The Word Is ‘Slaves’: A Trip Into Black History

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I was last in Philadelphia in June 1964, soon after three civil rights workers—assigned to investigate the burning of a black country church, Mt. Zion Methodist—had been reported missing near there. I remembered the town’s high sidewalks and segregated drinking fountains, the hostility of its lawmen, and the confusion of its citizens when their hometown became the center of world attention. One of the missing was a young Mississippi black, James Chaney. The others, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were white outsiders, there to take part in the massive voter-registration drive known as the Mississippi Summer Project. The young men had been arrested, jailed briefly, and then disappeared. Although their bodies had not yet been found, there was never much doubt that they were dead. Such were the times.

I wanted to find the site where the Mt. Zion Methodist Church had stood, but the directions I had were vague: on a back road five miles northeast of town. It was still early when I passed through Philadelphia on a Saturday morning and turned onto a dirt road. Immediately I was back in a South that is no longer visible from the main highways, a dismal landscape of poor farms, run-down shacks and trailers, dogs chained in the front yards, virtually no one in view. For the first time on this return to the South I felt apprehensive. Much of the civil rights activity of the 1960s took place in churches and community centers far out in the country, and roads like this were often traveled by carloads of whites looking for “outside agitators” and trouble.

I never found where the church had been, but there were other discoveries—a remembering, for one, of the courage of those civil rights workers whose dangerous jobs often took them down such roads in the 1960s.

Of all the states, Mississippi has the most negative image regarding black history.” The words are John Horhn’s; he is Mississippi’s associate director of tourism. Few would dispute his point.

From 1881 to 1968 more than five hundred blacks were lynched in Mississippi, far more than in any other state. Of the forty names engraved on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, seventeen died violently in Mississippi. Horhn, a black, headed the Mississippi film board when Mississippi Burning, based on the Philadelphia murders, was shot in the state. “We were determined it be shot here,” he said. “What better way to show that the state has changed?” Today Mississippi trails Alabama in documenting and promoting its black heritage, Horhn admits. The exception, he says, is in sites relating to music—“the universal language, an excellent joining point.” In the rich stretch of farmland known as the Mississippi Delta, tourists can visit the home of the blues musician Muddy Waters, the Delta Blues Museum, and the Blues Archives at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, which includes B. B. King’s personal collection of ten thousand recordings.

By Horhn’s estimate, 15 percent of the state’s historic markers concern black heritage. In the future he expects there will be more—at the Ruleville home of Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–77), the founder, in 1964, of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party; the gravesite (in an integrated cemetery) of Blanche Kelso Bruce (1841–98), an escaped slave, Mississippi legislator, and successful planter; the Jackson home of Medgar Evers (1925–63), the NAACP field secretary and voting-rights advocate. Evers was shot on his own doorstep the same night that President Kennedy delivered a televised pleas for “change, peaceful and constructive for all” in the realm of civil rights. The slaying of Medgar Evers was a turning point. Civil rights leaders put aside their differences and came together to walk in the funeral procession. “It looked like we had enough folks to march on God that day,” Dick Gregory later recalled.

Unlike Vicksburg farther up the Mississippi, Natchez and its remarkable collection of antebellum mansions escaped relatively unscathed from the Civil War. But not from the civil rights era. Two particularly brutal murders occurred in the city; in one of them Klansmen picked a black man at random and killed him, hoping to lure Martin Luther King, Jr., to Natchez and to kill him too.

One of the most visited places in the South, the Martin Luther King complex draws throngs of white as well as black visitors.
 
 
 

Against this background of violence, Natchez’s black-heritage sites seem placid, almost insignificant. On Homochitto Street, Dunleith Plantation is known for its twenty-six gracefully aligned columns and Greek Revival detailing. These days Dunleith is also being promoted as the boyhood home of the slave John Roy Lynch (1847-1939), who became, at age twenty-five, a U.S. congressman, then president of the first black bank and paymaster of the U.S. Army.