Mississippi Is Still Burning

by Gary Phillips

The first time I went to Mississippi I was a teenager, I think I must have been fourteen or fifteen at the time. What I knew, and feared, about that state was imagined from stories about the civil rights movement. Which, in those days of my teen years, wasn’t enshrined as a movement—it was the continuing struggle, as this was the summer of 1970. The violent murders of activists Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney weren’t dry passages in a textbook, I’d seen the reports about finding their bodies on the TV news in stark black and white in 1964. Chaney was black, a Mississippian, and with the two whites, New Yorkers Goodman and Schwerner, had been registering black voters during Freedom Summer. They’d been arrested on phony charges and purposely released later that night by the cops into the hands of the Klan to be murdered. Their corpses were found outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Martin Luther King with
flyer of the three slain
civil rights workers

I knew too of the kidnapping and subsequent mutilation and murder of Emmett Till, a kid from Chicago who supposedly wolf whistled at a white woman in Money, Mississippi, a town in the Delta. He was also down there to visit family. Roy Bryant, husband of the woman Till supposedly whistled at, and his half-brother J.W. Milam, a first lieutenant in the Army reserves, would be tried and acquitted by an all-white jury of the young man’s murder. Later they would sell their story to Look magazine in which William Bradford Huie, in an article entitled “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” recounted how Milam admitted shooting Till. He’d been the age I was then, killed in the year of my birth, in the same month, four days apart, in 1955. I remember asking my dad when I was nine what castration meant.

On my trip, I wasn’t going to be doing any wolf whistling or selling any wolf tickets.

My great aunt Josephine, Aunt Jo, was the sister of my mother’s father and we’d gone down there to see her. She lived in the family home on a small farm in Shelby, a town settled by freed slaves after the Civil War. Shelby is in the Mississippi Delta, next to Clarksdale, arguably the birthplace of the blues. Eddie House, also known as Son House, John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin’s dad, Reverend Franklin, and McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, all came from in and around there.

Clarksdale was a kind of way station, where blues musicians came though to play in its juke joints on their way north across the border into Memphis and fabled Beale Street. Then on to cities like Chicago, Detroit and New York—the patterns of black migration before and during the Great Depression to the more industrialized sectors for work, and to various degrees, live in environments where racism was more tempered. For instance, a young John Lee Hooker worked the auto assembly line and played clubs at night.

Aunt Jo was a character, right out of a story wherein the denizens of Al Capp’s Li’l Abner strip meet Zora Neale Hurston. She was a spinster who hunted squirrels for meat, had venison in her standalone freezer, kept a shotgun handy, and cooked her meals on a wood burning stove. I remember she used to send me a big box of pecans from the pecan trees on the farm for Christmases. Ostensibly me and my pops, Dikes, and her brother, my grandfather Oscar D. Hutton, were down there to convince her to get an operation to remove the cataracts on her eyes.

Harrah's Casino in Tunica
Harrah’s Casino in Tunica

Naturally she was obstinate about this and insisted she needed no such procedure. We, er, enjoyed, several mornings of her frying up runny scrambled eggs because she couldn’t tell when they were done. I slopped the hogs she raised (fed them, that is), and did battle with her geese and their contrary dispositions. It was hot and humid that summer, and me and pop tried sleeping on the porch one night to cool down. Even though we’d taken precautions, we got eaten alive by mosquitoes the size of bats.

Overall the trip was pleasant and I didn’t encounter a white man telling me to get off the sidewalk as he passed by or roving bands of Klansmen. But then, we pretty much stayed on the farm or got a hamburger in town, and I think once took a drive over to nearby Mound Bayou to see some old crony or another of grandpa’s. I went back down there once more in my early twenties and it wouldn’t be until August of 1998 that I returned. By then gambling had come to the Magnolia state, which caused a physical transformation of the delta and the gulf. For unlike the times before when I’d been there, there were hotels and motels to service the gamblers who came from the tri-state area to try their luck.

But Mississippi still being Mississippi, it wasn’t as if gambling revenues delivered as promised. Black folks tended to get the low level jobs in those casinos where positions like dealer, pit boss or shift security chief were going to whites. Years of unequal education and allocation of resources to underserved black communities resulted in 1989 in then governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton, head of the Lower Mississippi Development Commission, issuing a report that stated, in part, “By any objective economic, educational or social measurement, the ... people in the Delta region are the least prepared to participate in and contribute to the nation's effort to succeed in the world economy.”

Recently Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour reminisced that the infamous White Citizens Council, often referred to as the buttoned down Klan, had kept the KKK out of his hometown of Yazoo City. He suggested in remarks to the conservative Weekly Standard that the Council was misperceived in the north and were merely civic leaders who would kick the white sheeter’s collective asses if they came around. Various quarters reacted to Barbour’s primrose view and pointed out that yes, the segregationist Citizens Council kept out the Klan, but only because they were bad for business. Instead they used economic and more subtle means of intimidation—like keeping black snitches on the payroll—to keep African Americans in line. Barbour was forced to, as they say, walk back his comments.

My hat’s off then to them bird lovers of the Audubon Society and its role in preserving the Mississippi gulf coast township of Turkey Creek. As hilariously and pointedly covered on The Daily Show by Wyatt Cenac, activists in that community had been fighting for years to keep their town, founded by freed slaves in 1866, from going under, or paved over, despite such obstacles as eminent domain grabs by the state, so-called development from know-it-all developers, toxic waste dumping, and Hurricane Katrina. But the involvement of the Audubon Society eventually resulted in the enactment of some 1,600 acres as a bird and other wildlife conservationist easement—designating the area as part of the Mississippi Coastal Birding Trail and status as a significant urban greenway.

Yeah. black leaders have decried the Audubon Society is more interested in birds than people, rightly noting the nerdy goofiness of them being proud of building hundreds of bird feeders in and around Turley Creek after Katrina, seemingly unaware of the housing needs of humans. But goddammit, the bird watchers did what the NAACP and others failed to do. It’s a strategic victory and should be seen for what it is and built on, not torn down.

As Muddy Waters sang, “I got my mojo working, and it just might work on you.”

Gary Phillips' latest is Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers, a collection of his short stories.


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