Updated: 2 days ago
The Mississippi Delta is shining like a
National guitar I am following the highway down the river Through the cradle of the Civil War.
Despite my awareness of the double meaning, Paul Simon’s pop original always felt like we were going to Elvis’s house. Justin Townes Earle makes it sound—maybe through the simple acoustic guitar, or my maturity, or JT’s own tragedy—that we are going to Grace Land. And throughout my recent civil rights trip to the Mississippi Delta and deep south, I kept peering into raw spaces, searching for a map to grace / land.
Like how we peek into a deciduous forest on a winter day, its secrets on display with the leaves fallen. Like gazing into a house at night with the shades left open, the personal exposed to passersby.
Losing love is like a window in your heart Everybody sees you're blown apart Everybody sees the wind blow.
Here you endure and are luminous. / You are not lost to us. / The wind carries sorrows, sighs, and shouts. / The wind brings everything. Nothing is lost.
—Elizabeth Alexander, quoted on a slab at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, that commemorates the victims of the racial terror campaign known as lynching.
I began my trip with an exploration of the experience of enslavement at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, the only preserved plantation that exists as a visitor experience to understand the lived experience of slavery—that is to say, stories are told from the point of view of enslaved people. This perspective was cemented by visiting a museum and plantation house upriver where a loved one has family history in either enslaved or free Blacks—part playing history detective, part leaving a folded crane prayer.
The remainder of my trip came face to face with the hundred years following the legal end of slavery—the roller coaster / pendulum between the horrors of convict leasing, lynchings, bombings, redlining, segregation, dehumanizing, and shameful poverty; and the glory of the John Lewises, the determination of Freedom Riders, the courage of Mamie Till Mobley, the patience of Rosa Parks, the endurance of Fannie Lou Hamer, the service of the Tuskegee Airmen, the monuments and memorials to small heroes worth our emulation and love.
Like: I drove slightly out of my way to Drew, Mississippi, to look for a historic Rosenwald School building. I didn’t find it. Instead I found income disparity to make one’s eyes burn in shame—a mansion behind a high iron fence next to people living in desperate poverty and streets cratered with sinkholes; a high school that closed due to district consolidation ten years ago, now overgrown and haunting.
Like: Delta Tourism: “Built atop a ceremonial Indian Mound, this 1896 home overlooks the surrounding Delta fields like a queen. Helen Johnstone Harris and the Reverend George Carrol Harris were the first owners of the house. Each Spring the Friends of Mont Helena present a drama that tells the tragic story of Helen and her first love Henry Vick of Nitta Yuma. During the rest of the year, the home is open for tours by appointment.”
Like: Glen Cotton hosting my visit to his Freedom House in Canton, where his business-owning grandparents had rented a small house to CORE in the 1960s. Dr. King stayed in the house next door on his visit. Mr. Cotton has turned the Freedom House into a museum, using the resources his family miraculously retained from a business that was not destroyed. He mentions the young people who went to Parchman. I don’t know what he means yet.
Like: From the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery, “During 1961, groups of volunteers made history by challenging the practice of segregated interstate travel through the South. These Freedom Riders, mostly college students, crossed racial barriers in depots and on-board buses.” Black and white volunteers, trained in non-violence protest, were assaulted in Alabama cities. By Jackson, Mississippi, they faced mass arrest. So more came, and more, to get arrested in Jackson. They were sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, a maximum-security prison farm located north in the Delta. Freedom Riders responded with a strategy they called "jail, no bail"—a deliberate effort to clog the penal facilities. Most of the 300 riders in Jackson would endure six weeks in sweltering cells rife with mice, insects, soiled mattresses, and open toilets. And their sacrifice worked, albeit slowly. The New York Times, which had earlier criticized the Freedom Riders' "incitement and provocation," acknowledged that they "started the chain of events which resulted in the new Interstate Commerce Commission order."
Like: The Delta Center in Cleveland is doing some truly good work of education, community development, tourism, and heritage preservation. The man there laments the tendency to commodify and defang blues music to make it palatable to a white visitorship.
Like: The Mississippi Delta brochure with a picture of a gravel road, “See where the backroads take you.”—which I did by default because sometime paved roads just become gravel and you have to keep going. Contrasted with my discussion with Benjamin Saulsberry at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center about feeling safe in the Delta. He feels safer today than when he was growing up and his mom worked as a community organizer. Yet he told me I should stay off of those gravel roads. So who is that brochure made for?
Like: The (Edmund Pettus) John Lewis Bridge is actually a pretty short span for such a giant leap for mankind. Yet truly, the center is high and you cannot see the other side until you crest the rise.
Like: When shopping at the EJI bookstore, and asking the woman there for recommendations, and she gestures to a book on redlining and says, “Some people still don’t believe that was a thing,” and I say, “Don’t laugh, but I found this podcast called Black History for White People and they have a good episode on that,” and she says, “No, I wouldn’t laugh at that.” The podcast is not only educational and smack-jammed with hard truths, but also set up my head to enter these spaces with a bit more humility and context.
Like: The extraordinary Bryan Stevenson, who I was told hand-selects all the books for the store at the Legacy Museum, who started his career advocating for the mercy and justice of death row inmates in Alabama, who created these powerful spaces in Montgomery for telling the most horrific stories in impactful ways.
In the end, I returned to the place I felt had achieved grace—Congregation Coffee in the Algiers Point neighborhood of New Orleans. Black customers, white customers, people walking their dogs, strolling their babies, unhurried fellowship, weekend mornings of springtime full of possibility.
But that is not the end, or not my end. In my mind I am still following the highway down the river, trying to put the pieces together in my own mind and heart. On the drive home, I caught Brene Brown’s episode with Tarana Burke, talking in and around and up and down on these subjects. Burke made this powerful point: “I don’t believe your antiracist work is complete or valid or useful if you haven’t engaged with Black humanity.”
So I think the thing I can say most strongly, to you and to myself, is this: Go. Go to those hard places and have awkward conversations in the name of love. Go and crush your heart again and again so that it can become strong and full. Go and learn the truth firsthand so that no one will say of you, “Some people still don’t believe that was a thing.” Go and feel and have no answers. Except this: love your neighbor as yourself. And we are all neighbors.