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!

I think cemeteries are beautiful.

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