The heart of the Mississippi Delta: Clarksdale, MS – Jackson MS

There were more Baptists churches in the Mississippi Delta than I had ever seen before. Like the joke Jews make about shuls, I was wondering if there was the Baptist church that you didn’t go to; that’s how many there were. And because it was Sunday morning, many of them were packed. We met the superintendent of the Williams Chapel Missionary Baptist church in Ruleville, MS who was a friendly man, and in charge of the Sunday School. I asked him how many children were coming for Sunday School classes and he remarked that young children weren’t interested in church these days, and that it was mostly an adult cohort. After the pending admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962, regular meetings were held at the Williams Chapel church in Ruleville. However only a few people participated in the fearful, politically hysterical climate generated by state and local authorities.

There have been a few moments where we were greeted by the local community in a shop or on the street, prefaced by a direct statement/question that caused us to feel guarded. We were approached by a local man from the community in the local Dollar Supermarket where we were buying a toothbrush. “I know y’all aint from around here…. are ya?” he said. “No, we aren’t,” we replied cautiously. “Well, WELCOME TO CLARKSDALE!” he said with a wide grin, and genuine heartfelt warmth. We replied graciously and thanked him for his welcome. However I was bothered that my immediate sense was to feel anxious. I want to experience life with an open mind and open heart. However, so many factors contribute to my learned behaviour.

It was in the nearby town of Indianola that the local White Citizens Council had formed. The Citizens’ Councils were an associated network of white supremacist organisations in the United States, concentrated in the South. With about 60,000 members across the United States, the groups were founded primarily to oppose racial integration of schools, but they also opposed voter registration efforts and integration of public facilities during the 1950s and 1960s. Members used severe intimidation tactics including economic boycotts, firing people from jobs, propaganda, and violence against citizens and civil-rights activists. God – it makes me angry. Furious, in fact.

Ruleville is the home of Fannie Lou Hamer. She is someone I would like to bring to the Passover Seder table next year – figuratively of course, as she died in 1977. But in August 1962, Fannie Lou Hamer went to Indianola, from her home in Ruleville to try to register to vote. She was one of 18 people who attempted to do so, the first Movement action of significant size in Sunflower county. Most of those who arrived with her by bus were evicted from the registration office, and eventually Hamer’s application was denied on the spot.

As the bus made its way back to Ruleville, six or seven trucks followed. The bus was stopped just outside Indianola, and its driver was arrested and taken to the country jail. The charge: driving a bus too similar in colour to a yellow school bus. Ugh. The same night, the owner of the plantation where Hamer worked and lived sent her packing after she refused to withdraw her voter registration application. But it was on the back of that bus, that Fannie Lou Hamer began singing. Her strong booming voice began singing church songs, and those songs seemed to strengthen the group. As people milled about the bus, Mrs. Hamer’s voice rose up in song and sliced through the fear singing freedom songs: “This Little Light of Mine” and her favourite, “Go Tell it on the Mountain”.

So as I stood at her grave, I started to sing with all my might. I took a video of what the grave was like and with a soundtrack of me singing in tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer. But the video was too big a file to add here.

Before the year was out, she became the field secretary for SNCC and a powerful and nationally known movement voice. Her televised testimony before the national Democratic committee, as an MFDP (Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party) delegate during the 1964 challenge to the all white “regular” Democratic National Convention led LBJ to almost have an aneurysm (at least that’s what Charles McKinney told us back at Rhodes College). At the Convention she directed her challenge toward Hubert Humphrey, and said to him: “Senator Humphrey, I been praying about you, and I been thinking about you, and you’re a good man. The trouble is, you’re afraid to do what you know is right.”

And that got me thinking. As we drove and saw dilapidated homes and boarded up shops and communities that struggled together and people whose lives are still cut my racial tension, I kept wondering – what more can we do. Am I just afraid?

We continued our drive south through the cotton fields, through the heat of the buzzing cicadas, the swarming dragon flies, the oppressive humidity, down to find the town of Money, MS. It was in Money that Emmett till apparently whistled to the young wife of Bryant’s Grocery market. Roy Bryant and his brother went unpunished for the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. It was Till’s murder that triggered many youngsters in the area to join the SNCC. We tried to find the country store as we drove down the single lane road, and we passed an abandoned gas station, near a set of railroad tracks but nothing was marked, and so we drove on, rather confused that we weren’t able to find the spot.

Our next stop was the town of Greenwood, MS. When the Movement began taking hold in Greenwood, nearly two thirds of the county residents were black, yet only a fraction had registered to vote. The White Citizens Council was headquartered in Greenwood and the city’s mayor was a member. The city was still a cotton hub. We drove in down a street called Grand Blvd, peppered by magnificent stately homes. Separated by the railroad tracks and the river was and is the black neighbourhood.

It was suggested that Greenwood was a starting place for Delta voter registration campaign and eventually the first mass meetings were held and the SNCC and COFO offices were secured. The plethora of churches and chapels were starting points for voter registration marches, which were often met with brutal violence, arrests and intimidation. The Freedom Movement centered its efforts in Greenwood and Martin Luther King (for which the major avenue is named) promised his support and national press started to pour in, after the arrests of many of the key COFO staff. Again and again the White House backed away from offering federal protection to blacks attempting to register.

By 1968, three quarters of black eligible voters were registered. Media and most everyone else had lost interest in Greenwood. The only moment of renewed national interest came on the high of June 1966, when, just after being released from jail, Stokely Carmichael spoke to a mass meeting at the Broad Street Park. Carmichael, and other civil rights leaders (including King) were continuing a “March Against Fear” at the time, begun by James Meredith who had been shot shortly after beginning it. Carmichael told the large crowd in the park: “I ain’t going to jail no more … We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nothin! What we gonna start saying now is Black Power! What do you want?” “BLACK POWER!” the crowd responded. He roared to amens, clapping and stomping feet. Carmichael exploded into the national consciousness at this point.

At the back end of the park is the community’s cemetery. The stones are falling over, the grass is unkept, and many of the stones look vandalized. Many of the people in the cemetery had died in the 1950s and 60s. As I stood on the corner of the park, closing my eyes thinking about that night of people, of energy, of time on the cusp of change, I felt like an outsider, once again. People stopped and looked at me with suspicion. Who is this young white woman taking photos, singing Freedom Songs and driving a rental car?

And so we drove west, towards Greenville, and the home of the 19th century Belmont Plantation. An antebellum house is a rare sight these days in the Delta area. Between 1855 and 1861 Kentucky brothers known as the family Worthington bought thousands of acres of land and established vast plantations of cotton and soya beans. It is a blend of Greek Revival and Italianate style featuring decorative plaster work. The house has been restored to its original grandeur, and I have to say that Kellie and I rather fancied a cup of coffee from the pristine china. The driveway up to the house was lined with huge-leaved, broad and beautiful Magnolia trees. Mississippi is called the Magnolia state. Now I understand why.

We ended our day in the town of Vicksburg, known for its Civil War battle, where the Union were able to champion the Confederacy on the highest point overlooking the Mississippi River. President Abraham Lincoln called Vicksburg “the key”. The Union Army gained control of the entire Mississippi River. The 47-day siege was intended to starve the city into submission. The surrender of Vicksburg by Confederate General John C. Pemberton on July 4, 1863, together with the defeat of General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg the day before, has historically marked the turning point in the Civil War in the Union’s favour.

Leaving Vicksburg for Jackson, the skies opened up, bellowing out rain and storms and thunder and lightning. Trying to listen to Desert Island Discs on a podcast was challenging as the focus had to be on the road. So we downloaded 5 episodes ready for the next day’s adventure.

Emma Sevitt
Teacher, swimmer, cyclist, straddling a British-Canadian identity, and a lover of good tomatoes.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *