Personal Deep South Trip Report

Resisting the magnetic compass pull
to home, we set off
       Deep South in search of the country
        beyond New England snows,
traveling together down whole
            highways of pain and
        wide deltas of grief,
         marking the spot where Dr. King's
life bled away,
          in a Memphis motel so sweetly named
                  Lorraine, and where a tour guide's passion

foretold what lay ahead, and, wandering, wondered
      just what I would learn if Beale St. could talk, as we moved
on to Graceland, where a certain someone with
      gyrating hips seemed to lack the grace
to give credit where credit was
                  due, hips at rest now,
    midst plastic flowers and chlorinated fountains,
          so onward, onward we pressed
    past the "devil's crossroad" of Rt. 61 and Rt. 49,
         where the blues were born, that a people's
                suffering might flow through harps
and guitars, preserved now forever in a museum

             in Clarkesdale, where Big Mama Thornton
   finally set Elvis right, with the real deal "Hound Dog,"
                right here in
         Mississippi, nightmare lynch mob state
of my youth, whizzing by through
             big bus picture windows, the soybean fields,
the catfish farms, the vast flat fields, the sharecropper shotgun
                shanties, now collapsing onto themselves, right
                                       next to those cotton gins of
      and then we found a place called Mound Bayou,
            where ex-slaves built a dream that Mr. Milburn
Crowe described, a dream shattered but still
                     alive, and the road ran on
     to Jackson, supreme
capital of indifference, whose large gold
 dome cast shadows on

              hovels that not even one fellow
citizen should live in for a day, and amidst it all
there was Hollis Watkins, who taught what no
history book can teach, and helped us,
      hands joined, sing our way to the meaning
of a Movement, recounting, between
militant melodies, his 55 days in Parchman, maximum
         security, death row,
            with a voice that still spoke with a calm
       resolve to see justice done, and some
                           even returned to ask, "Can I
       hug you?" before hurtling down to

             New Orleans, to music in the street,
 to creole cooking, to elegant iron balconies wrought by slaves,
              and bales of cotton rolled up ramps to paddle boats called
      Natchez and River Queen, place which pushed the blues to the
              throbbing big four beat of jazz, thence the music of a
                       from this city which defies
                  all categories, as if it was washed down here by the
Mississippi, somehow getting snagged on the shoreline,
    or maybe just a great bubbling gumbo
cooking under southern

sun. Whew!  And, why are we going back to Mississippi,
     some one whined? Personal business, I thought to myself,
   three boys killed a lifetime ago, two from my city, one from
           my school, the whole business of
                            which needed to be tracked
to its source, tomorrow,
       in Philadelphia, Miss., and so I relented to video movie,
                       "Meet The Parents," while I napped, preparing
      to meet the killers, or their friends, or townsmen. Waking
      without an alarm, with only the loud ring of pure

anticipation, we made straight to Shoney's,
for classic southern breakfast
    to fortify us for trek ahead, and found ourselves
                 held hostage for several hours in
classic Klan plot to discourage further
           pilgrims' progress,

but history's pull was stronger,
                 and there we were on same highway
     where they were stopped, the blinding lights of death
in their rear view mirror, before they were
completely disappeared. Suddenly there was the
      courthouse, and the sheriff's office, just
   across the street from the charming old soda
fountain store and quaint five & dime of
                          this small southern town,
so genteel and so murderous,
bent over forever by the burden of its past
             oh, look away, look away, away down south
                                            in Dixie,

and we heard an aging editor say, that is, we heard
           the barely audible Mr. Deerman say,
                            the heavy breathing, the accent, the tears
         just below the wells of his eyes, we heard him saying, with
                effort, "There hasn't been a day
                       in 36 years that I haven't thought of those

boys," and later to me privately: "Would you like me to take you
           to the spot they were killed?" And, if a pin had
     dropped, the whole library where we gathered
would have exploded, and then we saw the ancient
            headlines, how the story played out, but this time
we already knew the ending, and

the clock was running, so back down
                to Meridian we rode, and I turned slowly
        to check for headlights, so no one would
notice, and now we had to find Obie Clark's
     funeral home, because he alone could guide us
                                                to James Chaney's grave,

with him leading, off we went, deep into the
       countryside, over bridges no 26,000 lb. bus would
sanely cross, but they held that day, which was good,
     because it was so important to get
                      there, to a small church plot,

               nearly empty but for a lonely massive stone, and there we
were before it, as Mr. Obie Clark, holding his
grand-daughter's hand, told us how the grave had been placed here
    because the "home church" was just too afraid, how the original
         smaller stone had been thrown in the woods, how the
                 eternal flame had been destroyed,
          how the massive new stone has been erected only
                to be pushed over, how his picture was shot out, how a
steel beam was
       put in to hold it up, all this in the last few years, how the man
pulled the trigger walked free for so long, and then he read
                 the inscription, and told us why it was important to
       in a quiet voice, all while holding his granddaughter's hand,

yes, here was James Chaney, age 20,
        and Rufaro led us in a chorus of "We Shall Overcome,"
and we placed stones on the grave as if to say, "We were here, James
                  you are remembered," and climbed quietly into the bus,
which sped off
      to Alabama dead ahead,

where we walked over the Pettus Bridge, ah, so much easier this
time round, no police dogs or mounted police, and into the
tiny Voting Rights Museum, where Ms. Bland frightened us
      'till she made us laugh, and Rev. Reese who marched
                           arm-in-arm with King, described what happened on
"Bloody Sunday," when they stopped Americans

   from walking where there feet could carry them, and we rolled

     along their march route to Montgomery, with only
Nicole Angueira noticing the spot where Viola
          Liuzzo was killed, and there we saw the great
                           memorial to all those slain, and stood by the
                                  which whispered of waters rolling down
     justice, and the water was cool, but we had promises to keep,
and the road led us on to Birmingham, or was it Bombingham,
and we sat in the church where four little girls
    died, saw another museum, and park sculpture
that spoke to the aesthetic beauty of
       historical remembrance,

and the next day we pulled into Atlanta, to Dr. King's resting
   place, to his old neighborhood, and to the
     Ebenezer Baptist church,

and now the trip was over, or perhaps just
beginning. There had been boundaries crossed,
         between states and time zones, between past and present,
    and back again, until who could say which was which,
           for while we traveled, Mississippi voted down a new
       flag, James Chaney's case was re-opened,
and Birmingham was choosing a new jury to
                      try a few more old men who once made a
           bomb that ended four young lives, and, upon our return,
     a frontpage New York Times article greeted us with
                           news that the blues were dying in the delta
            of its birth, in Clarksdale, so

          we went in search of the country beyond
New England snows, in search of history,
              found a road, found people, found a country
     beyond our imagination, found history on
     the loose, saw things, and were moved
           by much more than a bus.

Then we flew back into blue week.

Bill Schechter - April 25, 2001

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