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A New Day in the Delta
Inventing School Desegregation As You Go
By David W. Beckwith
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS
Copyright © 2009 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One The day had started badly. Most of my days recently seemed to start badly. Each began with a series of skirmishes that more often than not escalated into battles which then, if not checked, became mini-wars. There was seldom a clear-cut victory in these conflicts. Things sure had changed since I was a student, I mused. My teachers weren't always respected, but, by God, they ruled. They were the lords; we students were the serfs. My secret thoughts of rebellion had always been fleeting and had never been verbalized. After all, my mama didn't raise a fool.
My attention returned to the present and the skirmish at hand.
"Ain't nothin' you got to say that I need to hear. Nothin' I ain't heard umpteen jillion times before," Fisheye grunted petulantly. "Near as I can tell, nothin' in this school ever helped me with anythin' that counts."
What had begun as a well-intentioned counseling session had quickly deteriorated into a standoff. Fisheye had drawn a line in the sand and dared me to cross it. Others in this seventh grade class had drawn this line—for the most part, silently. Less shy than others in expressing his disillusionment with a system he felt was without practical value to him, Fisheye also enjoyed the rapt attention his behavior brought him.
I wasn't supposed to call him by his nickname, despite the fact that few in the school would recognize Fisheye's real name. "Eugene," I began, "if you spent half as much time trying to get to the eighth grade as you do on extracurricular activities—"
Dismissing me as irrelevant, he turned his head and looked out the window.
As I mulled over what I could say to Fisheye that would make any difference, my mind drifted back a few months—which already seemed like an eternity—to before I had ever heard of Abraham Lincoln Attendance Center. I recalled standing outside Connor Hall on the Ole Miss campus and yelling "Glory Hallelujah!" at the thought that I had taken my final exam and, after graduation, would embark on an exciting new life.
This was the new life, all right, but not the Leave It To Beaver one I'd left behind. The realities of Lincoln were a far cry from my WASP existence that, up to now, had been my only point of reference: two parents, a comfortable home in a middle-class, all-white neighborhood, a segregated high school. My security had been overseen by our cocker spaniel, my probity assured by attendance at our Methodist church each Sunday.
My mother was co-owner with my dad of J. G. Lusk & Company, which specialized in brokering cash commodities, primarily cotton seed and soybean products. The cash commodity business at that time was a male-dominated industry, and my mother enjoyed the status of being one of the first females in the trade.
My parents were both native Mississippians—my mother from Collins in south Mississippi, my father a Greenville native. Constancy is common in the Delta. My father was born in King's Daughters Hospital, the same hospital where my younger brother, Bill, and I were born. Some of my teachers had been my father's as well. His family had been old Greenville middle class. Though never wealthy, they had always been respectable. He had been raised by a prematurely widowed mom who was a well-established local seamstress. Nana, as we called her, lived in the old downtown section of Greenville, one block from the levee. The black section of town was less than a mile away. Blacks frequently walked past Nana's house on Central Avenue, more often than not to shop at the Chinese grocer down the block from her house. It certainly never occurred to me that they might have entertained even a passing thought of living there.
You qualified as being old Greenville if your forebears had lived there before the flood. All my life I had heard the stories of the infamous 1927 flood and how Nana had allowed a black preteen, Kitty, to evacuate with the family. Kitty, when she herself had grown old, returned to pay her respects and attend Nana's wake when Nana died at age ninety-six.
I reviewed the incident that had triggered the confrontation with Fisheye. At the back of my classroom, before class started, Fisheye had been dealing out ice cream sandwiches he'd bought at Jones Grocery. He wasn't doing this out of the goodness of his heart but was demanding the recipients' lunch money in exchange. The ice cream was beginning to melt, and it was imperative that he get rid of the stuff. His entrepreneurship also extended to dill pickles, which he had stuffed into his socks.
Is this how Cornelius Vanderbilt got started? I wondered. Is this what my four-year college degree has gotten me? Have I become Lincoln's Dick Tracy—my specialty being bringing to justice teenage culprits who sold ice cream sandwiches and pickles in school?
I enjoyed college, and getting an advanced degree had always appealed to me. I knew, however, that if I pursued further education, most of the financial burden would be mine, since my parents still had my younger brother to educate. So barring getting drafted for the Vietnam War, as many of my contemporaries had been, my only option was to get a job and save my money.
In an optimistic frame of mind, I had sent out twenty résumés with high hopes that several acceptances would show up in a short period of time. Instead, in reply I received twenty form letters which were brief and to the point: "Thank you for thinking of us. At the present time we have no openings, but please try us again in the future." What's the matter with these people? Don't they realize I'm a college graduate? Hadn't my father told me since I was a small child that if I got a college degree, doors would open for me that had been closed to him because he didn't have one?
It was now July 28, 1969. Bill and I were home: Mom and Dad had gone to the lodge for a Masonic–Eastern Star function. My brother, a budding artist, sat in the den with a sketch pad on his lap while listening to the evening news on TV. As usual, when he had a few moments free, he sketched whatever crossed his line of vision. This time it happened to be our grandfather's shotgun, which Daddy had hung on a wall of the den.
I sat at the dining room table typing up résumé number twenty-one on Mama's manual Smith-Corona. To this point, the résumés sent to Fortune 500 companies had met with a dismal reception. I considered this résumé, sent to the superintendent of schools in Leland, Mississippi, inquiring about a teaching position, my last resort. Leland was just down the road from my hometown of Greenville. I reasoned that since I planned, somehow, to go back to the university for an advanced degree, staying in the education field would be a good idea.
As I typed the address on the envelope, I could hear the evening news from the den. The Huntley-Brinkley nightly news was detailing the big events of the day. Neil Armstrong's spectacular walk on the moon had replaced Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne's plunge off the Chappaquiddick Bridge. "I bet Senator Kennedy won't hesitate to vote for NASA's next appropriation," I called to Bill, "now that Neil Armstrong's adventure bumped his catastrophe off the news."
The Kennedys hadn't been popular with most white adult Mississippians after Jack and Bobby spearheaded the federal government's efforts in 1962 to integrate the University of Mississippi, and a large portion delighted in Teddy's shame when that plunge off the bridge resulted in Mary Jo's tragic drowning.
The next news item outlined President Nixon's "Vietnamization" program, in which the emphasis had been changed to training and equipping the South Vietnamese to fight their own war so that we could begin to extricate ourselves from that seemingly endless conflict. The last bit of news was short: the Nixon Department of Justice and HEW (Health, Education, and Welfare) had filed a motion with the U.S. Supreme Court to delay integration once again throughout the country. Little did I know at the time that this item would have far more relevance for me than any of the other stories.
I folded my résumé, inserted it in the envelope, and applied the stamp. "Wish me luck," I called to Bill as I headed for the mailbox that hung by the front door.
That twenty-first job application did the trick. Three days later I received a letter asking me to come to the office of the Leland superintendent of schools for an interview.
I was elated.
* * *
It was an ordinary hot and sticky Mississippi Delta summer day. The temperature was in the upper nineties, and the humidity was even worse that August 8 when I dressed in my only khaki poplin summer suit and set out on Highway 82 in my bright yellow 1962 Rambler American. The car had a push-button transmission on the dash to the left of the steering wheel, and air-conditioning, which I used sparingly since the engine overheated if I drove faster than fifty-five. My father had paid half the $500 cost of the vehicle because he thought it was heavy enough to keep me safe in case of a wreck.
The route was familiar—past the Joy Drive-In theater where, as a teenager, I'd enjoyed watching a movie in the car and necking with my date; then Thompson-Hayward Chemical Company, my employer during five summer vacations; and Valley Chemical, where my best friend, Dick, had worked. Dick was now an army officer on his way to Vietnam.
I knew I was getting near Leland when I passed the juke joint called Tillie's. This establishment was a blue-collar hangout frequented by towboat workers and their spouses or girlfriends. Often, the spouses or girlfriends wouldn't wait for the towboat workers to return from their labors before indulging themselves at Tillie's with a few beers or some short-term companionship. Age limits for alcohol consumption weren't strictly enforced, fights were a regular occurrence, and rumor had it that a killing was not unusual on the weekend. It was a rite of passage for teenage boys in the Delta to go there.
It was surprising that although Leland and Greenville were a mere ten miles apart, I knew very little about the inner workings of the town. I'd been to an occasional Methodist Youth Fellowship meeting here. I had heard of the Stoneville Agricultural Experiment Station, where research on growing hardier, disease-resistant cotton was done. I'd also come with my family at Christmas to drive the street beside Deer Creek, which bisected the community, to admire the decorated floats anchored midstream.
Outside Leland, a town of about ten thousand residents, was some of the richest farmland in the world. Every spring for millions of years, the Mississippi River had overflowed its banks into the surrounding delta. When the water receded, it left behind vast deposits of silt. This annual ritual was interrupted when man took control, building levees to hold back the water so that crops could be planted on the fertile soil.
The Delta was the wild new frontier of Mississippi in the early 1800s. Despite the hardships of living in this vast fertile wilderness, the slavocracy (the term coined by David G. Sansing in his book The University of Mississippi: A Sesquicentennial History) fostered a feudal aristocracy supported by the massive number of slaves demanded by the labor-intensive cotton industry. This left the planters very poorly equipped to deal with a labor force that suddenly developed negotiating power after the Civil War. This impotence by both sides carried forward to modern times. Descendants of the slaves composed about 70 percent of Leland's population. However, most of the work that in former eras had been performed by slaves was now done by machines. Thus a large displaced group of blacks had been created, many of whom lived in ignorance and poverty, existing on welfare.
The closer I got to my destination, the more nervous I became. How would I come across on this, my first-ever job interview with a stranger? The start of the school year is approaching. Why does Leland still have an opening? Will the superintendent find out that I'm not really qualified? What will I do if I don't get this job? Then came self-admonition. Don't keep asking stupid questions to which you don't know the answers. Just be grateful to have applied for the job before someone else did.
With these and similar thoughts churning in my mind, I parked in front of the red brick, one-story building with the sign in the front yard announcing that this was the Leland's school administration headquarters.
Adopting a purposeful gait, I made my way the short distance to the front door and opened it. Halfway down the hall next to a doorway was a sign: Superintendent's Office. There were no other visitors in chairs lining the walls of the reception room when I entered. The receptionist looked up as I crossed to her desk. Mrs. Letha Phillips, her nameplate announced. Thin and middle-aged, she wore a blue cotton dress with a jacket. Her hair was in the bouffant style popular with middle-aged women.
I introduced myself. She nodded, waved to one of the chairs. "Have a seat, and Mr. Bigham will see you shortly," she said.
I didn't have long to wait. I'd barely had time to peruse the headlines of the newspaper I'd picked up from a nearby table when I heard a buzzer at her desk. A moment later she looked at me over the top of her glasses and announced, "Mr. Bigham will see you now."
She ushered me into the superintendent's office and introduced me to the man sitting behind the large desk covered with papers. Displayed on the wall behind his desk were his college degree, a past president's Rotary plaque, and a picture of his wife and children. He stood up, shook my hand, and indicated a chair on the other side of his desk. Mr. Bigham looked to be in his mid-fifties. He was balding, perhaps shorter than me by three or four inches, and wore horn-rimmed glasses. He was clean shaven.
"Have a seat, Mr. Beckwith. Welcome to Leland. I hope you're the man we're looking for."
Elated at his warm welcome, so different from the brusqueness of the replies to my other job applications, I murmured something appropriate.
As we sat down, he continued, "You know, there are a lot of people who would like to work for the Leland Public Schools. We're mighty proud of what we've accomplished here." Not waiting for a reply, he looked down at my résumé. "I see you have a degree from Ole Miss in Business Administration. Do you have a teaching certificate?"
"No, sir, I don't," I answered. "My majors were marketing and finance."
"No education classes?" he asked.
I shook my head. "With my other workload, I didn't have time."
"Well," he frowned, "perhaps we can work around that. Are you married?"
"No, sir," I smiled. "Haven't had time."
He smiled back. "That may be an advantage at this point in your life. I see from your résumé that you've had six hours of English and made a B in history—'Western Civilization.' That's good." He looked up. "Are you considering any other positions presently?"
"This is the only interview I've set up so far," I answered, hoping it sounded as if others were just over the horizon.
"We have openings at the junior high level in both English and history," he went on. "Do you have preference?"
"English," I answered quickly.
"You are decisive," Mr. Bigham nodded. "I like that in my teachers. If you're available to teach when school begins, I think I can make you an offer."
Before I could reply, he continued. "By the way," his voice had taken on a schoolmasterish tone, "we are a God-fearing, Christian community, and we expect our teachers to live up to our standards. Unfortunately, many people your age go to juke joints, and we certainly have more in this town than we should. I know what kind of cars our teachers drive. I often ride around on Saturday nights to check out the parking lots of juke joints. I will not tolerate my teachers presenting the wrong image to the community by being seen patronizing those places, nor do I want to hear any reports from townspeople that they saw one of my teachers in a juke joint. That is grounds for dismissal."
"And," he added, "it does look nice for our teachers to be seen at church on Sundays. I'm a Baptist myself."
I nodded gravely.
"Well," Mr. Bigham continued. "What do you say? Are you interested? I can offer you $5,300 a year. Starting salary is usually $4,800, but I like you. I think you have the potential to be an excellent teacher."
I tried to hide my elation. It sounded like a princely sum. After three months of sending out résumés and getting rejection letters, I couldn't believe this job had been so easy to wrap up. "You won't be sorry," I said. "I'll do a good job for you."
"Fine!" Mr. Bigham said. "I'll get the contract worked up, and we'll let you know when to come in and sign it." He stood up. "It's been good to talk to you."
Excerpted from A New Day in the Delta by David W. Beckwith Copyright © 2009 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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