Deep South Trip Relections

Douglas Toomer

May 8, 2001

We Shall Overcome . . The Deep South

When I first heard the proposed trip down south to study the Civil
Rights Movement up close, I wasn't interested. I'd been down south before,
and being the son to two African-American parents from the south, I knew
about many things that had happened. "Why would I want to waste my last
Spring Break of my high school career trekking through the muck they call
'The Bible Belt?" I thought to myself. My mother looked at the noticed
handed-out to the students and said that I was basically "Freedom Riding."
Not knowing what it meant at the time, I began to become very intrigued.
As she began to explain to me what Freedom Riding meant, I realized that
all the time I had traveled down south to visit family and friends; I had
never really explored the historical aspect of it. I wasn't quite sure
what I'd find down there that I couldn't learn from reading a book.
Ultimately, I was hoping to go down there and simply have a great time and
"soak-up" the environment around me. What I had found down there was
something in
describable that I will treasure forever, both as a high school student
and an African-American.
My first trip down south was when I was five-years-old. For the first
time, I was going to visit my grandmother and see cousins of mine on my
father's side of the family that I had only heard about. I remember
getting out of bed an hour earlier than usual and making sure my mother
packed everything I need. I was excited to say the least and couldn't wait
to see what the south would bring to me. My dad decided to drive down
their in his brand new Mercedes, so that he could spend some quality time
with me and my brothers. We traveled from Boston to Mobile, Alabama, which
felt like it took forever when I was five. As we got closer and closer to
Mobile, I noticed that the environment around seemed almost alien. The
dirty turned red; the air smelled different and there wasn't a skyscraper
for in sight. I didn't know if I liked the south or really wanted to visit
the people who lived there, but I didn't complain as we drove on down the
After about a dozen more trips down to Mobile and Atlanta, Georgia, I
felt as though there was nothing major in the south to "jump up and down
about." The other students of my Postwar American History class seemed to
be experiencing the same exciting urge I first felt when I was five.
Watching them and seeing their desire to experience something new, sparked
something within me. I wanted to share that feeling with them and be
"reborn" to the south. Around 99% of the students had never been to the
south before in their life. The students soon began to ask me questions
about the south and how southern people live. To make sure they didn't
have a prejudice over the south, I told then nothing really of my previous
experiences. In a way, I wanted to go down south just to see how they
would react to the new world around them and if they would have the same
feelings I had when I first went down there.
When April 15th came around, I couldn't wait to get to Logan Airport.
With a group consisting of four chaperons and around 50 to 60 students, we
were anything but a motley crew. We basically all knew each other and with
a full-week trip like this, it's good to be with friends and people one
knows. Just sitting at the airport terminal waiting for boarding proved to
be a fun activity. Everybody was talking about what he or she were
anticipating to see and learn on the trip and what they had brought along
during the times of leisure on our journey. The people in the group I
stuck with the most were six or seven fellow students who sat next to me
in class. Oddly enough I had never really had a true conversation with
them throughout the school year that didn't consisted of "Did we have
homework last night?" It's amazing what one can find out about their
classmates when they have time on their hands.
That very night, we entered Memphis, Tennessee. My seven or so close
friends decided that we wanted some fine homemade, down south cooking; we
went to Chili's. I had never really noticed it before, but the south
seemed to consist of "fast-food" restaurants and all night Waffle Houses.
From that first night till the last day, we ate nothing but junk food. In
the morning, we went to places like Shoney's and ordered the buffet. One
of the funniest things one could ever see is the look of a northerner's
face when he/she looks down at their plate and sees grits. Since my
parents grew up in the south and brought their southern cooking with them
to feed my siblings and I, I was designated as the explainer to what
exactly a "grit" was. As though it came from an alien planet, my
schoolmates would pass their grits on to me, as though I was a human
garbage disposal. I didn't mine, if only the knew that if they were
prepared and seasoned just right, grits are actually good; I'm sure MLK
(Martin Luther King Jr.) ate the
The first historical place we visited was the Lorraine Motel/Museum.
Looking up at the exact spot where MLK was assassinated, I couldn't really
imagine what it must have felt like for people who were actually there at
the time. The building remains the same on the outside since his death,
giving it an eerie '60s feel. With the inside gutted into a museum, we
were taken through the history of the C.R.M. (Civil Rights Movement)
dating back to the time of slavery. We must have spent about two hours
walking through the whole museum, but the most interesting aspect was the
tour guide assigned to us. Our tour guide, whose name I can't remember,
seemed to take us along with him as though he was showing something that
actually happened to him. With his thick southern accent and the
expression on his face of disgust, he told us the Till Case in such a
powerful way, that no one, not even the people who'd studied that
particular incident for weeks could turn away from him. One could
definitely see that the case was so
mething special to him.
Mr. Emit Till was a teenaged African-American kid from Chicago who
went down south to visit family in the Delta. With the north being more
liberal, blacks and whites integrated and communicated better. Coming down
south was a true shock to him to see that blacks only communicated with
other blacks while whites stuck to themselves too.
Emit laughed and told his friends that he talked to white people all
the time and had white friends. When he went as far as to say something
along the lines of him having a white girlfriend or that he had kissed a
white girl. Believing him to be telling lies, some sort of bet or dare
happened and Mr. Till walk straight up to a woman coming out of a
convenience store and said something along the lines of, "Hey Baby." or
"Ciao Baby."
A white man heard this and began to grow furious. That very night, as
Emit walked along the side of a road, he was asked by a white man if he
wanted a ride. It would later turn out to be the last ride of his life. He
was taken out into the woods and basically mutilated. Bones crushed and
blood poured as he was beaten senseless.
Days went by without hearing a word from Emit and the family began to
grow restless. Soon, a report came in that they had found the boy's body
floating in a river. With horror, the body had been in the water long
enough for it to become bloated with water. When Mrs. Till, his mother,
came down to identify him, it was near impossible. She held an open casket
funeral so that the world could look down and see this African-American
teenager whose body was beaten beyond recognition and bloated just because
he apparently talked to a white woman the wrong.
A trial was held and the people accused were put on a trial with all
white juries. The only black witness put on the stand was an elderly man
whose speech was so incoherent that nobody could make out what he was
saying. In the end, the all white jury found the accused to be innocent.
The whites of the town found the trial to be completely ridiculous in the
first place, openly admitting that Emit Till got what he deserved. Black
organizations tried as best as they could, but this all happened during
the earlier stages of the movement, before powerful people like MLK could
get involved
The grand finale of the tour was MLK's actual room in the hotel the
day he was assassinated. Looking at his actual hotel room through the
glass wall gave me an eerie feeling as though the incident happened only
days ago. Seeing the newspaper he was reading, the covers on his bed a
little roughed up as though he woke up a few minutes ago, and the cup of
coffee on the little nightstand gave the viewers of today a sample of what
went on that morning. It truly is one thing to read about and another
thing to actually see it with your own eyes.
Across the street one was able see to an African-American women having
a little grudge against the civil rights organizations for what they did
to the hotel. Apparently, the hotel had been a place for poverty stricken
people to go to. Once it was renovated into a museum, the people who
stayed there periodically were left homeless. For years, this homeless
woman has been protesting what happened to the hotel after the
assassination. One can see witness her across the street with her little
push-cart and signs everywhere saying such things as "Dr. King died for
our rights, but what about the homeless!?!" Oddly enough, she even had her
own website for people to look up information about her and possibly help
her in her campaign against the museum if they wanted to. One would never
think to see a black person filled with anger over such a historical
landmark. In a way a sympathized with her about how they simply kicked her
out, but overall, it was for a good cause.
When the meeting was held a few weeks before the actual trip, many
people noticed that Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion was one of the sites
we would visit. The trip to Graceland blatantly had nothing to do with the
C.R.M., but the whole experience was entertaining. Where else will one
find green shag-carpet on the ceiling and three TV sets in a row on a wall
so one could watch multiple channels at the same time besides Elvis' home?
Elvis might have been crazy too, for who would shoot a TV simply for
target practice? The hype over Elvis is definitely overrated when one
steps back and looks at his life.
In the matter of minority relations, he was the first white man to
sing and dance to a black beat. Elvis single-handily brought rhythm and
blues to whites in America and renamed it Rock N' Roll. When we visited
the Delta Blues Museum later in the trip, it was interesting to see the
names of such famous artist like Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Rob Stewart
praise Elvis Presley for Rock N' Roll music when in fact African-Americans
invented it. All he did was make it "cool" for whites to listen to. I
don't hate Elvis, however, a few months before the trip, I visited my Aunt
in Alabama. I told my Aunt how one of my favorite songs was an Elvis
Presley song. With rage in her eyes, she told me the story about what
Elvis had apparently said on an old radio broadcast about how her felt
about black people. He said something along the lines of, "The only thing
the black man can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records."
Including my family, I had heard this from numerous black people about him
saying something li
ke that and how black southerners especially didn't and still don't like
Elvis until this very day and don't buy his music. I only told a few
people on the trip about this seeing how many of my schoolmates were Elvis
fans. Personally, I believe he said it, but that as the years went by, he
changed and probably regretted
ever making that comment.
What can one say besides the fact that he's "The King". Many famous
people have died, but how many among those people have an audio-tour of
their house for tourist to go through when they die? How many people have
a street named after them, not one but two airplanes shipped into the area
around their house, a whole museum dedicated to the cars they owned, and
an eternal flame at their gravesite? Elvis is making more money dead than
alive, and as I witnessed with a few of the students in the group, making
more fans of his work too!
The night before visiting the Delta Blues Museum, we watched a video.
In the video one could see black laborers in the field after the Civil War
going into places called "juke joints." One could see them in such movies
as The Color Purple. They were little black-owned shacks usually in the
middle of nowhere where people would go to listen to some live blues,
drink, and dance the night away. In the video, we saw people walking
through the woods and going into these little shacks and having a good
While looking around the Delta Blues Museum, we caught word that a
brand new juke joint was opening down the street. In it's final stages, we
walked in to see a place that little "low-brow" yet a place that looked
like one could find some real entertainment. The place had a stage for
performers and a bar for drinks beside the pool tables. It amazed me to
know that even in the 21st century, little clubs called juke joints still
existed and still brought in many people coming from their workday.
Many African-Americans who went to juke joints came from a hard-day's
work in the fields of a plantation. The Hopson Plantation was the only
plantation we visited on the trip. Upon entering the main building, we
could see raw cotton wrapped up and ready to be sent away. Around the main
building were these little cabins that apparently some of the workers
lived in. Renovated into little "getaway" cabins, the little houses
actually serve now as a place for inspiring writers and artist to go to in
order to get away
from the rest of the world. We walked into them and then some that hadn't
been refurnished. To look around and know that huge families lived in
these little cabins that were poorly made, stuck a cord in me. How could a
race like African-Americans, who basically built the U.S., be treated so
badly for so long? There wasn't much to see there and I was happy to leave
and get back
on the bus.
I don't know what people are talking about when they say flying is
better than driving! It's weird, for on the bus I made friends with people
who had had known before the trip but really never bonded with them. To
sit on a bus and realize that the "quiet kid" in class is probably one of
the funniest people one could ever meet is a great revelation. Unlike my
first trip down south in my dad's Mercedes, the Greyhound-like bus became
a part of us whether we liked it or not. It was there on that bus my
classmates and I found a common interest in things outside of school. It
was there on the bus that young couples felt so comfortable that they
began to make out. The best sleep I had in weeks was on that bus!
Our trip had a theme song and it was there on that bus that we sang it
and grew to love it. We laughed on the bus as we watched our history
teacher pose at "The Crossroads" with his harmonica blowing as though to
call the Devil to sell his soul. There was no need really for TV's on the
bus for we entertained ourselves and talked about the places we just came
from. We traveled over real swamp lands to get to New Orleans on the bus,
but the most important thing about the bus was the fact that we were
traveling in a land that only a few of us had actually been to. On the way
to Mount Bayou and Jackson, Mississippi, we took a long road trip on the
bus. If one wasn't playing a game in the back of the bus, they were
looking out the window. Outside I could remember seeing what looking like
endless farmland with only one little old house standing in the middle of
it all. I remember the baffled looks of students as the bus took an
alternate road along a dirt road and seeing native southerners standing
out on their p
orches. "Do they always do that?" was the question one had asked me upon
seeing African-Americans laying back in their chair on the front porch
watching us go by with a look in their eyes as though seeing us was the
highlight of their day. I don't believe there was any fear or anxiety
about getting off the bus in such rural places in Mississippi and Alabama
and walking amongst the locals.
At night in the hotels that we stayed at, we spent the night
laughing and having fun, yet w were considerate enough to make sure we
weren't too loud. The guys integrated with the girls in either our room or
theirs. Whether it was playing cards, watching the Sopranos, or just
talking about the other people in the trip, we couldn't stop enjoying
ourselves. When the time came to sleep, most people just couldn't do it. I
remember laying in bed wide-awake and talking to my roommates about what
we had experienced that day. We talking about the C.R.M. aspect of the
places we visited and how important it was in the fight for equal rights.
We wondered if blacks in the south ever had a town to go when things go
really bad.
I can remember the first thought that popped into my head when I first
saw Mount Bayou: "How sad." One of the first black-owned towns in America
seemed to have turned into a rundown ghetto. The Town Hall stuck out like
a sore thumb in the area. The thought, however, that it was the first and
that it was in the south, is indeed something to applaud over. The speaker
seemed to know his facts but the overall experience could have been better
somehow with a little more exploration of the actual town itself. While
the speaker talked to us, I couldn't help but wonder what had happened to
the glorious town Mount Bayou once was It had been in itself a utopia;
escaping from the rest of the world during the C.R.M. and any other
American event.
Hollis Watkins was one of those people who one can only meet once in a
lifetime. Located in Jackson, Mississippi, it reminded me of Washington
D.C. where across the street from the White House, there are homeless
people begging for food. In think Jackson's capital building is the only
thing in the area that didn't look like it was part of the neighboring
ghetto. Mr. Watkins will out live us all -- not in a physical form, but in
his spiritual music that has moved the C.R.M. through many turbulent
times. Yes, after a while I just wanted to sit down after singing song
after song after song, but to see the happiness in both my teacher, Mr.
Schechter's and Watkins' eyes were enough to keep me going on. The songs
he sung were songs that children could come up with but they were
effective nonetheless. "Ain't scared of your dogs cause I want me freedom.
I want my freedom. I want my freedom. Ain't scared of your dogs because I
want my freedom -- I want my freedom now." African-Americans who lived
through the '60s an
d participated in the movement often sing the songs that Mr. Watkins sung
to us. For me, they just seemed like sound, but to hear it coming from
them, I see now that they were the plea of a nation ready for change and
Both New Orleans and Atlanta were likes trips going back home. "City
of Sin," New Orleans is always the place to be. I learned to never get in
a group with girls who must stop at every single store on the famous
Bourbon St. even though you tell them that they are identical! Took a few
photos, ate at a couple of places whose names I can't pronounce, and tried
not to stare at street performers and pictures of naked men and women in
window displaces was the name of the game while we were down there. It's
the New York City of the south. Atlanta seems to be becoming the world's
largest mall. Everywhere one went, there seemed to be a mall. After going
to the famous Underground Mall, my close group of friends visited the
Coca-Cola Museum. Nothing but blatant advertising and "brainwashing" all
around, but hey, we got free Coke.
The other side of Atlanta that the city has to offer is the
unbelievable memorial and final resting-place of MLK. To be entombed
surrounded by shimmering water is something that speaks for itself. MLK
was a great man who died before his time. Unlike the place of his death,
the MLK center and the actual house that he was raised in, was an
uplifting experience. We celebrated his life and honored what he did for
race relations in America. Know one could have expected that an above
ground coffin surrounded by a pool of water with an eternal flame near by
would be considered a gravesite. Unlike many leaders, MLK touched every
America when he was alive, and he continues to do so after his tragic
MLK's gravesite proved to be even more uplifting after we had visited
the grave site of a true victim of a hate crime. James Chaney was a good
black man who should have never been murdered back in the racial red-hot
south. Mr. Deerman,
who was a reporter at the time of the incident told us his side of the
story and how he feels today about it. We met him in Philadelphia,
Mississippi which looks like it's stuck in the 1950's with the old shops
lingering around. I'm was sure the kids who lived in Lincoln/Sudbury sure
were glad they had more stuff than that town. Mr. Deerman was a great
speaker. The expression on his face told it all. One could literally see
the remorse on his face and in the air around him for what happened to
Chaney and the others.
Mr. Obie Clark was kind enough to meet with us at the actual gravesite
of Mr. Chaney. Looking at him, one could see that he was a man who had
went through a lot in his lifetime. Riding the bus going up a hill in the
middle of the woods and suddenly seeing this beautiful tombstone on the
side of the road is a sight I'll never forget. He talked about how the
church was kind enough to give the family of Chaney that piece of land,
however he told us about the vandalism that has since plagued the site.
There are sick people in the world. What kind of monsters would repeatedly
over the years ruin a gravesite? To have people knock over tombstones and
even shot at it is something no decent human being would do. It's a clear
example that racism is still alive. I have hope though, for seeing Mr.
Clark's granddaughter in a way let me know that things will be for the
better and true freedom and equal rights will come.
As our incredible journey continued, we made use of the VCR on the bus
and watched the horror of the deadly march that happened in Selma, Alabama
right before arriving there. While walking over the historical Pettus
Bridge, I sadly never got the sense of what it must have felt like back in
the actual march. I looked mostly at the scenery and the calmness of the
area, which I'm sure at the time, was anything but calm. The calmness
would soon die when we met Ms. Bland whose sassiness was both delightful
yet demanding. She made a stand in a small, tight-packed room and told us
the jail cells were just like that, which really was a wake-up call me for
to acknowledge what people went through in the name of freedom. Rev. Reese
who survived the deadly march and later stood next to MLK on the
successful march from Selma to Montgomery was another delight to see. One
could still see the hopes in his eyes for the future generations.
The rest of the trip seemed to go by in a blur, however, I will never
forget the trip. The friends I've made, the people we've met, and the
overall bond that I felt with people is something that I will treasure
forever. Going to school the week that followed was the real "culture
shock!" Yes, there was racism down there but they were nice us; never once
did I get a sense of sarcasm or cynicism on the people we met down there
while it thrives in every person up here. Going down south at least once,
whether it be to study history or just for a vacation is something I
highly recommend to any northerner.

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