An Eyewitness History of Mississippi Hate Crimes
By Alex A. Alston Jr., James L. Dickerson
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2009 Alex A. Alston Jr. and James L. Dickerson
All rights reserved.
The Rose and the Thorn
It was the doomsday option, and they embraced it with a level of apocalyptic fervor usually reserved for the passing of collection plates in revival tents: with a choice between racial integration and state-sponsored ignorance, Mississippi's brain trust went with the latter. Early in 1954 the Mississippi legislature, stoking white racial fears, passed a proposed constitutional amendment that authorized the state to close its public schools rather than allow whites and blacks to attend the same classes.
For more than a year there had been street-corner talk that a pending case before the United States Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education, could result in the destruction of Mississippi's segregated school system. Indeed, as expected, in May 1954 the High Court ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional. The ruling stunned whites across the South, where African Americans were required by law to attend separate schools and prohibited to use any state or public facilities that were not designated for "coloreds." Public buildings open to African Americans displayed Colored signs on separate rest rooms and water fountains, but many other buildings, such as libraries, hotels, and restaurants, were off-limits to citizens of color. African Americans bold enough to enter those buildings were subject to arrest.
Mississippians responded to the High Court ruling by going to the polls in November 1954 to ratify, by a two-to-one majority, the constitutional amendment that empowered the state to close all public schools rather than submit to desegregation. Like most other Southern states, Mississippi has its own moral code, frequently referred to by politicians as "Mississippi Values." On the surface, the code provides a positive approach to life, with references to God, patriotism, and family. But beneath the surface is a dark, brooding, some would say destructive way of thinking that supports a belief that the ends justify the means when it comes to preserving those Mississippi Values that provide a sense of worth to the state's white residents.
Culturally, white Mississippians often have a bipolar view of life: At one extreme is the rose, a symbol of the sweetness of life that is characterized by sunny skies, idyllic visions of both the past and the future, and a lingering sense of well-being. At the other extreme is the thorn, a symbol of generations of violence, brutality, and oppression of not just African Americans but any group that is different from the white majority.
Mississippians have a long history of being against whatever the rest of the nation is for. It's been that way from the beginning, and it's not likely to change anytime soon. To understand why, you have to look at the state's history. Mississippi was primarily settled by four groups of people: indigenous Native Americans; African American slaves who were brought to the state in chains; a handful of patriotic white Americans who moved to Mississippi after fighting in the Revolution; and a large group of white Americans of English, Scottish, and Irish descent who fled to Mississippi to create an alternate universe because they were opposed to the "liberalism" of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the other Founding Fathers. At the time of statehood, white Mississippians were outnumbered by blacks and Native Americans by a margin of more than two to one. White Mississippians remedied that, with President Andrew Jackson's help, by driving the Native Americans off their land and exiling them to Oklahoma, thus making whites the new majority.
Many of Mississippi's early white settlers were a traitorous lot who wanted no part of the Revolution. They were British loyalists who came to what is now Mississippi to escape the colonies. They were proslavery and procorporation (the Founding Fathers were wary of corporations because of the corrupting influence they'd had on British society), and they did not believe in the new "liberal" government because they felt an allegiance to the conservative British monarchy. Liberal was a dirty word. Mississippians cringed whenever they heard, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Early Mississippians wanted nothing so much as they wanted a king or queen to rule them, accepting the British view that some citizens, by virtue of their wealth and social standing, are more equal than others. That way of thinking has been Mississippi's curse since statehood.
Oasis in the Delta
Greenville is an oasis of literary and progressive thinking, the very soul of the Mississippi Delta. It is also a miracle city, having survived, during the 1800s and early 1900s, rampaging floods, raging fires, and terrifying yellow fever epidemics. Somehow, each time the city was knocked flat on its back, it always managed to spring back, just as feisty as ever. During the Civil War the city was once burned to the ground by the U.S. Army after overly optimistic Southern patriots opened fire on passing federal warships. In 1927 it was put under six feet of water when the river overflowed its banks and meandered for more than sixty miles toward Greenwood, a smaller Delta town built in the shadow of the red-clay hills that protected the rest of Mississippi from the rampaging floodwaters. Greenville could kill you, or take away everything you loved, if you let it, or it could teach you lessons about the human condition that you could learn nowhere else in Mississippi.
Throughout the twentieth century, one of Greenville's most admirable qualities was its diversity. By a slight margin, most of the city's inhabitants were African Americans, with the remainder made up of Scots, Irish, Italians, and Syrians. There was a large Chinese population and a number of influential Jews. At a time when country clubs around the nation were excluding Jews as a matter of policy, a Jew was the president of Greenville's country club.
The Mississippi Delta just might be one of the most exotic and fascinating places in the world. By the 1950s it had also become, as had most of the rest of Mississippi, a dark and fearful place, where neither God's nor man's laws were obeyed with any regularity. The Delta, for the most part, was inhabited by dirt-poor blacks and white rednecks, and a few wealthy white planters. Once a prehistoric seabed for the Gulf of Mexico, it surfaced to remain flat as a pancake from the yearly flooding of the Mississippi River, which left rich deposits of black alluvial silt to await the cotton seed that made the Delta the envy of cotton growers the world over.
African Americans constituted the vast majority of those who lived in the Delta and would have found this particular piece of real estate closer to a hell than the paradise that whites like to remember. By the mid-1930s most Delta counties were at least three-quarters black and composed of mainly poor agricultural laborers, tenant farmers, and domestics. They were generally poorer and more suppressed than blacks in the rest of Mississippi. As a result, notes historian Charles M. Payne, "as blacks from other states feared going into Mississippi, blacks from the hill counties or piney woods of Mississippi were frequently reluctant to venture into the Delta."
James L. Dickerson:
My mother, Juanita Turner, did not live in Greenville when the Great Flood of 1927 came — she and her family still lived in Mantachie, or "up in the hills," as people in the Delta called northeast Mississippi — but out of curiosity my mother's father, Audie Turner, drove down to the Delta to witness its destruction. Once he arrived Audie borrowed a boat and paddled out into the flood-waters, where he took photographs of the submerged buildings and the African Americans who were being vaccinated against typhoid fever by the U.S. Army medical corps.
At the time, Audie was co-owner of a Mantachie department store, Turner & White, and he had no ambition to move to the Mississippi Delta. That changed in 1936, when someone backed a truck up to the back door of the store and carted away everything of value. With no insurance to cover the theft, Audie lost everything. Broke and without hope of supporting his family in Depression-ravaged north Mississippi, he used the family's political influence to obtain an appointment as a warden at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, located in the upper part of the Delta. Known to Mississippians simply as Parchman Farm, it was probably the most infamous prison in the United States.
After four years at Parchman Farm, Audie moved his family to Greenville in 1940, where he took a job with the Mississippi Highway Department. It was while the family lived in Greenville that Mother met my Virginia-born father, James Luther Dickerson, while he was stationed at the Army Air Corps base on the outskirts of the city. He went by the name Luther when he was growing up, but his army buddies renamed him "Dick" and the name stuck. He was discharged from the army in March 1946, when I was six months of age. By then Audie had taken a job as manager of the May's Cash Store in Hollandale, a small town about thirty minutes away from Greenville. With Audie's help, my father got a job as the manager of a May's store in Greenville. May's was a precursor to Wal-Mart in that it offered a line of clothing, for infants to adults, and a hardware division that also included a large inventory of war surplus materials — canteens, boots, outerwear, tools, and so on.
It was around that time that my mother received a telephone call from the president of the Commercial National Bank in Greenville, Mississippi, where she had worked for several years as a teller. She'd quit her job when she'd learned she was pregnant with me. The bank president pleaded with her to return to work, but she said that she couldn't possibly because she had no one to stay home with her son. As a solution, the banker offered his chauffeur's wife as a babysitter. The black woman arrived for the job interview sitting in the backseat of the bank president's luxury car, with her stoic husband at the wheel, neither person acknowledging that they knew the other. "She came and talked to me and I said okay — and I went back to work," Mother later recalled.
That arrangement worked just fine for a while, but before long a problem developed — every time the babysitter picked me up, I started screaming. Not crying, mind you, like you'd do if you spilled your milk, but hollering at the top of my voice. Mother tried to work things out, but I would have nothing to do with the woman, so she was forced to let her go. She was about to quit her job at the bank, when she got an idea.
We lived on Central Avenue in a house once owned by a prominent judge. As was the custom in the South in those days, the alleys that ran behind the houses contained the shanties where the black families lived. On her way to work each morning, Mother had noticed a young black girl who lived in an alley down the street toward the levee. One day she stopped and asked if she'd ever taken care of babies.
"Not white babies, but I've kept black babies," the young girl explained. "I have a little baby of my own."
Mother asked her to come by the house the following day so that they could talk. Sallie Mae Elle was just eighteen, but she was very mature for her age — and she had a smiling face that radiated love. I took to her right away, and, unlike the previous woman, who frightened me, I allowed Sallie Mae to hold and cuddle me, something she did with a sense of wonderment. She'd never held a white baby in her arms.
Sallie Mae fed me my breakfast each day and prepared lunch for the entire family. Later, when I began to talk — I never said "Mama" or "Dada," but rather refrained from speaking until I could do so in complete sentences — I spoke in a mischievous manner, frequently teasing Sallie Mae and my parents.
Race relations in the 1940s throughout the South were devoid of the soon-to-emerge concept of equal rights. Whites and blacks either had good relationships with each other or they did not. Equal rights never entered into the equation, since it was inconceivable that blacks ever would have the same rights enjoyed by whites — in fact, it was against the law. At the time, Northerners labeled blacks who had good relationships with whites as "Uncle Toms" or "Mammies," and to some extent that attitude has continued to the present day; however, relationships between the races were much more complex than that would suggest.
Sallie Mae was the reason I became the first white to integrate the public parks in Greenville, although you won't find any plaques there celebrating the occasion. That's because the story's never been told until now. Well, technically, I didn't integrate the parks, Sallie Mae did, but I was the vehicle through which the integration took place.
The day my destiny called, I was three. Mother was working at the bank when she spotted one of her neighbors in line at her teller's window. The woman seemed agitated, judging by the way she twisted and turned and straightened her skirt every few moments, kicking her leg out, first one way and then the other, pursing her lips as if she had recently sucked a lemon. Her eyebrows had been shaved and redrawn with a black mascara brush, a custom at the time among some whites.
When the woman reached the window, she didn't lay down a wad of cash or a check. She wasn't there on banking business. She leaned over into the window, her voice low and ominous, whispering, "There's something I need to tell you."
Mother looked at her, not liking the way that sounded. "What is it?"
The woman's voice bristled with anger. "Did you know that that nigger you hired is bringing her little boy to the city park to play with your baby?"
Stunned, Mother said she didn't know anything about that, which was the truth.
"Well, I thought you ought to know," the woman said; then she turned and left.
When she got home that day, Mother asked Sallie Mae about the neighbor's accusations. "Sallie Mae, have you been letting your little boy come up here to play?"
"Yes, ma'am," answered Sallie Mae. "You don't want me to?"
Sallie Mae had a luminous face. When she smiled, she lit up the room, and when she frowned, it nearly broke your heart. She was more than a sitter; she was a presence in our lives. Mother looked at Sallie Mae, who had been caring for me for two-and-a-half years and who loved me as if I was her own child, and she thought about the morally twisted, self-righteous neighbor standing in line to share the bad news about Sallie Mae — and it was no contest.
"No," Mother said, taken by the extravagant kindness in Sallie Mae's face. "I think it's a good idea — a very good idea."
Thus Sallie Mae and her son and I became the subject of controversy at the city park, a place black children were prohibited from visiting. In my first act of civil disobedience, we played on the swings and slides, and we chased each other across the rich Delta grass, which was soft as a cotton quilt when we tripped and fell into its fragrant folds.
Mother, who could be stubborn and unyielding when she wanted to be, never explained why she went against the grain on that one, other than to say that it felt like the right thing to do. Parents sometimes fall into the trap of thinking it is what they buy for their kids or the schools they send them to that matters most. The reality is that what matters most are the daily decisions parents make about their children.
Mother's decision to allow Sallie Mae to do what seemed reasonable and what felt right, despite the strong cultural and legal prohibition against racial mixing in city parks, had a profound effect on my life, for I grew up with an appreciation of black culture, never fearing blacks or hating them. And it has made all the difference. Fast-forward to 1964, when my college rock 'n' roll band, the Strokers, became the first all-white band to play in a black Memphis nightclub, and the ripple effect of Sallie Mae's and Mother's meeting of the minds becomes apparent and takes on a life of its own, which is how social progress invariably occurs.
Alex A. Alston Jr.:
I was born in 1936 in a motel on Highway 61 in the smack center of this remarkable region. My parents were white, but they were not part of the coalition of white plantation owners who controlled every aspect of the social and economic life in the Delta. In fact, at this time, at the end of the Depression, my dad was desperately trying to make a living to support our family by managing this small motel as cars began moving up and down Highway 61. I remember little about Cleveland, Mississippi, because when I was five years old, my family moved ten miles east to Ruleville, a smaller Delta town, where my dad managed a small brick hotel.
My first memory of an encounter with an African American was in 1942, when I was about seven and living on the top floor of the hotel in Ruleville. I remember it as a rainy summer night. I was sound asleep in my small bed, tucked away in the corner of a large room on the top floor, when I was suddenly awakened by a loud, piercing scream: "Get that nigger!" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Devil's Sanctuary by Alex A. Alston Jr., James L. Dickerson. Copyright © 2009 Alex A. Alston Jr. and James L. Dickerson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.