The first things that come to mind when thinking about the state of Mississippi are crooked sheriffs and shady little men running around in white sheets. If racial bigotry was a fantasy sport back in the day, Mississippi would be the number one draft pick every season. But if you avoid going there because of it’s sullied history, you’re letting the bad guys win and you’re missing out on an amazing part of the country. There is an aesthetic appeal in the fact that this state is trying hard to remove itself from what it once was. Sure, Mississippi still celebrates Confederate Memorial Day and still has the Stars and Bars in its state flag. But in recent years its also celebrated other parts of its history, as well. The Blues Trail with all its markers and iconic locations tells how some of the people coped with the burdens of perpetual injustice. The Freedom Trail tells of those who got tired of coping and somehow summoned the courage to try and free themselves from those burdens.
This isn’t a tourist guide, you’ll have to blaze your own trail and see it for yourself. I’m also not writing this to begrime the state. This is about a recent experience I had that ties in with the current times we’re living in, albeit somewhat disparate.
Driving down a narrow, busted stretch of blacktop towards Greenwood, I stopped near a group of run down shotgun shacks to take a few pictures. This is where I met Frank. A sociable, 80 something, Jack of all trades and master raconteur and historian. It was evident from his regional dialect that he’d probably never left the county. If he did, I was blind to it. This was an assumption though- I’m not a Mississippi patois expert, but I have been to a few places.
Frank wore a gray fedora, pink loafers and a smile that would have brought the sun out, had it not already been a bright, sweltering, 97 degrees day. Over a cold drink that resembled something like lemonade and a half pack of Newports, the two of us sat on his front porch, both of us trying to find common ground, despite the fact that we were light years apart in our age and upbringing. A northerner – naive in the ways of the Deep South, and an ancient living relic from a darker period of time – we might as well have been from different planets. Frank was baptized from day one in the dirty waters of racial discrimination. It was all he knew and something that I had only seen on TV and read in books.
As our conversation continued, I noticed Frank rarely looked me in the eye. When we reached a tepid comfort zone, I inquired about it. He told me that as a boy he was taught not to look white people in the eye. He’d been doing this for as long as he could remember. He even stood up and gave me a demonstration. “Yes ma’am, no ma’am, yes sir, no sir.” If a white woman was walking towards him on the sidewalk, Frank would step onto the street, lower his head and let her walk by. You spoke when spoken to and never disagreed. Always be Humble. When you paid for something, you set your money on the counter and never put it directly into the cashiers hand “if they was white.”
I asked Frank if the lynchings and violence were as bad as history had made them out to be. Or had history outgrown itself to mythical proportions with tall tales and fables over the years. How bad was it REALLY?
That’s when Frank looked me in the eye and said “Listen to me- ima’ tell ya what they don’t teach in yer school.” He started off with a gloomy sonata and worked his way up to a bleak fourth symphony before I decided I had heard enough.
I paraphrased what he said below to stave off any confusion with his southern dialect. Here is what he told me…
We didn’t dare paint our house a pretty color because the whites would throw rocks through our windows or threaten to burn it down “cuz they didn’t want us havin nothin’ nice.”
One year to keep food on the table, my siblings and I quit school to work in the cotton bolls because our father had got into an argument with the plantation manager over some back payments. The local authorities sent him to Parchman Farm, a prison farm to set an example. He never told us what happened while in prison, but he was never the same after. He started drinking and died a broken man a few years later.
My Uncles dream was to open his own grocery store. Him and his wife had saved their money over many summers. They found a nice building for sale just on the outskirts of Greenwood but white business owners got word of this and harassed them by throwing tied nooses into their yard and putting threatening notes on their door. “Stay out of our business if you know what’s good for you coon!” My cousin finally had enough, packed up his family and moved to Michigan to work at the Ford Plant. A lot of good friends and family moved away because there were few opportunities for a black man to make something of himself. Some of the people in our area started referring to our county as the land of broken dreams.
Another time, my friend was so gravely ill, we took him to the “white mans hospital.” We brought him there out of desperation because of an infection he received from cutting his leg on a horse drawn plow. His head was so hot from fever you could cook a possum on it. The white hospital turned us away and said they’d send someone out to his farm. Three days later a doctor showed up, but by then it was too late, my friend died shortly after. (Probably from sepsis)
A childhood friend of mine was beaten for stealing a chicken to help feed his family when his father had succumbed to black lung disease from working in the mines. He was spared the worst punishment only because he had stolen the chicken from a black owned henhouse. Some whites found out about it and beat him anyway “jus fer the hell of it”.
(Then things got a little darker)
At least a couple of dozen people I grew up with have simply disappeared over the years, and not because they moved away.
When I was about 10 years old, two white men drove into my parents yard and shot our two dogs because “your ni@@a dogs is killin’ our chickens.” I howled for a week when they shot my hound “Boss.” Later we found out it was the owners own dog that was killing his own chickens.
When I was a boy, walking along the road, if I saw a truck coming, I would hide in the ditch. Because if it was white men, sometimes they would run you over or maybe grab you, which often led to something just as bad. They might drag you down the road a mile or two, throw you out of the vehicle at higher speeds, or give you a one way ticket to the bottom of the Tallahatchee River with something heavy tied to your feet. It depended on their mood, how drunk they were or if it was klan members.
There’s a spot I know where you can dig in the dirt and still find pieces of bone located under the old hanging trees along the riverbank. Trees with names like “Coon Catcher,” and “Uncle Toms Swing.” The trees were chosen because their limbs reached out far enough over the river so that the bodies would simply slide off the noose and into the current after days of rotting in the sun. Some of the white men would place bets on how long a body would stay attached to its rope.
There was one more story Frank told me that I’m keeping to myself. He had made his point, I told him that I had heard enough.
Both of us sat in silence for a bit. My wheels were spinning.
When you grow up in a world surrounded by empathetic people, it’s hard to fathom that there are people out there that can be so cruel. For so many people to lack any sort of affinity in one area, at one time, is hard to understand. But the brain is an odd, glitchy machine, that is influenced by so many factors, in all sorts of strange ways. This was all so much bigger than me.
I asked him if he was angry about the past and he said “If ah was, I don’t be sittin’ here talkin’ to you.” He said you can’t hold on to all that mud, you have to move on or it will destroy you and you’ll be no better off than them. “The old people is dyin’ and their ways is goin wit em- things has changed.”
Well not some things. When it came time to leave, I thanked him and told him it was an honor meeting him. Without saying anything, he got up as quick as his old bones would allow, and making no eye contact, gave me a slight nod, then he walked into his house and shut the door. I stood there a bit muddled, but I quickly brushed it off, as I thought of something I had read about Emmett Till.
As Emmett Till was exiting Bryant’s Grocery Store, he said goodbye to the white owners wife. According to the unwritten laws in that area at the time, blacks were NEVER supposed to utter a word to a white woman unless spoken to. Saying goodbye was simply unheard of and was a crime in itself. Emmett paid dearly for his lack of understanding. Being he was from Chicago and in Mississippi on a summer vacation at the time, he wouldn’t have been fully aware of the old Jim Crow laws that existed in Mississippi during that period. Frank not saying goodbye, was simply Frank being a product of his time. Old habits die hard as they say.
Standing amongst the ruins of Bryant’s grocery store in Money where Emmett Till paid with his life for whistling at a white woman or standing in the deep woods southeast of the town of Philadelphia, MS, where three courageous civil rights workers were murdered by cowardly little men – I thought about what Frank had said earlier -wounds never heal when the scabs are constantly being pulled off —let them heal, there will always be the scars there to remind us of what was, and to remind us to keep moving forward. If you allow yourself to be consumed by what’s already been done, then you don’t give yourself the chance to move on and leave what’s in the past, truly in the past.