Uplifting Black, Brown, and queer voices across the South—no matter who's in office.
I chased the shimmering reflection of ancient trees through the cypress swamps that flank the Natchez Trace, a lone driver speeding ever faster to get to an interview in Indianola, Mississippi. Mary King, who had worked in communications for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Jackson in 1964 to help register African Americans to vote, sat in the passenger seat. I felt the power and weight of her history acutely, as if a third passenger were in the car. King joined the Civil Rights Movement at the age of 22, and she had committed her life to working towards greater equality. Over 52 years later, in January 2016, she returned to the state that had defined the meaning and due north of her life.
When King and I arrived in Jackson, we met Senator David Jordan on the floor of the Mississippi State Senate. He talked about how there was no need to continue flying the Confederate flag over the state capital. He explained, "2017 is the bicentennial of Mississippi becoming a state. We don't need an image flying over this capital that reminds our great, great grandsons of 247 years of free labor. There are a million of us here out of three million." After introducing us on the floor of the senate, Jordan walked us to his office, where he offered us a copy of his book From the Mississippi Cotton Fields to the State Senate: A Memoir. He discussed the importance of meeting President Obama: "My daddy, when he was in the cotton field, he wore a shirt that all on the back of that shirt would be white – that was the salt he sweated out," explained Jordan. "He would say, 'I hope that someday while I'm living one of my boys will meet the president.' That has been fulfilled. I met three."
In Jackson, we also met with Charlie Horn, 81, whose watery blue eyes flashed in the morning sunlight. He ushered us into his dark-paneled living room, where one wall was decorated with framed photos of his children and grandchildren and two large portraits of President Barack Obama. Horn was one of the first labor union organizers for African Americans workers at the Electricity Union. Horn remembered that in 1965, "When I went to register to vote, I had to recite sections of the constitution. The man acted like he owned the place." Threats to voting rights were still a frequent topic of conversation in Mississippi. We visited the Jackson NAACP Programs Director Lolita Jackson, 47, and she explained, "We are registering people to vote and preparing them for political office. We are going through that whole fiasco of voter ID laws, disenfranchisement, voter suppression tactics. We know that it is here and we are trying to be proactive rather than reactive."
King and I met in 2013 in Mexico City at a journalism event where I interviewed her for an article about the relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Rights Movement. During that interview, King explained how during the Civil Rights Movement, "Part of what happened was the legitimization of women coming together to discuss concerns, issues, matters related to rights, discrimination, status, self-perception. It legitimated all of that, it made it important and significant." Over the following years, King and I continued to follow each other's work and to discuss race in the context of our Southern upbringing, a topic that became central to me as I began to write about my home state, Arkansas.
In 2014, when she discovered a treasure trove of unpublished photos in her basement that she had taken in Mississippi in 1964 and 1965, she was decided she wanted to return to Mississippi and interview activists about the continued evolution of the Civil Rights Movement. She invited me to co-author the book Photographing Freedom and to travel to Mississippi with her. Our Mississippi road trip took us to Jackson, Indianola, Winstonville, Kosciusko, and Tougaloo where activists, some of whom who had known King for over five decades, talked about the losses and gains made since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act.
But first, after King and I decided to write the book, she connected me with Julian Bond, who had worked with her at SNCC in Mississippi before he went on to be elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. When I met up with Bond in Washington, D.C. on April 7, 2014, he told me, "Mary and I were the communications arm of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. What we did was tell the world about what the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was doing. We sent out press releases. We talked to reporters. I still remember the telephone number of the Associated Press in Atlanta. I think it's 404-522-8971. It'd be funny to call them and see if they'd answer." While we were together, Bond looked through prints of King's photos taken in 1964-65 Mississippi, and he shared his thoughts on the importance of continuing to support the aims of the Civil Rights Movement. He said, "We need to ensure that registered voters, that people are registered, that they turn out, that the struggle for freedom that was so important then remains important today. We can't just have memorials. We can't just have sessions where people say, 'I did this and I did that.' That's good to know. We need to do, not just worry about what we did. We need to do what we can do today. And around the country, as I understand it, more and more people are doing that. And you hope that, particularly in the American South, that people make sure that everybody turns out to vote, everybody does everything they can do to create real democracy in America, a democracy that we didn't achieve 50 years ago but need badly to achieve now."
Bond also discussed the unfinished work of the Civil Rights Movement, and he reminded me of the risks that King faced while working with SNCC. He said, "I know that Mary faced threats on her life not only in Mississippi but also in Virginia. She put her life on the line every time she left the SNCC office, every time she walked down the street, as did others like her. She risked and risked and risked and risked." When Bond died at age 75 on August 15, 2015, King called me in tears and said, "I want to dedicate our book to Julian." Roughly six months later, in early 2016, King and I set off on a road trip through Mississippi to meet with the activists continuing the struggle for civil rights.
At the Jackson NAACP, we met 65-year-old volunteer Frank Figgers. He recounted, "Our daughter is the fourth generation of both my family and my wife's family to live on the same 10 acres of geography. My grandfather had a good year sharecropping in the early 1900s, and he put a down payment on the land." Only when freed slaves could own property did they have any degree of control over their own lives.
Across the street from the NAACP in Jackson was the old SNCC office, and King and I walked over to find ourselves standing in front of life-sized photo of her at 22 on the front door. Looking at the 1964 photo, King said, "As a young woman, I knew that I was part of something bigger than myself, but I could not have defined it. In 1964, three fellow workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—were killed by officers of the law. When they disappeared, it fell to me to phone John Doar of the Justice Department."
After spending a few days in Jackson, we headed to Indianola, the birthplace of blues legend BB King, to talk to Carver A. Randal, 75, a lawyer who served president of the Mississippi NAACP. We met Randal, who has a round, jovial face, in his law office, where he was reclining comfortably in a large leather chair. Talking about the changes he had witnessed in his lifetime, he said, "I've seen a lot of changes. I've seen people being brutalized and disrespected and abused. And I've seen people work for nothing. And I've seen people side by side be treated differently because of race. I've seen all of that. And I've seen changes in all those things, gradual changes. I've seen people in stores kick people and curse 'em and call 'em nigger. I've seen black kids going to school walking miles and miles while white kids ride the bus. I've seen it all. I've seen back doors and back seats on buses."
After the Voting Rights Act was passed, Randal expected that change would take time. "I ran for mayor in 1967, and we had just gotten the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965," he explained. "I knew I would not get elected. You know, I ran for the State House of Representatives in 1991, and I knew in all probability that I wouldn't get elected." The Voting Rights Act did not have an immediate effect, but over a period of decades Randal said he witnessed more African Americans being elected to office in Indianola and in Mississippi. "The chancery clerk which has always been white, the circuit clerk has always been white, the tax assessor has always been white, and the sheriff has always been white—up to two terms ago," he said, discussing elections in Indianola. He admitted that there was a lot of work that still needed to be done to achieve the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, and said that since he retired from the NAACP, he found fulfillment in encouraging kids in the community to stay in school and get a good education. "There have been so many things that I have enjoyed," he said. "I've enjoyed seeing our kids have better schooling, better teachers, better facilities, better equipment and materials and things to work with. I've been gratified by kids being able to leave the high school and go on and get Ph.D.'s and medical degrees and all of those things and become famous worldwide. That is what is gratifying to me."
From Indianola, we drove to Winstonville to see Maud Holmes Coleman Davis Hemphill, 70. Her home, which had rocking chairs on the front porch, was decorated with portraits of Martin Luther King and Barack and Michelle Obama, and included a shelf below her TV that contained bobble headed Barack and Michelle dolls, a collector plate featuring Hillary Clinton sitting beside President Obama and dozens of tiny African American boy and girl angels. Sitting in her living room, she told us, "From very young to when I graduated from high school, I was really in the field chopping cotton. I graduated in May, and in June and they said, 'anybody interested in working at Head Start report to the Center at 1pm.' So, I stopped at 12pm, and I put the hoe down. I haven't been back since." Maud worked for Head Start for 23 years and had been retired for 22 when we spoke to her. Head Start supported her education, and she worked during the day and went to school at night. Talking about Mississippi during the 60s she said, "The church was our base. That is why they were burned and bombed."
In 1965, when she got her first check from work, the local banks refused to cash it for her. She said there was one incident that she would never forget, when one time she got out of her car and a little white child turned and said "Hi, nigger. Hi, nigger." Her experiences with racism inspired her to become active in the Civil Rights Movement and to help register people to vote. She remembered how active the Ku Klux Klan was in Mississippi in the 60s, but said protesters fought them with songs. And then, sitting on the couch mid-sentence, Maud began to sing, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around. Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking. Gonna build a brand new world." Her expansive voice sent chills through my body.
The next day we drove to Kosciusko to meet with MacArthur Cotton, who had been a part of the Civil Rights Movement and had worked with Mary in the 60s. MacArthur met us on the highway, and we followed his truck down a narrow dirt road. When we got out of the car in front of his house, we were greeted by a half-dozen puppies. Golden light reflected in antique mirrors above the couch and filled the room alongside four generations of his family: Alzenia, 82; Tiernie, 26; Manuel, 79; Kataleya, 3; and Kamryn, 5.
Alzenia offered us coffee, grits and biscuits as the whole family settled on the couch, the youngest members clambering over the sides. When Mary asked Mac about the Voting Rights Act he said, "Right means that it is enforced. We never really got to the real point of our voter's rights being enforced. They shot people for us voting, they beat people for voting. I don't think nobody went to jail."
After eating, Mac offered to take us to the family cemetery which was next to a church up the road. Standing in the midday sun next to the family gravesite, Mac, 75, and his older brother Manuel talked about how whites treated them in Mississippi. Mac said, "They call you 'boy' until you 50 or 54 and then if they like you they call you 'uncle'." I was recently reminded of my conversation with Mac when Senator Jeff Sessions was being confirmed as Attorney General, and as part of his racist past, he was forced to admit that he called African American men who worked for him "boys."
Alzenia showed me her husband Roy's grave, which was attached to another tombstone. "Whose is that?" I asked. "Mine," she said, and she walked over to stand behind it. When I got close, I saw that her name and date of birth were already engraved on the tombstone.
From Kosciusko we drove to Tougaloo to the college campus to visit a little house where King had lived while working for SNCC. We also visited the nearby FBI building, which in 2011 was renamed for three murdered Civil Rights workers. A young African American man working at the security gate gave us permission to take a photo in front of the FBI building sign. "I want to thank you for the work you did," he told King. Later King stood in the midday sun beside the sign in front of the FBI building, and I took her photo. After we left the FBI building, we stopped by the Country Kitchen in Tougaloo and ordered pecan cake and sweet tea. Sliding into the booth as if she were about to faint, King said, "This is one of the greatest days of my life." When Civil Rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner disappeared from Neshoba County, Mississippi on the night of June 21, 1964, King was the one who made the calls to inform their families. Their bodies were discovered 44 days later, and at the time the FBI did little to investigate. Her hand cradling a tall glass of sweet tea, King said, "I can't believe they renamed the building. We knew the FBI was full of KKK. They didn't help us then, and now there is a black sheriff here and a black president. There is so much good, and yet much that still needs to change."
A few weeks after we returned from Mississippi, King reflected, "In Kosciusko, we met with the family of MacArthur Cotton, at his home. Mac's thoughtful tenacity that I remember from working with him in the mid-1960s is unchanged, though with more humor and irony to his analysis. 'Land ownership meant much more than you can imagine,' he observed, speaking of survival and impermeability. We walked with his gathered family members near the ravine where the Choctaw Indians and slaves worshipped together in the nineteenth century, according to family oral history. From King, I have learned of the long historic arc of justice, of the decades of individual action from ordinary citizens that slowly move us towards a more just society. The search for justice has no beginning and no end, and it requires a steadfast belief that dedicated individuals, over time, can help us imagine, if even only for a few moments, a better world. "The Movement continues to build, although the aims and means change."