“Now it’s early in the morning
It’s early in the morning
And I ain’t got nothin’ but the blues.”
B.B. King wrote this about losing a lover. Our blues come from having to get up at 5:30 in the morning to be able to check out of the dorm by 6:30. Breakfast will be on the road today – purchased on the run at McDonalds. We’ve had some long days, now, but today starts the earliest. Professor McCord is willing to add to the schedule if an opportunity presents itself, and it did. Another group we met swore the B.B. King Museum was the best, so she called to see if they would open an hour early for us. The answer: yes, so we have to be in the heart of the Mississippi Delta by 9:00 AM. Today’s tour will be rough and emotional, punctuated by cool and smooth. Fortunately, BB began this tour day with a brillant burst of musical wonder both invigorating and inspiring.
Tim Eng in front of the last brick cotton gin in the Delta, picture taken by Peter Bostic.
Ms. Gloria Jean in front of the Museum – picture taken by Peter Bostic
And appropriate for the Mississippi Delta, where B.B. King began. When I was in high school, television news coverage from the Mississippi Delta was grim. Black people eked out sharecropper lives under conditions not far from slavery and the Klan was active and deadly. If blacks were smart, they stayed in their place. So much for “freedom and justice for all.”
Back to the museum. One of the buildings is the only brick cotton gin left in the Delta. B. B. King actually worked there. The cotton gin was named after the machine of the same name that changed the South when it was created in the 1790s. The machine, inside the building, was used to remove the seeds, seed hulls and other small debris from the cotton handpicked by humans. Cotton could be processed much more quickly, so more slaves were needed to pick it.
Do you like the blues? Well, the museum provides a history of the blues in the Delta and of the musicians who went off to spread the blues around the world. Meandering through the exhibits with B.B.’s music in the background is a soulful experience. I know I lose a sense of time. Dr. McCord didn’t give us a time to leave, so we are able to wander and enjoy – a powerful lesson in musicality – and hope during perilously hard times. This is perfect preparation for tonight when we will be in Memphis on Beale Street.
And we need mental preparation for what comes next. When we leave the museum we tour the Mississippi Delta Landmarks of the Civil Rights Movement with our guide, Charles McLaurin. Some highlights:
Indianola, Mississippi: There’s still a black side of town and white side of town. Gentry High School is 98% black – so much for integration. Margaret Kibbe, who we met in Jackson, was part of the staff at the Freedom School in Indianola. The school was a center for voter registration mass meetings, as well as the Freedom School. There was a library of two hundred books until the school was fire-bombed and destroyed in 1965. The new Freedom School was in a three room house rented for $15 per month. An attempt was made to bomb this house, but the bomb was thrown too far away and landed harmlessly in the front yard.
Charles McLaurin guides us through the Delta – picture by Peter Bostic
Sunflower County Courthouse
Greenwood, Mississippi: We come here to visit the Leflore County Courthouse, where several civil rights trials took place. The black section of Greenwood smells like Charleston did in 1965 – awful. Once the Civil Rights Movement ended and the sharecroppers left the land they had no where to go. It’s not like they had enough money to move somewhere else, so they moved into Greenwood and other towns where they packed into the houses that were already there. As many as four families live in a shacks and there is no work for them to do. According to some of the folks we talk to, “equality” has gotten worse in this area. They aren’t allowed to improve their property – can’t get permits. They can walk to the bridge that separates the black section from the white section of town. They can walk over the bridge to the white section, but they better have proof of a good reason to be on the other side – in 2011. (There is a book about Greenville and the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement called Local People by John Dittmer.)
Kelcey and Yvonne visiting folks in Greenwood
Edward with Delta folks
Charles McLaurin, who has been in the Delta since the early 60s, tells another side of their story. He agrees that they have an upward battle in Greenwood, but he suggests that it’s partially because of drug use. It was interesting to see how some folks on the bus responded to his comment – like they were a little angry with him. Here was Solano College Civil Rights Travel Course participant’s chance to see how bad it was in the 60s, to talk with people living in poverty, to learn about the underbelly of the Delta. They were not delighted to find that their “victims” were part of their own problem.
We drove past Parchman Farm or the Mississippi State Penitentary. It is notorious for treatment of prisoners. In the 60s civil rights workers were jailed here. Today it is 98% black and there are five thousand convicts housed here. Some of the prisoners are here from overcrowded prisons in California.
“You go to work in the mornin’, just the dawn of day,
just the dawn of day.
Go to work in the mornin’, just at the dawn of day.
And at the settin’ of the sun that is when your work is done.”
– Bukka White, “Parchman Farm Blues”
Ruleville: This is where the Fannie Lou Hamer Historic Sites are. E.J. in at the memorial for Fannie Lou Hamer
Money: This is the town Emmett Till was visiting when he whistled at a white store owner leading to his murder. Marcia, Mary Ellen, Thomas and Steve at the store in Money.
Ah ha, finally time for lunch. It’s 3:10 PM by the time we finally arrive at Ground Zero, Morgan Freeman’s Restaurant in Clarksdale. We had a reservation at lunch time, but B.B. King set us back and then there were other stops along the way. Katrina, one of our student organizers, has been calling them every half hour or so to let them know we are, in fact, coming. I’m making calls, too. Jessica Bays of the Clarksdale Press Reporter intends to meet us at the restaurant to finish up an interview we began on the phone before the trip – and to add other folk’s experiences to her article. I did not expect the restaurant to look like it does – Morgan Freeman’s Blues Club! But the vibe is certainly juke joint. What a pleasure after the sadness of the morning.
One side of Ground Zero
Relaxing on the front porch of Ground Zero. I did leave a copy of You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You for Mr. Freeman.
With Jessica Bays Picture by Peter Bostic
Edward, Solano College Student, found an impromptu jam session. He and others from our group had a great time sitting in. Picture by Peter Bostic
This is a great way to finish this blog!