Between 1810-1860 a quarter million slaves were brought into Mississippi. For a brief, hopeful moment after the Civil War, the state began to reflect considerable black political power. There were examples of black politicians at a local and state level and there was even a farming community of former slaves who called their new community New Africa.
However such progress did not last and the new state constitution of 1890 imposed a literacy test that took the vote away from blacks. Anyone seeking to register to vote was required to read any section of Mississippi’s state constitution to the satisfaction of the state appointed registrars. New Jim Crow laws began to segregate the state at every level.
Driving from Memphis, we stopped briefly in Holly Springs to see the childhood home of Ida B Wells, the African American journalist, teacher and feminist who was a strong activist in the movement, writing specifically about supporting anti-lynching. Holly Springs was originally developed by European Americans for cotton plantations and was dependent on African –Americans. Today it has a majority black population.
In contrast, about half an hour south, we had lunch in the town of Oxford, Mississippi, the home of Ole Miss – the University of Mississippi. It was James Meredith who, in 1962, dissolved a 114 year tradition of all-white education at the University of Mississippi. The response was vicious as opposition was defiant and the end result was the transformation of an idyllic campus into a battleground. The US marshals, national guardsmen and army soldiers were called in to quell unrest. Meredith succeeded and now the university has a population which is about 10% of the student population.
Leaving this picture perfect white American town of well maintained flower boxes, University t-shirts and quaint book stores, Kellie and I now turned west entering the Mississippi Delta. We drove from Oxford to Clarksdale through torrents of rain storms, getting warnings on our phones about emergency flash floods that I drove through, requiring immense concentration.
The Mississippi Delta is the expanse stretch of cotton fields and fertile flooded land that stretches from Vicksburg in the south of Mississippi to Memphis in the north. Writers have titled this area: “the most southern place on earth”. And today we were able to begin to observe that.
We drove up to Clarksdale, the home of the Delta Blues, to stay in our reserved hotel of the Riverside Hotel. Known for its prior guests of musical superstars (eg Sam Cooke, the Staple Sisters, Ike Turner just to name a few), we made sure to turn on the air conditioning to full blast, closed the door to our room and went out to investigate further.
Clarksdale, like many of the towns in the Delta, is economically disparate. In 1960, the US poverty-line was three thousand dollars, and three quarters of all Delta families fell below it. Most black families were hardly guaranteed a decent standard of living. And so it was that the area became the hub of the Civil Rights movement, and the main area for Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer activists in 1964.
Clarksdale was the home of Doc Aaron Henry, who owned a successful pharmacy in Clarksdale. He was the state leader of the NAACP and used his local church as meeting places. Due to his involvement, his pharmacy was heavily damaged and set on fire. Later Henry ran for governor in the Movement’s first political party and testified on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as the DNC in 1964.
The whole area is full of tense heat – yet the music permeates the blood of those who come here. Home of the Delta Blues, there are several juke joints in the area, and one owned by Morgan Freeman. No matter what we saw, ate or felt, this area is certainly a world a part.