Lessons of McComb

Driving around McComb was almost quite literally, journeying through the past. In one sense, history was everywhere. We had started at a small Jewish cemetery, tucked behind the brush and away from town. Mostly everyone, even Mississippi locals, had no idea that there had ever been a community of Jewish Americans that lived in McComb. It reminded myself of my own lack of understanding of Mississippi local history and as I’m on the trip learning about a community I’ve known little about, here’s a part of history that even the locals did not know about. It reminded me that even if you think you may understand something like the civil rights movement, there’s always much more you can explore. Omar was a student we met who goes to McComb high school who, along the tour, actually learned a lot about his family. One of his relatives actually lived in a house that belonged to a lady who fed SNCC organizers during the 60’s, and he was learning this at the very same moment we were.

The experience of being in McComb was not like history class. There were so many people involved, so many places of importance with historical significance. It was different because I didn’t feel as disconnected; it was more hands on. We went to individual grave sights of civil rights leaders, talked about people like Medgar Evers, Bob Moses and other leaders who gave their lives for a cause that would propel our country forward to understanding one another. Yet, you could drive less than an hour away and see confederate flags hanging from doorsteps or drive by neighborhoods where racism and segregation are still recognized by families. Even in McComb, still to this day, integration between African American students and Caucasian students at local schools hasn’t been fully realized. After all of this I started to realize that maybe this era of racism and segregation is not so much history in its most definitive form, but instead a lesson. The movement towards relinquishing racism and segregation was started by individuals like Bob Moses, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers, but the rest is left up to us.

This notion didn’t surprise me. I understood that racism was still established and that there were individuals and groups that still believe some people are not equal to others. Coming to McComb showed me to what extent it still exists. It surprised me how accustomed the McComb students were to this atmosphere, and I thought about the things we saw and asked myself how would people from Washington respond if this happened in our state? I knew if I lived in McComb, I probably wouldn’t be able to handle that same presence of hatred. It was uncomfortable driving by confederate flags or hearing stories about riots on the Ole Miss campus. I felt thankful that these instances of violence are rare now compared to Mississippi before. Most importantly, there’s always progress that could be made and I believe that was the most important lesson from the trip.


Thursday–The McComb/Liberty Bus Tour

April 4th, 2013

                Waking up in the morning filled with the energy of a good long night’s sleep, I was ready for another interesting and exciting day. So far, the time we’d spent in McComb had been really fun and also interesting. The last couple nights my friend Santi, and I had been staying with a senior at McComb named Tre. They were very caring and welcoming towards us and the hospitality made me feel like I was at a second home. Now that we were situated and acquainted well with a lot of the McComb kids and our homestay family’s we were ready to embark on another adventure.

Today, I knew we would be learning about the history of McComb specifically, which excited me to finally learn a lot more about the town we’d been staying in. Departing with Santi and Tre, we drove back to the room we’d been working and hanging out in. Shortly after we arrived, we then all got on a bus to take the tour of McComb.  Throughout the entire bus ride, the tour guides gave us tons and tons of information about the city of McComb and its fascinating history. Learning about McComb was really eye-opening because of how different it was compared to where we live. What shocked me the most was hearing about all the bombings that occurred back in the sixties and seeing a lot of the sites where this happened. A short while after, we arrived at the first stop of the tour.

                Pulling off to the side of the road into what appeared the middle of nowhere, we arrived at the local Jewish Cemetery. The first thing I noticed about the place was how untouched and secluded this place was. Looking at the old gravestones made me wonder what life was like back then. Overall, the place didn’t look like it was being taken care of. Knowing that not a lot of Jewish people live in McComb, I really wondered about this and what happened to that population. However, there were a couple of recent gravestones from 2003 and 2009, which showed that some people still used the site. I thought it was a pretty cool experience because it was unique and different to a lot of other things that we’d seen and it was really a place that not a lot of people come to visit.

The Jewish Cemetery in Summit, Miss.

The Jewish Cemetery in Summit, Miss.

                After driving around the area for a while, we left McComb and Pike County and entered Amite County, stopping in the town of Liberty, Miss.  We stopped there for lunch at a place called The Cotton Gin. This place had a lot of history because it was where Herbert Lee was shot. Because we recently learned about the history of civil rights history of McComb and learned about the significance of Herbert Lee, it was very impacting.


At the site of the murder of Herbert Lee, Liberty, Miss.

At the site of the murder of Herbert Lee, Liberty, Miss.

After ordering food, we sat down at tables and socialized a lot with our McComb friends. The food at The Cotton Gin I thought was really good and they gave me so much pulled pork that I almost couldn’t finish it. However, the highlight of the time at the restaurant was Nate and Renee’s hot pepper eating contest. At the tables, they had jars of small spicy peppers and the two guys challenged each other to see who could eat more. After each pepper eaten, both the guys began to slowly turn redder and redder and after they had both eaten ten they decided to call it a draw. Overall, I thought the Cotton Gin was awesome because of the historical significance and the food.

At lunch at the Cotton Gin, Libery, Miss.

At lunch at the Cotton Gin, Libery, Miss.

                The final stop on the tour was visiting Herbert Lee’s farm and gravesite. After a long drive through a rural outskirt of McComb, we came across a bridge but suddenly the bus stopped for fear that the bridge would collapse if we drove over. I wasn’t sure if the worry about the bridge was legitimate because when we crossed it, it seamed fine; However, I figured better safe then sorry. After walking about a mile, we finally made it to the farm and looked around a bit.

Strolling through the backroads of Amite County, Miss, as if it's normal

Strolling through the backroads of Amite County, Miss, as if it’s normal

On the way, there had been a huge area of dead and decaying tree’s and I was curious but never found out what this was from.

Grave of Herbert Lee, Dairyman and landowner, murdered for helping his neighbors register to vote in 1961

Grave of Herbert Lee, Dairyman and landowner, murdered for helping his neighbors register to vote in 1961

Finally, we visited Herbert Lee’s grave and it was a pretty influential experience. Less then fifty feet a way from the graves was the farm of the family of the guy who killed Herbert Lee.  This man was a childhood friend of Lee and was, at the time of the murder, a local elected official.  He was never charged for this murder and lived out his life in freedom.  Justice was not served. I was happy to hear that the family of Herbert Lee’s had forgiven the other family and that they now had decent relations. Overall, the tour of McComb during the day was such an eye-opening experience and I learned and took away a lot from it.

The Drive

After having a blast in Memphis, we all woke up the next morning and did what any logical Seattlites would do: we went to Starbucks. Once we had our caffeine fix, we headed off to Oxford to learn about the James Meredith riots at Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi).
Ole Miss, first became integrated when James Meredith struggled to be enrolled at the school despite severe opposition from administration, students, and local law enforcement. In September of that year, the federal government was forced to drop 30,000 troops into the small town of Oxford in order to quell the unrest. Prior to their arrival, riots broke out and many people were injured and two were killed. As you can see, this was a very interesting place to visit as it was one of the more public battlegrounds for the Civil Rights movement. In fact, Ole Miss had an incident earlier this year on Election Night, but this manifested itself in a more modern form. A series of hateful tweets caused 400 people to assemble on the campus; although no riot ensued, the words exchanged still reflected the hatred associated with the campus in the 1960’s. This also shows how the campus still needs to react to such racism. This they are doing quite effectively. We spoke with representatives from the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation and Peace who spoke about the vigil which 800 people attended the day after the incident to reflect on the progress still to be made at Ole Miss. A kindly professor, Dr. Don Cole, spoke to us about his experiences enrolling at Ole Miss as a black student in 1968. Although there was a small group of individuals like himself, he was still met with severe racism. He was originally denied his major of choice, math, purely because of his race. Now he holds a doctorate and teaches at Ole Miss, where two of his children also went to school. We also got the amazing opportunity to talk with Margaret Anne, a former McComb High School student who was in Ms. Malone’s local cultures class. She not only gave valuable information about what Ole Miss is like now for students, but also she gave us our first taste of McComb.
After a heart-healthy lunch of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, and others, we embarked on our next epic journey; destination: Philadelphia. When we finished our three-hour drive, we met up with our tour guide for Philadelphia- a man named Mr. Leeroy Clemons. Charismatic and entertaining, Clemons’ lighthearted personality contrasted with the subject matter of our tour. The reason we came to Philadelphia and chose to meet up with Mr. Clemons was to learn about the triple-murder of three young civil rights workers upon their arrival in the small town.
These murders happened during Freedom Summer of 1964- a campaign organized by civil rights workers in both the north and the south to educate African-American citizens about voter registration and reclaiming their rights as citizens.

Wednesday In McComb

This is Ben and Pat. We have the privilege of staying with Reverend David Billings and his wife Margerie, two lifelong social justice and anti-racist workers (you can check them out here). After a breakfast of some lemon poppyseed scones (brought from Washington!) we left around 7 a.m. to get started.

Getting to know each other in McComb

Getting to know each other in McComb

We met at a community center near McComb High School, where we made our headquarters for the day. Through some ice breaking activities we met all fourteen of the students in McComb High School’s Local Cultures class, a class about the civil rights movement nationally and, most importantly, locally.

But we didn’t have long to introduce ourselves and play mixer games because our work started right at 9 a.m. We interviewed, in the format of an oral history, the same Reverend who we are staying with. For some basic biographical information: he was born here in McComb in 1946.

Interviewing Rev. David Billings

Interviewing Rev. David Billings

Even growing up in a conservative family, he had some misgivings about the state of society at the time. He attended Ole Miss only a year after its integration by James Meredith was met with infamous riots. Since then, he has become a Reverend in the Methodist Church and worked at undoing the structures and fabric of racism in our society by leading workshops and organizing local communities. He has even been to Seattle multiple times to work with the schools in the area.

Santiago and Tre working the camera at the oral history interview

Santiago and Tre working the camera at the oral history interview

We’d like to share one impactful story that he told us. In his work, after awhile he became very comfortable working with the oppressed and grew alienated from his parents, who he perceived as harboring some of the racist views of a bygone era. But at a conference, one of the other organizers told him that he had to confront an issue even closer to home. The question was posed to him: How can you be so loving with us when you can’t do the same with your own family? The point being, you need to find reconciliation at home before you can try to bring it to the masses. It just goes to show what important things can get stuck in our blind spots as we work towards larger goals.

We learned a lot about interviewing in the process, especially the importance of listening and asking good follow-up questions. Many of the most impactful things we heard were answers to follow-up questions, rather than broad topical questions.

Thinking and writing about the hard questions we're dealing with

Thinking and writing about the hard questions we’re dealing with

Afterwards, we got a quick tour of McComb High School, ate some lunch, and watched Freedom Song, a movie starring Danny Glover. Though it’s never mentioned by name, the movie is about McComb, which has its own rich civil rights history. We debriefed it afterwards, mostly exploring the concept of silence in the form of submission, passive resistance, and active protest.

A moment of high tension in a game of Egyptian Rat Screw

A moment of high tension in a game of Egyptian Rat Screw

We had a delicious meal made for us by some generous McCombians, which included our first exposure to Blue Bell ice cream (5 stars, two thumbs up, perfect 10). Our last activity for the day was an attempt at writing a Freedom Song in ten minutes. And I’d say we all did pretty well! There was some more traditional gospel alongside some rapping. Dave took videos of them all, maybe those will actually find their way up here on the blog at some point.

Tomorrow, we’ll get the chance to do a tour all around Southwest Mississippi and look at civil rights sites. It’ll be great to see some of the places we saw fictionalized in Freedom Song alongside other places that we may not even have heard of yet. This area is loaded with history.

Oh, and it rained hard today! Looked kind of like Seattle with all of the clouds around.

Ben and Pat

April 1 in Memphis…no fooling

At the National Civil Rights Museum

At the National Civil Rights Museum

April 1st:

After breakfast, we started the day off with the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which is located in the rooming house from which Dr. King was shot on the porch of the Lorraine Motel. Before we went into the museum, we first visited the Freedom Sisters exhibition nearby, which is on national tour from the Cincinnati Museum Center. The exhibit featured twenty women, ranging from Harriet Tubman to Ida B. Wells to Shirley Chisholm, who played critical roles in the liberation of blacks and the civil rights movement. It was an excellent first non-meal stop because it’s important to keep in mind all the work that women, especially women of color, have done to impact the world for the better even though their names are not as well-recognized.

Learning from a docent at the National Civil Rights Museum

Learning from a docent at the National Civil Rights Museum

Next, we visited the civil rights museum itself. The museum is undergoing renovations currently, which are slated to be completed in 2014. Luckily we were able to visit the third that was still open and frankly that third was incredibly saturated with information. Upon entering the museum, we walked through a tunnel with a timeline of events in African American history. We then walked straight up to the second floor, which was concerned with the investigation into Dr. King’s assassination. On one black wall, the names of those who were assassinated lit up the dark backdrop, accompanied by a quote of Dr. King’s: “Darkness cannot drive out the darkness, only light can do that.” [DaB1] On the left of the wall, another message explained that assassination, the slaying of a leader, aims to extinguish hope, but so long as the message of the dead is not forgotten, the violence has not achieved its goal. The rest of second floor delved into the questions surrounding Dr. King’s assassination: Was James Earl Ray the only assassin? Was Dr. King persuaded by a treacherous colleague to come to the Lorraine Motel? Was it an FBI conspiracy? (Judging from the most recent 2000 investigation, evidence points to Ray being the only mastermind.) The first floor of the exhibit was more concerned with the nature of the fight for civil rights itself. Sadly, our examination of the displays was shortened by the need to visit the balcony before it closed at noon.

A large red and white wreath hangs off of the porch in front of Room 306, where Dr. King stood on the day he was shot. It was sobering to walk up the stairs of the rather nondescript motel and then stand where a national hero was shot[DaB2] . It was a strange feeling being in a place where such a huge historical event took place.

As just a quick note, apparently there was a lady outside the museum, who has been protesting for the past twenty-five years that the rooming house was turned into a museum instead of a homeless shelter. She found it distasteful that the location focused so heavily on the negative actions of James Earl Ray rather than perform a service for the community.  

Afterwards, we sat in the sun on the grassy area outside the museum. Unluckily, at this point we found out that Lisa’s sister, Jenny, who with her husband, Mike, and daughter, Ruby, was traveling with us in Memphis, had their car broken into. While they went to deal with the unfortunate turn of events, Lauren and Emma talked to us about history of civil rights and of music in Memphis. Then, Mike returned and took us through the history of music in greater detail, observing that Memphis, a city which is ten miles away from many other important cities, served as the perfect crossroads of culture. He then played “Walking to Memphis” for us on his guitar.

Mike Plume singing Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis"

Mike Plume singing Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis”

After establishing a solid foundation of music history, we drove to Sun Studio, where many famous blues and rock ‘n roll musicians, such as Ike Turner and Elvis recorded their songs. After a short wait in a room filled with music memorabilia such as some of the old 50’s portable recorders, we had a lovely tour through the studio from a lady, who turned out to only be nineteen.

Sun Records--Where It All Began

Sun Records–Where It All Began

The tour ended in the actual recording studio, which still had all the original paneling and floor tiles, so we were standing on the same tiles that Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash stood on. Black X’s marked the spot where Elvis and his first recording band stood in 1954. The microphone which Elvis had used also stood in the room and several members of our group took turns posing with it, though the tour guide warned us against licking the microphone in the desire to get up close and personal with Elvis’s DNA.

Pat--In the Footsteps of the King

Pat–In the Footsteps of the King

By the time we finished roaming the gift shop, it was around 2pm and, hungry, we headed to Beale Street to grab lunch.

                Beale Street is such a scene! There was loud blues music playing from every store, aromatic smells lingering on the sidewalk and people of every shape, size and color were milling around. It was a great experience. After we ate our delicious lunch of burgers and shakes, we made our way over to the Rock and Soul Museum. There we learned all about the music of the 50’s and 60’s and the origins. Much of the blues and R&B music came from share-croppers singing while in the fields. Next we looked at all the aspects of the million dollar quartet; Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. We saw some of their costumes, microphones and records. We did the same for many other artists as well. After that, we took a short walk down to the Mississippi River. We could see Arkansas on the other side and we wanted to go, but there wasn’t enough time or reason to make the drive. Back on Beale, we sat down for dinner at the Blues City Café. We were all anxious to try the food, especially their famous ribs or catfish. Boy did they deliver! The dinner was spectacularly tasty and left us all contently stuffed.

At the Blues City Cafe, Beale Street, Memphis

At the Blues City Cafe, Beale Street, Memphis


 [DaB2]Should maybe add more?