his devotion to Greenville, she still believes in its progressive reputation and her duty to help maintain it.
“Greenville is more segregated today than it was 50 years ago.”
“Education was superior here once. So was business. And we have to try to keep it that way.” She beams positivity. But even Martin and her son Darris don’t agree. Darris Martin lived outside of the Delta, and the South, for 45 years. A lot has changed since then. “It’s a totally different world once you get out of this city,” he says. After living across the Northeast and traveling extensively for half a century, he has returned to his hometown to take care of his mother and now works as a local radio preacher. He recalls the blatant backwardness he felt when arriving in Greenville, his home, but a place in which he no longer feels quite so comfortable. Standing in the heart of downtown, up against the levee on Washington Avenue—home to Jim’s Café and the Greenville Museum and hardly anything else now, but once a bustling trade center— Martin feels the impact of 50 years. Though in the grand scheme of things it’s been a half-century of progress for many— civil rights legislation, affirmative action, improved public education and technology—for Greenville, Darris Martin thinks, it’s been 50 years of decline. It was impossible for him to ignore the population shifts. From a once majority white population, Greenville’s 2010 census identifies nearly 80 percent of the town’s residents as black. Even though the black population has a growing middle class, there is still a distinct sense of social segregation outside the workplace. In the 1950s, Greenville was a major agricultural town. Big farmers employed thousands in the cotton fields outside the city to pick and chop cotton. But farm mechanization drove out thousands of laborers, people with few other skills. And then industry left. In 1994, thanks to the North American Free Trade Act, Greenville’s factories, the envy of the Delta, were abandoned. The tall, empty towers of once-flourishing manufacturing plants are haunting landmarks against the Greenville skyline. The Schwinn bicycle plant. Gone. Chicago Mills. Gone. Vlasic Pickles. Gone. A branch of one of the nation’s biggest carpet companies. Gone. For Darris Martin and Benjy Nelken, these are daily reminders of how their city has not lived up to the promise of its former reputation. Each one of those economic blows cut deeper into the pool of available jobs and opened fault lines in the city’s historically good race relations. White flight from the public schools combined with people leaving because of the job market and slumping LEFT: Rev. Joseph Wright Jr. preaches brotherly love from the pulpit of the New White Stone Baptist Church, site of a multiracial prayer breakfast recently. PHOTO BY PHILLIP WALLER
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L’Vee Martin, 96, shown here with son Darris, right, tries to keep positive about Greenville and thinks the city can pull everyone together. PHOTO BY PHILLIP WALLER
economy left the city a meek imitation of what it once was. The population, once around 45,000, has plummeted to under 34,000 – a drop of 25 percent. Bob Boyd, who covered Greenville during the glory days of the local paper, shakes his head in frustration. “Sometimes new industry wants to come, but we don’t let it. They don’t feel comfortable here.” He’s referring to the time Boeing wanted to open a wing building center in Greenville, but ultimately chose not to after several trips to the area. Reports filtered back to town that the company’s engineers and higher-ups did not feel comfortable with segregated education or distinct lines of class and race in the social scene. To the new Boeing families considering the town, it was out of the question. Shrinking population also shifted the political scene. For the past 20 years, black people have filled most major offices in Greenville—a dramatic shift in power. Some whites considered the city’s first black mayor divisive, and that didn’t help things any. White and black relationships changed; there were more black people among the middle class, more joining the country club. But that didn’t mean everyone got along, or that everyone gets along today. “Being neighbors is one thing. Being friends is another,” Darris Martin says. “What is wrong with us [here]? You go somewhere else—Canada,
New Jersey—these things, black versus white, they don’t matter. We’re still making them matter here. We can’t see past the color lines. ” Even Mission Mississippi Delta has changed. Hansell, the chancery clerk, says more white people used to come. She believes that it took awhile for black people to become actively involved in integrated groups outside of politics, but they have a stronger presence today. On the other hand, “the white community has disengaged.” But in the last couple of years, things have started to swing the other way, raising hopes that the city can reclaim the old reputation. Beyond Mission Mississippi Delta, there are several major organizations, as well as community groups, devoted to integration in Greenville. Among these are Delta Foundation, MACE (Mississippi Action for Community Education), and the Greenville Arts Council (GAC). The Arts Council, housed in the monstrous renovation job of the former E.E. Bass Junior High School, helps to bring people together in an informal way. Once, in this massive old school, the likes of Walker Percy and Shelby Foote used to roam between classes, their voices echoing against the building’s fantastic acoustics, their books clanging into lockers after lunch. GAC programs bring together both children and adults to participate in packed theater performances, arts
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A biracial gathering breaks up in Greenville. PHOTO BY PHILLIP WALLER
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classes and exhibits, after-school programs and summer camps, and events that extend beyond the immediate community, such as the Delta Hot Tamale Festival. (Last year’s festival was written up in Smithsonian and The New Yorker, and lured thousands downtown. Juanita Turney, a 94-year-old former teacher, was the Hot Tamale Queen.) Anne Martin, the new executive director of the GAC, understands the struggles the community faces. But she also understands the power of bringing together children from white and black communities. The annual Student Invitational Art Show at E.E. Bass unites students from every school, every social setting, every corner of town. Kids and their parents flock to E.E. Bass to oooh and aaah at their art and get to know each other. Martin is proud of the fact that Mississippi has produced some of the world’s best artists and entrepreneurs: from William Faulkner to B.B. King to Robert Pittman, the founder of MTV. Why couldn’t some of Greenville’s own young artists climb to the same heights? Why should education and social segregation be obstacles for them? Mayor John Cox, on the job less than two years, says the town has started to change for the better. He sees the old spirit returning, people of different races pulling together. He points to the same tamale festival, to the hundreds packing the sidewalks to watch a Christmas parade (“The biggest we’ve had in 50 years”), to the new Dragon Boat races on Lake Ferguson. And he beams with pride at a new grant to help build a walking trail along the top of the lakefront levee. But even Cox has run into the old problem of race. When he went on NBC’s Today show and said his children went to private schools because the public schools didn’t have what they needed, black state Sen. Derrick Simmons said he should apologize. The senator’s brother, Councilman Errick Simmons, suggested the mayor resign. The popular chancery clerk, Hansell, knows Greenville well. She doesn’t immediately take a side when asked if her town still deserves being called progressive, but not because of politics. Instead, she looks around the Washington County Board of Supervisors meeting room for a moment and shakes her head, thinking. “We took a lot for granted. … People assume all is well when you have a good reputation.” But Greenville hasn’t held on to it, she decides. She looks around the room again, at the photographs of the supervisors, out the windows onto the parking lot, lost in a thought, before she continues. Maybe a memory of Greenville’s past, or maybe a notion of its future. “And if Greenville sinks, all of us sink.” Design by Ellen Whitaker
L’Vee Martin, 96, tries to keep positive about Greenville and thinks the city can pull everyone together. PHOTO BY PHILLIP WALLER
Anne Martin, executive director of the Greenville Arts Council, helps stage arts programs that bring black and white patrons together from all over the city. PHOTO BY LOGAN KIRKLAND
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“I HAD A
GUN IN EVERY DAMN
PLACE I COULD
HAVE A GUN 98 THE MEEK REPORT
— HODDING CARTER
Fighting Editor By Logan Kirkland
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t was Sept. 30, 1962 and death threats rolled in moments after the Delta Democrat-Times landed with a thud on Greenville’s front porches. The reason: A fiery editorial calling for Gov. Ross Barnett to be tried for sedition for his efforts to block integration at Ole Miss, where his inflammatory rhetoric would help trigger a riot that very night. That day, 10 percent of the paper’s subscribers canceled. Editor Hodding Carter III had threats before but he took these seriously. That night, he lay in the dark with a deputy sheriff and a family friend, waiting for the armed thugs they feared would come. “We went out there to the entrance of the property off of Highway 82 and sat out there with guns behind the brick posts, waiting for them to come,” Carter recalls. “We stayed up virtually all night and nobody came.” Nonetheless, his father, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for editorials on race, mother, brother and uncle raced through the night from New Orleans to Greenville, arriving as the sun came up. By then, Ole Miss was occupied by federal forces. The Carters, exhausted, fell into bed. The next night, a flaming cross was planted on their front lawn. It took courage to take on segregation in the 1960s, when the race baiting rhetoric of segregationist politicians such as Barnett whipped the state into a frenzy and helped resurrect the Ku Klux Klan. At the Democrat-Times, easily the most liberal paper in Mississippi, it wasn’t pretty. Death threats. Area-wide circulation boycotts. A drive to fund a rival newspaper. The Legislature censured the elder Carter. All they got back was a mocking editorial summarily censuring the legislature by a vote of 1-0. Through it all, the Carters held firm. In the end, their newspaper even prospered. They showed how a courageous paper can stick to principles under enormous economic pressure and still survive. They showed how a newspaper can change a town and, sometimes, a state. It helped that both father and son were natural fighters. But it was never easy. “I had a gun in every damn place I could have a gun. One in an office drawer, one in the car, one in about three rooms in the house and in my pocket,” Carter said. For a while, there were rumors that Klansman Byron De La Beckwith, later convicted of killing NAACP leader Medgar Evers, was out to get Carter. “Whenever I sat at the table with a glass window behind me, I had that sense that right now, he could take us out,” Carter said. Sometimes the pressure was more subtle. “There were guys who would not shake hands with me. They would move across the room to avoid having to speak with me in public and on social occasions.”
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hen Hodding Carter III left Greenville for Princeton, he had no desire to return and take over the newspaper. He had no desire to be known as “Little Hodding.” He never liked being called the son of a “nigger lover” on the playground, either. After the Ivy League, after the Marine Corps, his father said something that changed his mind. “Look, I have not been fighting all these years simply to watch my family walk away from this product,” the younger Carter recalled him saying. “At least give it a shot.” Carter returned to a paper that was already under a White Citizens Council boycott because it dared to suggest that Mississippians should peacefully comply with a U.S. Supreme Court order to integrate the schools. The Delta fairly bristled with racial tension. Any deviation from the gospel of segregation could bring immediate repercussions. Fearful of damaging the family business, Carter decided “to walk a very careful path” in his early years. “It isn’t to say that I was silenced entirely from my views,” he says now. “But I sure as hell wasn’t going much beyond what seemed to be possible.” When Barnett began his long, defiant stand against court orders requiring Ole Miss to integrate, Carter could restrain himself no longer . He began to shed the paper’s more moderate editorial voice and let loose with stronger opinions blasting the state’s racist attitudes. The Barnett editorial the day of the riot is just one example. “It was just gassed off and all white hot fury,” Carter says now. In the months to come, “virtually everything I was saying and doing was a red flag in front of a bull.” Like his father, Carter had his most fun writing editorials, swinging as hard as he could and saying, “To hell with it.” “A lot of my editorials were not meant to persuade the unpersuadable,” he said. “They were meant to hit them in the head.” And he would have plenty to write about. In 1963, Beckwith shot and killed Evers, the state’s NAACP field secretary. In 1964, the Klan killed three young civil rights workers and buried them in an earthen dam near Philadelphia. Through those turbulent times, Carter lived “a schizophrenic life. By then, I was running the news and editorial sides and at the same time, I got involved in organizations to try to break the stranglehold of the all-white Democratic Party.” Meanwhile, the Citizens Council boycott had taken its toll. The paper had lost much of its circulation outside of Greenville and Leland. The Citizens Council tried to pressure subscribers to cancel. Never subtle, their voices could be heard all over the Delta. “You can’t take that paper.” “You
Hodding Carter III is in his office at the Delta Democrat-Times in the early 1960s. COURTESY OF HODDING CARTER III
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will not.” “This is that son of a bitch…” Businesses did not stop advertising, but some cut back. Advertisers would sit down with the young editor and say, “Hodding, we can’t continue to advertise if you keep up this kind of stuff.” Carter, always a talented talker, would patiently explain that the paper was the best way to reach customers in Washington County and that it had the best market penetration in the state. And he kept on writing. Soon, others at the newspaper would feel the heat.
Carter’s father, Hodding Carter II, won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. COURTESY OF HODDING CARTER III
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resh from Columbia Journalism School, Foster Davis arrived in Greenville with a pleasant smile, eager to work. Black churches were being torched in nearby Indianola. Carter sent Davis to see what was happening. He returned to the newsroom four hours later. He was covered in blood, his shirt was torn. He sported impressive bruises. The rookie had been interviewing people when some locals asked if he was a civil rights worker. No, he replied, I am a reporter for the Delta-Democrat Times. “They jumped me and beat the hell out of me,” Davis said. “Is it okay to fight back?” “For God’s sake, of course it’s all right to fight back,” Carter said. “It’s OK with me if you take a gun, OK. I mean you cannot allow those bastards to get away with this.” After that, Carter said, “he got in more goddamned fights by people challenging his manhood and everything as a reporter for the Delta DemocratTimes and he beat their ass every time.” (Davis would go on to become managing editor of the Charlotte Observer and his paper would win a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Jim Bakker televangelism scandal.) As the civil rights movement grew hotter, Carter’s activism increased. “By the middle of 1964, I wasn’t able to restrain myself in traditional newspaper ways,” he said. He became heavily involved in Democratic Party politics to try to bring black people into the all-white party. In 1964, Carter had covered NAACP leader Aaron Henry’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and its efforts to challenge the all-white state Democratic Party structure at the party’s national convention. Carter later joined with Henry’s Loyal Democrats of Mississippi, which got seated at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, paving the way for an integrated party and helping change
the face and tone of Mississippi politics. There he was on television, in the company of Henry and Fannie Lou Hamer, fighting for fair treatment for black citizens and attacking the white political establishment. Through it all, the newspaper weathered the storm. By the end of 1960s, the boycott had finally lost its steam, though the Citizens Council still officially maintained it. It helped that Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The black vote changed everything. “You suddenly weren’t hearing ‘nigger’ anymore off the stump from people running for statewide office,” Carter said. Historians tend to stress Carter’s racial activism. Often missed are a couple of secret weapons that helped his newspaper survive. Arguably, the paper covered civil rights more thoroughly than any other paper in the state. But it also covered Greenville thoroughly, digging into every corner of black and white community life. It was hard for government agencies, from city council to school board to levee board, to escape the scrutiny of the paper. “We were very big on holding the mirror up to Greenville.” The DD-T, as it was affectionately known, was also one of the town’s biggest boosters, an important and influential part of the business community and a primary reason for Greenville’s progressive reputation, so cherished locally. “That’s another thing that saved us,” Carter said. “We may have been crusaders on the side of race, but we were unabashed boosters for the community of Greenville.” It helped that downtown Greenville was not just run by WASPs. “Jews and Lebanese and Catholics,” Carter said. “And while none of them was what I would think of as an integrationist, any number of them knew that if you bring down the Carters, who’s next? … They may have disagreed with us on occasion, but they never abandoned us.” The Carter family was deeply intertwined with the community socially and politically. “I can’t remember what I didn’t join,” said Carter, who required reporters to join a civic club to get to know the town and its people better. As a result, many who despised his politics and editorials accepted him as a social friend and a partner in the joint enterprise of moving the town forward. When the civil rights movement wound down, Carter hungered for more action. He left Greenville to become State Department spokesman under President Jimmy Carter. On Jan. 19, 1979, the shah of Iran, a brutal leader supported by the United States, fled the country. The U.S. gave the shah sanctuary, infuriating the new revolutionary leaders of Iran.
In November of that year, hundreds of Iranian students overran the American embassy and took 69 hostages, holding 52 of them until January of 1981. For two years, Americans helplessly watched the crisis unfold, growing more frustrated by the day. Hodding Carter faced the cameras and the press at tense daily briefings. He quickly became a media sensation for his smooth handling of an aggressive press corps. By then, Greenville was proud of him. “A lot of those people who cussed Hodding way back then would be glad to have him back today,” says former Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Clarke Reed, who credits the DD-T with fair coverage that helped the state GOP gain traction so that it could eventually dominate what had long been a Democratic stronghold. Now, from the green campus of the University of North Carolina, where he lectures on public policy, Carter, 79, looks back on those years with great pride.
“A lot of those people who cussed Hodding way back then would be glad to have him back today.” — CLARKE REED
Except for that long ago night when a cross was burned on his lawn. He is awfully glad he was asleep and that it did not come down to a gunfight in the dark. “People would have been killed, because we were itchy,” he said. The cross burners turned out to be teenagers “who, having listened to their parents, decided they owed it to ‘our way of life’ to go burn a cross,” Carter said. “I shudder when I think of killing teenagers. My God, because they were too stupid to understand what they were doing. I was very glad they weren’t out there.” Since his newspaper days, Carter has won awards for a critical TV series about the media, graced many a Sunday talk show from Washington, run the wealthy Knight Foundation and become a college professor. None of it compares to his time at the Delta Democrat-Times. It was, he said, the greatest gift an adult could receive, “which was to be a participant in the last good war in American history.” Design by Madisen Theobald
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Education of a The
Jim Abbott grew up in segregation but quickly figured out that to be a newspaperman, he had to be fair to everyone. By Phil McCausland Photos by Phillip Waller
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Former Sunflower County Supervisor Carver Randle said Abbott covered both sides of a story and took pains not to favor anyone.
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e don’t want niggers on our front page.” Jim Abbott was surrounded by angry white faces, some pointing fingers, others voicing their agreement. All Abbott had wanted was a steak dinner and to meet some town leaders. He hadn’t expected an ambush. It was 1972 and only a short time had passed since Abbott took over The Enterprise-Tocsin, Indianola’s weekly newspaper, and he’d already irritated some townfolk. All because he ran a photo of a cheerleading squad on the front page. He’d done it before with a different squad, and that’d been fine. But there was a difference: the first cheerleaders attended the allwhite private school and this most recent squad cheered for the predominantly black public high school. Some readers weren’t too happy about black girls waving pom-poms on page one. Others weren’t happy about having black people in the newspaper at all. Abbott didn’t back down. Born in nearby Greenwood, he was well aware of Indianola’s reputation as a segregationist stronghold. If he wanted to make The Enterprise-Tocsin a respected weekly, he knew he’d have to reckon with the sordid racial history of the city and its newspaper. Today, it seems silly to think people might confront an editor over a photo of black cheerleaders. But this was Sunflower County, where Fannie Lou Hamer was kicked off her plantation for wanting to vote, where the White Citizens Council was founded in 1955. Abbott, a deceptively affable Vietnam vet, refused to crumble under the pressure. At a time when most Mississippi editors steadfastly ignored news about protests and boycotts, hoping they would go away, Abbott put it all in the paper. He insisted on covering the whole community. And in time, his stubborn consistency and even-handed coverage won people over. The little weekly won no Pulitzers. But its 38 years with Abbott at the helm marked a remarkable turnaround from what it had been before. Until Abbott showed up, the paper often served to exacerbate racial tensions. When students came south for 1964’s Freedom Summer of protests and voter registration, the newspaper printed names, addresses and phone numbers of their parents. Just in case folks felt inclined to call them up and harass them. Abbott’s small staff withstood frequent complaints and a few losses of advertising, but it wound up earning numerous honors, including Abbott’s induction into the Mississippi Press Association Hall of Fame. Through it all, Abbott
was never intimidated. He understood racial intolerance. After all, he’d already had to reckon with his own demons.
n the fall of 1962, Abbott was a freshman at Ole Miss, seeking a degree in business. It was the final day of September, and students were returning from a football weekend in Jackson, having watched the Rebels whip Kentucky 14-0, and riding high on the win. But that high quickly turned to anger when they found the Lyceum surrounded by hundreds of U.S. marshals. They were there to enroll a lone black man, James Meredith. As darkness fell and thousands of students gathered in front of the armed marshals, 18-year-old Abbott joined in the jeering of the marshals, yelling, “2-4-6-8, we don’t want to integrate.” Then as skirmishes broke out in the mob, Abbott and three friends retreated 50 yards to the old yellow-brick YMCA building to watch President John F. Kennedy’s fuzzy image flickering on a black and white TV screen. He was addressing the nation live at 8 p.m., begging Mississippi to be reasonable. But that night, few on the campus were listening. A few minutes into Kennedy’s speech, the marshals fired tear gas canisters toward the mob in the Circle. Clouds of tear gas blew into the YMCA building. Abbott and his three buddies ran outside. Stunned that marshal has unleashed tear gas, they washed their faces from a faucet outside a nearby sorority house. White brows furrowed. White fingers folded into fists. White mouths slung insults. It was a time to show allegiances, and they weren’t going to have theirs questioned. Over the next few hours, Abbott witnessed the full blown riot. But he and his friends kept far enough away to stay out of trouble. They left for a while to visit their fraternity house, and upon returning about 10 p.m., they heard bullets ricocheting off the science building and over their heads. They decided it had become too dangerous and retreated to their dorm rooms. In the morning, Abbott saw exactly what happens when hate runs rampant. Torched cars smoldering in the morning mist made the idyllic Ole Miss campus look like some kind of apocalyptic wasteland. A French journalist and a local resident had been shot and killed. The university canceled classes because clouds of tear gas were seeping from the earth. Three thousand soldiers patrolled the campus in the wake of the now infamous Ole Miss riot. Before it was all over, that number increased to almost 5,000 to keep peace in a town of 6,500 and a campus of fewer than 5,000. Two years later, in the Freedom Summer of 1964, Abbott worked for his father, a civil engineer, in Greenwood. Compiling data for a new county map meant many days at the county courthouse. During breaks, he would watch SNCC workers try to help long lines of black people register to vote. Something about it troubled him. The sheriff and the circuit clerk were stern and dismissive. They made black folks wait outside in the broiling heat and horrendous summer downpours. Meanwhile, white people moved in and out with ease. He just assumed that was the way things were. It wasn’t until he was sent to Vietnam that his views on race were finally challenged enough to change. At Phu Bai, a large military base just south of the imperial city of Hue, where Marines tangled with the enemy in fierce firefights, Abbott
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was put on guard duty with a black man from Chicago’s ghettoes. He told Abbott stories about home, about living in a one-bedroom apartment with his many brothers and sisters, sharing a double bed. “They actually had a way of sleeping on the bed,” Abbott recalled. “The younger ones would be on top, where their legs were overlapping.” Abbott paused for a moment. “So they wouldn’t cut off the blood flow and all.” It wasn’t until they starting discussing race that Abbott’s views starting hitting the reset button. The last thing the soldier said clocked Abbott across the face, showed him how a lack of empathy can hide the world from a man. “He said, ‘I know that you will go back home and you will have a nice job and you’ll belong to a country club that has a swimming pool and you’ll have a nice happy life. I will go back to the ghetto and probably won’t be able to find a job.’” Abbott’s passive worldview was destroyed. It made him look inside. He didn’t like what he saw. After his time in Vietnam, Abbott returned to Mississippi with a new perspective seared into his soul. He went back to Ole Miss, got a second degree, this time in journalism, and took over The Enterprise-Tocsin in 1970, swearing to cover the entire community, not just one side of it. That led him to an interrupted steak dinner with a group of angry white men. It wouldn’t be the last time people would be upset at Jim Abbott.
bbott tried to insist on fair reporting. “Not playing any favorites,” he called it. That meant he reported everything he felt was newsworthy. Everything. Which earned him the ire of many people who wanted things kept the same. But he stuck to his guns. No matter who or what you were, Abbott reported the news. Even when it included employees. “I had a policy at the newspaper that if you were on staff,” Abbott said, “or you were the editor, if you get caught and you’re on the court docket, it’s going to be in boldface type.” Over the years, Abbott’s name was boldfaced a few times: for running a stop sign, passing on a yellow line on Highway 49, another for improper parking. And people took notice. “Jim was real good about making sure both sides were heard in his stories and that he didn’t try to slant it to his viewpoint,” said Steve Rosenthal, Indianola’s mayor. “He left that strictly for the editorials.” All of it came to a head in the spring of 1986 – a time Abbott considers one of the most difficult of his life. The public schools in Indianola were almost entirely black. The school board was predominantly white. A veteran superintendent retired and the black community wanted a black superintendent – specifically, popular long-time black principal Robert Merritt, who had earned his PhD. Then word leaked out that the board had secretly offered a white applicant the job before interviewing all of the candidates. They knew people might be upset, so they secretly swore on a Bible not to go back on their vote. The black community was outraged. It formed an organization called Concerned Citizens. The group voted to boycott white businesses. Pickets appeared on downtown streets. If the town wouldn’t play
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fair, black citizens would hit them where it hurt – the cash register. In a community nearly 75 percent black, a boycott could be deadly. It lasted 33 days. Businessmen soon yearned for the old, steady ka-ching of a busy cash register. Rosenthal owned a department store. He well remembers the power of the boycott. “When it ended,” Rosenthal said, “I probably had $100,000 worth of Easter clothing in the layaway. Well, who wants Easter dresses 60 days after Easter?” Eventually the white community gave in, buying out the contract of the white superintendent. Some white school board members resigned. Robert Merritt became the district’s first black superintendent. Through it all, Abbott’s staff covered Concerned Citizens meetings and interviewed school board members, city officials and citizens. Abbott wrote editorials encouraging open communication and a biracial solution rather than continued fighting. “Jim did a good job,” said Carver Randle, Indianola lawyer and former NAACP chief. “And I think most people respected him because he wouldn’t just pick one segment of the community and expose them, but anybody that he thought was not doing what they should have been doing.” It’s tough to cover both sides honestly and keep friends along the way, especially when it involves race, especially in a small community. If you’re honest about everybody, eventually they might all sour a little bit. Randall saw this happen to Abbott. “For a while, he was very unpopular in the black and white community,” he said. “And newspapers have to experience that if you’re going to be up front and unbiased in your reporting.” Abbott retired in 2008, selling the weekly to Emmerich Newspapers. He was already involved in a new project – the town’s B.B. King Museum. He served on its board for seven years and helped with its founding and promotion. The editor who brought even handed news coverage to the birthplace of the Citizens Council was now throwing himself at one of the first major projects in Indianola that black and white people had worked on together – a watershed moment in local race relations. The museum became the envy of the Delta, both for its powerful exhibits and its model of racial cooperation. Eventually he cycled off the board, but he kept his hand in. He is often called upon to take honored guests through the museum. He has the tour down to a science. But his identity is still very much tied to the paper. One of his projects includes organizing the hundreds of photos he took over the years for The Enterprise-Tocsin. He started with the 1970 editions and he’s made it up to 2002. Soon he’ll be finished. Now he toys with writing a book about his experiences during the boycott and at Ole Miss and Vietnam, but first he wants to take some meaningful travel time with his wife. There’s another world out there, beyond the Delta. One that has unknown troubles and diverse terrains. They’ve already gone on a few trips, but now he wants a real change. He’s thinking mountains – the Austrian Alps. “It’s something different,” he said.
“I think most people respected him because he wouldn’t just pick one segment of the community and expose them, but anybody that he thought was not doing what they should have been doing.” – CARVER RANDLE
Design by Kristen Ellis
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After 20 Years of meetings in the White House, Henry Espy is content to dig graves with a backhoe and help care for the dead. By Cady Herring
t had been a tough day at the office, so Clarksdale Mayor Henry Espy looked forward to relaxing at home with a cold beer. He settled into his favorite chair, sipped a little brew, then tensed when he heard a knock on the door. “Oh God,” he thought. “What now?” When he opened the door, a lady with a newborn baby stood on his front step. “Mr. Espy?”“Yeah, can I help you?”“Could you tell somebody to turn my lights on?” She had come home from the hospital after giving birth, only to discover the city had turned off her electricity. She hurried to pay the bill, money in hand, but it was just a few minutes before 5 p.m., and they told her they couldn’t send someone to turn on the juice that close to quitting time. “She opened her hand with the baby in her arms and showed me the money,” said Espy. 110 THE MEEK REPORT
Espy likes to keep busy. He even hops atop a backhoe to dig graves before his clientsâ€™ funerals. PHOTO BY CADY HERRING
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He was furious. “I picked up the phone and told them if they didn’t turn those lights on right now, there would be nobody at work tomorrow. I couldn’t believe people were so insensitive.” Within two hours, the lights were back on. Espy had made a friend for life. More importantly, he had sent a message. The first black mayor of Clarksdale cared.
he affable, soft-spoken Espy was the Delta’s first black mayor of a biracial town, held office 20 years, led the National Conference of Black Mayors twice and spent more time at the White House than his older brother Mike, former secretary of agriculture and the state’s first black congressman. Along the way, he cracked down on drug gangs and violence and kept the city afloat financially despite grinding poverty and a crippled economy. Espy grew up in Yazoo City. He spent a good chunk of his youth accompanying his grandfather, T. J. Huddleston, on trips all over Mississippi. Huddleston owned a network of hospitals and more than 20 funeral homes and frequently stopped in on them to see how things were going. Everywhere they went, his grandfather would fret about the sad state of health care for black people. Huddleston was tired of black women giving birth in cotton fields, Espy said. So he asked people for money. Huddleston’s refrain could be heard all across black Mississippi: “You give me a dollar to buy a brick, and I’ll build you a hospital.” It worked. In 1928, the doors opened to Afro-American Sons and Daughters
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Hospital in Yazoo City, the first hospital for blacks in the Delta. Espy watched as his grandfather addressed large groups of people and churches, once before a crowd of about 3,000. “He was a great orator,” said Espy, and he used his power of speech to connect with black people all over the state. The young Espy remembered all of that when he arrived in Clarksdale to take over one of his grandfather’s funeral homes and people started to urge the easygoing newcomer to get into politics. Espy lost his first campaign for city council, but it was close. And people took notice. He was asked if he would accept an appointment to a vacancy on the allwhite school board, and he did. Not long after, he ran for the council again and won. Then, in 1989, he was elected mayor. As he looks back at it now, Espy believes his success was assured when his grandfather picked him up and drove him all over Mississippi to ask for money to build a hospital for black people. The powerful network of funeral homes gave him instant status in Clarksdale. Everyone in town – including the all-important black pastors –knew him. At funerals, he was front and center before the church, saying a few kind words. When he became mayor, that already large network expanded again. Call it funeral home politics. Espy knew a lot about funeral homes. But he had a lot to learn as mayor. Right after he started, he was trying to figure out how to use bonds to get some things done for the city. City Clerk Sylvia
Byrd walked into his office and said, “You’re a good person. I love you. But you do not know what you’re talking about.” She said it in such a loving manner, he just laughed. “What?” “I’m going to teach you about bonds,” Byrd said. “I’m going to teach you about ratings. I’m going to teach you about budgets. I’m going to teach you about everything that you need. In fact, I’m going to help you be the best man this city has ever had.” Espy was grateful. He may have been in charge of City Hall, but he was running a town in one of the poorest places in the United States. He needed all the help he could get. “Money is something that a mayor in the Delta cringes about at night,” Espy said. Byrd worked with Espy until he retired in 2013. She taught him how to put his ideas into action. He called her and others in his office his “prayer partners.” In a town where black people once had to drink from “Black Only” water fountains, the white clerk and the black mayor became fast friends. Espy even gave the eulogy at her first husband’s funeral.
ne of Espy’s biggest problems was crime. He realized just how big a problem it really was when an elderly woman told him she couldn’t sleep at night. She kept hearing gunshots. She was scared. And so she slept on the floor to avoid stray bullets that might come her way. Espy thought about his own mother. He could not stand the thought of someone he loved being afraid to sleep in her own bed. He realized he needed help. “I went straight over there up
Fourth Street to Oxford,” said Espy. He walked into the U.S. Attorney’s office and asked federal prosecutor John Hailman to bring the feds to Clarksdale. He told him he had permission to do whatever was needed to eradicate the gangs and the violence. In Hailman’s upcoming book, From Midnight to Guntown: A Prosecutor in the Land of Faulkner and Elvis, he describes Clarksdale in the late 1990s and early 2000s as being overrun by gangs and drug lords. Unemployed young men in Clarksdale had teamed up with relatives in gangs from Chicago and were terrorizing the town after dark.
“I picked up the phone and told them if they didn’t turn those lights on right now, there would be nobody at work tomorrow. I couldn’t believe people were so insensitive.” – HENRY ESPY
“They found in street gangs that camaraderie and sense of belonging so necessary to teenage boys seeking identity,” Hailman said. Espy, Chief of Police Steve Bingham, Coahoma County Sheriff Andrew Thompson, and District Attorney Laurence Mellen joined forces to get help.
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Retired as mayor, Henry Espy still keeps involved at his Century Funeral Home in Clarksdale. PHOTO BY CADY HERRING
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Hailman rolled out “Project Safe Neighborhoods,” a program that targeted street gangs. Meanwhile, Espy went to church services all over Clarksdale and warned people that they were about to get “tough love.” He told them that drugs would no longer be tolerated. He told them that guns would no longer be tolerated. “We are cracking down.” Overnight, Clarksdale changed. Roadblocks sprang up. The angry “wop-wop-wop-wop” of law enforcement helicopters descended on the city. Undercover police went in to take down gang leaders. Jail cells were full. The crackdown was the talk of the town. And, at least for a while, it worked. In 2001, Clarksdale reported 131 violent gun crimes, more than one every three days. In 2003, the number dropped to 49, a 60 percent reduction. In 2004, Espy, Bingham, Mellen, and Cpl. Billy Baker received the National Award for Outstanding Local Police Department Involvement in Project Safe Neighborhoods from Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Corney at the national Project Safe Neighborhoods conference. For Espy, the award meant all that hard work had paid off. “The quality of life starts right there when you reduce crime,” he said.
spy had his own run-in with the law in 1993, after a losing a race for the congressional seat his brother Mike vacated when he became agriculture secretary. An independent counsel started looking into allegations that Mike Espy illegally accepted gifts from agricultural interests. He was acquitted on all charges and some members of the jury didn’t mind telling the press how weak they thought the government’s case was. The prosecutor also charged Henry Espy with making false statements to a local bank to get loans to help pay off his congressional campaign debt. But a federal judge acquitted him in a non-jury trial. Some other defendants, including the New Orleans lawyer raising money to pay off Henry Espy’s debts, were convicted. That lawyer was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton as he left office. During his long career, Espy became a regular at the White House, frequently
meeting with Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Once, he asked his brother the congressman for some help from the White House for a local project and his brother replied, “Hey, you’re over there more than I am” Now, Espy says he’s tired of flying back forth to Washington, tired of going to the White House, tired of the spotlight. The former mayor is content to keep his hand in at the funeral home. He enjoys his work and happily drives around Clarksdale in his truck, listening to the radio. He says that he used to only listen to politics, but he’s happier now with gospel music. He even climbs aboard a backhoe and digs graves for the deceased. When he looks back, he sees a good life and a remarkably successful family. He was a mayor, his brother a congressman and Cabinet member and his son Chuck is finishing up his time in the Legislature. He takes great delight in recalling how, as a child, his father pushed him and his siblings to make better grades, no matter how well they were already doing.
“Money is something that a mayor in the Delta cringes about at night.” – HENRY ESPY
“When he found out what our grades were, he would go get this old suitcase and get out his report cards from high school and show them to us,” Espy recalled. His dad was from a poor family in Dothan, Ala. He worked his way through school and made straight A’s. He couldn’t understand why Espy wasn’t doing the same. “If I can do it,” he would say, “you can, too.” Espy would shake his head. “Dad, you have seven children that have got individual differences. Our brains are not functioning like yours. We are going to be successful but in our own way.” As it turned out, he was right. Design by Carson Cain
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PHOTO CREDIT HERE
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THE HERO YOU NEVER HEARD OF
“If you don’t have a say about what is going on, you don’t have no voice.” By Mollie Mansfield Photos by Thomas Graning
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THE WAY IT WAS U.S. Supreme Court records from 1964 show the huge disparity between white and black voter registration in some of the black majority Delta counties.
Sources: U.S. Supreme Court; Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
0.7% GRAPHIC BY KRISTEN ELLIS
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Tallahatchie Tunica Washington
ead it,” Circuit Clerk Erwin Henderson ordered. Vernice Sanders’ hands trembled as she focused on the section of the Mississippi Constitution she had drawn. She read it out loud. “What does it mean?” Henderson asked. She read it out loud. “I didn’t ask you to read it again. I said, ‘What does it mean?’” Henderson repeated. Sanders never graduated high school, stopping at the 10th grade. But she had prepared well for the voter registration test. She told Henderson what it meant and left the courthouse, so unnerved she didn’t know whether she passed or not. A poll tax bill arrived in the mail. She paid it. A short while later, she read her name in the newspaper in a list of newly registered voters. It was a victory, but to Sanders, it was also a warning. It let white folks know a black woman had registered to vote. And in 1964, in segregated Mississippi, folks sometimes lost their jobs over such things. Sanders held the paper that her name was boldly printed in, her body rigid with fear. She finally had a voice. But would she ever get to use it. In the small Delta town of Leland, a cluttered upholstery store sits on one corner of Main Street. You’d never guess its owner has met a president and helped thousands register to vote. At 88, Vernice Sanders sits there, in her tweed hat and thick glasses, quietly welcoming those who enter. Few recognize her as a civil rights hero. Her desk is cluttered with fabric samples and papers. She reaches to retrieve her old dusty water damaged photo albums -- the only visible remnants of the action-filled life she’s lived. The fruits of her endless labor are hidden within the pages of these books. A self-proclaimed country girl, Sanders worked tirelessly for almost 30 years driving people to the courthouse to get them registered. She doesn’t seek recognition, though. That’s not why she did it. Voting to her means having a voice, education means a future, and working hard is just a way of life. “If you don’t have a say about what is going on, you don’t have no voice,” Sanders said.
fter Sanders graduated from high school, she worked in a furniture factory. She didn’t know much about the movement. At that time in North Mississippi, it wasn’t that big a deal. But she was always the first to aid a friend. So in 1969 when one of her co-workers decided to run for constable, she thought she’d help him get 50 signatures for his qualifying petition. Edward Cooper and Sanders canvassed Washington County looking for black registered voters. Nothing. For months, they left work every day at 3 p.m. They traveled into the ghettos. They went door to door through the countryside. “It was the most difficult thing to try to find 50 people who was registered to vote,” Sanders would later say. They eventually found enough people. He lost the election. But that process motivated Sanders to do something about the
lack of black voters in Leland. She got involved with the A. Philip Randolph organization in the 1970s and eventually became the Mid-Delta Chapter leader. Even though the Voting Rights Act of 1965 abolished Mississippi’s infamous literacy test, dual registration remained a formidable obstacle for years afterward. Before courts finally outlawed the practice, you had to go to the courthouse and register for state elections and then go to City Hall and register again for municipal elections. The courthouse was in Greenville, 15 minutes from Leland. Nine miles doesn’t seem too far but for black people in the Delta, cars were a luxury. And Sanders only had two hours a day to drive people back and forth. From the time she left work at 3 to the time the courthouse closed at 5, Sanders carted people to the polls. She drove two trips a day. By the second trip, City Hall was usually closed. Still, she relentlessly tried to make it on time. She and her friend Betty Jo Boyd knocked on what seemed like every door in the county. They would put as many people into a car as they could. Only later on did Sanders realize some of the dangers of her work. “When I thought about some of the places we had gone to try to get people out to register to vote, then I got scared,” Sanders said. Drunks and drug dealers were a common sight in some neighborhoods. Sanders and Boyd would walk past dilapidated houses where the owners sat outside in rusted lawn chairs. What are two women doing going door to door like that? Sometimes, they had to do the unexpected for the cause. Once, a woman answered the door. Sanders and Boyd asked if she would like to go with them to register to vote. “Well, I haven’t got anybody to keep my baby,” the woman replied. One of them stayed behind to watch the baby. The other drove the woman to register. Sanders wasn’t paid. She spent her own time and money for the good of strangers. At one point, she lost her job. But she continued taking people to register. When she went back to work, she used her remaining unemployment check to pay someone else to drive people to register. She is typical of countless dedicated, hard-working people throughout the black South who got little or no recognition, but played a critical role in improving the lives of black people. Through their quiet, persistent efforts, they radically changed a political system that had once been run almost exclusively by whites for whites. They give black people political clout – a real voice -- for the first time since Reconstruction.
the photo albums. There’s a picture of her and her grandson with President George W. Bush and the first lady. She met President Bush through her grandson, who had a White House appointment. “I was just completely numb. I never thought that I would be that close to a president of the United States in the White House,” Sanders said. Her stories of disenfranchisement, her visits to the White House, and her children’s graduations are all collecting dust beneath her desk. That’s OK. She’ll show you the pictures if you ask. But only if you ask. Now, her kids want her to move to Florida. She won’t have any of that. She’s just a country girl who doesn’t like big cities. And despite its history and problems, she’s made her home in the Delta. “I’ve been here this long and I know everybody,” she says. “I get along with everybody and I’m not sure they would have me if I went somewhere else.” Design by Taylor Davenport
anders raised eight children and four of her grandchildren. Her oldest was one of the first to integrate Delta schools, under an early “freedom of choice” plan. All but one went to college. None stayed in the Delta. “She was the same way with her family. She would encourage them to take part in everything. … I’d always hear stories of where her grandchildren were and what they were doing and how she helped them move along and reach their goals,” Boyd said. Sanders fumbles through a stack of picture frames near
Vernice Sanders at her upholstery shop in Leland.
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Margaret Block in her home in Cleveland. PHOTO BY PHILLIP WALLER
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FIGHTER Margaret Block battled the Klan, opposed the Vietnam War and had a run-in with Black Panthers. At 72, she’s still ready to rumble.
By Mollie Mansfield
t wasn’t hard to spot Margaret Block as she prowled the streets of Charleston in her red shirt and coveralls, the classic Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee uniform, trying to help black folks register to vote. Suddenly a big black hearse pulled up. “Who died?” she asked. “Get in the back,” ordered Birdia Keglar, president of the local NAACP and owner of the black funeral home. Keglar had been tipped to a Ku Klux Klan plan to murder Block. In Tallahatchie County, not far from where two white men killed 14-year-old Emmett Till for whistling at a white woman, death threats were not to be taken lightly.
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Block crumpled the leaflets she had attempted to pass out, climbed in and lay down in the precise spot where the dead usually ride. Her sharp inhale of the stifling air in the rear of the hearse was only slightly less painful than the suffocating air of 1964, Freedom Summer. “This shit ain’t even real.” The getaway car carried her to the safety of Keglar’s home, 15 minutes away. Cooped up in the dark quarters of the hearse, it felt like an eternity. “I was mad. I was going. ‘Why?’ Then I was mad. And then I was amused, too. If you’re going to do something to somebody, you don’t go and warn them,” Block said.
t age 72, there is no sugar in Margaret Block’s words. She has always been a fighter. Instead of going to college, she did the hard work of registering black people to vote when that could cost you your life. She mixed Molotov cocktails to throw at the Klan, joined the anti-Vietnam War movement in California, and had a run-in with the Black Panthers. And she’s still mad. The 1960s may be long gone, but this tough woman who fought for civil rights is still ready to rumble. Luther Brown, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, calls Block a “foot soldier for freedom.”
“Why are you worried about what the white kids are going to do? You ought to be worried about justice for everybody.” – MARGARET BLOCK
Now, she lives in Cleveland in the same house she grew up in. After 31 years in California, Block returned to the Delta in 1997 to care for her dying mother. African art, books that include her story (We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement), freedom song pamphlets – including some that she’s written – and numerous awards, occupy the small living room just inside her front door. She’s proud of them all. And, just down the block sits the house of the late civil rights leader Amzie Moore, one of her heroes. She’s proud of that, too. In the 1940s her father told her that she could be somebody. She believed him. But she’s black. So in 1955 when Emmett Till was murdered, Block realized her daddy’s words meant nothing unless someone fought for freedom. She wanted to fight. She
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wanted to drop out of school to join the movement, but her mother said no. Education came first. When Block graduated from East Side High School in Cleveland in 1961, even her mother couldn’t stop her. She immediately joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Then, a year later, she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s newly formed Cleveland chapter. She taught citizenship schools and how to pass the literacy test administered by the white clerks who controlled the voter registration rolls. She taught people how to sign their name – many elderly black people in the Delta only knew how to sign “X.” She even taught them to pay taxes so that the government wouldn’t have a reason to take their property. It particularly frustrated her to watch white registrars devise tricks to disqualify blacks from registering to vote. They would require applicants to read out loud and interpret a section of the Mississippi Constitution. If that didn’t work, registrars usually had a backup plan. Block’s older brother Sam fell victim to that. During his literacy test, the clerk asked, “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” “I don’t know. What you should do is get some liquid soap, stick it in the bathtub and pour it,” Sam Block said. Through it all, Margaret Block saw how precious votes were. To this day, Block has never missed voting in an election. “I’d go vote even if I was just voting for dog catcher.” Originally, Block and her brother worked together for SNCC. They taught non-violence but eventually were assigned to different parts of the Delta. He went to Greenwood after Mississippi Valley State University kicked him out for his voter registration work. His fierce approach to justice reflected the tough town he worked in. While he was there, the SNCC office was burned to the ground and he was constantly arrested, but he kept at it. Even though Sam died a few years ago, his memory still drives Margaret Block to persevere.
lock returned to Tallahatchie County the same summer the Klan chased her off in a hearse. She was living with the Brewer family on their farm off of Sharkey Road. Block had tried to help the Brewer brothers register to vote over in Charleston. One dark night, a bunch of Klan vehicles waited for them just down the road. “I guess they thought we were just going to let them shoot us up,” Block said. She preached non-violence. She religiously followed Gandhi’s teachings. But, in her mind, “self-defense was the first law of nature.” And, since the Brewers were a hunting family, they had
plenty of guns. They shot warnings into the air. We will shoot back. The Klan refused to leave. Mrs. Brewer, 87, had an idea. “Let’s make Molotov cocktails.” “I don’t drink, Mrs. Brewer. I’ll have a Pepsi.” Mrs. Brewer brought the gasoline to the kitchen while some of the others kept watch outside. Her hands shook as she poured the gasoline into Coke bottles. It spilled onto the table and all over the floor. Block smelled the fumes and looked around. They were all thinking it. Damn, if the house burns down, they’re gonna give the Klan credit for this one. They grabbed the bottles and ran outside, throwing explosives into the night. They flashed harmlessly, well short of the target. The Klan was too far away. But they finally left. A warrant for Block’s arrest arrived the next day. Supposedly she had been shooting deer out of season. “I had never seen a live deer in my life,” much less shoot one, she said. In 1966, Block left for San Francisco. She was tired. She still hadn’t been to college and a constant stream of death threats (“We’re coming to get you”) made it hard for her to get and hold a job. While in California, Block worked in early education and continued to fight for justice through the Vietnam anti-war movement. She even joined a spin-off Black Panther group. One day, the organization had a fish fry to raise money when in walked Huey Newton’s Panthers, guns raised. Newton had a message to deliver: there could only be one Black Panther Party in Northern California. He gave Block and the others three choices: join, disband, or change their name. Nobody answered. One of Newton’s Panthers shot a burst into the air. “You can have the damn name if that’s how you feel!” Block said.
he returned to the Delta in the late 1990s, caring for her mother until she died. It made sense for her to stay here. She already owned a house in Cleveland and she missed the Delta. “She’s a good example of someone who you might have expected to leave Mississippi permanently because of some of the grief they were given when they were young,” Brown said, “but instead they decided to come back to the Delta and live out the rest of their life. People who grew up in the Delta tend to think of the Delta as home.” Now, Block campaigns for more integration in the local schools. She recently marched in a protest against the school district’s refusal to consolidate the two public high schools -- one all-black, one half-black.
White flight is the town’s fear, but she doesn’t care. “Why are you worried about what the white kids are going to do? You ought to be worried about justice for everybody,” Block said. For her, it all comes down to justice. That same theme echoes throughout the “freedom songs” that mean so much to her. They are haunting melodies and chants that black people used to lift their spirits in the face of oppression and to fire up protesters on long, dangerous marches. Block tries to preserve them in a song book that she has compiled. When she talks about “freedom songs,” her tone softens. Block calls those gospel songs with civil rigwhts lyrics “the glue that kept the movement together.” She still teaches them to whoever will listen. Everybody, she says, can identify with music. And right there in the middle of the African art, books and awards, right there in her small living room, she closes her eyes and sings her favorite song, a defiant anthem of the movement. “Ain’t gonna let no-body turn me ‘round, turn me ‘round, turn me ‘round; Ain’t gonna let no-body turn me ‘round; Gonna keep on a-walking, keep on talking, marching up to freedom land.” Design By Savannah Pounds
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PHOTO CREDIT HERE
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CopWho the Ran
County Al Rankins went from patrolling a beat to the presidency of the Board of Supervisors.
Al Rankins in the county meeting room where he used to preside.
By Kayleigh Skinner
PHOTO BY PHILLIP WALLER
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n 1965, the first U.S. combat troops touched down in Vietnam, an assassin gunned down Malcolm X in New York and white cops savagely attacked hundreds of blacks marching for voting rights in Selma, Ala. One day that August, a young African-American drove along a dusty highway in rural Mississippi. He’d spent the last year in Florida with the Air Force, and now he was headed home to Greenville before he, too, went overseas. The air was hot and dry as he approached a snack bar on the side of the road. Al Rankins thought a cold drink would quench his thirst. So the 21-year-old walked up to the window and ordered a milkshake. “We can’t serve you up here – you’re going to have to go ‘round back.” “I’m in the military and I’m a citizen,” Rankins said. “I’m not going to the back.”
When he refused, the manager called the cops, who told him if he didn’t leave they would arrest him. He left, still parched. After finishing his military service, Rankins returned, hoping things would be different. “Things really were different in the military. When you leave that environment for a few years, you try and forget some things,” Rankins said. “I’m thinking that things really had changed and they really hadn’t.” But they did for him. The story of Al Rankins is the story of a man who went from the back door of a snack bar to the front door of the Board of Supervisors office as the most powerful man in Washington County. It is the story of a Vietnam veteran who leveraged the GI Bill to get an education and become a high-ranking Greenville cop. It is the story of a man who used “horse sense,” humanity, generosity and loyalty as weapons against the indignities of a deeply ingrained Delta racism. A story about a man whose parents never went to college and couldn’t vote, but whose own son is now a university president.
Rankins ran the board from the 113-year-old Washington County Courthouse. COURTESY WASHINGTON COUNTY
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ot long after the snack bar incident, Rankins joined thousands of young men who were shipped to Vietnam. Although he couldn’t eat alongside whites in his own home town, the 22-year-old spent most of 1966 fighting for his country with the U.S. Air Force. Rankins served in the military police, working in intelligence during his 11 months in Vietnam. Like many other Vietnam vets, his homecoming was a jarring experience. “It was more tough coming back because over there everybody was looking over each other’s shoulder for help,” Rankins said. “It didn’t make no difference about what color you were. We were trying to survive and live and get back. You could tell the difference the minute you landed back in America.” The “difference” was the racial atmosphere back home. Once home, Rankins used his GI loan to finance his education at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena. His stipend provided $40 a week, but he needed more to make ends meet. The only place that would hire him was the Greenville Police Department. “I tried getting other jobs, but you know I couldn’t get hired as a veteran,” he said. “We had lots of segregation still going on in the state and most places would tell me I was overqualified for those jobs.” So in 1969, Rankins joined a group of eight AfricanAmericans already employed on the police force. Back then, many of his fellow officers patrolled only black neighborhoods. They were explicitly told not to arrest white citizens. Rankins said he would not stand for this. Someone, he said, had to “break the ice.” “It wasn’t that it made me feel so good or anything
like that,” Rankins said. “If I wore the same badge and same uniform, worked in the same code of law, then I should have the right to enforce the law.” Enforcing this law wasn’t without its lighter moments. Flashback to 1969 – when Rankins was a Greenville Police lieutenant. At first, it looked like an adult game of hide-and-seek: grown men overturning chairs and checking every corner of the room. The place was Jim’s Café in Greenville. Late one night. Rankins and fellow officers were called in to search for a thief who had pillaged the restaurant many times. Cafe owner Gus Johnson believed the culprit was still hiding in the restaurant, but no one could find him. So after the third sweep, the officers gave up and turned to leave. “I looked inside the freezer, the refrigerator, I couldn’t find him. I said to myself, ‘This guy’s got away,’” Johnson said. “Rankins said, ‘He hasn’t got away, he’s in there.’” Rankins pointed to a barrel of dirty cooking oil. The lid toppled off to reveal something unusual: two white eyes blinking up at him. Rankins and his officers pulled the man out, forcing the grease-soaked prisoner to walk back to the police station in handcuffs because he was too greasy to ride in the patrol car.
fter nearly 21 years on the force, Rankins retired as deputy police chief. His addiction to public service in Washington County kept him retired for two days. In 1990, after a year working as a home inspector, he had had enough, so he accepted the urging of friends and ran for a spot on the county’s Board of Supervisors. “If something happened at my [meat-packing] plant, then I would call for him because I knew he would take care of your business,” said Mike Gordon, a current member of the board. “He was a good policeman. I lived in his district and I helped him with his first election, to get elected to the board.” That year six people ran and Rankins got 48 percent of the vote. He won a run-off with the candidate who came in second. He credits his victory to a law enforcement career that made him visible and trustworthy to both black and white citizens. “People knew me, they really knew me,” Rankins said. “They knew I was an honest person, I was a family man and I was going to do the right thing regardless of black or white.” Mark Hooker, Washington County engineer, first met Rankins as a police officer and echoes what many others say about the former board president. “He was one of the old-time police guys. He toed the line, but in a nice way,” Hooker said. “He made you obey the law, but he didn’t beat you over the head with it. If you were speeding, he’d give you a ticket, but you wouldn’t get a ticket and a lecture.” Rankins served on the board until retiring in 2012. But his career was not without controversy. Although he became board president after his first term, Rankins did
butt heads with his fellow supervisors occasionally. At one point, the board’s lawyer passed away and they needed a replacement. So Rankins brought in his friend, Willie Griffith, to take his place because he thought Griffith would do a good job. His fellow supervisors, however, said Griffith was too opinionated and unpleasant to work with, and they fired him. Controversy aside, ask anyone in Greenville about Al Rankins and you’ll usually get the same answer: He’s a stand-up guy, someone who will do what he thinks is right despite what others think. “He always knew what was going on in the street. He knew what people were thinking,” former Washington County Administrator Tommy Goodwin said. “You’d see him in a different car about every two or three days. He’d say, ‘Well, that’s just the policeman in me.’”
“If I wore the same badge and same uniform, worked in the same code of law, then I should have the right to enforce the law.” — AL RANKINS
ankins is now 68 and happily retired with his wife, Mary. Between rounds of golf and family get-togethers, he has a lot of time to reflect on his dual careers. One of 15 children, he is part of the first generation of his family to attend college. His son, Al Rankins Jr., recently became president of Alcorn State University. Proud of his own children’s accomplishments, he’s now more prone to worry about his grandchildren. He agrees that race relations in Greenville have progressed – how else would he, an African-American, become the most powerful man in the county? But there is still work to do. Although Greenville is 74 percent African-American, the town’s mayor is white. Whites and blacks give dramatically different answers about the state of race relations in their community. It just depends on whom you talk to – and that’s part of the problem. In Mississippi, Rankins believes, there’s a wall of silence separating the races. No conversation means no racial progress. “All young folk get along,” he said. “They just play, little black kids and white kids just play. When they grow up, that’s where the problems start.” Design by Ellen Whitaker
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Ida White deals with a class of active children. PHOTO BY CADY HERRING
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Veteran Delta teachers say they could use a little help from the parents.
By Cady Herring
t’s a blazing summer day outside of Clarksdale, where row after row of green cotton stretches to the horizon. Ida White stands stalk still. The 10-year old girl hurts all over. Her legs tremble. Her hands are numb. Her shirt is soaked. She doesn’t know if she can chop another row of cotton. She leans on her hoe, wipes her brow again and stares at the heavens. “Lord, there must be a better way than this.” And for Ida, there was. She found salvation in a classroom. In fact, Ida and many other veteran Delta teachers share a number of common traits. They often grew up in desperately poor homes where their parents preached the same gospel: Education is the ticket to a better life. They heard it over and over from illiterate sharecropper parents. Night after night, in low-slung, weatherbeaten shacks homes with cramped living rooms, unheated bedrooms and no indoor plumbing. Education is the ticket to a better life. THE MEEK REPORT 129
Juanita Turney recalls when whatever the teacher said was law. PHOTO BY CADY HERRING
And so all the Idas and Juanitas and Lucretias went to school and studied hard and graduated with their teaching certificates – and then they eventually returned to Delta classrooms to preach the same gospel on which they’d been raised. Over time, this resolute group of teachers became part of the Delta’s educational DNA. Many ended up teaching history, math, social studies, reading and English for 30, 40, 50 years, showing up every August, year after year. By the time they retired, they had collectively taught thousands of children for hundreds of years. This army of veteran teachers also brought something else to their classrooms: Not only did they promote education as the ticket out, but they also ended up becoming surrogate parents for generations of poor Delta students. Summed up Dr. Dorothy Prestwich, Clarksdale’s assistant superintendent: “They do so much more than bookwork. These teachers do everything. They wipe the noses, kiss the boo-boos and embody character.”
uanita Turney is one such Delta veteran. She starts off every morning with a phone call to Mary and Harold Hall to check in. Juanita met them at a Delta Foundation reception after they moved from Detroit to Greenville. It wasn’t long before Mary and Harold called Juanita “Mom” because she took care of them. She hosted dinners when they had guests from Detroit, visited often, and worshiped together at the same church. Juanita taught from 1942 to 1974 at Lucy Webb Elementary School. She didn’t plan on being
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a teacher, but she said, “There was nothing else to do in Mississippi but teach, work in a restaurant, or take care of somebody’s baby.” Once she started, she loved it. She taught 80 first-grade students a day. Half came in the morning and the other half in the afternoon. She made sure every single student learned to read. According to Juanita, there were no discipline issues. “Whatever the teacher said, that was law and gospel.” Because parents were so supportive, they were able to get much more accomplished in the classroom. Today at 95, Juanita remains a dynamic pillar of Greenville. She’s on the Greenville Symphony Board, Delta Center Stage Board, Greenville Tree Board and she’s a season ticket holder to all the plays and operas. A few years ago, she lost her billfold with all of her credentials. Her husband had passed away, so she called her friend, Chuck Jordan, who later became mayor. “Don’t worry! Everyone in town knows you!” he told her.
ucretia Jones began teaching later than most because she was raising nine children at home. She wanted to be a teacher, and by the time she started, schools were integrated, but it was not everything she had hoped it would be. She began with eighth and ninth grade, but soon switched to seventh- and eighth-grade English. There were still many vestiges of segregation immediately after integration, Lucretia said. The school board was all-white, so black people didn’t have a say in any decisions or changes in schools. Even though there were better buildings and better
supplies, they did not have equality, she felt. “There were vestiges of the feelings that had existed with segregation,” said Lucretia. The board was the same board as before. Those in leadership positions were able to control how things worked while maintaining their own interests. Integration was just a word. In her classroom, students understood, to some extent, the meaning of segregation and integration. Returning to her classroom from the office one day, she encountered a student who was coming to tell her something. Eddie was from a large, poor family. When she asked him what the matter was, he replied, “Carl called me a name!” “What was the name?” she asked. Eddie wouldn’t say. So Lucretia asked again “He called me a Negro!” Lucretia replied, “Well, what are you?” She wondered if that was really the word that Carl used, but she didn’t interrogate further. Instead, she focused on educating the children and helping them love one another. Lucretia’s favorite thing about teaching was having an impact on children and creating a strong educational foundation. “I got a lot of respect and
appreciation for the manner in which I taught them, and the fact that I was firm but friendly,” she said. “They understood that I was there seriously to help them.” Basketball coaches encouraged students to miss class for practice at times, but Miss Jones’ students did not miss class because they understood its importance. Lucretia likes basketball, but to her, education always came first. All three teachers agree that the biggest problem in schools today is the lack of parental support. It starts with a single parent having to work to financially support the family, but being unable to help with homework or volunteer in school. “Children were better off back in my day,” said Juanita. “They had more help from their parents. Their parents taught them good things to do. “Maybe it’s because they’re young. Maybe it’s because they haven’t been trained. They don’t know what it means to be a parent. There is a huge divide between parents now and parents then, and it affects students and the education system.” When schoolchildren have support from home, they said, they can accomplish much more.
Students at Booker T. Washington Elementary in Clarksdale eagerly tackle classwork. PHOTO BY CADY HERRING
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da White says if she could do anything to change education today, she would make parents take better care of their children. Kids would come to school dressed, shoelaces tied, lunch packed. Parents would volunteer, showing the child that they care about school, too. Parental support, she said, is just as valuable as the money that funds the school. At the age of 73, Ida White still has enough energy to teach a classroom packed with boisterous first-graders, children about the same age as her father when he had to quit school to work on the farm. “Raise your hand if you want to talk!” Ida says. “Do you want to go stand outside the door? You’re going to the office. I’m not fooling! When you talk, you can’t listen. If you don’t listen, you don’t learn.” Occasionally, she slaps a yardstick on the — JUANITA TURNEY table to quiet the class. The social studies lesson for today focuses on communication, transportation, technology and recreation. Ida walks around the
“Children were better off back in my day. They had more help from their parents.”
Ida White helps a student solve a problem in a late afternoon class. PHOTO BY CADY HERRING
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classroom pausing by different children to give everyone a chance to read from the textbook. “You are going to love this lesson because you are going to see some things that you’ve never seen before!” she says. She shows them an old-fashioned washtub and explains that people used to wash clothes by hand. The walls are alive with charts, pictures and drawings. Students wear matching blue shirts and khaki pants or skirts. A poster of a train on one wall shows the days of the week. Another displays the alphabet. As the final bell nears, a few heads start to nod, and the class grows a little sluggish, but Ida is right on top of it. Suddenly, she raises her voice and exhorts them into action. “Y’all sleepy? Let’s have some exercise!” she says as everyone stands. Ida leads them in clapping, jumping up and down, and deep breaths. Then, to wind down the class, she has them draw pictures of different types of communication, transportation, technology, and recreation. Keniya Hayes’ mom has come to pick her up early, so the little girl gathers her books and homework. But on her way out the door, she spins around, runs up to Ida, gives her a hug and says, “I love you!” Design by Carson Cain
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FROM LEFT TO RIGHT, FRONT ROW: Eliza McClure, Debra Whitley, Erin Scott, Jason Burleson, Logan Kirkland, Thomas Graning. MIDDLE ROW: Clancy Smith, Katie Adcock, Karson Brandenburg, Phil McCausland, Cady Herring. BACK ROW: Phillip Waller, Joe Starita, Mary Marge Locker, Kayleigh Skinner, Bill Rose, Mollie Mansfield. NOT PICTURED: Christina Cain, Taylor Davenport, Kristen Ellis, Mikki Harris, Conner Hegwood, Jessica Hotakainen, Lauren Keosseian, Allison Moore, Ignacio Murillo, Savannah Pounds, Darren Sanefski, Kimberly Sanner, Madisen Theobald, Ellen Whitaker PHOTO BY PHILLIP WALLER
Journalism students in a depth reporting class at Ole Miss spent their spring break in the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta, analyzing the...
Published on Feb 12, 2015
Journalism students in a depth reporting class at Ole Miss spent their spring break in the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta, analyzing the...