The Mississippi Delta

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Goin’ Down South

Ten years ago at Easter, I took my sons, then eight and nine years old, on their first trip to Mississippi.  Before we took the trip, I felt I was becoming a bit like Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, always promising a trip to a place my children wanted to visit and not delivering on it because of some pent-up anxiety.  “When will we go to Mississippi?” “Maybe someday,” he replied in a soft distant voice. Unlike Mr. Ramsay, I chose not to wait until too much time had passed to take the trip.

During the years I did research in the files of the State Sovereignty Commission, Mississippi’s “spy agency” during the civil rights movement, I thought I was learning all about my home state. The files did help me connect my memories of Mississippi with its darker history. But I really didn’t fully grasp what I had learned about Mississippi and myself until I took my sons on the trip I document in this chapter, “Goin’ Down South.”

From Ever is a Long Time: A Journey into Mississippi’s Dark Past:

Goin’ Down South

Three years passed from when we had our first bedtime conversation about Mississippi to when my sons, Patrick and Aidan, and I made our first visit there. In spite of the years of my telling them stories about Mississippi, it existed in their imaginations less as a real place and more as an idea. Both Patrick and Aidan knew that I had been traveling there to find out why the state had spied on their grandparents and people like them. Somehow, in their little boy minds, a place that spied on people couldn’t be real; spying happened only in the movies, not to real people. The specter of spying and deceit added to the air of mystery they felt about Mississippi, which they shared with me whenever we talked about a trip there.

“They don’t spy on people down there anymore, do they?” Aidan asked me one night. I reassured him that things were different now and that when we finally did make our trip there together nothing like that would happen to us.

Though I had come to see Mississippi in a way that I thought was clearer, more realistic than it was the night I lay next to them in their beds and struggled with what to tell them about my home state, I shared little of what I had discovered in the years that followed. Something inside begged me not to intrude too much on what Patrick and Aidan would see when they finally visited Mississippi. Just as I constructed my own sense of Mississippi as a child, and a different concept of it as an adult, I knew their visit should be a time for them to find a vision of the place that belonged only to them. My job had to be limited to showing them the landscape; only they could choose what to paint.

Each time I returned to Mississippi, I wrestled with Patrick and Aidan’s question of when they would accompany me on a trip to this distant, mysterious place. “Dad needs to finish his work there before you can come,” I would always tell them. “Oh, the spying,” Aidan said to me, an air of disappointment in his voice one night before I left. Though they were clearly disappointed, my answer satisfied them.  However, as time went by, they were not so accepting.  Their requests to travel with me became more pointed, direct, and demanding. They sensed that I was holding something back from them, something special that belonged to them. And I was. They were ready, but I was not.

Late one spring afternoon, as I drove down a long flat stretch of Interstate 55, watching the sun set on a broad span of Delta land, I head my sons’ voices making their plea. Maybe something in the scenery spoke to me; the starkness of the Delta can be described in words, but it is best to witness it in person. It wasn’t fair to keep this scene to myself, one I had shared so many times with my own father as we drove south toward Mount Olive after trekking around the Delta.  Now I enjoyed it alone, and it didn’t feel right.  It was then that I made up my mind, and as soon as I could, I called home. “We’ll take a trip to Mississippi for your spring break,” I said, speaking into a crackly cellular phone first to Patrick, then Aidan. I could hear their broad smiles on the other end of the phone.

“Are you sure about this?” my wife Colleen asked, as the phone was passed back to her. I knew that she couldn’t bear the thought of her children facing the rejection we felt when we first visited Mississippi together in 1990. Quickly I assured her that I was very sure; at that moment, I could not have been more sure.  From the tone of my voice, she could tell that I was ready for this trip and that my journey back to Mississippi had reached a different stage. She was right. It had.

The trip I was then on marked two years of digging into the soul of Mississippi’s darker side; I was ready to move on. My voyage back had begun with memories, then moved into the actual past as a way to fill in the gaps the mind chooses to neglect and ignore. No longer did I feel that I had run away from one side of my past, nor did I feel encumbered by it. As I experienced the spare beauty of Mississippi the place that day, I felt bathed in its light and unburdened; I wanted to walk in that same light with my children.

A few days after my phone call, I returned home. Greeting me in our living room was a stack of books checked out from our local library on Mississippi, tagged with a list of “must see” attractions such as ancient Indian mounds, sacred sites of the blues, the Vicksburg Civil War Battlefield, the Natchez Trace. Patrick and Aidan had already begun to find the scenery for their landscape.

A month later, on Easter Sunday, our week-long Southern travel odyssey began in an old Volvo station wagon with a yellow-highlighted map directing our route and the North Mississippi All-Stars version of R.L. Burnside’s “Shake ‘em on Down” propelling us southward toward Mississippi.  It was a boys’ road trip; after twelve years, Colleen still could not bring herself to return. “Everyone should see Mississippi at least once, and I’ve done that,” she assured Patrick and Aidan. “This is a special trip for you to enjoy just with Dad.” Five-year-old Delaney looked at us wistfully as we pulled away, a look on her face that said, “When will it be my turn?” Sooner rather than later, I thought to myself.

Patrick and Aidan yearned to see the Delta and the places they read about in their assorted collection of books, but we could only make it as far as the hills of eastern Tennessee on our first day out. Southern lore says that the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.  I told them that the next day, when we arrived in Memphis, our trip to Mississippi would officially begin. By early afternoon, we were gazing on the Mississippi River from the bluffs of Memphis and strolling down Beale Street.

Though I wanted Patrick and Aidan to see Mississippi through their own eyes, I just couldn’t hold back the urge to show them the world of my childhood. The Mississippi I knew as a child existed in the files of the Sovereignty Commission and in the pages of history books.  Our trip had to reveal to them that the freedom to explore Mississippi without barriers had come at a price. So after a quick walk on Beale Street, I gave them a glimpse into the segregated South, the one they had only seen in books. We strolled over to see the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where there is a timeline in the exhibits that served as the backdrop of my childhood. Before I left them to form their own impressions of the South, they had to see that part of my history, which was their history as well.

As we walked through the exhibits, I showed them places they would see as we traveled through Mississippi: Delta shacks, the Lyceum Building at Ole Miss, the bus station in downtown Jackson, where the Freedom Riders arrived. In one room filled with televisions showing footage of events from the Civil Rights era, I found Aidan fixated on a screen.

“Who is that man, and what happened to his face?” he asked bluntly.

“That’s Ed King, someone Dad talked to for his work. His face was scarred from a car accident. And that’s Fannie Lou Hamer sitting beside him. She worked hard for the right for black people in the Mississippi Delta to vote. Maybe we can see Mr. King in a few days and he can tell you all about her.” Aidan took that as an acceptable answer and we moved on through the exhibit.

As we watched screen after screen, many of the scenes of the Civil Rights events frightened both boys to the point that they visibly grimaced at the sight of angry mobs and dogs and hoses being turned on black children and adults.  As they stood soaking up these moments of terror, I flashed back to the time I saw these very same scenes. It didn’t take much, since I saw the same fear I felt welling up in their eyes. The only difference in our reactions was the effect of time: When I first saw these images, the events were actually happening; my sons were seeing them recorded on tape in a museum. Upon sensing their discomfort, I reassured them that it was all over; it was history now. But that did not seem to quell their fears. The black-and-white news footage seemed as real to them as it had to me when I was their age. We did not linger to capture every nuance of the era. I knew how those images made a child feel insecure, planting the thoughts that someone could randomly commit a violent act against your family or even you. They wanted to move on, and we did.

Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee

The exhibit ended at the balcony of rooms 306 and 307, where Martin Luther King was assassinated. As we stood looking at the rooms as they were left on April 4, 1968, Aidan asked me if we could leave. He wouldn’t cry, but clearly being in those rooms troubled him; he knew a man had been murdered only several feet away.  Patrick, on the other hand, resolved to read with dogged determination every panel in the exhibit. Aidan and I left him there, the strains of Mahalia Jackson singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” filling the space outside.

Outside that room in the Lorraine Motel, I gave my best effort to get Aidan to talk to me about what scared him. Nothing could coax him into admitting any fear whatsoever. He stood behind me in stern, stoic silence. My mind raced as we waited there and I hoped I had not wrecked the trip for him by intruding on his impressions and bringing him to a place marked by violence. Minutes later, he seemed to have recovered completely.

Patrick made it off the Lorraine Motel balcony, and our visit took a more lighthearted turn. We looked in the shop windows on Beale Street, visited the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, and drove by Sun Records, where Elvis Presley made his first record. The next day, we took a trip to Graceland. The pure kitsch of the mansion and the famous pink Cadillac in the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum put the rest of the trip on a more upbeat note.

It was on to the Delta and as we drove down Highway 61, Patrick and Aidan stared out the windows with awe at the spare, flat Mississippi Delta landscape: the cotton fields, the catfish ponds, with the billboards advertising riverboat gambling and casinos along the Mississippi River. This time, we were headed to a spot they wanted to visit, rather than one selected by their dad: Moorhead, Mississippi, where the Southern and the Yellow Dog railroad lines meet at a perfectly perpendicular crossing. The boys read in one of their books on Mississippi that John Henry, the steel-driving man of American folk legend, built the Yellow Dog railroad. A picture of John Henry had hung in their room all of their lives, so this somehow made the image of John Henry sitting on the railroad tracks with his hammer in his hand seem real. Then, before we left for Mississippi, they heard these lines from a blues song on a radio program one afternoon:

Said Southern cross the dog at Moorhead,
Mama, Lord, and
She keeps on through
I say my baby’s gone to Georgia, I believe
I’ll go to Georgia too.

The rhythm of that song stuck with them; plus the name was something so foreign to them, they had to see it. Unlike the Crossroads in Clarksdale, where Robert Johnson allegedly made his legendary deal with the devil, I had never been to where the Southern crosses the Dog. So it seemed like a perfect place for us to experience together.

On our way to Moorhead, we drove through the Crossroads up in Clarksdale. But I didn’t ask Patrick and Aidan to fall down on their knees and ask the Lord to have mercy on them, if he pleased.  I just pointed out the landmark and headed straight to Moorhead, just as they asked me to do.

We pulled into Moorhead just before twilight, and the Delta sun glistened on the railroad tracks and all that surrounded the barren town with its shuttered storefronts. “Is this a ghost town, Dad?” they asked matter of factly. “No,” I told them. “This is just an old Delta town down on its luck.” The money that built Moorhead grew on cotton stalks, and now there’s simply not much money in cotton anymore.

For the next hour, we teetered around on the tracks of the Southern and Yellow Dog railroads, balancing one foot in front of the other and reveling in the failing Delta twilight. I don’t know what Patrick and Aidan were thinking, but as I looked at the intersection of these two railroads, straighter than the Crossroads we came through to get here, I knew that I had come to another crossroads of my own. It took hold of me and pushed me up on my feet rather than to my knees. The blues that had filled my head as we drove through the Delta left me, and I enjoyed this moment in a place that had somehow summoned me there to experience this very feeling. As night fell, I had to press the boys to leave Moorhead behind and head further south, away from the Delta, through the same towns their grandparents left behind more than forty years ago.

After showing them Jackson and Vicksburg, the time came for us to spend a day in Mount Olive, a place we all wanted to see together. Patrick and Aidan were eager to see where I went to school and played as a boy, even though I warned them that there really wasn’t that much to see of the Mount Olive I knew as a child. My warnings meant nothing, as they saw this visit almost as an archeological expedition to find the remains of the place their father once knew.

We drove down Main Street and then parked by Mount Olive High School, where we walked the halls. I showed Patrick and Aidan a place I had largely chosen to forget: all the classrooms I spent time in, the room where their grandmother taught fifth grade, the gym where my graduation ceremony was held, which, before visiting there with my sons was the only happy day I remember during my years in school at Mount Olive High School.  Attentively, they took in all the sights I pointed out.  Then Patrick said, “Dad, this is just an old school; can we go see the town?”

There wasn’t much of the old Mount Olive left to see, but we headed to the one place in Mount Olive that had changed the least: Powell’s Drug Store. The comic book rack I loved was gone, but I knew the soda fountain with an old-fashioned box filled with icy-cold bottles of Coca-Cola was still there. As we walked in, Homer Powell greeted us. “It’s so good to see y’all. Are these your boys? They sure are fine-looking boys. What can I do for y’all today?”

“We want a Coca-Cola in a bottle,” Patrick and Aidan announced. Everyone in the drug store chuckled audibly at the request. I explained that they had never had a Coke in an old-fashioned bottle and had been looking for one since we left Washington. Even the original Coca-Cola factory over in Vicksburg, which they had chosen to visit for that very reason, didn’t have them. Powell’s was the place I knew they would have icy-cold Cokes just as I remembered them; I had stopped here for one on every trip to Mount Olive I had made over the past few years. Mrs. Powell went behind the soda fountain and pulled out three cokes for us, and Patrick and Aidan happily began to guzzle them down, staring at the bottles with wonderment. Mr. and Mrs. Powell laughed, enjoying the uniqueness of something we all took for granted.

After we left, we walked around town and I took them on my old rounds, the one I took whenever I came to town as a boy: We went to Boxx’s service station, where the Green Tree Hotel once stood, as well as my cherished old phone booth. The service station was abandoned now, but seemed fixed in time, with an old black 1962 Ford Galaxie parked outside the service bay that could have been there when I was a boy. We went to Polk and Ducksworth’s Feed Mill, the fire station, and up and down Main Street.

Patrick and Aidan saw that there really wasn’t that much in the town of Mount Olive and told me they wanted to see my old farm. “There’s even less to see there,” I told them, reminding them of the tornado that had destroyed everything I had once known. They didn’t seem to mind. They wanted to see what was left, just as they had seen what was left of downtown Mount Olive.

As we returned to our car, with the Coca-Cola bottles held tightly in their hands as cherished souvenirs, a familiar sound came through town: I looked up and saw a shining engine of the Illinois Central headed down the railroad tracks. I had seen the same sight as a boy. At that moment, I knew that even though there wasn’t much left in Mount Olive from my days, Patrick and Aidan had now gotten the full experience of my old Saturday trip to town. And I had, too. As I stood by the car, smiling broadly as I watched the train rumble by, the sound of the train whistle filled my mind with pictures of those days. Lost in a reverie that seemed like a few seconds to me, Patrick emitted an impatient yell.

“Why are you just standing there? Can we go now?” he shouted.

Though I wanted to watch the train pull out of sight, at Patrick and Aidan’s urging we moved down Main Street to Highway 35 bound for my old home place. As was now my custom, I parked across the road from the trailer and went and knocked on the door. As always, no one answered. So, coming completely on our own, we began to take a look around together.

Both boys stared with disbelief that such a stark setting could ever have been lush and vibrant. To pierce their silence, I began to tell them where everything once stood as we moved around the old yard: the chinaberry tree, the orchard, the barn, and the path where I learned to ride a bicycle. Together, we climbed my old chinaberry tree, still the only remnant standing of my home. Its branches were not the same ones I knew, for they now grew from the stump of the tree that had been there, obviously another casualty of the tornado. That didn’t seem to matter to them; it was the only thing I remembered that was left, and they were glad it was there.

Later we walked around to the back of the trailer, where there stood an old shed that, judging from the age of the wood and tin, had been constructed from the remains of our old barn. At the shed, we tried to look down the hill at what had been called the “back 40,” where the brook and Turtle Ridge were, two places I had told Patrick and Aidan about many times. Thinking of the small toy boat they had in the back of the car, the boys wanted to blaze a trail through the brush down to those places. I knew they were far too overgrown to be enjoyed, except in memories. Much to their disappointment, I insisted that we stay on what was once my old yard.

This was the first visit to the old home place where I felt upbeat and not saddened by what had once been there. The sounds of my children playing in the same spot where I played made what seemed like a lonely wasteland come alive. Together we walked and I told stories about things I did as a boy and where I did them: playing war with chinaberries; damming up muddy streams and sliding down hills in wet clothes while sitting in a cardboard box; and the intense joys I felt running across the road to get the mail, especially when I was expecting a letter from the many pen pals who served as my window to a world beyond these hills. Before we left, Patrick looked at me with a drawn look of disappointment on his face.

“Does it make you sad to come here?” he asked.

“No, Patrick, not anymore,” I told him. “This place doesn’t belong to me anymore. It’s not my home. It was a long time ago, but it’s not anymore. And that’s ok.”

Although I could tell from the expression on his face that he did not understand what I meant, I knew that he would someday, just as I finally understood what my father said to me on our last walk together on this same spot. One day Patrick would realize that some places belong only to the ages and memory; they are best enjoyed that way, rather than forcing their re-creation in a world where they no longer fit into lives that were formed by those very places. Once the mourning for what once was or might have been is over, life can move on. Though I thought I had moved on before now, after my talk with Patrick I was certain that I had.

After we left my old farm, with the afternoon falling into the dimming of another day in Mississippi, we spent the rest of our time in and around Mount Olive just driving down country roads, stopping wherever looked interesting to them: the general store in Hot Coffee, a llama farm on the Sunset Road near Collins, and a grassy bank along the Okatoma Creek, where we pitched rocks. We stayed in Mount Olive well until nightfall. After years of feeling fear and foreboding about Mississippi, I felt filled with joy and wonder about the place, as I had as a boy. The edginess I always thought I would have coming here with my sons never overtook me. Had I changed or had the place changed? I didn’t know which. I just enjoyed the moment.

Fathers often tell their sons things that they want them to learn on their own or plant coded advice in their consciousness. But after leaving Mount Olive they turned the tables on me and taught me a thing or two about letting go of the past. We had drive to Oxford and after a guided tour of Oxford and Ole Miss by my former German professor, Ron Bartlett, we visited the Lyceum building. During our visit to the chancellor’s office, the boys were given a choice of Ole Miss hats: one white, without the team name Rebels emblazoned on it, and one bright red and blue, with “Rebels” on the back. In my time at Ole Miss, I refused to wear anything that said Rebels or bore a caricature of the team mascot, Colonel Rebel.

Of course, they chose the red hat, with Rebels stitched on the back. What kid wouldn’t want a bright red hat?

As we walked though the Lyceum doors, the very same doors through which James Meredith entered Ole Miss forty years before, Aidan asked me, perhaps sensing my discomfort, “Is this a bad name on this hat? Should we go back and get the white hat?”

I reassured him and Patrick that by choosing the red hat they had not done a bad thing or that the hat was marked by an offensive name. “Ole Miss’s team is called the Rebels,” I told them. Quickly, into my field of vision came the red brick spire of Ventress Hall. I remembered that one wall of Ventress Hall held a Louis Comfort Tiffany stained-glass window depicting the Ole Miss University Greys in battle during the Civil War. I would reassure them that the name on their hat was tied to the history of Ole Miss, whether I subscribed to that history or not. So we strolled down University Circle to the edge of the Grove for a little history lesson.

Once inside Ventress Hall, I was struck by the beauty of the window, in spite of the romanticized vision it depicted of noble men battling for “Southern independence,” as I had been taught at Mount Olive High School. As we looked at the window together, studied it, discussed the battle scene, and talked about the different ways people remember the Civil War, this piece of Ole Miss history became a part of my history. During my time at Ole Miss, I had fought a number of battles; unlike the University Greys, I prevailed, since I was standing there with my children. And my sons represented the future rather than a lost cause from the past. So, at a memorial to the men of the Confederacy, I finally became an Ole Miss Rebel myself, but on my terms.

We were finishing up our tour of Ventress Hall when William Winter, a former governor of Mississippi, walked into the building. I introduced myself and reminded him that he had spoken at my high school graduation. Like any good politician, he indicated some vague memory of having given a commencement address in Mount Olive, Mississippi, in 1974.

In all my research into the Sovereignty Commission files, William Winter’s name stood out as the one Mississippi politician who disapproved of its work. Winter was one of only twenty-three members of the Mississippi House of Representatives who voted against the formation of the Sovereignty Commission in 1956, rightly fearing that money from the Commission would end up in the hands of the Citizens’ Council. As Lieutenant Governor in 1972, though he made appointments to the Sovereignty Commission, he never attended a meeting. “Advice as to whether you will be with us will be genuinely appreciated,” Sovereignty Commission chair Webb Burke wrote to Winter as a plea to attend one of the last meetings before the governor shut the Sovereignty Commission down. Winter’s stand on race hurt him politically, and he was only elected governor in 1980, a time when politics in the state had begun to move beyond race. As a former governor, he advocated a new state flag and headed up a racial reconciliation group in the state. If there was one Mississippi politician I wanted my sons to meet, it was William Winter. And he embraced them as if they were his own.

Governor Winter had come to Ole Miss to speak to new members of Phi Beta Kappa. For years, Ole Miss had been unable to secure a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and now it is the first public college in the state to have its own chapter of the prestigious academic honorary. As always, Governor Winter spoke to the future of Mississippi. In particular, he spoke to me of the future of Ole Miss and urged me to rise to the challenge of making Mississippi a great place. After my talk with Governor Winter and the realization that we were both in Oxford on a significant day in Ole Miss’s history, I put the bright red Ole Miss Rebels hats firmly on Patrick and Aidan’s heads and told them to wear them with pride. Though mine did not say Rebels, I wore my hat proudly as well.

Oxford, Mississippi, April 5, 2002

As the day wore on, the time came for us to leave our Mississippi odyssey. When we started our drive back to Washington that night, we talked about the trip and all the places we had been, as well as a few places on their list we had not gotten to see. We agreed that this trip to Mississippi would not be our last; there would be other trips, and we would get to see those things and a few places they had not even thought of. Then I asked them what they thought about Mississippi.

What they enjoyed the most were the places we visited that seemed to be frozen in time: the general store in Hot Coffee, where a bag full of candy could be had for a mere 88 cents; the almost prehistoric look of the Delta landscape; our playing Civil War soldiers on the battlefield in Vicksburg; climbing trees and rolling down the green hills of a friend’s Covington County farm, hills that I told them looked like the ones behind my house before they became overgrown. They liked that every day had been an adventure, one often accompanied by rough play in grass and mud.

They seemed wistful and sad that our trip was over. The car became quiet, then Patrick decided to break the silence.

“Dad,” Patrick said, “Mississippi is a very cool place.”

I was stunned. That’s not how I thought of Mississippi. As a child I thought of Mississippi as the most uncool place on the planet, particularly compared with the world beyond its borders. My mind flashed back to all those letters I had written to childhood pen pals in England, Australia, and New Zealand. These missives were often punctuated with my despair about how dull and ordinary the life I led in rural Mississippi must seem to them, compared with growing up in London, Melbourne, or Auckland. In my mind, those were cool places, not Mississippi.

Patrick’s comment had jolted me, and I didn’t respond in any significant way, nor did I think I should. As we drove away from Mississippi, into the deep pitch black of a Tennessee night, I kept saying to myself, like a mantra, “Mississippi is a very cool place.”

Before the night was over, I didn’t have to say it anymore. I believed it.