Category: Southern history

A whirlwind tour: Reflections on the Mississippi Delta

Mississippi Delta

By Melanie Wilmoth

It has been a few weeks since Alan Bean and I returned from our whirlwind trip to Mississippi. Since we arrived back in Texas, I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the trip and all of our various adventures and encounters while we were there.

We planned the trip to Mississippi for several reasons. We are currently working on a few cases in the Delta and had some research to conduct. We also arranged to meet with other advocacy organizations doing similar work in Mississippi so that we could build relationships and collaborate with them on future endeavors. In addition, we planned to meet up for a civil rights tour with a professor and several students from the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. With all of this on our agenda, our days were filled to the brim. Needless to say, I was pretty exhausted and exponentially more enlightened as the trip came to an end.

When we arrived in Jackson, MS, we were welcomed by the wonderful staff of the John M. Perkins Foundation where we stayed that night. The next morning, we met with the Foundation’s Special Projects Coordinator and learned more about the Foundation’s history and its goal of bringing racial reconciliation to Mississippi. From there, we touched base with the Program Director for the ACLU of Mississippi. She informed us of the current ALCU initiatives around immigration, youth justice, and the school-to-prison pipeline and we shared with her about the work of Friends of Justice, discussing opportunities for future dialogue and collaboration.

After two successful meetings with advocacy organizations in Jackson, we made our way to Cleveland, MS. There, we met with Professor Paul Ortiz and several University of Florida history students. Dr. Ortiz and the students were incredibly friendly and interested in the work of Friends of Justice. After meeting them, I was even more excited about joining them on the civil rights tour. (more…)

Why Al Mohler rejects the non-violence of Jesus

Albert Mohler

By Alan Bean

I was driving home to Arlington from Cleveland, MS when I noticed that the Associated Baptist Press had used my theological reflections on the execution of Troy Davis as a modest counter weight to Albert Mohler, an evangelical theologian who claims that capital punishment is pro-life. 

They called him “The Boy King” when he first ascended to the presidency of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but that was back in 1989.   Now Time Magazine is calling Dr. Mohler the  “reigning intellectual in the evangelical movement”.  So, whatever complaints his doubters may have had back in the day when The Boy King was ripping the scepter from the hands of an irenic Roy Lee Honeycutt, Mohler has made a name for himself in the decades since. (more…)

Jena, Louisiana five years on

 By Alan Bean

Reed Walters doesn’t think he did a very good job explaining his prosecution of the Jena 6.  It wasn’t for lack of opportunity.  The New York Times invited the LaSalle Parish DA to write an op-ed and the Christian Science Monitor published a curious piece of historical reconstruction written by a Walters supporter at the Jena Times. 

In his NYT op-ed, Walters defended his refusal to charge the boys who hung nooses from a tree at the Jena High School with a hate crime.  It didn’t take much ingenuity to make the case.  Charging the noose boys with a hate crime was always a really bad idea.  The kids needed a history lesson on lynch law and the South’s history of racial violence.  A few months in prison would simply have left them traumatized and unchanged.

Things got out of hand in Jena because nobody in a position of power could acknowledge that the noose hanging was racially motivated.  The nooses appeared the morning after a freshman asked if it was okay for black students to sit under the tree in question.  But when the noose hangers insisted they were just acting out a scene from the popular miniseries Lonesome Dove, men like Reed Walters and Superintendent Roy Breithaupt were eager to believe them.


You don’t talk about the South’s racial history in towns like Jena.  That’s why. (more…)

The most influential civil rights champion you’ve never heard of

If you’ve never heard of Stetson Kennedy, you’ll feel as if you’ve known the man all your life after reading this wonderful eulogy by University of Florida professor Paul Ortiz.  Kennedy is generally remembered as a thorn in the side of the Ku Klux Klan, but as Professor Ortiz makes clear, his significance is much deeper and broader than that.  Until this morning, I had never heard Stetson Kennedy’s name mentioned in connection with racism, segregation, white supremacy or the civil rights movement.  How can that be?  AGB 

stetson_kennedy_typing.pngBy Paul OrtizStetson Kennedy passed away on Saturday, Aug. 27. He was 94 years old. Stetson died peacefully in the presence of his beloved wife, Sandra Parks, at Baptist Medical Center South in St. Augustine, Florida.

Stetson Kennedy spent the better part of the 20th century doing battle with racism, class oppression, corporate domination, and environmental degradation in the American South. By mid-century Stetson had become our country’s fiercest tribune of hard truths; vilified by the powerful, Stetson did not have the capacity to look away from injustice. His belief in the dignity of the South’s battered sharecroppers, migrant laborers, and turpentine workers made him the region’s most sensitive and effective folklorist.

Stetson was so relentless, so full of life, that some of us thought that he would trick death the way that he had once fooled the Ku Klux Klan into exposing their lurid secrets to the listeners of the Adventures of Superman radio program in 1947. As recently as April, Stetson gave a fiery speech to hundreds of farm workers and their supporters at a rally in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Tampa. Standing in solidarity with Latina/o and Haitian agricultural workers affirmed Stetson’s ironclad belief in the intersections between labor organizing, racial justice, and economic equity. (more…)

All Eyes on Jackson, Mississippi

 By Alan Bean

The convergence of three events is directing a lot of attention to the Magnolia State: “The Help” is #1 at the box office, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. is being unveiled on the Mall in Washington, and a televised hate crime has rekindled memories of the state’s brutal past.

A spate of connect-the-dots articles appeared over the weekend, and this lengthy piece in the Los Angeles Times is probably the best of the batch.  How much has Jackson, Mississippi changed since the civil rights era?  A whole lot, and not enough. (more…)

Asked about the civil rights movement, Perry changes the subject

By Alan Bean

The post below comes from Chris Kromm at The Institute for Southern Studies.  Asked to comment on the contribution of the “Friendship Nine”, Perry made the obligatory tip of the hat to racial equality and then launched into a standard (and off-topic) defense of small government politics.  Perry didn’t comment on the groundbreaking heroism of nine civil rights pioneers because his audience of choice gets angry at the very mention of the civil rights movement.  They don’t hate black people, and they aren’t calling for a return to the days of racial segregation; but the civil rights movement is a touchy topic because it makes white Southerners and conservative politicians looks really, really bad.  So Mr. Perry, fearful of alienating his base, changed the subject.

Gov. Rick Perry flunks civil rights lesson in South Carolina campaign stop

FriendshipNineJail.jpgEach presidential election, Republicans declare that this could be the year they might win over African-American voters, or at least enough to tip the balance in key battleground states.But if surging White House hopeful Gov. Rick Perry of Texas ends up clinching the GOP nomination, he may have irreparably hurt his chances of luring black voters — already a challenge when facing President Obama — this past weekend at a campaign stop and fundraisernear Rock Hill, South Carolina.During the media presser, a TV reporter noted that Perry was visiting a “very important place in Rock Hill’s and the nation’s civil rights history,” it being the 50th anniversary of a historic sit-inby a group of students from nearby Friendship College, known as the “Friendship Nine.” (more…)

Where are the personal apologies for the freedom riders?

Kung Li with Facing South wonders why so few white Southerners have ever apologized for their behavior during the Freedom Rides.  The same question applies to the civil rights and Jim Crow eras: why have so few white Southerners (or southern legislatures) acknowledged being part of an organized “massive resistance” movement dedicated to keeping African-Americans in a subordinate caste?  Is it because few good opportunities for face to face apology present themselves; or could it be that the generation described in Mr. Li’s column feel their actions were justified?  The young people graduating from southern high schools and colleges are certainly less bigoted than their parents and grandparents, but there has never been a day of reckoning in the South.  AGB

Freedom_Riders.jpgBy Kung LiThe 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides generated a burst — however brief — of remembrance. There was Oprah Winfrey’s gala show on May 4, commemorating the day the southbound Greyhound and Trailways buses pulled out of Washington, D.C. A few weeks later, a large group of Freedom Riders gathered in Jackson, Miss. at the invitation of Gov. Haley Barbour, surrounded by reporters eager to watch the interaction between the Freedom Riders and a man who had a few months earlier said about segregation, “I just don’t remember it being that bad.” (more…)

What ‘The Help’ says about Hollywood

By Alan Bean

The Hollywood adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, opens in theaters this Wednesday.  Critics have been kind.  Evaluated as a good story, The Help is engaging and emotionally satisfying.  But isn’t this another Hollywood racial melodrama in which a noble white person intercedes on behalf of helpless Negroes?

Yes and no.  Civil Rights activists were deeply offended by the 1988 potboiler Mississippi Burning, a civil rights era drama that gave the FBI credit for staring down the KKK in Philadelphia, MS.  Why, critics ask, can’t Hollywood do a civil rights story about black people standing up for black people?  The answer is simple: Hollywood makes movies for a mass audience, and that means creating narratives that appeal to white people.  Sure, you always want to toss in a black guy so black viewers can relate to the story in a modest fashion; but that’s generally as far as it goes. (more…)

Marlowe’s Mississippi

By Alan Bean

Lara Marlowe generally writes for an Irish audience, but when she turns her attention to the American South it is wise to take notice.  American journalists are generally reluctant to address our nation’s racial history honestly and openly; aggrieved southerners wail and lament when they feel mistreated and misunderstood.  Nowhere is this more true than in Mississippi.  But Marlowe’s carefully crafted piece on the Magnolia state draws on the insights of those who know the region best.

Most of the sobering facts cited below will come as no surprise to readers of this blog.  But how many Americans know that the public schools of Mississippi lost half a million white students when the feds finally got serious about school integration in the South?   A recent article in The Christian Century, notes that “only 2 percent of high school seniors could name the social problem that the Supreme Court addressed in Brown v. Board of Education.” (more…)

Royal visit has me longing for home

PHOTO: Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge visit the Somba K'e Civic Plaza on day 6 of the Royal Couple's North American Tour, July 5 2011 in Yellowknife, Canada.By Alan Bean

I have been too busy to blog this week, but I couldn’t resist this story. You may ask what a royal tour has to do with criminal justice reform. Very little, I expect, although I am clever enough to come up with something if I had a mind to.

I am blogging about Kate and William’s royal tour because it pleases me.

For one thing, Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne a few years before I was born and, though I am 58 years old, she has been the only British monarch I have known. When you grow up singing "God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen(to the tune of My Country ‘Tis of Thee) it gets into your bones (whether you like it or not).

This lovely photographic essay from the Washington Post shows the royal couple taking in a little calf roping at the Calgary Stampede and attending the Dene Games in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories. I was born in Calgary in 1953 and the Bean family moved to Yellowknife three years later. I remember my dad taking my sister and I to the Calgary Stampede during a summer vacation when I was a little kid. He wouldn’t spring for cowboy boots, but I did get a cowboy hat, and I wore it to bed that night.

I remember William’s grandfather, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, creating quite a stir a generation ago when he was presented with the inevitable cowboy hat during a visit to Calgary. “Thank you very much," said the Prince. “I think I have six or seven of these now. Perhaps I’ll use this one for a planter.”

That didn’t go down well in Cow Town.

There is another story about Prince Phillip dining at Calgary’s glorious Palicer Hotel back in the mid fifties (when he was about the age William is now). According to legend, a hotel waitress, while removing Phillip’s dinner plate, whispered, “Keep your fork, Prince, we’re havin’ pie.”

I don’t get back to Canada much these days.  My parents are both long dead and my sister, Carol, spends half the year in Texas.  But everyone needs a sense of home, and places like Calgary, Edmonton and Yellowknife are about as close as I can get.  A return visit to Yellowknife after almost fifty years is high on my bucket list.

Calgary's Bow River Valley

Last year, while in Calgary for the funeral of my aunt, Iris Garner, I stopped by the old home of the now defunct Baptist Leadership Training School, an institution I attended in 1971.   It had been fully forty years since I last walked to the nearby park overlooking the gorgeous Bow River valley.  The view of the river hadn’t changed a bit, but I hardly resembled the callow youth who once looked out over the scene.  I have rarely felt more orphaned and adrift.

So I guess, in the end, these rambling thoughts do relate to this blog’s primary theme.  Everybody needs a sense of place, everybody needs to belong to a people.  Friends of Justice works in the American South, a region occupied by rooted people with a strong sense of belonging.  What happens when a proud people is made synonymous with bigotry and hate?  Issues of culpability aside, how deep does the fear, loss and resentment go?

The spirit and spirituality of mass incarceration is a plant native to the southland that has been nourished for decades by the deepest kind of alienation and outrage.  People felt as if the glorious narrative that had given them a sense of people and place had been desecrated.  The sense of loss was palpable.  This is why Ronald Reagan launched his election campaign in 1980 in Neshoba County, the place where, 16 years earlier, three civil rights leaders had been murdered.  Reagan was opposed to the civil rights movement, but he was hardly a son of the South.  His advisers knew, however, that a rich deposit of racial resentment was waiting to be mined in places like Neshoba County.  People had lost their story and they desperately wanted it back.  Reagan promised to deliver.  The promise was kept.

Sign announcing the 2011 Neshoba County Fair

I understand these emotions.  I grew up in one country and I live in another.  Calgary, Alberta and Fort Worth Texas have a lot in common, but I never really feel at home in Texas.  Nor would I feel at home if I returned to my native Canada.  Like Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.”

When Tea Partiers say they want their country back they are longing for an old, old story.  They want to feel part of an exceptional, virtuous and boot-leather-tough nation where everyone shares the same values and pursues the same goals.  That kind of America never existed in reality; but it lives in memory nonetheless.  The nation people want to regain exists in the form of narrative mythology, and this story about restoring a noble, resolute and unified America is the most potent force in contemporary politics.

There is no sense decrying or endlessly deconstructing the narrative that animates our ideological opposites.  We need a narrative of our own.  We don’t need a story about the nation we once were; we need a story about the nation the better angels of our national nature have always aspired to be.  We need to start talking about a country where there is no us and them; a nation where there are no surplus, throw-away people.
We need to start talking about a nation of broken people where broken people can be redeemed.
According to reporter Jeremy van Loon, Prince William characterized Canada as that kind of country.

Prince William praised Canada’s “extraordinary potential” and the nation’s values of “freedom and compassion” at the end of a nine-day tour of the country with his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge.  “Canada is not just a great union of provinces and territories, it is a great union of peoples from many different backgrounds who have come together to make this a model — and a magnet — for those who value freedom, enterprise, tolerance and compassion,” he said today in Calgary.

 I’m not sure Canada, or any other country, deserves such high praise.  The prince was being complimentary.  But don’t we want to live in that kind of country?  When we tap into that desire, the movement to end mass incarceration will begin.