Deep South Trip Reflections

An intimate reflection of my experience

Kristina Riordan

It has been an intense few weeks after arriving home from my journey. I
think that journey is the only way to describe it. Trip sounds too cheap,
too touristy. I remember how excited I was at the beginning of the year
when Mr. Schechter told my Post War class that he wanted to plan a trip
into the Deep South. The south seemed so different so intriguing. I
immediately jumped on board and had one hell of a time trying to find
thirty six kids willing to venture with us into an area in this country so
rarely understood or given thought to. I remember the nervous
anticipation in the month of November. Were we going to get enough people
to sign up? Again in January and March when the final payments were due.
Was anyone else going to pull out? Was this fascinating journey really
going to take place? Were we really going to go? Those are a few of the
questions that ran through my mind in the early months.

As the trip approached us in early March and April, there was so much
excitement and intrigue. What really lay before us seemed a sort of
mystery that was only to unfold when we arrived in Memphis. I think that
most of us just hoped Mr. Schechter knew what was going to happen and how
it was all going to happen. It seemed as though we had so much planned
and such a sort period of time to work with, just eight days. We were to
travel into five separate states and criss-cross two time zones. It all
was so puzzling how it was to finally fit together, but that was why in
the early months, there was always a sense of camaraderie among the group.
Whatever was going to happen, which none of us knew of could have
anticipated, we were going to go through it together.

I went down into to the south, hopeful, wishful, and certain that we were
all going to come home a little more enlightened and moved by what we had
experienced. I remember praying the night before we left that we would
all have a great experience, get along, and come home moved by the spirit
of the movement to help create change in our own communities. And oh, how
my prayers were answered. I feel that before I left I was just a little
more naive, and a little more sheltered than I am today. I went expecting
the best and the worst at the same time, if that makes any sense at all.
After my experience in Honduras this summer I felt that I had seen the
worst of what the world had to offer people and the best of what the
spirit had to bring. I did not think that we had the kind of spirit I saw
in Honduras, the passion for living everyday to the fullest, here in
America. I was wrong, though, because I have seen it, I have now
experienced it. It is just buried down a little bit deeper into our
history. It is just a little more south than Boston. Thus, our journey
into the deep south began a journey that will never be forgotten.

We flew into Memphis Tennessee, with excited and tired bodies. There
were howls of excitement on the plane when the pilot informed us all that
the local temperature was in the mid-eighties and we were ready to absorb
whatever the south had to offer. And so we were introduced to Mr.
Crowell and the big blue Callahan, and the state of Mississippi. We slept
a comfortable night at the local Motel 6, in Lake Horn Mississippi, and
then awoke with our first day ahead of us. The Callahan swept us away,
back to Memphis to visit the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther
King Jr.'s, assassination, and one of the best Civil Rights museums in the
country. I will always remember the sun shining bright that day falling
gently over the building that was preserved just so. The gates that were
still closed because we had arrived early, the old motel sign, probably
the one Martin Luther King saw as he drove up to the motel on his last
night on this planet. The big beautiful leafy tree's that lined the small
street. And the old lady that just won't give up her protest of the
museum that took the place of her home, her determination to fight for
what she thought was unjust. There were so many emotions in just sections
of surveying the exterior of the site. It was them that I realized what
we were really in for. I knew that this experience was going to be a
most powerful one. One that would impact how I thought, felt, acted for
hopefully the rest of my life.

The museum was amazing. So was our tour guide. So young and energetic
about civil rights, so knowledgeable about the events of the movement and
what preceded it. He was full of emotion at every turn, happy, sad,
tragic, exuberant, reflective. Standing by the window and seeing the spot
four feet away from me where one of the greatest men to ever grace this
earth was so brutally shot down was almost too much for me. Looking into
the room he last slept in. How it had been preserved to the last minute
detail was eerie and profound at the same time. Knowing all the happened,
all that had come before, all that was to come, hearing in the back of
your mind, and literally in the background the speech he gave the night
before he was murdered was something hard to ever describe.

After a lighthearted jaunt on Beale Street and excursion to Elvis
Presley's Graceland we headed south to Clarksdale Mississippi the heart of
the Mississippi Delta. After a most comfortable stay at the Comfort Inn,
which allowed us to experience first hand some excellent southern
hospitality, we traveled to the Delta Blues Museum. This was really
fascinating because it gave great insight into the culture that surrounded
and shaped the African Americans before and during their struggle for
justice. We had a great sampling of various blues musicians and got to
see a real life juke joint co-owned by Morgan Freeman and the home that
Muddy Waters grew up in. After a quick stop at the Hopson Plantation we
headed to Mound Bayou, a town built by former slaves. There the Mayor,
Mr. Milbern Crowe, spoke to us of the town's history that I found totally
engrossing. The town was beautiful, big fields, beautiful magnolia and
maple trees, lots of flowers, old dirt roads, but was also extremely poor.
One of the many juxtapositions we saw during our stay in the south.

After a found farewell from Mr. Crowe we set out toward the capital of
Mississippi, Jackson, to meet one of the original freedom singers. The
bus ride to Jackson was one of the longest but was possibly most fun we
had on the bus. After numerous car games, chats, singalong's, and
lighthearted laughter we arrived in Jackson. Jackson was a handsome city.
A beautiful State House, big leafy trees, grassy parks, and nice old
homes. We pulled up to a building not far from the State House which you
could almost see, to find a scene that immediately reminded me of some of
the homes I got used to seeing in Honduras. In the third world, not in
America did I ever expect to find housing like I saw. Another
juxtaposition of images, to one side the lovely Sate House and city park,
to the other homes in shambles, trash on the side walks on the streets,
stray cats and dogs roaming around looking half-starved to death. It was
almost too much for me. It brought me right back to Honduras, to that
sickly smell of poverty that I came to associate it with. The smell I
remember from Africa, and Central America was right in my own country in a
state capital no less. The somber mood I walked into that building with
did not last for long however, for soon we were to meet Mr. Hollis Watkins.

We sat down in a large circle of chairs that had been placed their for us
previous to our arrival. Everyone was tired, hungry, and just a little
bit uneasy about sitting down for another hour or so after being on the
bus for over four. I think it is safe to say that as soon as Mr. Watkins
opened his mouth all those feelings seemed to melt right away. Time
seemed to fly right by as we sat in that large room listening to a man
that took our breath away with his sweet gentle voice. Every word
re-creating the movement, the different protests, the mood of the movement
the morale at different times. Hearing first hand of the courage this man
faced, what he gave up, how not even his own extended family would have
anything to do with him after he had been arrested for the first time.
What it was like to be a freedom singer, what they did, and the
consequences of fighting for ones rights. When he started to sing he
became ageless it seemed as though it could have been 1962, when we sang
with him it felt as though we really were part of that movement fighting
for freedom. Again it is hard to describe the emotions, the mood of that
room, the camaraderie I felt at that point. It felt as though right at
that moment nothing else in the world mattered. That time had almost come
to a screeching halt so that we could sing freedom songs with Hollis
Watkins and hear his stories of one of the most profound movements in the
history of this country. It is rare to find a person who makes you feel
the way Hollis Watkins makes you feel. It is rare to have so much respect
for someone you have never met before, someone up until that day you
never knew existed, but you know you will never forget. It proved how
much this movement was fueled by everyday citizens willing to give up
everything, even their own freedom for that of the larger majority, as
much as it was by the Martin Luther Kings's.

After spending the night at Shoney's Inn and getting a taste of the
breakfast bar the next morning, we headed to New Orleans for a day of fun,
sun, music, shopping, and great Cajun cooking. The splendor of the
Mississippi countryside took my breath away. It was so beautiful and
peaceful and natural. No big developments full of the same five luxury
houses you see as you drive through Sudbury, but rolling hillsides, rives,
lakes, fields, magnolia trees, simple but nevertheless elegant farm
houses, old cottages with rap around porches. I spent the ride in total
awe of the beauty of this region. After our fun and relaxing day we spent
he night in Meridian Mississippi at a sub-par Econo-Lodge. We awoke the
next morning and decided to by-pass the Waffle House and eat again at
Shoney's. This was our fatal mistake. Several hours after first arriving
at the Shoney's we were all on our way to the town of Philadelphia
Mississippi, to learn about the case of the three civil rights workers
murdered there in 1964.

Learning about the case in my AP America course sophomore year, again in
my American Literature class Junior year and in Post War, I felt I was
pretty solid on my facts. I remember watching the numerous documentaries
on it in Post War and in American Lit, and the movie Mississippi Burning.
I remembered vividly the scene of the highway they rode on in the final
minutes of their lives, I thought on the bus as I looked out the window,
they could have been driving right here. These were the last trees they
saw, this might have been where they were pulled over. Knowing what
happened, knowing how big an impact their deaths had on the country it was
indescribable how I felt as we rode down this quite stretch of road shaded
by big green leaves on both sides. Arriving in Philadelphia was something
else. The town looked as though it had not aged at all in over thirty
years. That made everything some how all the more eerie. This is what it
looked like when those boys were killed. This is what my parents, the
nation saw on TV every night when they were searching for the bodies. It
was a town stuck in the past, trapped by the horror of what had happened
there so long ago. A few of us traveled into the under ten dollar store
for a lark and came out with arms full of wonderfully cheap treasures. At
the check out a kind old lady made conversation with us, and made us
promise we would come back and see her the next time we were visiting. I
couldn't help thinking if this woman lived in Philadelphia when everything
went down, had she known anything? We then met up with the group and
traveled to the town library where we were to meet the retired newspaper
editor to help shed some light on how the town reacted when the murders
took place. Mr. Deermont was amazing. He remembered everything down to
the most minute detail. What day of the week it was, what must have
happened, it was like a play by play of the whole ordeal. He too spoke
with such emotion, so much heartache almost. When he told us he thanks
God everyday that something bad didn't happen in Mississippi, it made my
head reel. Is that what it has really come down to? Is that the mark
that this has made on the community and those that lived through it? Just
thanking God nothing bad happened in Mississippi, and feeling deep down
that it will happen a thousand other places before it happens there again.

After a brief photo-op with Mr. Deermont we were heading back to Meridian
to meet with Mr. Obie Clark who was to take us to James Chaney's grave
site. Mr. Clark was another sweet southern gentlemen with one of the
cutest granddaughters I have ever seen. He lead us up to the grave site
on a long and winding shady road to a small and remote grave yard with
only around a dozen graves, Chaney's the largest by far. He told us again
of the murders of the Chaney family and what they went through after James
was murdered. He spoke to us of the struggles they faced to bury James
and the grave yard switch, of the violence that has followed his remains
and how even now he can't live in peace. We saw the beautiful grave, with
its shiny granite looking back at us. You could feel the gentle wind blow
through your hair as you listened once again to the tale of such hate, and
the hate that hasn't ended. You could hear the wind rustle the shady
tree's and feel the seclusion of the site, so calm and so violent at the
same time, another one of those juxtapositions. I remember staring down
at that inscription for a long time, "There are those who are alive, yet
will never live. There are those who are dead, yet will live forever.
Great deeds inspire and encourage the living." It moved me in a way I
don't think I can even put into words. The whole scene it was so
emotional, it was to profound... There just aren't any words to describe
what I felt at that moment. The hands joined together, the shot out
photo, the rocks of the visitors, the solace and the violence, knowing
that the past is never the past and the future is only a glimpse of what
has already occurred.

We spent the next few days in Alabama visiting the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Walking across it was symbolic and a nice tribute, something that you will
always remember when you study the voting rights movement, hey I walked
across that bridge. The voting rights museum was interesting and the
women that took us around Ms. Bland, if I recall was great. the perfect
image of the big strong black woman so often stereotyped. I loved her.
Their exhibits were fascinating and different. The footprints and notes
of those who walked that Sunday, the room kept as a tribute to the victims
of the movement and so on. Then we traveled to Montgomery and Birmingham
to see the monuments that they have erected in honor of the movement.
Seeing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, knowing what had happened
there, being in the spot of so much hate, it was moving. The Birmingham
Institute was another example of a superb museum that must have taken ages
to construct, with its every attention to detail. From Birmingham to
Georgia we went, changing time zones once again, singing "Proud Mary," on
the way. Passing Nascar rallies with miles of trailers, motorcycles and
confederate flags, was like a slap across the face that racism is still
alive and well in some parts.

Visiting the King Center in Atlanta the next day was one of the more
moving points of the trip for me personally. Here is the grave of one of
my heroes someone who gave his life for what he believed was a moral and
just cause. His grave site and reflecting pool were inspiring, the museum
and church were also beautiful. I was so humbled just sitting by the pool
looking up at the tomb. Remembering John's Gospel, "There is no greater
love than this, to lay down one's life for his friends." That is what he
did, give up his life, make the ultimate sacrifice so that some may live
better, so that some may finally have justice. The scenes of the
documentary shown to us right before we arrived on site kept spinning in
my head, his casket pulled by a sharecroppers wagon through the streets of
Atlanta, the song they played "The king of love is dead" ran through my
mind, it was so sad. Almost as if it had just happened.

So now that the journey has ended what has it taught me? I think first
and foremost I have been given the unique opportunity to experience a
different kind of culture. I have been given the chance that very few
have of seeing a part of this country so rarely seen by northerners. I
have been to small country towns and large corporate cities. I have met
people who I know will always have an impact on how I see the south,
myself, and my goals. I have been given a chance to see the south for
what it really is, a place unlike any other, full of a unique culture all
its own, history both triumphant and tragic, and people always smiling and
willing to help you out. This journey has taught me to always fight for
something, always fight for what I feel is right and just. Never be
afraid of something that seems to be to conquer anything can be conquered.
And never think that just because I am one person that I am insignificant
and do not count. Everyone counts, taking that first step is harder than
taking the many that follow. I know that I am different because I have
seen a land full of such potential that has come so far but still has so
far to come. Not just in the south but in the north as well. Racism is
not dead, the struggle that I have seen with my own eyes is not over and
needs my help. Groups and organizations like Southern Echo need my help,
they need everyone's help. In the north racism lies under a blanket and
we ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist, but it is still there. In the
south it may be more blatant but no more hurtful and it needs to be dealt
with. Most of all I feel I have been blessed enough to share even for a
few moments the lives of so many amazing individuals, so many have given
their own lives so that mine can be better and I owe them and myself to
give back to them to help them with their struggle, which now has become
my own.

Deep South Trip Homepage


Web Site Design by Fletcher Boland