A Southern Awakening

An old injustice in Mississippi yields new awareness.

"Mount Olive is dying, Ralph," Paw-Paw whispered to me on a warm November afternoon in 1999. Though Paw-Paw is a southern term of endearment for grandfather, the man who shared this lament about my hometown was not related. He was only like a grandfather, as devoted to me as he was to his wife, Granny, who sat nearby, unaware of what we were discussing. Nor did she remember who I was.

I lived with them in this small Mississippi town of 914 people while finishing my senior year of high school, after my parents moved to the northern part of the state in the fall of 1973. When my father received a much-deserved and much-fought-for promotion with the Farmer's Home Administration, I refused to move to a new town whose claim to fame was that someone had burned its school to the ground before the crowning of a black homecoming queen. With little resistance from my parents, I stayed in Mount Olive with Paw-Paw and Granny, in this house with the big front porch and white awning. Twenty-six years later, my old room upstairs looked as if I had just left yesterday and would return for good any day now.

Despite the devotion of my surrogate grandparents, I had not seen them in 10 years. I stayed away because visiting Mississippi had become emotionally difficult. During our last trip, my wife, Colleen, and I had grown weary of the visible discomfort our interracial marriage brought out in the people there, both white and black. Rather than experiencing the delights of southern hospitality, we felt like uninvited guests at a country club. After that, I traveled to Mississippi only in my imagination, and as the years clicked by, even those visits became less frequent.

I finally came back to Mount Olive not out of love, or loyalty as a native son, but to find out what landed my parents in the files of the Sovereignty Commission, a secret state agency set up in 1956 to thwart the civil rights movement. I had seen their names on a list of 87,000 people monitored by the agency, posted on the American Civil Liberties Union's Mississippi Web site after the files were unsealed in 1998. My mother suspected that she and my father might be in the files because of their affiliation with the NAACP and her penchant for disregarding Mississippi's racial etiquette, but she had little interest in exploring them. She now lives in McLean, Va., worlds removed from Mississippi. My father has been dead for more than 20 years.

My own desire to understand my parents' role in the civil rights era and my children's questions about this place I talked about compelled me to get the full picture. The fall day that I reminisced with Paw-Paw about Mount Olive marked the beginning of a three-year journey to learn as much as I could about the commission and the culture that gave rise to it. Along the way, unexpectedly, I would learn to love my hometown again and even Mississippi itself.

My welcome back began in the stone-quiet confines of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson, reading this chilling excerpt from a Sovereignty Commission document: "The names included in this file are not intended to represent every individual Negro in Mississippi who belongs or is sympathetic to the NAACP. However, these names are of those individuals who have shown up constantly in our continuing investigations as being active in their support of the NAACP across the state." One of those individuals was my father.

Formed by an alliance of the state government and the segregationist Citizens' Council, sometimes called the uptown Klan, the commission was empowered "to do and perform any and all acts and things deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the State of Mississippi, and her sister states, from encroachment thereon by the Federal Government." This coded statement meant that the commission defended the right of white Mississippians to maintain segregation at any cost.

My research revealed that the commission clearly violated the very notion of a democratic society. But my return to Mount Olive led me to a second truth: My hometown was dying because no one had prepared it for life. By the time the commission was disbanded in 1973, Mississippi was moving toward a more racially open society. But Mount Olive wasted its energy by clinging to social segregation and trying to hold on to white political and economic power rather than preserving the vitality of the town I knew as a boy.

Back then, Main Street, 10 blocks long if you stretch it, was the gathering place of rich and poor, black and white. Although we lived and worshiped separately, blacks and whites walked side by side down the streets and shopped in the same stores. As the years passed, however, agriculture withered, so the institutions that had brought farmers to town—the cotton gin, the feed mill, the pickle vat—closed, and nothing replaced them. Fewer people frequented Hudson's Hardware, Calhoun's Mercantile, and Byrd's Supermarket. Today Mount Olive's streets are pockmarked and lined with shuttered businesses and deserted sidewalks. The cars of people who once shopped here now crowd the parking lot of a Wal-Mart nine miles up Highway 49.

I had once described this town as the place where nothing ever happened. Its dull steadiness contrasted sharply with the vibrant world I imagined beyond its borders. Revisiting the corroding landmarks of my youth, I yearned to see again that place where nothing ever happened. And I realized that in fact, a lot had been happening—both in broad daylight and in the shadows.

"I'll help you," the streets of Mount Olive seemed to whisper as I tried to piece together clues to the past. The town was littered with relics, like shards from an archaeological dig. Across the street from Granny and Paw-Paw's house stood the ruins of my segregated elementary school. After integration, Lincoln School was abandoned because whites refused to attend a school built for blacks with grants from the Rosenwald Fund (see the July/August 2003 Preservation), which, ironically, had promoted black-white cooperation in the Jim Crow era. My mother taught first grade at Lincoln, and the Sovereignty Commission placed her and every other black teacher in the state on a list of people who could influence the young to rise up against segregation. Only the gymnasium and the concrete base of the flagpole put up by the class of 1950 remained. The rest of the building was destroyed by an industrial fire, for in its final days my old school had become a factory.

Up a winding blacktop road, about a mile away, was my family's old farmstead—80 acres of green hills and dark, rich fields. A neat white clapboard-and-brick house bordered by a peach orchard once crowned the hill. A tornado flattened the place 11 years ago, but I found the concrete path that led to the front door. It was on this spot that I had wondered, years before, why cars sometimes slowed down outside my house and strange white men stared out their windows as they passed. Now I know they suspected that my father was one of the men described in the Sovereignty Commission files as working with the NAACP "in a quiet way."

Almost everything I knew there was gone, except the old chinaberry tree I had climbed as a boy with my slingshot, to pelt my three sisters with berries. As the memories poured over me, I realized that the tree was not the same one at all, but a new one growing from the old stump.

Then, in my mind, I visualized the farm and the town from the back seat of a blue-and-white 1962 Chevy Bel Air. I heard the gravel roaring under its wheels as my father and I pulled out of our driveway and headed into town, winding past Granny and Paw-Paw's house, Lincoln School, the feed mill, and down Main Street. My father was the Negro county agent—another agent dealt with white farmers—and I often accompanied him on his rounds. We would wander down country roads named Sunset and Hot Coffee, toward the county seat of Collins, where his tiny concrete-block office sat on the Negro side of the tracks. There were roads I knew by the ruts jostling me in that cavernous back seat.

Memories of that back-seat view jibed with what I'd read in the commission documents. Sometimes snippets of adult conversations I overheard on those drives turned up in the files, such as a report about black men fishing on the whites-only side of a local lake. Farms we visited and the people we talked to were well documented by the commission.

Retracing the paths my father and I traveled, I began to see more of what had not changed: The country roads, though paved, had the same curves and bumps, and mailboxes bore familiar names. I stopped randomly; people welcomed me into their homes just as they had when I was a boy. Talking to old friends and reconnecting to the place I had turned my back on, I eventually came to terms with present-day Mount Olive, just as I came to terms with the decline of Paw-Paw and Granny from active gardener and magnificent cook to two old people who needed their meals delivered. Each time I entered their house, I reminded myself that I now had to look out for them as they had for me. Each time I visited the old farm site, I stood in silence on that ground that had nurtured me, thankful that my parents had protected me from a world that classified people as "race agitators" and "integration organizers."

Mississippi is not an easy place to love, and there is much there that still perplexes me. But its racially charged past has been pulled out of the shadows for scrutiny and debate, and no one tries to stop the debate or secretly listen in. My reconciliation with Mount Olive made me comfortable enough to bring my two sons there, although Colleen chose to stay behind with our young daughter.

Unexpectedly, my two boys from Washington, D.C., did not scoff when they landed in the rural South. They loved it. We drove from Memphis to Vicksburg, and as the lush green hills of southern Mississippi rolled into sight, I could see the look of wonder in their eyes. We spent a day hanging around Mount Olive, walking down the deserted streets while I regaled them with tales of my boyhood: picking up the Sunday paper at the Green Tree Hotel, playing in the phone booth at Boxx's Chevron station. We shared one of my old Saturday-go-to-town treats: a cold bottle of Coca-Cola from the soda fountain at Powell's Drug Store, about the only place that hadn't changed, the roar of the Illinois Central still in the background.

Afterward, we toured the countryside around Mount Olive. When they argued over who would ride in the front, I made them both ride in the back. Our old Volvo was no match for the Chevy of my childhood, but it would do: There's a lot to learn from the back-seat view, and one day my sons will understand that.

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