Last Day

March 18, 2008

The bus ride home on Saturday was relaxing. Earlier in the day we visited the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King was shot. It has been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum. It was very affecting, especially the extensive displays about all of the questions surrounding the real story behind Dr. King’s assassination. I had no idea that there were so many unanswered questions. I also did not know that Coretta Scott King and the King children do not believe that James Earl Ray was guilty.

Our group went to Neely’s Bar-B-Que for lunch. Chopped beef sandwich, cole slaw and about four glasses of sweet tea- that’s what I call lunch.

It’s a 7 hour drive from Memphis, TN to Dallas, TX. We watched Acts III and IV of When the Levees Broke. If I didn’t say this already, this is a must see for every American. Stop reading and go rent it now. We also watched two documentaries about the history of rock n’ roll, and most of Stomp the Yard– one of my favorite movies because it combines my interest in break dancing, attractive men (ha), and historically black colleges.

Earlier in the evening we quietly took up an offering on the bus, and presented it to Ray Jordan (our illustrious leader, an intern in the Chaplain’s office) as a big thank you for all of his hard work and planning. He truly thought of every detail and was both flexible and structured at all the right times. He should get some sort of award. But we did what we could to say thank you, even though he deserves much more, considering how much we all got out of the trip. Also, we took up a second collection for a “love offering” (as the older ladies called it) for the bus driver.

Our driver was an interesting man named David, who retired from the banking industry 3 years ago and wanted to have an adventure in his old age rather than sitting around at home. He only does long distance, and has driven the SMU civil rights group all four years.

During the ride I got a little reading done, and just relaxed. As we pulled into Dallas, Ray said a few closing words. Then Professor Simon and Professor Johnson spoke. Simon said that he has never had a group of students like the one on the trip- all so attentive and focused, and genuinely focused on the material. He said we had spoiled him for the last 8 days and that he didn’t know what he was going to do with his classes where only a third of the students are that way. I especially liked what Professor Johnson said: that this trip has been the best experience he has had during his 6 years at SMU.

I know that this trip has renewed my faith in the people of SMU. If there are people here like the ones that I have met on this trip, than this is a school I can be proud of. Interacting with my fellow travelers and with the truly amazing people that we have met along the way has renewed my faith in people in general. As much as I am off campus and as different as my life at home is from my life at SMU, I really do get stuck in the “bubble”. I read about things and forget what it means that the events really happened to someone. Someone real, that I can talk to and meet and even help. I forget that the world is wide and I live in all of it, not just this one small part.

This year’s trip was the fourth, and the last that is paid for by the grant that supports it. I believe that the Chaplain’s office is going to be searching for other means of funding in order to continue the trip. I have been thinking about writing an editorial in our school paper about this trip and what is has to offer. A school that struggles with diversity as SMU does should make sure to maintain these kinds of educational, active learning initiatives. Especially this one, since there are still (for a short while) survivors of the Movement alive and willing to speak to us.

After all, if Ole Miss, with all of it’s history, can have 14% of the student body be African-Americans, SMU can do better than 13% of any kind of minority (which is our current percentage).

I will have to see if I can find the right words to say.

(images: cherry blossom tree against the cloudy sky in Memphis, pansies in front of the capitol building in Montgomery)

Soulsville, USA

March 18, 2008

Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Booker T. and the MGs. All from Soulsville, USA, otherwise known as Memphis. Soulsville is the neighborhood surrounding Stax recording studio. A huge number of big names in soul music and early rock-n-roll came from just a few square blocks. Pretty amazing, actually.

We went to Stax, now the Museum of American Soul Music, on Friday afternoon. I hadn’t heard of many of the acts, but I had heard their music! In the museum, an entire church- one of those small wooden buildings that I love so much- was reconstructed in the main room. It was the actual original building, built a hundred years ago, and donated by the congregation. The display was all about the gospel roots of soul, and therefore of rock-n-roll.

The whole place was amazing. It was formerly a small movie theater, turned into a recording studio by a white couple that loved black music. They got all the neighborhood talent and recorded hundred and hundreds of albums. The playback was in the bathroom, and the recording was done on converted film equipment. From this small place in the middle of a bad neighborhood in Memphis, came music that changed the world.

There was short film at Stax about the musicians and writers who grew to love the place. They were like a big family, and worked all day and all night just innovating and doing what they loved. Black and white, working together at a time when that was pretty dangerous. Then Martin Luther King was assassinated. The black musician’s music began to take more of a political stance. Eventually, the label went under and the building fell into disrepair. Things changed for good at Stax, but the music and the artists were just getting started.

After getting a feel for that side of Memphis, we went back to the hotel to get ready for a night out on Beale Street. Apparently, this is supposed to be the big party street in Memphis, akin to 6th Street in Austin. That didn’t (and doesn’t) sound like a lot of fun to me, but everyone was going and I didn’t want to be a poor sport. So I got ready, did my hair, and put on some heels. A lot of people had been joking about how they were going to get drunk, which is really not something I wanted to be a part of, but I thought I could go and have a good time anyway. Not so.

First, the good things. A group of us decided to eat dinner before walking around, so we set out in search of some good Memphis food. Beale Street is a short block or two, blocked off from traffic. Neon signs above every door, lots of themed bars and clubs (B.B.King’s, Pat O’Reilly’s, and Wet Willy’s, for example). We wandered down the street for a while and found Rum Boogie Cafe. Live music, tons of signed guitars hanging from the ceiling, and- small world- the original neon Stax sign from when the original building was sold before being turned into a museum. Got some good salad, tasted some great gator gumbo, took cute pictures with my friends. The music was good.

And that is all the good stuff. Other than that, people were drinking too much and once you are done eating there is nothing left to do but wander around. Since all Beale Street has is bars and clubs, if you have already eaten and aren’t drinking there is nothing to do. Creepy guys try to hit on you. Sketchy guys try to sell you novelty glow stick necklaces. Drunk guys wander around looking drunk.

So, I consider Beale Street the only wasted part of the trip. (ha, no pun intended) The drive back to the hotel was long, and not worth mentioning aside from saying that I once again found myself sober and bored in the company of many people who were quite the opposite on both counts.

Photo Update

March 18, 2008

I posted the link to photos of Montgomery a couple days ago, but I have recently added many more photos the that album- photos of Meridian, Philadelphia (MS), Oxford (sadly, also MS), Memphis and more!

Check them out HERE.

If you have already seen the Montgomery pictures, just skip over them and see the rest!

Thankfully my camera cord was in my mailbox this morning, so I have been going through my photos. I have several more posts worth of stuff to share, so please check back soon.

Libraries and Life Plans

March 18, 2008

Our Thursday afternoon in Mississippi was spent in the college town of Oxford. Unlike the Oxford I was in this summer, it’s an ugly place. Like that other Oxford, it is full of history, albeit a much different kind.

Oxford is the home of the University of Mississippi, affectionately known as Ole Miss. Now this is Oxford’s only redeeming quality. The Ole Miss campus is amazing. Amazing. Both modern and very old Southern architecture buildings, with hundreds of old trees and huge open spaces. Hilly and spacious. Crowded yet peaceful. Trees upon trees upon trees. Beautiful.

Of course, Ole Miss is where the famous riots broke out when James Meredith tried to become the first black student at the university. The state had to be occupied by federal troops for more than a year in order to protect Meredith and keep relative peace. I say relative because, of course, there was talk of secession. The governor was blatantly pro-segregation and did everything in his power to prevent integration from ever reaching Mississippi. In response to his call, whites across the state fought tooth and nail against the federal government- to the point that the Ole Miss campus was turned into a battleground in an armed battle between angry Mississippians and federal troops.

It was an interesting moment for the United States. Ole Miss still struggles with its image as a “white school” that does not welcome minorities, and is still working on how it is going move forward from such dramatic events. Now, 14% of the students are black, and about 2% are other minorities. The state of Mississippi is almost 40% black, which is their eventual goal, enrollment wise.

On this particular afternoon we got a chance to look at the library’s archives, which focus on Southern history and literature. They have huge collections of blues recording not found anywhere else in the world! And also hundreds of thousands of letters, pamphlets, and ledgers read and written by Mississippians from the Civil War era through the civil rights era.

This includes everything from the records of slave-holding plantation owners to those of James Meredith, who donated his papers to the university. It also includes literature from the Klan and other extreme anti-integration groups, and letters from Southerners to their Northern family and friends explaining slavery and, eventually, segregation. Very eye-opening and educational, to read and hear these thoughts right from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

One of the most amazing pieces was a two-hour long home video from 1938, showing black sharecroppers working on a huge former plantation, and also scenes of two very young white children and their black nurse. The video was taken by the wife of the family, and is one of the earliest color home movies. It’s incredible to see it.

What struck me the most was the misuse of science and the Bible in the pamphlets defending segregation. Some claimed that blacks were not yet fully evolved from monkeys, others that inter-marriage created venereal disease. Others still quoted the Old Testament, where God sent everyone in different directions from the Tower of Babel, and where God creates everything to their own kind. These are things that people in Mississippi would actually wake up and find on their front step in the morning, throughout the 50’s , 60’s, and early 70’s.

I asked the archivist how she got into her field. She got an BA in English then went to “library school” where she got a masters in Library Studies and in History with an emphasis in Archiving. Wow. So, that is a potential life path as of right now. “Library school”, as she called it, does not sound like fun at all. But being an archivist and publishing books about the random cool things I discover, does. So does dealing first-hand with history. Touching it, seeing it as it really is. I mean, talk about going straight to the source. She recently edited and published a collection of the letters of a young Confederate soldier written before, during, and after the war. Very cool.

We returned to the campus for dinner, which was at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics. What a cool place! Very new and modern. Immediately upon walking in, there are about 8 or 10 TV screens. Every other TV is turned to a news station, and the others are very high quality scans of that morning’s major newspapers. On the 2nd floor, the walls were covered in prints by the political cartoonist Marlette.

We were there to talk to Curtis Wilkie, the Overby Fellow and a professor at Ole Miss. Now, this man has become one of my personal role models. He went to Ole Miss during the James Meredith situation, which he spoke about. But more than that, he spent his life as a journalist and 20 years as a White House correspondent for the Boston Globe.

He had so many funny stories about being in the White House press corps. Bill Clinton, he said, was “the single smartest guy I have ever dealt with”. The dumbest was Ronald Reagan. He was completely out of touch, Wilkie said. He didn’t have a clue what people wanted- “it was scary”. And he didn’t even know who was in his cabinet. Pretty hilarious. He told us about playing drinking game with Hunter S. Thompson (think: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) on Jimmy Carter’s campaign plane.

This man has had such a full life, and hasn’t wasted a minute. After 20 years of doing what he loves, he now gets to teach students what he has learned and do his own research on his own time. Not only does he have this great position at the university, but it seems like the natural continuation of his life’s work. Just hearing him speak made me want to be a journalist. Not that I haven’t always had some interest in that, but this just pulled at that little thought and made me really consider it. Something to think about as I try, yet again, to figure out my life goals.

Aside from all of that, the idea of studying Southern journalism and Southern politics intrigues me. I had no idea this was even a specialization. But there really is so much history, tradition, and culture in the South that is unique and has shaped the history of the country in such big ways (good and bad).

All in all, Thursday at Ole Miss was a truly worthwhile experience. I was exposed to two interesting career paths that I had not given serious though to before, and was able to speak to two people about what steps I could take should I wish to follow in their footsteps. I met a great man, a great historian. I touched amazing historical documents, and saw one-of-a-kind collections. The day was in every way useful and productive.

(middle picture: detail of plantation owner’s log, listing across the top the slave’s names- Peggy, Charity, Rose, Betty- and how much cotton they picked on each day from November 14-26, 1825)

Mississippi Burning

March 18, 2008

Our first stop in Mississippi was Mt. Zion Baptist Church, in Philadelphia. It’s a tiny little town, but the site of some very important civil rights events. In 1962, members of the church were leaving an evening financial meeting when they were attacked and beaten by local Klan members who had been waiting outside. The Klan mistakenly thought that the gathering was a “mass meeting” of civil rights activists. Soon afterwards they burned the church to the ground.

Three young civil rights workers- two white, one black- came to the church to investigate the arson, and were all arrested. The police, also members of the Klan, held them until they had gathered a lynch mob. Upon their release, the three young men drove a few miles out of town, where they were attacked. The two white men, Goodman and Schwerner, were shot point-blank in the back of the head; the one black man, James Chaney, was beaten and shot.

We visited the church and met Jewel MacDonald, who was a member of Mt. Zion during that time. Her mother and brother were among those beaten that night on their way home from the meeting. Hearing her tell speak was a very moving experience. She was crying the whole time she was speaking, but didn’t even notice it. She said that she was sorry, but it was a reaction she just couldn’t help. She spoke about how she was about to leave town and get married when these things started happening, and so she hid all of her nice things in the chicken coop so that they wouldn’t get ruined if their house was torched by the Klan. Amazing.

The church itself is, of course, small. The preacher said they may get up to 85 people on any given Sunday morning. There is a graveyard adjacent to the church, as with all of the small country churches we’ve seen so far. It has become one of my favorite sights- a humble church building, old and proud, alone along the highway, with all of it’s members from over the years resting right there, between the church and the trees. Very moving, the sight of it.

One special thing about this church’s story is the old white church bell, which survived the fire and stands in front of the church to this day. It is the only thing left from the time when Mississippi, and Mt. Zion burned.

We spent Thursday morning in Montgomery, going to the Rosa Parks Museum. It’s run by Troy University and is sitting right on the corner where Rosa Parks was arrested. It’s kind of odd, having a whole museum dedicated to what was about ten minutes of history, but it put the whole event into context.

For example, a lot of the time in schools kids are taught that Rosa Parks was just really tired after a long day and did not feel like getting up. In reality she was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP and was trained in non-violence. A month or so before her arrest another young woman was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. But that woman was unmarried and rumored to be pregnant, so the NAACP declined to turn her situation into a court case- they didn’t want to give their opponents any ammunition. So, the group was waiting for the chance to test the system when Rosa Parks was arrested.

The museum had a really cool display that consisted of an actual bus with TV screens in each window. It must have been one big screen stretched out, because the idea was that you were standing outside of the bus watching the events unfold inside. So, there were actors on the screen filling the whole bus. Very interesting.

We ate lunch, again, on the campus of Alabama State University. This time we sat right in the middle of the cafeteria, and this time I saw three white students, who looked like they were on the football team. ASU is 10% white.

After that we left Montgomery, on the way to Meridian. Right outside of Meridian is Okatibee Baptist Church, and next to that is the historically black cemetery from my previous post, where James Chaney is buried. Over the years (more than 40 now) since his body and that of his two friends were found, his grave has been abused in various ways. There are now thick steel supports behind his tombstone, because people repeatedly used trucks to pull it out of the ground or to topple it over. His picture, once etched into an oval near the top of the stone, was shot out with a gun years ago. There was once an eternal flame at the foot of his grave; it was destroyed. Now, his mother is interred right next to him, and a chain- broken- surrounds his grave.

The rest of the grave yard (you can scroll down for pictures) is nestled between old trees. Some graves are very new, some very old. Some are still covered in just dirt, some are mounded, others not. Some have elaborate headstones, others- quite a few others- have a simple metal stake stuck into the ground, provided by the funeral home. To the side, the sound of a piano drifts over from the small Okatibee Baptist church building.

A block away the stars and bars of the Confederate flag wave from a pole in front of a mobile home.

That night was spent in a hotel much like the others we have been in all week, and for dinner a group of us went to Bridget’s, a local restaurant recommended by the front desk. As it turns out, the manager of the hotel is named Bridget, and she owns the restaurant. So, not exactly an unbiased review.

What a strange experience that was! It was actually a tiny house, smaller than my family’s in Houston. It was remodeled to be more open, and small four-person tables were set up all around. White table clothes, “fancy” art prints on the wall, the works- but it was clearly a converted house. There were about 16 of us, and we asked if we could move a few of the table together so groups of 8 could sit together. No, they said, they preferred to keep the tables apart so that they could go table-by-table. Never mind that the tables were literally about two feet apart anyway!

There was one lady clearly in charge. I would describe her as a modern hillbilly. She was dressed normally and had a cute haircut, but had this crazy thick accent and had smoker’s skin. The one waitress had only worked there two days. She was so young, but wore a wedding band. And, boy, was she slow! I ordered a crab cake sandwich without the bread, and she stared at me for about 15 seconds before saying that she didn’t think they could do that. I said “Oh, that’s OK, just take off the bread and stick it on a plate.” More staring. Then, “OK, I can ask.” Hm.

Same story with everyone else’s order. Then the manager came out about 30 minutes later to have us reorder with her since it was all messed up. Then we got the original order anyway, when the food came out another 20 minutes later. Then, when we finished eating two tables of our groups had yet to even get their food. When we got the checks, we discovered that the waitress had written little nicknames at the top so she could keep us straight. All four of us. I was “curly”.

All in all a huge waste of money (because, yes, after all of that, it was seriously overpriced).

So, and interesting day on all accounts. The next morning we woke up and hit the road for Philadelphia, Mississippi. Yes, the worst state in the nation as far as race relations was about to get a visit from yours truly. Never thought that would happen!

Montgomery Photos

March 14, 2008

HERE are some photos of our time in Montgomery, Alabama.

I left my camera cord in the hotel we stayed in last night in Meridian, Mississippi. I called them and they’re mailing it to SMU. If it even makes it to Dallas, I won’t be able to upload any new pictures until maybe Monday. If it makes it…

So that’s not good, but we’ll see. I hate losing things and really hate spending money when I shouldn’t have to, but I guess I might have to. Ugh.

Now, we are spending the night in Oxford, Mississippi, home of Ole Miss. Update soon!

First Album of the Trip

March 13, 2008

My first album of the trip, with some great pictures from New Orleans and Selma. Montgomery is next, I will post that link tomorrow.



March 13, 2008

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor not the victim.– Elie Wiesel

Non-violence in fist, in tongue, and in heart.– Martin Luther King, Jr.

The capitol of Alabama! Here we met Bob Graetz, the only white minister involved in organizing the Montgomery bus boycott. His house was bombed twice, and his children threatened. But he stayed and helped, and was accepted into the black community. What a great man! He came to speak to us with his wife, who would butt in and remind him of details he was forgetting. Later, the two of them joined us for a dinner on the Alabama State University campus. I went to meet them and shake their hands, and told them they were a beautiful couple. He said that he could not do a thing without his wife. That is a lucky woman. What a special chance to meet someone who will not be here much longer.

Also at dinner was Vera Harris, the King’s next door neighbor. Her children grew up running in and out of the King’s parsonage, and she his the Freedom Riders for 5 days when they passed through Montgomery and were beat up at the Greyhound station. She is 89 years old and as “spicy” as ever. She, too, is a piece of living history- and there we were, chatting her up over iced tea. The most moving thing was hearing her describe the riders gathering at the foot of her stairs for a final prayer before walking back to the Greyhound station once again. “They were like lambs going to the slaughter”, she said. “I could not help but feel that way, knowing what they went through at our station and knowing that they could be facing the same thing at the end.”

We visited Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It was small and simple. It’s still a very active church, and well loved. I loved the windows- they are copies of the originals, though the top part is original. I just love them!

Then we saw the parsonage that King, his wife, and his two eldest children lived in while he was the minister there. It was small but beautiful. In the front rooms the side tables were covered with white doilies, edges starched upright into something like a bowl shape, but with pleated folds around the sides.  Very odd- I had never heard of anything like it. Our guide said that that was exactly how Coretta Scott King kept it. In fact, when she was alive she came to the house and made sure it was set up just right. My favorite part of it was kitchen- not only were the chairs amazing (!), but it was where King would retreat each night to pray about his involvement in to movement, and where he believed that God spoke to him.

Next was our visit to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Very interesting. The man who founded SPLC is Morris Dees, and his best friend from college founded Habitat for Humanity. They basically make it their business to prosecute and track hate groups all over the country. They have a beautiful Civil Rights Memorial outside of their building, designed by the girl who designed the Vietnam Wall.  Their website has a Hate Groups Map, that shows any known hate groups in each state. It’s definitely something I don’t usually think about. I disagree with some of their stances, but they do good work prosecuting hate groups on behalf of victims.

What a long entry…this was by far the busiest day that we had. We were all glad to be along for the ride but exhausted by the end of the day. I’ll by saying how interesting it was to be on the ASU campus. ASU is a historically black college with about 6,000 students. It is public, and so gets state funding, which explains why it is so much larger and better maintained than Dillard University down in New Orleans. It has a much bigger campus than SMU, and a much nicer cafeteria (formerly their basketball stadium!).  They just opened a brand new Forensic Science building, too!

What I thought was most interesting on the campus (which was big, but not at all beautiful)  were the Greek “plots”. There was one for each of the historically black fraternities and sororities. Basically, in front of a building a tree would be painted in the group’s colors, and painted benches would sit around it. Painted rocks would be arranged to spell out the Greek letters of the particular group. Some even had statues of their shields, or a garden in the shape of their letters, or a painted trashcan. It was very odd, and kind of tacky but also very cool. It made it seem like everyone on campus must be Greek, but I suppose that is not true in the same that it isn’t true at SMU.

As a closing note, did you know that while giving his famous speech at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march, MLK stood on the exact spot that Jefferson Davis stood on when he was inaugerated as the president of the Confederacy? I am telling you, history is full of ironies.

More on our second day in this city coming soon.

I think cemeteries are beautiful.

A historically black cemetery in the Mississippi country. Resting place of James Chaney, killed during Freedom Summer.