Welcome to the train station! On a recent road trip to Texas, I visited the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. On the way home, I spent the day in Montgomery, Alabama at the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Sandwiched in between those stops I attended a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in Brandon, MS, where I was one of 7500 white folks - not a person of color in sight. These next two issues of the Train Station touch on my experience.
Part One: Mississippi...
What I learned:
• European colonialism drove out Native American cultures, with final expulsion of Chicasaw and Choctaw peoples by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
• Cotton drove an explosion in the economy and population in the early 1800's. During that time, the population of the Mississippi territory rose from 9,000 to 222,000, most of whom were enslaved African Americans brought by settlers or shipped by slave traders. • Cotton and slavery drove the economy through the 19th century, even after the Civil War and emancipation, through convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, terrorism and lynching. • Enslaved African Americans were treated brutally. Families were commonly broken up; husbands wives and children were sold separately, never to see one another again. Work, hours, housing and care were inhumane. Slavery was justified by religious, scientific and political arguments of inferiority of the black race. • Between 1870 and 1950, at least 654 racially-motivated lynchings were carried out in Mississippi. More died in the following decades of protest. • The gruesome 1955 murder of 14 year old Emmett Till shocked the nation and galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. Mississippi became a flashpoint for the movement, with the 1961 Freedom Rides, 1964's Freedom Summer (with the murder of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman), the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. • Medgar Evers, the NAACP's Field Secretary in Mississippi, a respected leader in the Civil Rights movement and a father of three was assassinated in front of his home in 1963. Anger over Medgar's murder awakened people's activism.
ME:The Mississippi Museums document many, many incidents and an overwhelming background of white supremacy and terrorism, brutality and inhumanity. They also document the indomitable and hopeful spirit of people, even those cruelly oppressed, enslaved, raped and dehumanized. They document the courage, commitment and actions of those, of all colors, who stood up for civil rights for all people. Good versus evil. As I took in the galleries at these museums, I remembered some of these events from when I was growing up; some were discussed at my kitchen table. Then, and now, I have a sense of unease that the fear, anger and hatred that characterize the white supremacy of our country's history lives in me as it does in others. Where would I have stood up? Would I have spoken? Would I have been complicit? Am I now?
"What we've seen prompts an inner search for empathy and for courage. Part of the courage is asking 'What would I have done then, observing this, being aware of the violence and horror?' And then, 'What am I prepared to do now?'"
Robert M. Franklin Jr.
James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership, Emory university
Currently on its farewell tour, the venerable Southern-rock group is much different than the one Ronnie Van Zant led in the 1970s. Ronnie and two other band members perished in a plane crash in Mississippi in 1977, but the band lived on as part of the cultural landscape for many years to come. Lynyrd Skynyrd has long been a favorite of the confederate flag crowd and even though in recent years the band has avoided displaying the flag during concerts, it's clear their fans regard their Southern legacy as a source of unquestioned pride.
I had a blast at this concert, drank a few beers, danced in the aisles and went on imaginary dates with some lovely Southern women! Honestly, it wasn't until late in the evening as the crowd hooted and hollered in support of our military and the band talked about not forgetting "our Southern heritage" that a creepy feeling rose in me. Only then did I notice there wasn't a face of color in the crowd. My buzz disappeared and I got a familiar sense of discomfort and being an outsider. It was time to go.
To be continued in the next issue of the Train Station: