Sunday, April 19, 2009

Mississippi Redux

Something draws me back to that place I said I needed nothing more of!
by Charlie Leck

Come back! It is almost like the mysterious sirens of the sea calling me back to the places I fear the most -- toward the dangerous rocks and ledges that protrude from the rolling water. Their call is that of alluring temptresses. A note from Kentucky arrives and tells me there is still work to do.

There are many reasons to dislike Mississippi. It remains a place brimming with hideous hatred. The summers are so hot that your biosystem loathes you for bringing it there. It’s not a pretty state either and it ranks lowly in so many categories of comparison with other states – in education, general health, infant mortality, employment, standard of living, and average annual income. Mississippi is still a redneck state and the pickup truck, the rifle and the shotgun still rule.

Yet, my few days there last summer go with me wherever I am. The faces of the kind black Mississippians with whom I visited are implanted solidly in my memory. We gathered to remember bleak and awful times, but we celebrated our time together with victorious song and precious words.

It is as simple as this: I want more of it! I want to pay my respects again to Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman – the great, fearless heroes of my youth. I want to walk up dusty Rock Cut Road with a rock from Minnesota in my hand. I’ll place it there, at the spot where they were slaughtered, and allow a tear to drop to the ground with it. We’ll sing again, “We shall overcome, some day!” I can’t purge them from my memory. I may as well celebrate their unforgettable lives and deaths.

A large group of men co-conspired to murder them. Most of those killers who are still alive continue to walk free. Soon there will be none of us who were there left to mourn the dead and protest the great injustices that live on. I swore in the summer of ’64 that I would never forget them and never stop lamenting over them. I have kept that vow.

I thought I would hate my journey to Mississippi last summer, but I returned to Minnesota stronger and more inspired than ever. Huddled together, we were cautiously hopeful about Barack Obama then. We’d wink and smile at each other, but we didn’t dare imagine it could ever really be. This summer we can celebrate, dance and howl about an African American living in the White House. Can it be? Is it only that far from the summer of ’64.

My wife and one of my kids accompanied me last summer. They saw I would need their support – that they could prop me up if I was overcome; however, we found out there were other veterans of the civil rights movement who were there and they leaned lovingly on one another. This year I can go alone and know I’ll be just fine.

On Rock Cut Road, where they died, I’ll bend low and whisper to them triumphantly.

“Can you believe?” I’ll ask them. “Is that Michelle Obama not beautiful? Isn’t she the finest first lady of our lives? And doesn’t that man know how to be a President of all the people? Out there among the stars, are you whoopin’ it up? Are you singin’ the old songs of those days in Mississippi? Can you believe we’ve come this far, yet we can’t get justice for you guys? We tryin’ man! We tryin’ hard. I’ve never forgotten you and I won’t ever – never!”

Yeh, I’m goin’ back to Mississippi. I want to ask all those folks about our President. I want to whoop it up a bit.

1 comment:

  1. One of the civil rights veterans with whom I shared time in MS last summer sent an email to me that I thought I should share here.

    Hey Charlie,
    Thank you for your moving piece on Mississippi. I look forward to seeing you in June. Please allow me to comment on your lovely essay.
    Many parts of Mississippi are not pretty, to paraphrase what you say. Health and unemployment statistics are, indeed, frightening. Yet many parts of Mississippi are, actually, physically lovely, and not only the
    areas abutting the Gulf of Mexico. Health statistics are pretty bad all over the country, not just in Mississippi. Yet Mississippi has probably the highest proportion of Black elected
    officials in the country. Industry and commerce had begun to develop in Mississippi, around Hattiesburg, and also much farther north with the building of automobile plants--even if the latter were to thwart attempts to
    unionize elsewhere in the U.S. The current economic crisis has put the kabosh on much of that.
    But Minnesota aint no panacea, either; nor is Kentucky. I was at a memorial service in Bovey MN just about a year ago for Bob Beech, a dear friend, a Presbyterian minister who I met in Mississippi in the 1960's. I
    was told that a steel mill was being built thereabouts, the first such to be constructed in decades. That area near the Iron Range had been environmentally despoiled, and devastated with unemployment, just as our
    beautiful Appalachian Mountains in KY are losing their tips so the coal barons can harvest the coal seams underneath, with runoff and other detritus ruining the landscape.
    There was a folk song from the 1960's:

    "Here's to the land you've torn out the heart of

    Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of."

    Truth be told, Mississippi was indeed a part of the U.S., reflecting perhaps more starkly the racism that gripped, and still grips, the whole country. Racism was/is still a plague, but a plague affecting us all.
    Thanx, again, for your beautiful piece. I look forward to seeing you in June. Ira