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)

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Montgomery

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.

Monday was our second whole day in the wonderful town of Selma, Alabama. The Voting Rights Museum and Institute was the sponsor of the Jubilee festivities, and we drove straight over there first thing in the morning. It is a storefront place, modestly marked with maroon letters and a small awning. Inside there is a low ceiling and worn carpet. In the front room, one whole wall is covered in mirrored panes, etched with a picture of the Edmund Pettus bridge. Another whole wall is the “I Was There” wall. Those people who took part in Bloody Sunday in any capacity fill out cards describing their experiences, and those cards are tacked to the wall. Rosa Parks is up there, so are the mayor from that time, and even a couple of men who, as Alabama state troopers, attacked marchers on that day.

Our guide at the museum was Laurence Huggins. It really amazes me every time we meet someone who was a freedom fighter during this time. I spend so much time studying history from literally ages ago – ancient or medieval Europe, the foundations of Christianity. I feel like someone had splashed my face with cold water- it is that rejuvenating and surprising to actually touch and talk to people who lived history and made history and are history. Of course, they didn’t think anything like that at the time. They just did what they had to do, what they knew was right.

Two pictures of Laurence: one from Monday, and one from the front page of the Selma paper, more than 40 years ago. That is Sheriff Clarke shoving him in the stomach with a baton as he stands outside the Dallas County Courthouse demanding the right to vote.

The museum was shabby and small and very earnest. Everyone who worked there was a freedom fighter. Every photo- and, oh, what photos!- was carefully researched and collected. Every name carefully highlighted, famous or not. One room celebrated African-American women throughout American history- that is, pre-Movement history. So many strong women! Another room displayed the pictures of freedmen Congressmen and Senators from all over the United States, all elected in the year immediately following the Civil War. It was a moment in the sun for educated blacks, before segregation and Jim Crow kicked in. I had zero knowledge of this. Amazing.

From there, we met Joanne Bland, this hilarious, strong woman with a huge attitude, who was 8 years old at the time of Bloody Sunday. She grew up in Selma and has lived here her whole life. She was our tour guide throughout the city. “This is MLK Street”, she said as we turned down the street by that name. “Every good city has one, and this is ours.” As we stood, once again, on the steps of Brown Chapel AME Church, staring at the Section 8 projects across the street, Joanne told us about coming mass meetings and hearing Dr. King. As cars drove by they would slow down and wave at her, and she would yell “Hey baby!” and wave back. She knew everyone. Then, a man walked up and gave her a big hug- this was yet another marcher who grew up in Selma. He had just stopped to say hi, and then told us his story, too.

As we walked down the street, Joanne waved hi to some men unloading their car, and other men walking down the street. “That’s the beauty of living in Selma”, she said over her shoulder. “You just see civil rights workers walking down the street, all cool.”

Then Joanne taught us how to say “po”. “Not POOR, po! This is the hood. We can’t afford the ‘r’.” She really has the gift of oral transmission. That is, she has absorbed the oral history of Selma, its homes, its people, its neighborhoods, and transmits them all by storytelling. And what a storyteller! As we drove around she would ramble off who used to in what house, who lives there now, her own stories from playing there as a kid. These stunning, just stunning homes in Selma’s historical district (the largest in the country) are slowing being renovated and restored one by one. She pointed out one house, freshly painted decorative wooden trim around the wrap-around porch and at the top corners of the bannisters. Decorative shutters. Picket fence. “It’s expensive to buy a house in these parts”, she said. “That one there was just bought for $175,000.”

$175,000. For a huge historic home in Selma, Alabama, built in the 1930’s. My.

In the 8th ward, Selma’s poorest neighborhood, the homes were smaller but in the same style. Horrible to say, in some ways it looked like New Orleans’ 9th Ward. Except for the fully grown trees and lack of water damage, there were many similarities. Broken glass, boarded windows, trash and broken furniture stacked in front yards, stray dogs. Old men sitting on empty porches, chain link surrounding 5-yard wide front yards, once bright colors faded and peeling. Historic decorative details missing or in disrepair. Broken cars parked in the street, in the yards, in the driveway. Closed business, one after the other after the other after the other.

No, truly, there were more closed and boarded up businesses in the entire city than there were open. This is not in the “modern” strip shopping centers on the freeway side of town. You know, the place with the fast food and Walgreen’s for all the drivers passing by or the tourist coming through. This is Selma. Selma by the river and by the tracks. Selma, where 70% of the population is black and the economic power of the town lies largely within the 30% of population that is well, not black.

Selma is home to three universities: Selma University- an historically black college with an enrollment of 287, Concordia College- another, larger, historically black college, and George Wallace Community College of Selma- named after the governor of Alabama during the years surrounding Bloody Sunday. His motto? “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. Selma is “ideally is located right in the middle of nowhere”, says Joanne. Selma is the only place where Jefferson Davis and Martin Luther King, Jr. will ever meet, in this life or the next- their respective streets intersect right at First Baptist Church, the church to which state troopers chased marchers, beating them and trampling them with horses. Selma is the city that re-elected its white mayor, who resisted desegregation, to twenty more years in office after the 1965 march, and in 2000, when the first black mayor was elected, Selma’s whites starting leaving in droves.

Selma is full of ironies. Selma is beautiful.

Preach!

March 10, 2008

Selma, Alabama. Bus boycott. March to Montgomery. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend Ralph Abernathy. Brown Chapel AME Church. Rosa Parks. Bloody Sunday. Voting Rights Act. Sheriff Clarke. Teacher’s March.

History runs deep in the streets of Selma. We watched the Eyes on the Prize section that covered Bloody Sunday and the town looked exactly the same as it did in that film. It was cool because you could really get a sense of how the original march felt, 43 years ago. It was also sad, because Selma was so poor and didn’t seem to be kept up very well. Clearly there was a lot of pride in the history of Selma and the importance of the events there. But my overwhelming visual impression of the town was of abandoned houses, old mom-and-pop shops, and overgrown cements slab lots.

The service at Brown Chapel was amazing. Amazing! It was unlike anything I could have imagined. We were sitting there, all squeezed into the tiny balcony area, and there were 5 or 6 preachers sitting on the stage. Then Jesse Jackson walked in. A few minutes later, Al Sharpton walked in. Then Congresswomen Sheila Jackson Lee and Maxine Waters. Then Senator John Lewis and Senator Hank Sanders. Later, Judge Greg Mathis walked onto the stage. Each time a new person came, everyone shuffled around and gave that person a seat. There was constant conversation and hand shaking throughout the whole service. And everyone spoke! Everyone got up and gave a short lesson or greeting, and finally Jesse Jackson stood up and spoke for a long while. He told the story of how he and others went through the projects the night Reverend Reed was murdered and tried to get information. Brown Chapel is actually surrounded by identical-looking projects on two sides. Oh man, I had no idea any of those people would be there!

Rev. Jackson also spoke about the current presidential race and said that we are focusing too much on the horses in the “horse race” for presidency. Instead, he said, we should be focusing on the wagons that they are pulling and who is and is not in those wagons. We want a work horse! (YESSUH! Tell the truth, we need to hear it!) Not a show horse! (AMEN! Yes, brother! THAT’S RIGHT!) Focus on the wagon, brothers and sisters, and whose wagon we are actually in.

Takeaway quote: “The ground is no place for a champion, and nothing is too hard for God!”

I don’t know how to explain Al Sharpton’s sermon. It was one of the most amazing things that I have ever been a part of. He talked about combing his hair, and Joshua taking Moses’ bones across the river, and James Brown, and the evils of misogyny in rap music, and suffering being necessary for resurrection, and faith, and his mother, and young people. He joked and he yelled and he shook his fist. He spun around, sang, slammed his fist on the podium, and threw his arms in the air. It was wonderful. Wonderful.

At one point he asked the congregation to “turn briefly” to Romans 6. All the preachers on the stage started laughing- they are all old friends and I guess they knew that he could only have meant briefly in the broadest sense of the word. Jesse Jackson was sitting behind him and whenever he liked something that Al Sharpton said he was lean forward and hit him in the side. I mean, really whack him. It was so funny! The congregation and the choir was constantly standing up and down, screaming, shaking, falling over, waving their arms in the air…wonderful. So alive and joyful. And the organ. The organ! It had that tinny sound you hear on old gospel records. It was played during the choir’s songs, but also to emphasize points during Al Sharpton’s sermon.

For example, Al Sharpton was telling a story about how a white reporter came to church with him one Sunday and asked why a woman in the choir was waving her arms back and forth. “I SAID, you don’t know that woman!” (organ hits a few strong chords, congregation yells “YESSS!”, choir stands up and waves their arms) “She was at work one day!” (same response) “She passed out!” (“YESSSS!”) “Her boss wouldn’t pay her!” (“UH OH!”) “When she got out!”….”She got an eviction notice!”….”She had 72 hours!”…”She was packing her stuff!”…”She trusted GOD!”…”She went to the mailbox”…”There was a check in her mailbox!” (congregation stomps their feet, screams “YES JESUS!”, shakes their heads, practically faints all over themselves).

It was wonderful.

Takeaway quote: “They walked over that bridge so you could be more than a ho!” (referring to the degrading lyrics in rap music), and “The hands that picked cotton in Alabama are now going to pick a president!”

Then we marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and thought about the meaning of Bloody Sunday, and the change that was a result of the bravery of a hundred every day people in Selma.

More as I remember it.

The first stop on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage that I am on this Spring Break was New Orleans.

New Orleans has always had an air of mystery to me…the people there are so loyal to their city, so in love with it, and willing to go through a lot to stay.

In the morning we went to Dillard University, a historically black college in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. They had a few 9th graders from a nearby school come to the discussion. They were so smart and articulate and they spoke about being harassed by cops and seeing their friends and family members harassed. It was awful. I really don’t know why these issues have been so far out of my reality, but I suppose it’s because not much like that has every happened to me. One of them said (this is a 15-year-old boy) said “You know, I just don’t understand it. First there was slavery, then we were treated like nothing, and now… still nothing”. To hear those words out of the mouth of an American student, and person that lives in the same country and under the same laws that I do- it’s an awakening.

After hearing that and then seeing the emptiness and destruction of the 9th Ward, I feel embarrassed that this situation exists in my country. It is really awful, what I learned there. But good- very, very good- because I needed to know and there was no other way to really understand. It also make me feel simultaneously purposeful and purposeless. Strange way to feel.

“Moment of grace”, as Ray Jordan, the leader of our trip likes to say: dancing to When the Saints Come Marching In in the streets of the 9th Ward with residents celebrating the birthday of the recently deceased black fire chief. They’d started an impromptu parade with brass instruments and umbrellas. He was a good man, they said.

Good people are needed in New Orleans, seems like. The cops are corrupt, the people don’t trust the government at all. The hotels, casinos, bars, clubs, and gift shops are open and ready for business with a smile on. The projects and houses and schools and libraries are closed, boarded up, still spray painted with rescuers’ symbols and the word “HELP!”

What is going to be done?

images: steeple at Dillard, house in 9th Ward, people dancing in 9th Ward

Dusty the Porter

July 23, 2007

Just got in from France and Belgium for the weekend- what an amazing, educational trip. We went for the sole purpose of exploring WWI and WWII memorials, sites, and cemeteries. And boy, did we- we traveled an immense distance in just two and a half days. More on that to come. Boy, do I have a lot of blogging to catch up on! Now worries, tomorrow will be a lovely free afternoon. Plus, I probably won’t be doing any errands due to the immense amounts of flooding that happened here in Oxfordshire while we were gone.

Our trip was led not by one of our professors, as are all of our other activities, but by Dusty, the former head porter of University College. Porters are really important: they are in the lodge by the gate 24/7, answer all of your questions, sell stamps, report issues, guard the gate and are generally indispensable. Dusty, who is 66, became a night porter at Univ 12 years ago and eventually was promoted to Head Porter. He retired from that just this year.

I got a chance to talk to him while looking down at Omaha Beach from the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial (more on that amazing experience later). Apparently he became interested in WWI and WWII a few years after leaving the Royal Armed Forces. He set about doing some research on a great-uncle who had been a soldier and on his father, who died a few yards from where we spoke in the battles following the invasion on Normandy. He found out all about them and along the way became an expert on the wars- seriously, an expert. He was our guide and go-to answer guy for the whole weekend. He has done all of the research on his own through reading and visiting war sites.

One of the coolest things I learned is that he has taken his three weeks off each year for many years and traveled to different WWI and II sites around Europe. He never goes to the same one twice, except for when he leads this weekend trip for the SMU-in-Oxford program, which he has done for the last 12 years. How did this random guy, a porter no less, get asked by the professors to be completely in charge of a weekend trip?

One night during a summer soon after Dusty became a porter, Prof. Orlovsky was talking with him in the lodge and Dusty shared his plan to begin working on a book about all the students from Univ. who died in the two wars. One thing led to another and Orlovsky asked him to lead the first-ever SMU-in-Oxford trip to France and Belgium. The first year, 1995,  there were 8 students willing to go and according to Dusty it was quite an adventure, with several flat tires and one Pakistani student who was stopped at every border because of his bright green passport.

I had a chance to read a manuscript of Dusty’s book on the bus as we toured about. It’s at the printers now and will be out for sale in the fall. It’s great! The names of those Univ. men who died in the two wars are memorialized in huge plaques on the walls of the University chapel. Dusty basically went through the whole list and researched each man, his family, where he went to school, and his military history. He also found out how, when, and where each died. The coolest part of the book is that he went around to every British war memorial (which are all along the Western front), took a picture of it, and listed underneath the names of any Univ. men who are listed on that memorial. Fantastic.  He says that his second book will be “much more X-rated” because it will be about his own experiences, and that his third will be about his experiences at Univ. He was a porter when Clinton came around for a long visit with Hillary and Chelsea, so that will be included.

Despite my seasickness (lesson learned: Chunnel beats ferry every time), I had a chance to chat with Dusty on the ferry back to England tonight. Actually, I leaned over and asked, “So, what do you think of Gordon Brown?” Dusty (and his good friend, travel mate, and former Head Groundsman, Ian) are both Tories, and so hate any Labor party member. Too bad for them, I guess. I learned that Tories are for free enterprise while Labor is for state control. Wonder how accurate that analysis is from a Scottish nationalist (Ian) and an avowed Diana-hater and Royalist “through and through” (Dusty). Both also think that Bush is an “ass” and that he wouldn’t be nice to them if they met him. They met Clinton and thought he was very nice, so there you go. They both also hope the next President is a Democrat and made fun of Bush for his poor public speaking. It was nice to be among like-minded folk, let me tell you.

Interestingly enough, both favored Hillary for the next President because she “has backbone, that one”. Eh. Apologize for your vote for the Iraq war and maybe I’ll like you a little better. They weren’t too keen on that idea, though, saying that politicians should havea stiff upper lip and not apologize but just fix any mistake. Interesting notion of how politicians should act, you know?

What a cool guy, right? I mean, I got all of this from him (and Ian) just from asking. Goes to show you what you can learn. But it was just so curious that a former porter would be leading, teaching, and directing this entire (very complicated and minutely planned) operation. After 12 years of doing it, and after many more years of teaching himself about it, I have to say that there was no better man for the job. What an amazing story.