Category: Civil Rights (Page 1 of 3)

Author Q & A with Carter Dalton Lyon (Sanctuaries of Segregation)

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 26)

A strategic program that was begun to awaken Jackson’s segregated white churches to the idea of opening their doors to their African-American Christian counterparts in the 1960s will be commemorated with several public events next weekend that will honor that struggle.

More than 50 years later, that effort has been documented in Carter Dalton Lyon’s Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign, published by University Press of Mississippi.

sanctuaries of segregationWhat began for Lyon as a doctoral dissertation while he was a history student at Ole Miss more than a decade ago eventually resulted in his debut book, which unfolds in meticulous detail why activists and students at Tougaloo College acted on what they believed was a necessary element in advancing their goal of racial integration in the capital city.

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Lyon now teaches and chairs the History Department at St. Mary’s Epsicopal School in Memphis. He and wife Sally Cassaday are the parents of two daughters.

Your new book, Sanctuaries of Segregation: The Story of the Jackson Church Visit Campaign closely examines a 10-month effort by Tougaloo College students and activists who set out to integrate what you called “the last sanctuaries for segregationists” in the city–white churches. Why was this an important goal of the civil rights movement in Jackson in the early 60s?

One thing that I found early in my research was that segregationists throughout the South had been worrying about the potential desegregation of their churches for many years and that organized groups of students had been testing the attendance policies of white churches as they were challenging other segregated spaces. They would, in effect, conduct a sit-in at lunch counters on Saturday and try to attend white churches on Sunday. This had been done in other cities in 1960, but not in Jackson until 1963.

The idea for these “kneel-ins” was to tug at the conscience of white Christians, especially those moderates who favored a more voluntary approach to desegregation or who didn’t really appreciate the immorality of segregation. Being barred from church would make visible the reality of racial discrimination in the house of God. Activists in Jackson in 1963 had a more specific reason as well: they had tried mass marches and sit-ins, but the local movement had fractured a bit, and there were those, like Rev. Ed King, who wanted to give the Jackson community another chance to shift course–and appealing to white Christians seemed like a logical approach.

Although the participants in this movement faced a great deal of resistance from congregants and church leaders, the effort slowly began to gain some ground with white ministers and members. What was the trigger that finally broke through the resistance?

For the churches that were “open” to black visitors during the campaign, it took a combination of ministerial and lay leadership to sustain that. Even if the minister had ordered the doors to be open or favored open doors, the extent to which they would in fact be open really had to do with logistics–who was at the door and who was organizing them. The minister really needed the backing of a majority of lay leaders to make this work.

For those who began to change or who opened the doors in the years after the campaign ended, it would be nice if I could say that i was because of a change of heart, but there’s really little evidence to that effect. The Jackson church visit campaign forced their regional or national denominational bodies to clarify the open-door policies of the denomination, and so these churches needed to consent to this, especially if they wanted to call a new pastor. Some church members didn’t and formed break-away churches and, in the case of the Methodists, formed a new denomination.

Ultimately, what did this movement accomplish?

The Jackson church visit campaign made the reality of racial discrimination visible in these sacred spaces and forced white church people to confront the essential question of these activists: was racial exclusion following the will of God? These visits sparked internal debates within congregations throughout the city and certainly led to turmoil and division in many churches. But I see the church visitors as exposing a fatal flaw in these churches. They had retreated into these sanctuaries of segregation, but their practices contradicted their faith and were in defiance of the stated beliefs and policies of their own denominations. As a result of this campaign, you see denominations moving to clarify their attendance policies and become more deliberate in examining segregation within their bodies.

You write that many ministers secretly agreed with the students and activists who attempted to join in worship services in their churches, but believed they could not share their feelings with their congregations for fear of losing their jobs and/or causing a split in the church. From your research, how did these ministers ultimately deal with their mixed feelings?

Each minister dealt with it differently and there really isn’t a general way of answering this, but I can say that all of the ministers who fit this description certainly battled with the feeling that they had been called by God to this particular church and they were determined to remain. Some had been at their churches for at least a decade and even when their lay boards voted to bar African-Americans, the real moment of truth came when black visitors were in fact blocked at the church doors. For those who held onto their positions as activists were being rejected outside, I see a real sense of exasperation on the part of these ministers, that their message, and the Gospel’s message of inclusion and brotherhood over the years, had not gotten through to their congregations.

As a Kentucky native, why did you decide to bring this topic to light about Jackson’s past now, and how is it relevant in today’s social, spiritual, and/or political climate?

Carter Dalton Lyon

Carter Dalton Lyon

This book has been germinating for a while, but when I began researching this, I frankly noticed a dearth of analysis on the white church response to the civil rights movement on a local level. In the last decade and a half, historians and theologians have been doing great work filling in that gap, and I hope my book adds to that body of scholarship. The great Mississippian Ida B. Wells once wrote that “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth on them,” and my hope is that this book helps in some of the truth-telling that is happening in Jackson.

Your research for this book is extensive–with 65 pages of notes and bibliography. How did you go about your research, and how long did it take to put this book together?

This book grew out of my thesis and dissertation work in graduate school at the University of Mississippi, so the bulk of the research was conducted during those six years, and I’ve spent the last six years of so refining and getting it into book form. I should say that it was very important to me to try to capture all sides of this struggle and to track down as many people who were a part of this effort as I could. I realized early on that there were folks who wanted to sweep this story under the rug or deny it outright, so I aimed to be as careful and extensive as I could in documenting this and getting the story right.

Although you mention several Catholic and Protestant houses of worship, much of the book is devoted to how the “closed door” policy was carried out by Methodists. Why was that?

In the early months of the campaign, the visitors cast a pretty wide net and attempted to attend churches from a variety of denominations: Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Unitarian, Church of Christ, and Catholic. For those that routinely barred their entry, such as First Presbyterian and the Baptist churches, they reasoned that they would have little hope of cracking open those doors, so they began to focus more on the churches with regional or denominational bodies that they could use as a potential wedge against these churches.

Then about midway through the campaign, the police arrested three students outside the Capitol Street Methodist Church, and made a total of 40 arrests on subsequent Sundays, and that suddenly brought national attention on the problem of segregation within the Methodist Church ahead of the 1964 General Conference. Methodist ministers and, later, two bishops from across the country began joining students on their weekly visits for their own reasons, but certainly to expose a problem that they hoped (the conference) would solve.

Carter Dalton Lyon will appear at Lemuria to sign and read from Sanctuaries of Segregation on Thursday, November 30, at 5:00 p.m.

Author Q & A with Gene Dattel

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (November 5)

reckoning with raceCultural and economic historian Gene Dattel, who grew up in the small Mississippi Delta town of Ruleville, tackles questions about what he calls “America’s most intractable problem–race”–up close and in depth in his newest book, Reckoning with Race: America’s Failure (Encounter Books).

The biggest and most necessary part of bridging the racial divide, he said, is “economics–which means jobs,” a goal he believes is possible with what he calls “the right kind of assimilation.” To Dattel, that means avoiding what he believes is a harmful separatism while at the same time allowing for full expression of one’s cultural heritage.

Dattel’s lifelong interest in racial history, and its ties to economic history and colonial nationalism, was launched in the early 60s when he was entering Yale University at the same time James Meredith was entering Ole Miss.

After his early years in Ruleville, located in what he calls “the heart of the majority-black cotton country of the Mississippi Delta,” he graduated from Yale, and then Vanderbilt University Law School. Of his 21-year career in finance as a managing director at Salomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley, 15 were spent in London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. He has done advisory work for the Pentagon, major financial institutions, and cultural organizations from the New York Historical Society to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

His previous books include Cotton and Race in the Making of America and The Sun That Never Rose.

What prepared you to write this book, (as in, I’m curious–what exactly is a “cultural historian,” and how did you become one?) and what do you hope your book will accomplish?

The small-town dynamic of my youth mean that I had to adjust to people–old/young, middle class/poor, black/white–regularly. Beginning at age 13, I worked in my family’s dry goods store on Saturday night when most of the customers were black. I entered Yale at the same time James Meredith integrated Ole Miss. This triggered my profound interest in racial history, economic history, and colonial nationalism.

A career in finance brought home the importance of economics in the lives of people. My 11-year stay in Japan was transformative; there, I observed the first major economic challenge to the United States by a non-white, non-Western nation. For eight years, I performed a “Parallel Lives” Program with black author (and businessman” Clifton Taulbert about my growing up Jewish and his growing up black in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s. My book Cotton and Race in the Making of America (2009), a description of the fateful intersection of the power of cotton and the African-American experience, was the stepping stone to Reckoning with Race.

My definition of a cultural historian: one who examines the impact of a broad range of topics–literature, art, movies, music, tradition, communication, values, rhetoric, humor, and fusion in a society. It is my sincere hope that this book contributes to a frank discussion about the hardest of all hard topics in America–race. I believe our goal should be to concentrate on access for the mass of blacks into the American economic mainstream.

In your book, you present a great deal of historical research that most of us never heard in our school history classes about the open hypocrisy of Northern and Midwestern states–dating back as far as the 1700s–of extreme racist attitudes toward blacks. Instead, the history that has captured the nation’s interest has, for the most part, emphasized the racial atrocities of the South. Why has this discrepancy largely remained a well-kept “secret”?

One has only to look at the quotes at the opening of the book’s chapters to recognize how white Northern racial attitudes have frequently been overlooked:

  • White abolitionists “best love the colored man at a distance.” – Samuel R. Ward, Black Abolitionist, 1840s
  • No free Negro, or Mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of this constitution shall come, reside, or be within this state. – Oregon State Constitution, 1857
  • The New York Times, Feb. 26, 1865, in the text: “The negro race…would exist side by side with the white for centuries being constantly elevated by it, individuals of it rising to an equality with the superior white race.”

The white North has almost no exposure to its true historical racial attitudes. White Northern racial hypocrisy and self-righteousness has resulted. Historians extol the abolitionists but neglect the anti-black attitudes that doomed Reconstruction, created a containment policy of keeping blacks in the South, and trapped them in combustible urban ghettos. The drama of the civil rights movement in the 1960s was particularly visual and suited for television; millennials have seen countless clips of Birmingham hoses and dogs, etc. I have found that “going local” is effective in creating awareness for Northern audiences. When in Connecticut, include Connecticut’s past.

You state that, despite decades of political advancement, economics gains and the passage of civil rights legislation, “the practical task facing America is the economic elevation of the black community–desperately for the underclass and significantly for the fragile (but growing) middle class.” To that end, you emphasize the importance of personal responsibility and assimilation into American society. Explain why you believe this idea is so important.

America’s unique strength, its ability to foster the “right kind” of assimilation, allows its people to retain their cultural heritage. We are the only grand experiment of a multiethnic country that does not resort to tribalism. At the same time, we have seen no successful large scale self-sufficient economic group within America, able to function outside the economic mainstream. The acceptance of common values–color-blind middle-class norms–is a prerequisite for mass entrance into the economic mainstream.

In a competitive global marketplace, individuals must aspire to resiliency, a byproduct of personal responsibility.

You cover many government programs that have been implemented through the years to help African-Americans raise their standards of living, often with little progress. Why do you think it’s been so difficult to find lasting solutions toward economic progress?

Gene Dattel

Gene Dattel

Large government programs are plagued by bureaucracy, inefficiency, and most importantly, lack of accountability. I would argue, if a program is not working, change it or reduce it; if a program is working, expand it. I describe several small programs that are successful but cannot be replicated on a mass scale.

We need to understand and speak about the currently taboo topics of black culture and structure. The only way to move forward economically is to develop viable structures for family, church, and community. Education, the portable credential for employment, largely depends on these influences. Education provides the skill set and thought process for success. Or, in the words of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker: “My mom and dad were constant mentors, my first and greatest teachers….[From my father] I learned the connection between hard work, discipline, and reward.”

Part of America’s problem in finding racial unity, you say, has been a “hypersensitivity” to real or perceived “slights” that seem to be arising more frequently, especially on college campuses. Why is this, and how can these be dealt with constructively?

Today’s iteration of multiculturalism fosters and encourages differences, to the detriment of what Americans have in common. Our inability to discuss real or perceived sensitive topics further inhibits dialogue and promotes separatism. Greater contact and discussion in a responsible, objective way is the best way to achieve trust. College is supposed to be the proper venue for challenging and preparing students for life and exposing them to a diversity of ideas. The interaction with different opinions promotes resiliency and should be pursued on an individual basis.

Despite hopes that an Obama presidency would help heal some racial divides, you state that “racial divisiveness is more evident now than it was when Obama took office.” To what do you attribute this change?

The racial divide had already been set in motion before the Obama presidency. Powerful forces–multiculturalism, frustration at the ineffectiveness of many programs, social media, separatism as expressed in identity politics, economic recession with a weak recovery, and the lack of a frank racial discussion–were at work. President Obama’s leadership could not produce the necessary unity given these factors.

You speak of a racial mindset in this country that seems to be heading more toward separatism than the defining goal of integration in the ’60s. Explain what that ultimately means, and what your hopes are for our future.

As of the end of 2016, the overall numbers for black progress in education and economic well-being were disheartening. The poverty level of blacks has remained three times that of white for the last 45 years. Also, 32.9 percent of black children under the age of 18 live in poverty. Only 38.7 percent of black children under 18 live in a two-parent family. Black Americans’ college majors, according to a 2016 Georgetown University study, “tend to be low earning.”

As we move int a stage of self-imposed, heightened racial identity, the goals of integration and assimilation become loaded terms with negative connotations. This separatism is highly detrimental in accessing a proper education, combating poverty, and attaining economic parity.

As for the future, we must remember America’s strength. Where else could a man, whose father was Kenyan and whose mother was a white American, become president?

Gene Dattel will sign copies of Reckoning with Race on Monday, November 13, at 5:00 p.m. at Lemuria.

Author Q & A with Stanley Nelson

Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 23)

As the editor of his hometown’s weekly newspaper–the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La.–Stanley Nelson didn’t set out to become a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting. He didn’t plan on his investigative journalism becoming the basis of a blockbuster fictional trilogy by New York Times bestselling author Greg Iles. And he never dreamed his efforts would build a crusade for justice that would draw dozens of willing supporters from around the country.

devils walkingBut it was Nelson’s tough investigative reporting that led to his book, Devils Walking: Klan Murders along the Mississippi in the 1960s (LSU Press), in which he describes not only the difficulties of pursuing decades-old cold cases of racial injustice, but the remarkable successes that he and his collaborators were able to achieve–even when the FBI could not.

As a testament to Nelson’s tenacity and courage to take on this topic, Iles dedicated Natchez Burning, the first installment of his fictional trilogy, to the Ferriday reporter who, with the help of a large team, stopped at nothing to find answers to so many questions that had lingered for 50 years. Inspired by Nelson’s work, Iles used pieces of the massive puzzle that was unraveled as a basis for some plot material for his trilogy that included The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood. In fact, it was Iles who wrote the forward to Nelson’s book, offering high praise for the journalist’s accomplishments.

At the heart of Nelson’s book is the story of one man–Frank Morris of Ferriday–whose tragic fiery death at the hands of the notorious Klan cell known as the Silver Dollar Group in 1964 would eventually lead to further investigations, and, in one case, even a grand jury hearing.

From his first awareness of the Morris case in 2007, prompted by the FBI’s initiative to reopen Civil Rights-era cold cases, Nelson would write nearly 200 news stories about the murder, over a seven-year time period. In addition to the Sentinel in Ferriday, his award-winning investigative writing would appear in the New York TimesWashington PostLos Angeles Times, and on CNN and National Public Radio.

A discussion about the events in both Iles’ and Nelson’s books will be led by Clarion-Ledger investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell at the Mississippi Book Festival on Aug. 19.  The event will begin at 1:30 p.m. in the Galloway United Methodist Church sanctuary in Jackson.

ms book fest

Devils Walking, a detailed examination of Klan murders committed by the Silver Dollar Group in Mississippi and Louisiana during the 1960s, revolves around the story of the brutal killing of Frank Morris in Ferriday, La. in December 1964. As a reporter for Ferriday’s newspaper, the Concordia Sentinel, what sparked your interest in this case in 2007?

Frank Morris in front of his shoe shop (wearing visor, near center)

Frank Morris in front of his shoe shop (wearing visor, near center)

In late February 2007, the FBI and Justice Department announced they were taking a second look at approximately 100 unsolved civil rights-era murders. Frank Morris’ name was on the list. Morris died from burns he received when Klansmen torched his Ferriday shoe shop and deliberately incinerated him as well.

I initially wrote a couple of stories. Then I got a phone call from Frank Morris’ granddaughter, Rosa Williams. She thanked me for the coverage and said that she had learned more about her grandfather’s death in the first article than she had in the previous decades. Of all of the questions she had about the murder, the biggest was “Why?”

When I was young, I witnessed the aftermath of a horrible traffic accident in which a young family, including a 7-year-old girl, died in flames. Considering that and the murder of Frank Morris, I wondered how someone could purposely set a human being on fire? It was a question that would not go away. I talked to the Sentinel‘s publishers. They agreed that we should try to find out what happened.

Explain how and why this case grew into such a large investigation–with the help of, among others, 25 students at the Syracuse University School of Law–in such a short time.

Race is a polarizing topic. So, could I get readers to open their minds and hearts to the Morris story? I figured that if they got to know Frank Morris, they would care about him. Then justice would seem important. So, week after week we tried to bring Frank Morris back to life so that our readers would see him as a living, breathing human being–not a ghost from the past.

A lot of people lent me a hand–some included Syracuse University College of Law professors Janis McDonald and Paula Johnson; the Center for Investigative Reporting; the LSU Manship School of Mass Communication; Teach for America; and summer interns from universities in the South. Canadian filmmaker David Ridgen was a constant help. But nothing would have happened without the Sentinel’s publishers–Lesley Hanna Capdepon and Sam Hanna Jr.–who supported the work through thick and thin.

By 2007, as the FBI, the Department of Justice and a contingent of government investigators were becoming involved with this case, there was urgency to move the investigation forward. Why was this?

In the 1960s, dangerous Klansmen at the height of their power menaced anyone who questioned the terror they engendered. But by the 2000s, those men were dead or dying. The new enemy to justice became “time.” Witnesses were dying, too. So, urgency was mandated.

Explain the assistance that Jerry Mitchell, investigative reporter for the Clarion-Ledger, was able to lend to your own investigation of Klan murders in Mississippi.

Jerry is considered a legend in the world of cold case investigations. I often seek his advice and he always helps.

When did Louisiana State University get on board to join the investigation, and what contributions did they make?

Jay Shelledy of the LSU Manship School invited me to talk to his journalism students. Later, then dean of the Manship School Jack Hamilton asked, “How can we help you?” I answered that I needed FBI Klan files from the National Archives.

Since then, Jay and his students have amassed tens of thousands of pages of FBI documents, approaching 200,000 pages, all now on line on their website (http://lsucoldcaseproject.com/). Their amazing work continues with new students every year and the full support of Dean Jerry Ceppos. Former Interim Dean Ralph Izard was fully behind the project as well.

In the end, you have a theory of who was actually responsible for Frank Morris’s murder–but has it been proven, or can it be proven?

A Concordia Parish deputy, Frank DeLaughter, wanted Morris’ shop burned following a verbal confrontation with him. DeLaughter considered Morris an uppity black man and he wasn’t going to stand for that.

FBI agents in the field were convinced DeLaughter was the mastermind of the arson. A retired agent recently deceased–John Pfeifer–spent 10 years in Concordia Parish back then. Pfeifer said the one thing FBI agents couldn’t do in the 1960s was directly link DeLaughter to the arson. Fortunately, we were able to do that in 2010.

Relatives of admitted Klansman Arthur Leonard Spencer of Rayville, La., including his son, said Spencer had discussed his involvement in the Ferriday arson through the years. They also said a family friend–Coonie Poissot–told them he was involved as well.

Described by the FBI as a drifter, Klansman, thug, and speed addict, Poissot revealed to agents in 1967 that he was with DeLaughter the night before the arson and that as they passed the shoe shop in DeLaughter’s patrol car, the deputy said he planned to teach Morris a lesson. The following night, Morris watched his two attackers as they torched the building. He didn’t know them.

DeLaughter and Poissot died in the 1990s. Following our story on Spencer in January 2011, three separate Concordia Parish grand juries heard from witnesses in the case, but took no action and issued no reports. After Spencer died in 2013, the Justice Department said it didn’t believe Spencer had been involved. Yet the U.S. Attorney’s office in Louisiana considered him a prime suspect.

You have also investigated the cold case deaths of other African Americans at the hands of the Silver Dollar Group, described as the most secretive and dangerous in the nation at the time. What has driven you to pursue these injustices in such depth?  How many stories did you ultimately write?

I’ve written approximately 200 stories. Like Frank Morris, all of these cases are compelling. The victims are ordinary folks who have suffered extraordinary pain.

Additionally, discovering the inner workings of the Silver Dollar Group was a fascinating journey. These men, including Frank DeLaughter, were incredibly successful terrorists for two reasons. One, in small numbers, typically three or four men, they committed these crimes. Two, they kept their mouths shut.

The group’s leader–Red Glover–who may have acted alone in the 1967 bombing of NAACP Treasurer Wharlest Jackson in Natchez, was interviewed several times by FBI agents after Jackson’s murder. On one occasion, Glover told the agents he hoped they caught the murderer because, according to Glover, the killer obviously was “a maniac.”

Natchez author Greg Iles’ blockbuster trilogy of Natchez BurningThe Bone Tree, and Mississippi Blood was based on you and your work to solve these cold cases. Please comment on the significance of that honor.

Stanley Nelson

Stanley Nelson

In 2013 (Greg) handed me a galley of Natchez Burning. He signed the title page: “To Stanley Nelson: The Real Henry Sexton.” I’ll never forget it. Greg was born with a gift for writing, and he continues to become better at it. But, in my opinion, his genius is his research.

You were named a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting in 2011, as a result of your investigation of these cases. How has that impacted you personally and professionally?

It was totally unexpected. I never thought the Sentinel would emerge at the top of the list against stories such as WikiLeaks and the BP Oil Spill. It also means that the stories of Frank Morris and the other victims may live on.

Is there anything else you’d like to include?       

The book covers the emergence of the Silver Dollar Group (SDG) from the three traditional Klans. The SDG’s goal was simple–go underground and fight integration with deadly force. Red Glover hand-picked the members and as a symbol of unity gave many a silver dollar minted in the year of the Klansman’s birth. Southwest Mississippi and Concordia Parish, Louisiana, (across the river from Natchez) had seen at least four SDG murders by July 1964, three occurring before the Neshoba murders and the fourth occurring just days afterward. Eight SDG murders are covered in the book as well as the killing of Johnny Queen in 1965 in Fayette.

Additionally, the book questions the FBI and Justice Department’s new probes into the murders. Since the initiative was announced in February 2007, only one re-opened case moved forward–the grand jury probe into the Frank Morris arson. For the most part, the government’s initiative was a failure and we discuss why.

‘Civil Rights, Culture Wars’ shows how textbook fight mirrors battle of Mississippi legacy

By Jere Nash. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 9).

civil rights culture warsNot until 1980 were Mississippi high schools allowed to use a textbook that accurately and dispassionately covered the entire history of the state, complete with the horrors of slavery, the motives behind the Civil War, the value of Reconstruction, and the triumphs of the civil rights movement. Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight Over a Mississippi Textbook (University of North Carolina Press) by University of Mississippi historian Charles Eagles explains how it happened.

Several years ago, the University of North Carolina Press published The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss, the authoritative account by Eagles of the one event in the 1960s that defined Mississippi for the rest of the nation.

The disastrous response of whites in our state to the demand for civil and voting rights was prompted in part by 80 years of school textbooks that marginalized black men and women and distorted black history.

Eagles is unsparing in his descriptions of those earlier textbooks: one explained that “the life of a slave [was] pleasant,” while another textbook defended the role of the Ku Klux Klan, while yet another applauded the 1890 Constitutional Convention in seeking to “insure control of the state by the white man.” After eight decades of indoctrination of generations of white Mississippians with historical myths, it is not hard to see how that helped to fuel the fire of massive resistance.

MississippiConflictandChangeWhich brings us to James Loewen and Charles Sallis. In the 1970s, Loewen, a professor at Tougaloo College, and Sallis, a professor at Millsaps College, began to work together on a new kind of textbook, called Mississippi: Conflict and Change, that, as Eagles writes, “argued that conflict produces change, and [that] embraced controversial subjects related to race and class, examined unpleasant subjects such as economic depressions and violence, and included subjects neglected by other books–blacks, women, workers, and the arts.” Eagles takes us through how the book was researched, written and ultimately published in 1974.

Getting the book published, though, didn’t automatically mean it would show up in high schools. In Mississippi, then as now, a state board approves the textbooks for classroom use. And in November 1974, the board said no to Conflict and Change. With access to rich primary material, Eagles gives us a perceptive behind-the-scenes accounting of why that decision was made.

But the story doesn’t end there. Loewen, Sallis, and Eagles are just getting warmed up. The authors filed a historic lawsuit, asking a federal judge to force the state to accept their textbook, and Eagles delivers this development with backroom negotiations, trial testimony and lucid analysis. The litigation took six long years and was finally resolved on April 2, 1980, when Judge Orman Smith ordered the board to place Conflict and Change on the approved list.

Eagles captures the untenable position of the state in one short exchange between the judge and John Turnipseed, a teacher who rated the book unfavorably. After objecting to a photograph of a lynching because it would cause “harsh feelings in the classroom,” Turnipseed was asked by Judge Smith, “But this happened, didn’t it? Didn’t Mississippians have more lynchings than any other state?” Turnipseed testified, “Well, yes. But that all happened so long ago. Why dwell on it now?” To which the exasperated judge responded: “Well, it is a history book!”

As with his book on Meredith and Ole Miss, Eagles’ writing is marked by three qualities that I like. One, he builds the narrative around primary sources. He interviews people, he digs through old file boxes, and finds the records that tell the truth.

Two, he provides context. He not only sets the state for the story, he give us succinct biographical information on the players. The journey of Conflict and Change involved lawyers, historians, journalists, activists, including Ernst Borinski, Frank Parker, Mel Leventhal, Margaret Walker Alexander, Fred Banks, Clarice Campbell, Duncan Gray Jr., Jeanne Middleton, David Sansing, and John Bettersworth.

Third, Eagles doesn’t hesitate to give his opinion. I agreed with some, other I didn’t, but I like authors with opinions; it makes me stop and think.

I’ll close this review with an observation on the import of Conflict and Change by the incomparable Frank Parker, one of the lawyers for Loewen and Sallis: “Desegregation of the public schools in the South is now protected even more by a constitutional prohibition against maintaining racial segregation in the curriculum and in textbooks.”

Jere Nash is the co-author of Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2008, Mississippi Fried Politics, Tall Tales from the Backroom, and America’s Great Storm: Leading Through Hurricane Katrina.

Civil Rights Superheroes: ‘March’ by John Lewis

The graphic novel is a strange beast. Though I’m not as well versed in them as our beloved Hunter is, I still enjoy reading them. Most of the graphic-format books I’ve read have been about superheroes:  Batman, the Green Lantern Corps, Daredevil. And, in a way, March fits that bill, too, though both the hero and enemies are too real.

March is the three-part memoir of civil rights icon Senator John Lewis, co-written with his communications aide Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell.  The narrative begins on the inauguration day of President Barack Obama, but quickly jumps back in time, beginning with Lewis’ childhood in rural Alabama, where he witnessed racial inequality but was ordered (by his parents, for his safety) to stay quiet about it.  march book twoWith the occasional jump back into the narrative present, March follows Lewis’ life using major civil rights events (the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Freedom Rides, and the event alluded to in the title, the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge).

I won’t bore you with a summary of Lewis’ life—it’s well known in general, and well-told in March. I will, however, encourage you to buy the all three volumes for several reasons. Primarily, the story is important. Having this narrative focus on one man’s experience in a movement that affected so many is brilliant, both rhetorically and craft-wise. It takes an idea that for so many of us is an abstract notion and turns it into a story. Lewis’ story is simultaneously his own and part of something much larger than himself, and March tells both sides of this well.

march book threeIt’s also compellingly told. Lewis’ tone is conversational: it balances seriousness and grief with levity and honesty. Anyone who’s heard Senator Lewis speak knows he does so with conviction but without false airs, and March is written the same way.

The quality of Lewis’ storytelling is augmented by Powell’s artwork. The black-and-white drawings are at times austere, others foreboding, but always evocative. When I tell people about the book, I often describe it as visually “gorgeous,” a term I seldom use but which is the only one that fits. Here.

march art

March is for anyone:  a reluctant reader, a fan of history, a consumer of comics, a member of the human race who wants to know more about heroism in the face of hatred. Some heroes fly; others march–over, and over, and over again.

March comes into two forms: a collected slipcase edition, and separately in volumes onetwo, and three.

In ‘Free State,’ notions of equality emerge from behind a black mask

Tom Piazza will be at the Eudora Welty House TONIGHT at 5:00 to sign and read from “A Free State”.

By Jim Ewing. Special to The Clarion-Ledger

WFES062284129-2Tom Piazza’s “Free State” offers a fascinating study on the nature of freedom in the guise of a thought-provoking novel.

Set in the years before the Civil War, “Free State” focuses on the chance coming together of a black man, who calls himself Henry Sims, and a white man, who calls himself James Douglass. Both are assumed names by characters seeking freedom and a new identity from the lives they were born into and their grim pasts.

Douglass is of Irish descent, the youngest son of a Pennsylvania farmer who chafed under the grueling chores of farm life and the physical abuse of his father and older brothers. He seeks freedom by joining a traveling circus and becomes enthralled by the burgeoning fad of minstrelsy — traveling troupes of musicians who adopt a grotesque rendition of Old South plantation life by performing in black face, or covering their faces with burnt cork. He rises in his musical ability and forms his own minstrel group in Philadelphia, Penn., a free state, which in America, it turns out, is not so free.

But it’s all theater, a masquerade, set for public consumption amidst an imagined tapestry of faux aristocratic plantation owners bemused by the “jollity” of enslaved blacks happily entertaining for their masters. Only the beauty of the music is real.

Why minstrelsy? “The practice of ‘blacking up’ had spread … to feed a hunger that had gone unrecognized until then,” Douglass reminisces. “ In it, we — everyone, it seemed— encountered a freedom that could be found there and there only. As if day-to-day life were a dull slog under gray skies, and the minstrels launched one into the empyrean blue.”

“When I first heard the minstrels,” he recalls, “…I felt as if I had been freed from a life of oppressive servitude.”

Thus, a white man finds freedom by impersonating a black slave.

Douglass’ façade meets horrific reality when he meets Sims, a runaway slave from Virginia, seeking to escape his master father and a slave hunter, Tull Burton, he has hired to track him down. Burton is evil incarnate, a fascinating study of the devil in human flesh, who delights in the torture of those he seeks. Like the society that imposes slavery and inequality even under the guise of democracy and commitment to human freedom, he is unrelenting and devoted to his cause of using the law to brutally enforce the codes of human bondage.

The story itself is absorbing as Douglass and Sims forge a tenuous bond and adopt a rational solution to both of their problems. Sims and Douglass attempt to pursue their love of music while supporting themselves in a world that twists notions of life and livelihood along the lines of race.

Their solution — for Sims, a black man, to assume black face in order to evade laws barring black people from public performance — exposes the theater of the absurd that was the antebellum South. In it, a white man could find freedom only by pretending to black; a black man could only find freedom by masking that he was black by pretending to be black.

The truth of this preposterous state of “freedom” finds echoes today as American society still struggles with issues of race and equality. The true face behind the mask is that the world limits freedom and equality no matter how devoted and pure one’s intention and desires may be, and that we all play out our roles in often absurd conditions to pursue a free state.

It’s an absorbing tale and a parable that exposes the incongruities of living in a democracy still colored by inequality.

 

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them, now in bookstores.

Devotion by Adam Makos

Adam Makos will be here TONIGHT at 5:00! We love this book so much that we’ve chosen it as our December pick for First Editions Club.

Let me start this blog off by saying this….

I don’t read non-fiction. Pretty much….never. Not at all. I can not sit down and read fact after fact about a topic; it just can’t hold my attention the way a fictional story can. I don’t like this, because I want to be able to learn about different things and I obviously have books at my fingertips to do so by working at Lemuria; but, non-fiction is just not my “go to”.

With all that being said…..Let me tell you about this non-fiction book that changed everything.

WFES804176583-2I’ve always been interested in World War I and World War II and the time period around those years. To be honest, I’ve just always been interested in the history of different wars (obviously more interested in those in which the U.S. were involved). I like watching movies based around war and there are times when I will watch documentaries as well. But, reading a history book wasn’t something I enjoyed.

However, I really feel as if Devotion has changed my outlook on reading about history. Devotion is an incredible story from military journalist, Adam Makos. As it’s stated on the cover, it’s “An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship and Sacrifice” between two Navy carrier pilots during the Korean war. One of which is a white New-Englander who comes from a country club background (Tom Hudner), while the other pilot is a share-cropper’s son from Mississippi (Jesse Brown) who became the first African-American Naval pilot. Basically, Jesse was fighting for a country that sometimes wouldn’t even serve him in a restaurant. However, he found much more than just a job in the Navy; he found men that stood by his side no matter what.

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Lieutenant Tom Hudner

Makos goes way beyond just slapping down facts on a piece of paper, he takes you into the intense lives of both Lieutenant Tom Hudner and Ensign Jesse Brown during their time in the Korean War by offering you a novel-like feel. He interviewed so many military veterans and used all of that information to make the stories flow together as one- so much so that it feels like you’re reading a novel rather than sectioned off facts about the war.

From what I understand, the Korean War is the Forgotten War, but Makos takes you right into the battlefield; from the Marines on the ground in trenches to Jesse and Tom overhead in their planes. I was definitely taken into the harsh conditions (temperatures as low as -35 degrees) when the Marines were near Chosin Resevoir; and there were moments when I felt like I was in the plane with Jesse or Tom trying to make split-second decisions. Makos included maps to help show the locations of each event, letters, and photos taken during this time as well as before (photos of marines and pilots with their wives, parents, siblings, etc). Having photos and being able to put faces on to the people being described made me become so involved in the story, that there were a few times while I was reading that I became slightly emotional.

Ensign Jesse L. Brown, first African-American Naval Aviator

Ensign Jesse L. Brown, first African-American Naval Aviator

Makos made me look at non-fiction in a whole new way. I was given facts and I was given true stories …and it was beautiful. This book was such a great way to take a look at history and to teach myself more about sacrifice, war, and one’s devotion to friendship. I feel like I’m going to have to keep sticking my nose in our history section from now on to see if I can learn a few more things.

Meek’s ‘RIOT’ captures turmoil of Ole Miss 1962 integration

By Jim Ewing. Special to The Clarion-Ledger

Riotcover2-1-400x300Readers who pick up the large format book of photographs RIOT: Witness to Anger and Change should be prepared to be stunned and horrified. It graphically ushers the unwary into a world of violence and hate that could only have been captured by someone who was there during the racial madness when James Meredith became the first black student admitted into the University of Mississippi in 1962.

The narrative is revealing both in its raw honesty — as captivating as the photographs — and its nuance. It begins with Meek’s account. He was a 22-year-old Ole Miss staff photographer when the protest turned violent. He took more than 500 photos throughout that night and the next day, which form the book’s basis.

The riot began at dusk,” Sept. 30, 1962, Meek writes. “Bottles flew by me to strike federal marshals. Tear gas canisters were fired into the crowd. Bricks smashed into windshields and cars were set on fire. … bullets were flying. Snipers were on top of Bryant Hall, the fine arts center, and on the roof of the old Y building firing at the marshals. I counted a dozen bullet holes on the pillars and door facings of the Lyceum.”

The shots, bricks and mayhem was not at the hands of students, but from thousands of outsiders flooding in.

When it was over, two people were dead, hundreds were injured or arrested. But, added journalist and author Curtis Wilkie, who was a student at the time and writes a superb introduction to the book, “the reputation of Ole Miss was gravely wounded.”

RIOT is a well-crafted book that could stand alone with its stunning photography but it is immeasurably amplified by the insightful commentary by witnesses to the cataclysmic events. The photos are especially compelling as snapshots of a time and place that seems incomprehensible to today — or, perhaps, in some ways, chillingly not.

For example, in one sequence of photos, Meek captured scenes of a football rally the evening before the riot that appear as some bizarre KKK nightmare. In them, a cheerleader rallies the crowd before a giant bonfire and, in another, smiling majorettes wave a large Rebel flag as the band plays behind them. It was all wrapped up, football, politics and “winning” in one broad cloth.

As Wilkie recounts, at that rally, “the state was basically on a war footing and for the first time, the little miniature Confederate battle flags were brought out and distributed to the crowd.”

At the game itself, Gov. Ross Barnett addressed the crowd at halftime, extolling states rights and calling on every Mississippian to stand up to the federal government.

In the moments before the actual rioting begins, Meek recounts, a student played “Dixie,” another dressed as a Confederate soldier brandished his sword. “It felt like a pep rally until I heard the hiss of a bottle sailing over my head and saw it strike a marshal’s helmet,” Meek writes. A television station in Jackson was also cheering for action, calling “for Mississippians to take up arms and travel to Oxford.”

The reminiscence of Meek, who went on to become an assistant vice chancellor and professor, for whom the Ole Miss Meek School of Journalism is named, is particularly personal and revealing.

I grew up in Mississippi, a segregated society where African-Americans were virtually enslaved as second-class citizens,” he writes. When the National Guard showed up at Ole Miss, he adds, “they were as conflicted as I was.” But he was “about to be brought to terms with my previously unexamined racism.”

Ole Miss alumni or supporters shouldn’t expect any sugar coating from RIOT. While the event is “not remembered with pride at our alma mater,” Wilkie writes, RIOT is “an indelible reminder of our past.”

To the school’s credit, Ole Miss has never tried to whitewash the story. … The University of Mississippi confronted and eventually came to terms with the traumatic events,” he said, proactively seeking to champion diversity and racial healing. It’s a story that should not be forgotten, lest it be repeated.

As former Gov. William F. Winter said in RIOT’s afterword, courageous trailblazers like Meredith and slain Jackson civil rights leader Medgar Evers are owed a debt of gratitude by all Mississippians.

They freed us, too. All of us, black and white alike, had been victims of a cruel system of apartheid that kept us all enslaved,” said Winter, an Ole Miss alum who helped found the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation at the university.

RIOT should be on the coffee table of every Mississippian, as a reminder of where we came from and where we need to go. And it should not only be displayed, but read, studied and remembered.

 

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them, in stores now.

Yard War by Taylor Kitchings- Tonight at 5:00!

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on August 15, 2015. Written by Clara Martin.

 

61Gy6wN9uRL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_“Yard War” is a coming-of-age story set in Jackson during the 1960s.

Author Taylor Kitchings is a Jackson native; hence, the strong sense of place comes through in this book. Jackson is a place its natives can’t ever seem to fully disentangle themselves from. They may leave, but there is always that pull to return home, and in “Yard War,” Kitchings explores why we stay in a place like Jackson.

Jackson’s newest novelist is most known for teaching English for the past 25 years at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School. He has taught thousands of students, myself included, each of whom could tell you that his class had an impact on their life. “Yard War” may be targeted to the 12-and-up crowd, but if you have ever lived in Jackson at one point in your life, you would be remiss in not reading this book.

The book’s main character, Trip Westbrook, is like most boys in Jackson in the 1960s. He loves football, there are Sunday lunches with Meemaw and Papaw, and he’s looking forward to starting junior high. His world, much like the front lawn where he plays football, is pristine.

When he invites Dee, the maid’s son, to throw the football on the front lawn, the neighbors aren’t happy because it’s a sign that integration is alive and well. While Trip says “I tell you what, I want a guy with an arm like that on my team. I don’t care if he’s black, white, or purple,” this seemingly innocent game creates trouble for the Westbrook family.

Should the Westbrooks leave town or should they stay? A story of family ties and fighting for what you believe in, “Yard War” is full of hilarity, moments of heartbreak, and will have you rooting for the good guys. This novel is relevant in that it explores Jackson’s past, present, and future. While this book shows reasons that might make a person leave Jackson, it also encompasses all the good parts that will make one want to stay. As Dr. Westbrook tells his son, Trip:

“It’s like one day God took the best of what’s good and the worst of what’s bad, stirred it all up, and dumped it between Memphis and New Orleans. You can’t move away from a place like that. You have to help keep the good in the mix.”

“Yard War” reinforces the truth about humanity with a football game: Sometimes it seems as if the Goliaths will be the winners, but as Trip reminds the readers, “The good guys won here today. They just might win tomorrow.”

Clara Martin works for Lemuria Books in Jackson.

Release party

Kick off your fall reading with the “Yard War” release party at Lemuria Books on Tuesday, August 18. A signing starts at 5 p.m. with a reading to follow.

What’s Done In the Dark Will be Brought to the Light: John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down

A 67 year-old white supremacist is violently killed in his home by a 22 year-old black man, who then mutilates his corpse. How’s that for a précis?

JacketTwo things (besides John Berendt’s blurb on the front cover) made me want to read John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down one day when I came across checking our inventory:

1) Whoever titled this book is a genius. Although originally titled Murder in Mississippi in Safran’s native Australia, there’s a lot of mileage you can get out of the words to this old folk song, famously and recently recorded by Johnny Cash. First the pounding bass line gets stuck in your head immediately, like a song for a kick-ass mental movie trailer. It also sets up a certain set of expectations. Which brings me to the second enticement…

2) I first heard about the ballad of Richard Barrett around the dinner table by family members who have long been plugged into the Jackson scene. Anecdotes of the can-you-believe-this? variety. And the final act was one to beat all.

Now in my house, the barest facts told the story: the 22 year-old black man, Vincent McGee, was tired of oppression and white supremacy. At the very least, Barrett had finally reaped all the hate he had sown of his forty-year career of racist lunacy. McGee was an instrument of divine justice; God had cut Richard Barrett down.
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John Safran, the Jewish-Australian host of gotcha-television shows and a self-described “Race Trekkie,” had played a prank on Barrett the year before his death for his show. A year later and across the world, he saw people on the internet make the same assumption, but other people make add vague complications as motivations (sex and money), and found the picture to be incomplete. This is no classic whodunit—it’s a tangled why-dun-it. And that proves to be more complicated than the writer or reader might anticipate.

So Safran read a bunch of true-crime novels, like In Cold Blood and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and studied the form. There’s supposed to be a paradigm about how you see the world: I’ve told how I think things happened, but as Safran learned in Mississippi, two people can see the exact same thing and have two different explanations as to how and why it happened (and about things less fantastic than a race murder).

unnamedResearch complete, Safran hops on a plane to Jackson to investigate. One of the most charming things about Safran is his ability to recognize his own shortcomings. The first scene in Mississippi where he encounters this poster in the airport as he ruminates on his lack of experience as a writer is hilarious and amazing.

I should admit though that he does bite back later in the book when passing by the poster on his way into town again. And that’s one of the things I found most fascinating about the book as a Mississippian; books where the outsider comes in and tries to make sense of what’s going on read like poetry, when the familiar becomes strange. It breaks you out of the prison of your own experience.

Safran interacts with varying degrees of public figures: Barrett, Jackson Advocate reporter Earnest McBride, white supremacist podcaster Jim Giles, state representative John L. Moore, Madison and Rankin County DA Michael Guest, and even a cameo by a pre-mayoral Chokwe Lumumba. Just as interesting are his interviews with McGee’s family and his paramours, and Barrett’s neighbors and his former associates. Safran doesn’t use kid gloves in his treatment, but he’s not out to make a buffoon out of anybody, either—despite what reservations his television stunts might inspire.

As Safran digs deeper into the night of the murder, and the lives of both Barrett and McGee that led them there, he becomes less sure about it all. Race casts a long shadow over everything, as does religion, mental illness, and repressed sexuality. The only thing he seems to uncover for sure is the complicated humanity of both men. William Faulkner never said “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi”; but you know, in my opinion at least, Mississippi’s as good a place as any to start. And you will first learn about the stupid truth, always resisting simplicity.

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