Time has gone by so quickly this week. We left Jackson today around midday and headed northwest toward the Mississippi Delta. It wasn’t too long before we found ourselves on a two-lane highway surrounded by miles and miles of flat, fertile land. The barely visible patches of white that stuck to short, sun-dried stalks of cotton plants belied the plantation system that had sustained Mississippi for many years.
We spent the day driving through the Delta to visit the largely unknown and unmarked sites of some of the most important moments of the Civil Rights Movement. We drove north of Jackson to site of Emmett Till’s murder in Money, MS, then even further north to Sumner, MS where his murderers were acquitted. We continued southwest to Ruleville, MS where the legendary Fannie Lou Hamer worked and died. Our final stop was in Sunflower, MS—the home of the blues and the site of our last community outreach program.
There is something wonderfully timeless about the delta—the sense that nothing has changed in the last 50 years, and very little has changed in perhaps the last 100. The roads are as small and straight as the land is flat.
In our search for the site of Emmett Till’s murder, we only had very vague directions to guide us—Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, where his fateful encounter with Mrs. Bryant occurred, is located in Money, MS, which amounts to no more than a few stores and homes surrounded by the usual plantation land. The Bryant family still owns the dilapidated store and it is completely unmarked except for a red and white “No Trespassing” sign. The muddy Tallahatchie River flows around the corner—Emmett’s body was found there mutilated and weighted down by a cotton gin.
In many respects, I could very easily imagine what life would have been like in a town like Money—or any town in the Delta for that matter. It is a place where a majority of the population is African American; but a minority of the population, many of them former slave and plantation owners, has for centuries controlled much of the wealth and power.
A few miles away in Ruleville, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) decided to send community organizers into the depths of the delta to begin galvanizing powerless African Americans to register to vote. It was a dangerous assignment, as many of them knew, because in the Delta things could happen in the dead of the night and no one may ever hear or see.
Fannie Lou Hamer took on the challenge of registering to vote with only a 6th grade education and a lifetime of frustration to fortify her. Today we spoke to Charles McLaurin—a SNCC organizer and good friend of Fannie Lou Hamer—at her gravesite. He reminded us that in a place where political and social power resided with the few, he and others in SNCC could only rely on the hope that in a democratic society, empowering people to vote could change everything.
— Abby Phillip, Jackson civil rights and service trip.
One of the more entertaining parts about preparing for this trip has been watching some of the movies that have been made over the years about Mississippi and the civil rights movement.
On our first night in Oxford, Mississippi, our entire group got comfortable and set in to watch “Murder in Mississippi”-one of the many films about the civil rights movement that all bear annoyingly similar names (“Mississippi Burning” and “Ghost of Mississippi,” to name a few). This particular film was a made-for-TV project that recounted the events surrounding the murders of three civil rights workers, Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman.
We became engrossed in the drama of the film, but somehow, I think we may have lost sight of the fact that these events were supposed to have occurred about two hours away from Oxford in Philadelphia, MS. We could have saved ourselves some of the anticipation, because there was no mystery about what would happen to the three protagonists at the end. They would all be killed.
Prior to coming on this trip, I remember watching “Mississippi Burning” on HBO with a sort of distant understanding of its connection to the civil rights struggle. Indeed, even though the storyline is fictional, it is based on a well known narrative of that time period-in a small town in Mississippi two white men rape a young black child and are nearly acquitted by an all white jury. In this movie, as in nearly all of the others, the heroes are not the young black civil rights leaders like Medgar Evers or James Chaney, but their white lawyers.
Ward Emiling, Mississippi’s film commissioner, is the man who acts as the liaison between the State of Mississippi and Hollywood for most of the movies that are filmed on location here. Unfortunately, Ward told our group this week, Hollywood wants to tell the stories that people are going to flock to the movies to see. The implication is, of course, that the story of a black civil rights leader who ends up dead at the end of the film is simply not as compelling for a majority of Americans.
How true that is, I have no real way of knowing. But I do know that what a majority of Americans know about Mississippi and the civil rights struggle comes from movies like these. The act of retelling these events has become a commercial product and we have all bought in. To some degree I think this makes us all partially responsible for how stories get told to the generations that come after us. Five years ago, would I have gone to a movie that was about a man from Mississippi who decided to keep working for equality in spite of constant death threats, shootings and bombings? I certainly would now. So maybe Hollywood needs to have more faith in the American public. And perhaps, Hollywood needs to have more faith in the power of authentic stories.
— Abby Phillip, Jackson civil rights and service trip.
Today, our team learned a little bit more about the progress that’s been made here in the Biloxi area since Katrina.
This morning, we met up with a woman Diana and her son Carvis, both of whom one of our trip-mates, Abby, worked with right after Katrina several years ago. Back then, Abby and her church group helped build a new roof for Diana and her family after her old roof was blown off by the hurricane winds. At their house, we played basketball, video games, and talked about Diana’s hurricane experience and the progress that has been made since then.
Diana’s Katrina story was one of the most harrowing we had heard during our trip. She demonstrated to us how high the waters were on her street. After the storm hit in the middle of the night, all of the mailboxes on the street were submerged. Her home was barely saved by the lucky fact that it stood on a slight incline. However, because of the bayou and gulf waters meeting together, her family was trapped in their roofless house for days, all the while with then 3-year-old Carvis screaming because he wanted to watch TV. Diana told us that as soon as the storm subsided, they didn’t have power yet, but they did have a portable generator which they hooked up to the TV for Carvis to watch.
According to Abby, many of the houses were still in shambles when she first came to Diana’s family so long ago. Now, one could never tell that there had ever been a hurricane on the street. Diana told us that volunteer repair and construction efforts had made a huge impact on her street. She showed us old pictures of her house before the hurricane, and it was pretty clear to all of us that it looked even better now (thanks of course to Abby’s roofing skills.)
But the volunteers provided Diana and her family with more than just a new, beautiful, and rock hard roof (seriously, in some places you can’t even get reception.) They also created meaningful relationships that hold to this day. Abby and Diana’s friendship is incredibly fun to watch. They are almost like cousins. Diana and her family have even made a ritual of coming out to California regularly and visiting with Abby and the other volunteers. This too is progress.
But not everything is great relationships and fixed houses. Many of Diana’s friends are still displaced, and living in trailers. At the entrance of her neighborhood in Gautier, Miss., there were, up until several days ago, two trailers by the road. Now there is only one. Diana told us about her relatives who had moved out of a trailer camp at last Christmas, after living there since Katrina.
One thing we’ve learned on our trip has been the following: progress has been made. Houses have been built and rebuilt, roads and parks repaired. Carvis has grown from an hysterical 3 year old who desperately wanted to watch TV to a confident 8 year old with perfect spelling grades and a hyper-advanced reading level. Progress has been made but life is still tough for many people down here. It was hard before the storm, too. It will probably still be hard for a while, for many reasons, some not storm related. But these relationships, such as Abby and Diana’s, endure. They are beautiful. They give me hope.
–Seth Pearce, Biloxi service trip.
Our work site yesterday was the Humane Society of South Mississipi in Gulfport, located only a couple blocks away from Mary’s house.
After a short orientation, we got crackin’. Some of us were socializing cats to make them more attractive candidates for adoption while others were giving baths to dogs in the shelter. Others, including me, were working with the maintenance staff to weed around the dogs’ playpen, scoop up mud and spray off residue that had collected on one of the exterior walls of the building. (Power tools are fun.)
The Humane Society has faced a lot of challenges since Katrina. The storm left many of these animals without homes or families, which in turn led to an outbreak of feral animals. This is an issue since, well, feral animals breed… a lot.
However, thanks to generous volunteers and the donations of people like Paris Hilton, they’ve been able to meet the increased need and are moving steadily towards their goal of being a no-kill shelter, meaning that none of the animals have to be euthanized. Right now they are at 50% which is way above average.
Later, we had another animalistic experience when our host’s friend brought over three of his snakes, including two cobras and one rattlesnake. We got to play with one of the cobras, since it had had its venom removed, and also our host’s rooster Rudy. When we revealed that one of our trip leaders, Chloe, did not know how to drive, our host Ken decided to give her her first ever driving lesson in a pick up truck in the huge field next to the church, while the rest of us sat in the back of the truck.
My tripmate Matthew has always emphasized the importance of cultural exchange on this trip, and I’m beginning to really see its value. Just as they are teaching us so many things we are teaching them things as well. For example, Matthew noted last night, none of the kids we worked with at the Boys and Girls Club earlier will be able to say they never met someone from outside Mississippi, even though many of our fellow Harvard students were first exposed to people from so many backgrounds when they came to Harvard in September.
I wonder, what effect will this cultural exchange, not the moral exchange of service or the economic exchange that accompanies it, have in the recovery effort down here? Will it be just as important?
–Seth Pearce, Biloxi service trip.
We managed to escape the rain that had been forecast for days. But on Wednesday, we weren’t so lucky. The beautiful thing about being in Mississippi this time of year is that when it rains, it stays warm, and occasionally, the sun will come shining out of the clouds making the droplets on the sidewalks glisten.
The rain seemed only fitting on a sluggish Wednesday morning. I and the rest of the group were dragging from the full day that we had the day before.
We met a small group of Harvard alums and community member in Jackson for some fried food and conversation. They are a fairly small group, they know each other well. It seemed to be a gathering of kindred spirits. As much as I would like to think that some of them showed up to talk to a group of Harvard students visiting their oft-forgotten state, I think that the real attraction was former Mississippi Governor William Winter.
I can’t tell you how many times I had heard whispered in my ear that night “This man is a legend! He’s really amazing!” It was hard for me to believe that he could possibly live up to the hype.
Gov. Winter served as governor of Mississippi between 1980 and 1984—during that time, he told us, he became good friends with another southern democrat governor: Bill Clinton. The two had a lot in common, he said. They were both white progressive democrats attempting to lead their respective states out of the darkness of their segregated pasts and into the future. One was the youngest governor in the country, the other, a number of people have told me, was embarking on both the beginning and end of his career at that level of governance.
At that time, Mississippi was not a place where a candidate who advocated for desegregation and education reform could easily expect success. Indeed, Gov. Winter won the governors seat after two failed attempts and he was only elected to serve one term.
But during that time he was responsible bringing Mississippi’s educations system in line with other states by establishing a much needed early education program and basic school attendance requirements. These small reforms completely changed Mississippi’s educational and social landscape. After all, the greatest weapon against ignorance and bigotry is knowledge, and William Winter certainly knew this.
At Stewpot, a number of children come from grades K-1. I imagine that some of them, all African American, would never have had a prayer for an education had Gov. Winter’s reforms not been put in place decades ago.
On Wednesday, we sat in the gymnasium sheltered from the rain outside, surrounded by a group of young wide-eyed children. Many of their teachers had given them a welcome respite from homework tonight. But even as we sat with coloring books or copies of The National Geographic, they were learning valuable lessons that they may well have missed had people like William Winter, Medgar Evers, and Fannie Lou Hamer not made sacrifices for them long before they were ever born.
–Abby Phillip, Jackson civil rights and service trip.
Today started in a hurry.
After some of the guys missed our alarm, we had to eat breakfast real quick before heading back to Mary’s house to get to work.
Back at Mary’s, we set out to complete the task we had started yesterday: the historical renovation of a 101 year old three room shotgun house to be rented out to Mississippi residents still displaced by the Hurricane. Yesterday’s work mainly consisted of the ten of us, scraping old paint of the three room shotgun house at 1910 Bullis Ave for six and a half hours.
Today, when we got there, amidst intermittent rain showers, we began the task of sanding down the stripped wood so that we could prime it for painting later in the week. Our hands became gritty with wood chips, paint chips, essentially any kind of house-chips you could imagine, as we sanded down the two side walls and the front of the house.
Paint chips were soon replace with paint as we started applying primer to the walls. These facades that were once a cracked yellow and then a stripped wood became a glistening white as we primed them for painting later in the week. As we brushed the primer across the wood, standing on ladders to reach the highest parts, we spoke of philosophy, dignity, death and all those interesting topics.
Kristen, one of my tripmates, made an interesting point as we were brushing on the primer. By renovating this small, old house, we are giving historical value to the people who built it and lived in it all these years. Usually when we think of history, we view it through the lens of those in power. When we think of historical buildings, we think of monuments, mansions, homes and work spaces of powerful or important people. By treating this old house as history, we were creating history on the terms of regular people. This was a three room shotgun house, not a mansion, and our work, scraping, sanding, priming, was affirming the value and historical importance of normal people and their experiences.
These people, people like Mary, people like many of our family members, live the experiences of history.
Later, when rain came back and we couldn’t prime anymore, we drove over to the East Biloxi Boys and Girls Club and helped the kids there finish their math and English homework for about 30 minutes. After that we went outside to spend time with the five and six-year-olds: playing tag, hide and seek, kickball, doing some more homework, making friends.
These kids were only babies and toddlers when Katrina hit. They are the children of the recovery movement. Their lives and experiences, their moments playing with volunteers on the playground, learning academic skills, making friends and growing up, this is the history of the recovery movement, this game of kickball out behind a Boys and Girls Club one rainy afternoon. These children will tell this important story, of people coming together to serve. Maybe they’ll remember the countless volunteers that came through to work with them, maybe they won’t.
These children grew in a storm. They are Biloxi’s answer to the challenges that this City has faced. They are the builders of a new history.