Deep South Trip Reflections

Reem Assil

A Reflection of the South



"Freedom has always been an expensive thing."
-Martin Luther King Jr.

Freedom is Coming, I do believe

I will not be conquered, I will keep my strength
For God is on my side, and His will is mine.

Fire, blood, rage, grief, and despair
Where is that light, I fear the day
That I may forget,
That light shines within me, everlasting
And pure, it will shine for the whole world
To see, I do believe.

No more fear, I must be strong
No more anger, I must be the bigger man
If hate destroys, then love will mend
I do believe, one day my
Grandchildren will be rejoicing in the
Treasures of Justice.

They try to break us
Tell us that we were not men
That black is the color of evil
That we will amount to nothing
But I will not be broken for if
I must, I will die a man.

They hurt our children
They convince them that they
Are inferior. They laugh at them,
Spit on them, shout at them,
Cheat them, and isolate them.

I see the tears of defenseless
Children and I try to convince them
That everyone is a child of God.

No more, our children will be
Symbols of greatness, we shall

The ugly sea of injustice surrounds me
I swim in hopes that I will escape it
But my arms become tired
My legs exhausted, I wonder
Many times if I can go on.

But my soul is too proud,
My heart is too committed,
And my faith grows with every beat of it.
And though I feel that I am
Drowning in that sea of ugliness,
I look to the heavenly skies
And I know that glory awaits me.

My neighbors tell me to leave
That the North will give me more peace
That I will get myself killed
But if I die, I know that
I will have at the least died for something.

If I leave my home, they win
I put more power into the white man's hand
To lynch our children, to burn our churches
To vandalize our homes, beat our men, and
Rape our women, no I cannot do that.

If I leave my home, I might leave the terror
But the terror will not disappear
I will betray my community
For they will live that terror
And I I will live the terror of knowing.

No I will stay, I will pay that price
They stole my freedom, and I will take it back
For it is rightfully mine to claim, it is
My God-given right.

So I will pay the price for freedom
For it has always been an expensive thing,

And God is on my side, yes, He is
I do believe.

They teach us in school that history is always being made. As a lover of
history, I have always believed this. However, I have never had such
conviction of it as I do now. You have to witness history with your own
eyes, you must see for yourself what kind of impact people can have on the
fate of humanity. My experience down South has taught me that history is
like a novel with many unclosed chapters. Each chapter is needed, however,
to open another and change the direction of the novel. We should ask
ourselves, what would have happened if the North had not won the Civil
War? Or what would the fate of the blacks be in this country if courageous
slaves had not spoken up or if the Civil Rights Movement had not occurred
at all in the Sixties? The South is the way it is today because of
history's doing.

Another thing that I have learned about history is that it is a constant
meeting of the past and present. If a chapter is unclosed in a book, then
it is sure to be revisited later on. I witnessed this down South. At the
very time we chose to visit Mississippi, the case to adopt a new
Mississippian flag was denied. On that Thursday April 18th, the
Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the Mississippi state flag, which
incorporates the Confederate battle flag in its design, does not violate
the constitutional rights of blacks. Is it a coincidence that in this very
week we were studying the
Civil Rights Movement in the state of Mississippi? And while we are down
South, news briefs about the church bombing in Birmingham emerge. The
trial suddenly reopens and Thomas Blanton, the defendant in this 1963
bombing, will be retried. In addition to the Birmingham trial, the
reopening of yet another trial involving a certain murder of three Civil
Rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, is requested. Finally, we
come home to a newspaper article claiming that the Blues were dying in
the place where they were born! History never has closed chapters; the
past and present continue to meet one another. This was never more evident
as it was in the South.

Before this trip, I had given much thought to what I would take back with
me. The theme of the trip was the Civil Rights Movement. In school we
learn about the great men and women who led this movement. However, we
never fully comprehend what it meant to take on the responsibility that
they chose to accept. It was a responsibility indeed, for it is a
difficult task to put
your fears behind you even under the greatest terror. I knew the facts but
this alone was not sufficient. Prior to going down South, I wanted to know
that there was more to the issue of Civil Rights than what any person
could learn in school. However, I never expected what I found.

What did it really mean to be black in the South? We read about people
like Anne Moody and we sympathize for her. However do we fully understand
what kind of terror was imposed on her? We do not understand that terror
for we have never experienced that fear of death because of our skin
color. Living in the North, we are privileged. If we can somehow
understand how much terror faced so many courageous black men and women,
then we will begin to understand the spirit of the Movement. And the only
way to catch the spirit of the Movement is to see for ourselves what kind
of terror these people were battling. And so we begin our journey down
South, in hopes that we will find some answers to our questions.

The postcard at the Lorraine Motel gift shop in Memphis, Tennessee
illustrated the trail of the fatal gunshot and then the trail of Martin
Luther King's soul as it ascended to heaven. I pray to God that this
illustration is accurate. The beauty of the Lorraine Motel lies in its
incredible authenticity. The sight of the balcony where King was
assassinated is heartrending. One looks up at that balcony and realizes
that it was here where this great man's life was stolen but nevertheless
where his legacy was preserved. Truly, there are no words to describe the
feelings of those who pass the balcony that marks tragedy but it is easy
to recognize it, both in yourself and in those who clearly feel connected
to King's struggle for justice. As we neared the motel room where Martin
Luther King Jr. stayed, intact and pure, we saw the tour guide pray like
it was his last prayer. His beautiful brown eyes welled up with tears as
if he were grieving for his father. Perhaps King was a father to many in
his own way. He took care of is people, gave them a voice of hope, and
provided for them a source of inspiration.

The Lorraine Motel was kept in its original form so as to help visitors
feel King's presence as they enter the courtyard. Giving a personal
account, I can assure anyone that the realness of this place was affective
for it assured me that I was in the presence of true greatness. I had not
entered the museum when a sudden feeling of speechlessness came over me.
It was this place that ended King's streak of incredible speeches,
successful protests, uplifting rallies, and inspiring sermons. I imagined
what people must have felt in 1968. They would never hear his voice again
except through audio and video. They would never get the chance to meet
him now. Never
again could they see him stand again among so many with such composure.
They would never be able to touch him, shake his hand, tell him what kind
of impact he has made on their own struggle for justice.

One thing people knew, however, was that the power of King's words was
everlasting. They knew they had to use what he had taught so many of them,
to continue their struggle. They knew that King would want them to
continue, for the success of the Movement does not depend solely on the
greatness of one man but on the greatness of many. Even King said in his
lifetime that he had never wanted people to glorify him. He was a man
fighting for freedom just like any other person. I knew that there must
have been collective grief over his death. However, I also knew that
though the Lorraine Motel may have been the spot where King's life was
terminated, it was also the spot where his legacy was continued. In my
opinion, there was no better spot to put the Civil Rights Museum for it
lies with a spot that holds meaning to so many people. Thus it gives the
place the sort of energy and spirit needed to touch its visitors. And
ultimately, it celebrates men just like King who were willing to give up
their lives for justice.

Departing from Memphis, we head towards Mississippi, a land that is
difficult to describe with words. You enter the state and you enter a new
world. Living in the North, I have been under the false impression that
American culture was uniform. I admit that living in Sudbury most of my
life adds to my sheltered nature. I did expect a difference but I did not
expect the degree. I might as well have been visiting another country
because Mississippi made me realize that I did not know America as well as
I should have. If you wish to see the power of history and its mark, visit
Mississippi for this is a land that is clearly marked for all to see. In a
few days, we saw the place where the Blues flourished, the plantations
where the blacks slaved and sweat, and the facility that they built for
their own self-determination. We witnessed the juxtaposition of affluence
and poverty, the spirited face of a freedom singer, and a town tainted
with history of hatred and murder. It was much to absorb and reflect on.
But I knew that if I did not do this, I would never fully understand what
it means to live in this country.

We begin our journey through Mississippi with a taste of culture. The
Mississippi Delta, where the blues were born, awaits us. I was not
prepared for I knew nothing about the Blues. I went into the Delta Blues
Museum ignorant of this art form. However, I came out with a genuine
appreciation for the richness of black culture. We learned about great
musicians like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Big Mama, and BB King. I
have no doubt in my mind that much of the Blues came froslaves songs in
the fields, filled with words telling of their extreme suffering and
privation. I imagine that many of the blacks working on the field had
their early songs that later evolved into the Blues. The blacks gave voice
to the mood of alienation and oppression that prevailed in the South. It
is not surprising that the Blues were born in an area where blacks were
often forced to work on the levee.

As we sat in the Delta Blues Museum listening to samplings of great
musician's works, I closed my eyes and tried to absorb the Blues sound.
We heard the original sound of the Blues, free of Western adaptation. As I
listened, I noticed the free use of bent pitches on the guitar but
nevertheless the beautiful simplicity of the tone. The lyrics were
intensely personal. In a few minutesI heard lyrics that dealt with the
pain of betrayal, desertion, and unrequited love. This beautiful outpour
of emotion known as the Blues is a musical tradition that must have been
rooted in the black experience of the post-war South. The Blues struck me
as a form of oral history, a way to communicate the feelings of the past.
I was very affected and am thankful that I had the chance to be educated
about the importance of this great art form.

As we finished traveling through Clarksdale, we witnessed the dwellings
of African Americans on plantations. The movie that we watched the
previous night put us into the context of our next stop, the Hopson
Plantation. Everything laid intact for us to see. The tenement shacks were
many times no bigger than a single room. They were nevertheless filled
with life in their furnishing. The remarkable thing about seeing the
plantation was my realization of just how hard it was to live there. I
remember a segment of the movie where the lady talked about the pain and
agony of cotton picking. She described the sharpness of the plant as she
pulled the cotton out. There was no stopping for pain, however, for they
had a whole field to pick and they had to ignore the pain and pick that
cotton as fast as they could. I can imagine just one day of work on the
plantation under the sweltering sun and the arid weather. I also learned
that the workers were not finished until they picked out enough seeds in
the cotton to fill a boot. This shocked me for the size of one seed is
equivalent to an ant! No complaining was allowed, for when one has to
survive, life itself becomes a luxury.Our next stop was Mound Bayou. Prior
to visiting it, I was unaware of this place and its historical
significance. Mound Bayou does in fact have a
special place in the history of Mississippi and the entire United States.
It was a successful social experiment that illustrated to the entire
nation that African Americans deserved respect and equal treatment. It was
one of the first all-black incorporated towns in the United States,
established by
slaves with great dreams. They wished to create a refuge for blacks in
this area of many white-controlled cotton plantations and at a time known
for racial violence. Not only did it provide for them a physical sanctuary
but it instilled in its residents a sense of racial pride. I was amazed by
great success.

However, something struck me about this place as well. I learned that the
residents of Mound Bayou did not see themselves directly involved in the
same fate as those leading the Civil Rights Movement. The mentality was
that African American freedom and the promise of emancipation could only
be realized in a segregated space, meaning blacks did not need the
collaboration of whites in their pursuit of self-determination. They knew
that they could achieve it alone and they did exactly this. By the time
the Civil Rights Movement erupted in the Sixties, they had already seen
themselves as liberated. They achieved that kind of self-determination in
their own community, the kind of self-determination that blacks everywhere
in the South lacked. I had never considered this , that once not all
blacks were fully connected to the Movement.

As we entered Jackson, Mississippi I looked around and I was astonished
to find the state's capital to have official buildings standing tall and
proud side by side with nearly run down homes. It was almost as if two
worlds were standing side by side in the same city. It was the most
extreme juxtaposition. Was the city unaware by the huge visible gap
between affluence and poverty? This was one question that was never
answered sufficiently.

In Jackson, we met Hollis Watkins, a former freedom singer and still
active Civil Rights worker. He heads the nonprofit organization Southern
Echo, which provides young African Americans with the skills they need to
advance themselves in society. It focuses on community building and
providing a strong framework for education. This man was by far the most
enchanting of the people I met on this trip. Very few have the ability to
capture the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. This man had that ability.

He taught us freedom songs, shared with us his story, and showed us what
real fear and courage meant. He told us, "We were being killed anyways, so
we should at least die for something." The whole time I wondered how one
would be so willing to put his/her life on the line. Hollis Watkins
assured us that people had such an immense faith and God and conviction
that He was on their side that they believed that He would protect them.
In fact, spirituality was on of the driving forces of the Movement because
it gave them power to overcome the fear imposed on them by the terror in
the South. Another way people overcame the fear of standing up to
injustice was to know that they were no alone in the struggle. People like
Hollis Watkins knew that they were not the only ones fighting. Thus, the
unity of blacks in their struggle to overcome was crucial for their

Hollis Watkins did not share many specific facts about the Movement but
he taught me more about it more than any class could, no matter how good
the teacher may be. He conveyed the spirit of the Movement to us. He
engaged us with his spiritual freedom songs. We sang songs like "Been Down
into the South" and "We Shall Overcome.î As we were singing, I felt so
uplifted. We were singing freedom songs and I really felt as though I was
singing for my own freedom! These songs were not only specific to the
sufferings of African Americans but also universal to the rights and
dignity of every human being. The freedom songs also made me appreciate
the courageousness of the ordinary people involved in the movement. The
Movement required bravery and sacrifice not just from the heroes we know
but from the ordinary people, who had their hearts committed to lifting
one another's courage everyday. Hollis Watkins told us that song was
embedded into African American culture; it possessed themes to which all
of them could relate. Therefore, it was needed to add the spirit and
momentum to the Movement.

I will never forget Hollis Watkins, his bright smile, cute face, and
lively speech. He was one of those ordinary people who were willing to put
their lives on the line if it meant helping many others lead their lives
several steps closer to social justice. He knew what kind of terror he was
up against but he was willing to overcome that fear and help others do the
same. And here he is today, president of a successful organization, and a
living breathing inspiration to many young people such as myself. If I had
the chance to speak to him once again, I swear to anyone who asks me, I
would jump at it in a heartbeat. My journey continues and not even Hollis
Watkins could have prepared me for what I felt in Philadelphia,

It is important to understand the events that lead to the present state
of Philadelphia, Mississippi. It started the fatal summer of 1964 when
three civil rights workers named Andy Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael
Schwerner came down to investigate the burning of the black Mount Zion
Methodist Church in Lawndale. At three o'clock PM, they were stopped by
deputy Cecil Price near Philadelphia. They were taken to jail for speeding
and released later that night. When the men never phoned Freedom Summer
headquarters, people suspected that something was terribly wrong. Freedom
summer workers were supposed to call at regular fifteen-minute intervals.1
The men remained missing, and the town remained quiet.

What made the town react in the way it did? Was there conspiracy of
silence? People were not willing to admit the possibility of murder. When
asked, the Sheriff Lawrence Rainy responded, "If they're missing, they're
just hid somewhere trying to get a lot of publicity out of it, I figure."
The disappearance of these men did in fact attract the attention of the
nation. But many Philadelphians would not speak and many were convinced
that it was all a hoax. A known segregationist had told a reporter, "when
people leave any section of the country and go into another section
looking for trouble, they usually find it." One author pointed out, "The
cry of a hoax seemed a reflexive reaction, an expression of the region's
inability to recognize the ungentlemanly truth about its own racial
attitudes or the murderous excesses of some of its citizens." They did not
want to believe these things and they did not want their town to be

...It is now thirty-seven years later. What has become of Philadelphia,
Mississippi? Little has changed since the days when newsmen and television
crews covered the aftermath of the crime that put the tiny community of
Philadelphia into the world's headlines. One author writes, "Many of the
same barbershops and drugstores and banks that looked out onto the square
the summer evening Edgar Ray Killen and Barnett kept a rendezvous with a
careful of Meridian Klansman remain today. On the square's shaded
sidewalks, visitors still receive a penetrating glance from local
residents.' I felt those penetrating glances. I have the feeling they knew
exactly why I was there. They knew it was because of the unfortunate
murder that tainted their town's reputation. They want to do anything
possible to forget.

It is sad in a way for the Philadelphians because they will never be able
to erase history's mark. They cannot deny what happened there. But the
were angry because they were pitched as a city of murderers. The mayor
Charles McClaine said in 1984, "To me, it was sort of like a plane crash.
It was just a part of history that happened near Philadelphia, and there's
nothing we could do to erase it. However, the community, although not
directly, was somehow involved in that murder. Their conspiracy of silence
made them just as culpable as the Klansmen who pulled the trigger at the
three brave civil rights workers.

When she visited Philadelphia, Patsy Sims was able to articulate some of
the things I noticed and felt:When I visited Philadelphia in 1976, Price
was making deliveries. Most of the others were 'out',î too, or preferred
not to talk, trying to forget the past. Blacks and whites passed on
sidewalks, patronized the same stores, sat at the same lunch counters. Yet
I sensed the underlying tension between the two races, an unspoken remnant
of the past, a black should not get too far out of his place. There seemed
still a hostility in the town's visible effort to forget.'But the
inevitable truth is they have not forgotten. They will always be reminded.
And a chill went down my spine as I thought of Price walking around on
sidewalks of Mississippi doing another truck delivery, leading a normal
life as if nothing had happened. As I passed white faces, I did not know
who was a hater and who was not, there was no way of distinguishing. All I
could see was penetrating glares and I suddenly realized the profound
effects of the power of history. This town will always be a curse to some
and a lesson to others.

It was difficult to leave Mississippi knowing that there was so much to
be covered. I would have never guessed the atmosphere in Mississippi in a
million years. It was a revelation indeed. As we headed through Alabama, I
started to find a theme forming in this trip. For the first part of the
trip we had been given the context of the Civil Rights Movement and what
the struggle was all about. We had been shown exactly what African
Americans had been subjected to and the deep- rooted issues of racism in
the South. It was far more complicated than I could ever imagine. Racism
is still alive and well, I discovered. Why did I think otherwise? Perhaps
it is more inconspicuous in the North and more blatant in the South.
Whatever the difference was I knew that I could not even begin to imagine
what it would be like growing up black in the South.

The theme of Alabama would have to be empowerment, especially of the
youth. We visited Selma and the Voting Rights Museum and one of the things
I learned was that whatever I am going to be in life, I should be the best
at it. And I must use my profession to somehow contribute to society, for
I have the ability and more importantly the obligation. People marched on
Bloody Sunday so that African Americans could have the liberty to vote
today free of fear. Similarly, movements such as the women's movement made
it possible for women like me to pursue professions that were unimaginable
thirty years ago. I must take full advantage of this privilege. If we let
those people devote their lives to making our lives more privileged all so
that we can waste our blessings, then we should feel ashamed of ourselves.
I have an obligation to give back to my society and I hope that I will
have made the people, who fought for the security of my rights, proud. As
the reverend who walked on the frontline told us, "Just look to God. He
will make it possible if you can keep your faith." Perhaps I will use
that. It takes much humbleness out of one man to say that all of his
struggles and victories are at the hands of God. He was a voice of

My trip down South was a wake up call. I came back feeling a deep
connection to God, to my peers, to history, and to the world around me. I
have come back with this amazing determination to walk in the footsteps of
those who have indeed made momentous changes. It can be done, we do have
the power to make history. But I have also realized that it will require a
lot of work to sustain this feeling of empowerment. I cannot give in to
the sudden feeling of helplessness. I know that this is just the beginning
of my personal journey of discovery. Even before this trip I knew that I
wanted to be socially active but I felt that I had a long way to go for I
was too young and not educated enough. However, the people that put the
Movement into full gear were in fact the vibrant youth! Meeting and
learning about a lot of these young activists in the Sixties made me
realize that activism has no age requirement. The only thing initiation of
change depends on is how deeply your heart is committed. I can proudly say
my heart is more committed now then it has ever been.

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