By Melanie Wilmoth
It has been a few weeks since Alan Bean and I returned from our whirlwind trip to Mississippi. Since we arrived back in Texas, I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the trip and all of our various adventures and encounters while we were there.
We planned the trip to Mississippi for several reasons. We are currently working on a few cases in the Delta and had some research to conduct. We also arranged to meet with other advocacy organizations doing similar work in Mississippi so that we could build relationships and collaborate with them on future endeavors. In addition, we planned to meet up for a civil rights tour with a professor and several students from the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. With all of this on our agenda, our days were filled to the brim. Needless to say, I was pretty exhausted and exponentially more enlightened as the trip came to an end.
When we arrived in Jackson, MS, we were welcomed by the wonderful staff of the John M. Perkins Foundation where we stayed that night. The next morning, we met with the Foundation’s Special Projects Coordinator and learned more about the Foundation’s history and its goal of bringing racial reconciliation to Mississippi. From there, we touched base with the Program Director for the ACLU of Mississippi. She informed us of the current ALCU initiatives around immigration, youth justice, and the school-to-prison pipeline and we shared with her about the work of Friends of Justice, discussing opportunities for future dialogue and collaboration.
After two successful meetings with advocacy organizations in Jackson, we made our way to Cleveland, MS. There, we met with Professor Paul Ortiz and several University of Florida history students. Dr. Ortiz and the students were incredibly friendly and interested in the work of Friends of Justice. After meeting them, I was even more excited about joining them on the civil rights tour.
Our first stop on the tour was the house of Margaret Block, a spunky civil rights veteran with a home full of history and artifacts from the civil rights movement. Margaret stayed with us for the next several days, leading us around the Delta and sharing her personal stories of the movement.
Margaret first took us to the house of civil rights leader Amzie Moore. It was at this house that prominent civil rights leaders such as Medger Evers, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King, Jr. held civil rights organizing meetings.
We also attended a community organizing workshop with another civil rights veteran, Lawrence Guyot. Guyot was an organizer, member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Decades after the height of the civil rights movement, he is still just as passionate about the issues and active in the work. His experience as a community organizer and civil rights activist made for an interesting, inspiring dialogue.
Later that night Delta State University hosted a civil rights panel with Lawrence Guyot, a union organizer named Rose Turner, and a Delta State professor, Dr. Chuck Westmoreland. The panel touched on everything from unionization in the Mississippi catfish industry to our youths’ unfortunate lack of knowledge about the civil rights movement.
We also had the opportunity on our trip to visit the Sunflower County Freedom Project, an after school educational program for middle and high school students in the county. The leaders of the project help kids with schoolwork, provide educational and artistic programs for them, and prepare them for the SATs and college applications. The Freedom Project is an extremely worthwhile organization and is incredibly successful in helping their students to succeed in grade school and go on to attend colleges and universities.
Our tour also took us to Dockery Farms (the possible “birthplace of the blues”), Bryant’s grocery where 14-year-old Emmett Till bought candy before he was tortured and brutally killed in 1955, McLaurin Street Park (where Stokeley Carmichael first used the term “Black Power”), and the memorial for civil rights pioneer, Fannie Lou Hamer. This was perhaps the most memorable and meaningful part of the trip for me. Standing in the beautiful Fannie Lou Hamer memorial garden, Margaret Block began to sing some of Fannie’s favorite freedom songs. It was a wonderful moment, and one that I will never forget. As Margaret’s voice led us all in song, I couldn’t help but think back to the strong souls that bravely built and led the civil rights movement.
After returning from our trip, I spent a lot of time reflecting. I went to see the movie “The Help” (most of which was filmed in Mississippi) a few days after I returned. Although the film was flawed (but I won’t get into that here), it did highlight the stark contrast between the wealthy, white neighborhoods and the poor, Black neighborhoods in Jackson in the ’60s. Thinking back on our trip to Mississippi, I realized how little had changed. As we drove through the Mississippi towns there was a clear distinction between the poor neighborhoods which were predominately Black and the middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods which were predominantly white. As time goes on, some things change…but much remains the same.
Flipping through a paper in Indianola, MS, Alan and I came across pictures of basketball teams from two different high schools. I think the pictures speak for themselves:
Years after desegregation and the civil rights movement, Mississippi seemed as segregated as ever. Which brings me back to the work that we do today. A sign in the Fannie Lou Hamer memorial read, “Let Your Light Shine.” This sign reminded me of the importance of continuing the work of Margaret Block, Lawrence Guyot, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the thousands of other civil rights pioneers. The trip inspired me to continue to work not only for racial equality, but also for economic and social justice.
There is a lot of work to be done, so let your light shine!