civil rights learning tour: jackson

Days One and TwoThree, Four, Five, and Six.

Day Seven
For our last day, we toured Jackson with Pastor Hugh, a lifelong Southerner.

Hugh spoke slowly, rhythmically: sweeping stories bulked up with meaty facts. Thoughtful, meandering exposition punctuated with truth bombs. Roundabout answers that forced me to connect the dots myself. We’d only been with him for an hour or two before it occurred to me that it might be wise to take notes. So I did (thank goodness). 

Hugh used a boarded-up building to explain Mississippi’s two deltas: there’s one at the southern part of the state, but when people mention the Mississippi Delta, they’re almost always referring to the river delta in the upper west corner of the state.

Here are some of my main takeaways from our day with Hugh:

People won’t give you the tools you need to overthrow them. 
At the fairgrounds, Hugh told us that back in the 60’s the 10-day event was divided into two fairs: nine days were for white people, and one was for Blacks. When the Blacks protested (and I think this happened for a couple years running), the protestors were rounded up and caged in the fairground’s cattle barns — within view of the capitol building. At that time Mississippi law said that a person had 40 days to post bail, so the protestors leveraged that against the system: they’d get arrested and then wait to appeal their case until the 39th day, effectively clogging up the jails.

Silence doesn’t mean peace.
Hugh pointed out the old library where The Tougaloo Nine — students from Tougaloo College — held their read-in in 1961. It was a tiny event, but it effectively kickstarted the civil rights movement. At the time, Hugh explained, many white people didn’t even realize there was a race problem. “White culture confuses silence with peace, so the people who talk about the problem are assumed to cause the problem, when in reality the problem already existed.”

Heroes versus Movements
We walked by the bus station where the Freedom Riders ended their journey. “You saw that wall of photos in the Civil Rights Museum yesterday, right? Of the 450 people that participated in the Freedom rides, did you notice that none — not one — of the people on that wall are famous? They were all just regular people who protested, did jail time, and then went back to doing whatever they were doing before — going to school or cooking food or farming.”

Hugh asked if we were familiar with David LaMotte. “If you aren’t, you should be,” he said, and then he explained told us what LaMotte says about heroes versus movements: Heroes are bigger than life, so if we always look for a hero to get the work done, then we won’t ever do anything — it feels too impossible. But a movement is made up of ordinary people; everyone gets to play a part. 

The Banality of Evil
Black southern homes often have photos on the wall of the same three men — Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy — “but let me tell you something about Kennedy,” Hugh said.

By the time the Freedom Riders were entering Mississippi, the whole world was watching, and the violence was making Kennedy look bad. So right before the bus entered Mississippi, Kennedy struck a deal with state authorities: in exchange for providing police protection for the riders, he wouldn’t intervene when state officials arrested and jailed the protestors. In other words, as long as the state made Kennedy look good on the news, they could do whatever they wanted in private.

Did this mean Kennedy was a horrible person? Not really, Hugh said. Governments are about compromise. Kennedy’s face-saving deal at the expense of the Freedom Riders didn’t necessarily mean Kennedy was a bad person, or even racist. “People make the best decisions they can at the time based on the opportunities they think they have,”

Evil isn’t just a few monsters doing all the terrible things, Hugh said. In fact, there might not be any monsters. Rather, evil is the accumulation of thousands of small compliances that enable evil to happen — and may make room for monsters to emerge. This, Hugh explained is called The Banality of Evil, and the converse, the Banality of Good, also exists: lots of small positive acts that enable great goodness.

History doesn’t repeat, it rhymes.
Hugh led us down Farish street, the section of town that was the heart of Jackson’s Black community in the 1960s. He pointed out Peaches, the restaurant that MLK loved, and the Alamo Theater, and the building that at different points had housed the headquarters for everything that was anything: NAACP, SNCC, COFO, and a whole bunch of other things I can’t remember now.

Farish Street is now deserted — the unintended consequence of desegregation was the collapse of the black middle class, Hugh said, echoing the same theme we’d been hearing all week — but a few years back the city obtained funding to restore Farish street. They put in trees and redid the road and sidewalks, but then the money vanished, pocketed by investors and contractors, and now Farish Street is lost once again: a partially-revitalized ghost town, twice abandoned.

“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Hugh said, paraphrasing Twain, “It rhymes.”

A movement is comprised of ordinary people doing small things.
On Farish Street, Hugh pointed out the building that used to be the YWCA and told us about how when there’d been a children’s march and the police were rounding them up, a few of the kids ran into the building to hide. When the police tried to go in after them, the woman in charge, a large Black woman refused them entry — This building is for women, she said. Men aren’t allowed, and the police listened. “I’ve heard that story many times,” Hugh said, “and you know what? No one knows that woman’s name.” 

Southern buffet: catfish, hushpuppies, ribs, stuffing, butter beans, cabbage,
sweet potatoes, greens, and summer squash

The rest of our country needs a Mississippi to make it feel better about itself.
We circled an enormous mall that was the hub of consumerism back in the 80s and is now completely abandoned, except for one little corner that, rather ironically, houses the Jackson City Water Offices. (The mall bore such an uncanny resemblance to parts of Station Eleven that I actually googled it to see if they’d filmed there — they hadn’t.) We drove through the fancy part of town and through a food desert. Twenty-five percent of Jackson’s population has an annual income of fifteen thousand dollars.

At one point, after a series of questions about what Jackson’s future might hold, the strain of living surrounded by such poverty and racial tensions, Hugh said, “Hang on a sec. Aren’t y’all from Virginia?”

And then my older daughter pointed out that we hadn’t seen hardly any Confederate flags on this trip but they’re everywhere in Virginia.

Goodness and evil, side-by-side
At the home of Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist who was murdered in 1963, Hugh told us how Medgar had had the house built to his specification: a gravel roof so it’d be easier to put out the fires in case it’d be fire-bomed (which it was). A brick wall that rose a certain number of inches above the height of children’s beds so they’d be protected from gun fire while they were sleeping. A side door instead of a front door. A fridge on wheels positioned beside the kitchen door so it could double as a barricade.

Hugh pointed to the spot where the gunman had been standing when he shot Evers as he was unloading some things from the trunk of his car. The next door neighbor had come to Evers’ rescue, loaded him into the car, and rushed him to the hospital. But it was against hospital rules for Blacks to be treated by white staff. Evers’s wife had called their family doctor, a Black man, but when he arrived, he wasn’t allowed to use the hospital equipment. Eventually, the head doctor arrived and said he’d take responsibility for breaking the rules, but by then it was too late. 

“And here’s the thing,” Hugh said. “Twenty-four hours earlier in that very same hospital, doctors had just successfully performed the first lung transplant. That evil and goodness coexisting side-by-side pretty much sums up Jackson.”

Broken bodies, breaking bread
That evening we met back at the Open Door church for a catered feast of potato salad, pasta and chicken, green beans, cornbread, three kinds of cake, and sweet tea made by a 15-year-old girl, and then Hugh led us in a closing reflection. 

He told us that when the protestors were caged in the cattle pens at the fairgrounds, the officers made the white and Black protestors sit on opposite sides of the pens. The guards fed the white protestors first, but the most amazing thing happened: Each person, without speaking, took their cup of milk and set it on the ground in front of them, placed their bologna sandwich on top, and waited. Then the Blacks were served, and they did the same. The two groups sat there silently, facing each other, and when everyone had been served, the whites and Blacks quietly, and as one body, ate together.

“This might be heretical,” Hugh said, “but I believe Jesus has already returned — and his body has been lynched and burned and broken again and again and again.”

And then he served us communion with sweet tea and cornbread left over from our dinner. 

This same time, years previous: currently, when there’s “nothing” to eat, on getting a teen out of bed in the morning, the quotidian (5.12.14), one more thing, the reason I got up, springy dip, for a reason.


  • Karen

    WOW! What a compelling trip and series. On your first post, I started to make a comment, but wasn’t able to post. Same for several subsequent posts.
    I’m glad I didn’t, because what you experienced and wrote about would have made my comments irrelevant and probably shallow. I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad you were able to make this trip with your children. I’m glad you were able to experience these painful facts. People need to know this. Thank you for sharing these experiences with your readers. It is hoped that we all come away more educated, aware and woke.

  • Sarah

    I’ve read these stories from your trip with total attention. Sometimes they take my breath away. Sometimes I realize that I’m almost in tears. I so appreciate your complexity, and the way that you stay with the details — the hard part is in the real details, and it’s all too easy to avoid that and resort to generalizations. Thank you.

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