The Lash May Change, But the Pain Remains the Same: the Enduring Legacy of Slavery in Mississippi

Unless you’re the churchgoing type, there’s not much sense in driving through the Mississippi Delta on a Sunday morning. Folks tend to take the sabbath pretty seriously around these parts, and a visitor who so happens to be passing through is pretty well guaranteed to have one hell of a time trying to find a restaurant, store or museum that was open for business. At least, that was my experience when I crossed over the border from southern Arkansas to Mississippi last summer. Turns out that down in the Delta, Sunday is most certainly the lord’s day and the only proper thing for a person to do on the lord’s day is to get to worshipping. There was a pretty big part of me that felt the urge to attend a service at a good old fashioned, hole in the wall Southern Baptist or Methodist church, but I couldn’t pick up the nerve to do it. Had there been one of those big non-denominational mega churches around I would have felt alright just showing up more or less as a voyeur because anonymity is kind of the whole point of a their existence. When your main chapel has stadium style seating that can hold several thousand congregants, it’s entirely possible to go to church every Sunday for a year and never really have any contact with anybody else there. But if I were to roll up to tiny AME church of 100 people in rural Mississippi and go there for the express purpose of observing their religious rituals, I’d feel like I was intruding on something private and actually, you know, sacred. It’s kind of like peeing in a swimming pool as opposed to peeing in an ocean; you’re doing the same thing in both cases, but folks will only notice in one of them.

Instead of church crashing, I decided to head up the famous Highway 61 to Clarksdale, which is home to the Delta Blues Museum and the crossroads where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play the guitar better than any man alive. With a population of less than 18,000 people, no one would describe Clarksdale as a major metropolis, but in a state that only has three cities with populations in excess of 50,000, it’s not exactly a small town either. Being located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, which was essentially the birthplace of sharecropping, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that roughly 4 in 5 Clarksdale residents are black, nor should it shock you to find out that the city is beset by a catastrophic amount of poverty. With the exception of a few Indian Reservations, there is nowhere in all of America that is as poor as the Mississippi Delta, and Clarksdale does not buck that trend. At last count, more than 40% of the people in Clarksdale were living below the poverty line, a number that includes 57% of the city’s children. With the amount of pain and want and destitution that still exists in places like Clarksdale, it’s not too hard to understand why it is that the Blues began here.

After about an hour and a half of driving up Highway 61, the GPS on my phone told me to get off at the next exit and take South State St. to what it said was the center of downtown Clarksdale. The only problem was, when I got to where my phone told me to go, there wasn’t anything there. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. There were the usual standbys of any medium sized town, like the local bank and a pharmacy and a small movie theater and a few restaurants and so on and so forth. It’s just that there was nobody there to patronize them. I mean, it was a bloody ghost town. I must’ve driven down every street in the whole downtown area and seen no more than three people on the sidewalks and maybe half a dozen cars in the streets. Granted it was a Sunday in the most religious state in the country, but it wasn’t like downtown Clarksdale looked like it was bustling cauldron of industry and commerce the other 6 days of week. Most of the windows and doors were shuttered or simply showcasing vacant real estate. There were entire blocks of storefronts that probably hadn’t had a new coat of paint rolled on them in 25 years. I even drove through some parts of the city that made me feel more like I was in Fallujah or post-WWII Dresden rather than rural Mississippi. Some of the buildings weren’t just in disrepair; they were demolished. I saw several buildings that had somehow had their roofs and sidewalk-facing walls ripped off, so you could look into the desolate interior of the structure like some depressing life-sized dollhouse.

In many ways it reminded me of the decay in Detroit, but it had a different feel to it because most of Detroit’s vacant buildings were industrial or residential, while Clarksdale’s were mainly commercial. It’s one thing for a large city like Detroit to have dilapidated and stagnant neighborhoods spread out across the large area because they at least have a number of relatively unaffected hubs where business and commerce are still trudging along. In a town as small as Clarksdale, losing your downtown is tantamount to losing your identity. You can see the same narrative play out all across America in places like Welch, West Virginia or Steubenville, Ohio, where the city begins to rot from the inside out and a thriving, burgeoning community is transformed over the course of a couple generations into a shell of its former self. It’s like heading into a hospice and looking into the rheumy eyes of some old soul in the final stages of stomach cancer, 80 lbs underweight and unable to hold solid food down, with nothing more than several feet of liver spotted skin hanging from his body to give you an idea of the man he used to be.

2014 827 mis 1What’s left of a building in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Once I had circled around and through the town a couple of times, I finally spotted a couple parked cars outside an old painted brick building near the Delta Blues Museum and decided to check it out. As it turned out, I had stopped at the Ground Zero Blues Club, a little restaurant, bar and music venue that was co-owned by Morgan Freeman, of all people. I drove by the place at least once or twice before I finally decided to check it out because, frankly, it didn’t look like it was open for business. The raised concrete porch out in front of the club was filled with some of the rattiest looking mismatched couches and chairs you’re ever likely to see and the windows all had the dirty, sticker-covered look of a old pony keg or corner store. If it hadn’t of been for me driving by at the moment one of the employees came out the front door for a smoke I probably just would’ve driven on by.

It turns out that the rickety, distressed charm of the place was by design, as the club had only been up and running since 2001 and all of the refinements and additions that had been made to the place only served to remind you how old and beat up it was. One local store owner described the look as “manufactured authenticity,”which sums it up pretty nicely: it’s a hole in the wall where there aren’t actually any holes in the walls. Other than myself, the only other people in the club were some tourists from Australia who had come from halfway around the world to visit the Delta Blues Museum, but never got the memo that pretty much everything in the Mississippi Delta is closed on Sundays on account of Jesus. After I’d ordered and eaten some brisket, I got in my car and got out of downtown Clarksdale, not so much because I was itching to leave, but because I think I’d already been to the only establishment there that was open for business.

From Ground Zero, I headed east 60 or so miles until I got to Oxford, a town that is very much the negative image of Clarksdale. Like its neighbor to the west, Oxford has a population of a little over 18,000 people, but whereas 80% of Clarksdale is black, Oxford is roughly 75% white. Founded in 1837, the town of Oxford was so named in the hopes of reproducing the culture of learning and the prestige of its English namesake. These hopes were greatly helped a few years later when the state legislature voted to place what would become the University of Mississippi in Oxford, effectively cementing it as the academic hub of Mississippi, and in many respects the entire South, from that point forward. Clarksdale, on the other hand, is home to Coahoma Community College, but doesn’t have any 4-year university to speak of. If a Clarksdale resident wants to get a bachelor’s degree, he or she has to make the 90 minute round trip drive to Delta State University in Cleveland, MS every day. As a result, only 17.8% of Clarksdale residents have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, a far cry from the 54% of folks over in Oxford holding those degrees.

With that being said, all the statistics and studies and surveys in the world are really no damn good when it comes to isolating the profound differences between these two cities. The only way to truly grasp the separate worlds that Clarksdale and Oxford inhabit is to simply exist in them. Honestly, you don’t have to do any Google Scholar searches or watch an 8-part documentary series to get at the heart of the racial and cultural divide in Mississippi. Just go there and its starkness will find you. Instead of ramshackle housing and sun-scorched bermuda grass, all of the sudden you’re surrounded by picturesque residential streets that are lined with Magnolias and Southern Red Oaks and Sugar Maples. Whereas the heart of Clarksdale was nothing but worn-out looking storefronts and ever present decrepitude, The Square in Oxford is a living, breathing preservation of past beauty. Everything about the place from the alabaster white Italianate elegance of the Lafayette County Courthouse in The Square’s center to the collection of Victorian and 19th/20th Century Revival shops and restaurants that surround it was pretty in the sort of reassuring way that comes from making folks feel a shared past that they never really experienced. It might be a bit delusional of me, but I could almost swear that it even felt a couple of degrees cooler from the moment I stepped into Oxford. At least, it did before I decided to go over and check out the large monument sitting out front of the Courthouse.

In most respects, the monument in front of the Lafayette County Courthouse is fairly ordinary. Its overall design is tastefully muted, with a marble soldier in full uniform holding an upright rifle while standing atop an obelisk that gives it a height of 32 feet, which doesn’t make it especially noteworthy for a memorial statue. No, what makes this particular piece of publicly displayed sculpture important is not how it was made, but who made it and what it depicts.The monument itself was commissioned in 1907 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a group which began as a sort of ladies auxiliary for the United Confederate Veterans, a fraternal organization formed after the Civil War for former Confederate Soldiers and that would transform into the Sons of Confederate Veterans as its membership began to die off.

2014 827 mis 2The confederate monument outside of Oxford’s Lafayette County Courthouse.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy had a number of different causes and functions in the post-war South, but the main one was essentially to cast the Confederate South as these valiant champions of a nobler way of life who had their personal and economic freedoms destroyed by their overbearing, borderline tyrannical neighbors to the North. Tracy Thompson does a phenomenal job in her book, The New Mind of the South, explaining the startlingly significant role the UDC has played in the formation of our collective conception of what happened during The Civil War through what was essentially a no-holds-barred propaganda campaign to rewrite history. The core message delivered by the Daughters was as simple as it was effective: the South did not under any circumstances fight during the Civil War to preserve slavery, and anything that challenges this assertion is nothing short of slander from vindictive Northerners who wish to sully the good name of the Confederacy. One way that the UDC conveyed this message was by placing a considerable amount of pressure on Southern politicians and textbook writers to only portray the history of the South and of the Confederacy as they understood it, which is to say they must, “revere the memory of those heroes in gray and to honor that unswerving devotion to principle which has made the confederate soldier the most majestic in history.”

Another way they spread their message was through the erection of hundreds of statues and memorials throughout the South which were designed to enhance the Confederate brand without much regard to its resemblance of the truth. The Confederate Monument in Lafayette Square is just one such memorial, but it illustrates the UDC’s full-on assault on the truth better than most. At the base of the monument there are several inscriptions that are mainly there to glorify the Confederate cause. On one side, the inscription reads, “In memory of the patriotism of the Confederate Soldiers of Lafayette County – They gave their lives in a just and holy cause.” On another, the statue informs us that, “The Sons of Veterans unite in this justification of their fathers faith.” Look closely at the words that are being used here: patriotism, faith, a just and holy cause. This is not a remembrance of the dead so much as it is an attempt to posthumously martyr them. Within a year of statue’s unveiling, the ground on which it stood would be soaked with the blood of an actual martyr, although the United Daughters of the Confederacy wouldn’t see him as such.

In 1908, a local Oxford man who was locked up in the county jail sent a black man named Nelse Patton with a message to give to his wife, Mrs. Mattie McMillen, who was living with her three children in a small house north of town. What exactly happened when Mr. Patton reached the McMillen’s isn’t known, but according to the Lafayette County Press, McMillen instantly reached for her gun when Patton came to the door, as she was convinced that the black man meant to rape her. In the ensuing struggle that took place after McMillen drew her gun, Patton ended up allegedly killing the woman with a razor blade and fled the scene, anticipating the hell that was sure to await him should he be found. It being the Jim Crow South and all, the idea of a black man having to kill someone in self-defense because they tried to shoot a loaded gun at him was preposterous andthe entire town of Oxford had no hesitation in dubbing Patton a “desperado,” a rapist and a cold-blooded killer.A lynch mob quickly sprung up among the townsfolk and, within no time the two sons of Oxford’s Deputy Sheriff had pumped Patton full of buck shot and were hauling him off to jail.

By nightfall, over 2,000 Oxonians had gathered in the The Square and were demanding that vigilante justice be allowed to take its course. It was then that former US Senator and Oxford native W.V. Sullivan began to whip the crowd into a frenzy, eventually handing his pistol over to a local deputy and instructing him to “Shoot Patton,” and in doing so, “shoot to kill.” Soon thereafter, the mob broke into the jail and fired some 26 shots at Patton, killing him instantly. After murdering him, the mob proceeded to rip off all of Patton’s clothes before castrating him, mutilating his corpse and hanging his lifeless body from a tree that stood within a few feet of the Confederate Monument that had been placed there the year before. When asked about his role in the lynching,former Senator Sullivan told reporters that, “I led the mob which lynched Nelse Patton, and I’m proud of it. I directed every movement of the mob and I did everything I could to see that he was lynched. Cut a white woman’s throat! And a negro! Of course I wanted him lynched. I saw his body dangling from a tree this morning, and I’m glad of it.

This is cold, hateful reality of what happens when the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans act united in a justification of their father’s faith. It is not about States Rights or genteel Southern heroism. It is about racial superiority and the idea that the life of a black man or woman is intrinsically less valuable than that of their white counterparts. It is the ideological impetus thatled the white population of Mississippi to lynch more black men, women and childrenfrom the beginning of Reconstruction to the end of the Civil Rights Era than any other state in the country. It is a faith that inspired Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens to exclaimin 1861 that, “Our new Government’s…foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” More than 150 years after those words were spoken, many in the South and across the entire country have yet to come to grips with the inconvenient truth that the Confederate dead gave their lives in battle so that Confederate slaves could lose their lives in bondage.

There is no debate to be had here. All of the lofty rhetoric and idealistic fervor can do nothing more than obscure the truth of what “The War Between the States” was really about. It is a truth that was outlined in the second paragraph of the State of Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession in 1861 and it has only one interpretation:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

I don’t give a damn how much Southern pride people have; the only way anybody’s going to find ambiguity in that chunk of history is if they manufacture it themselves. Slavery was the alpha and the omega of the Southern economy and the Southern way of life and anyone who tries to tell you differently has spent way too much of their adolescence gleaning their knowledge of the South’s history from Gone With the Wind and The Andy Griffith Show. If slavery and racial oppression were merely incidental, why was it that, just a few months after the Civil War was declared over, Mississippi became the first state in the country to enact new Black Codes designed to prevent African-American land ownership, prohibit interracial relations and make unemployment a jailable offense for black Mississippians? How do you explain away one-eighth laws and poll taxes? What rationalization can you have for separate schools and separate drinking fountains, for separate hospitals and separate railroad cars? The short answer is that you can’t. And yet some do.

Before the Civil War, Mississippi was one of the wealthiest states in the nation and the crown jewel of the Southern economy. All across the Delta from down south in Natchez and Port Gibson to farther north in Vicksburg and Clarksdale, King Cotton was building its empire on the lash-scarred backs of black slaves, luxuriating in the joys of an economy that had divorced labor from profit and erecting hundreds of little Southern Fried Versailles’s and Petit Trianon’s while the men, women and children whom they claimed as property lived in squalor. It was a way of life predicated on the denial of freedom and the rejection of Christ’s admonition that the two greatest commandments are to love thy god and to love thy neighbor as thyself. Therefore, when the Civil War was over and done with and the slaves had been emancipated, it was only natural that the economy of the South in general, and Mississippi in particular, would fold in upon itself.

Today, the winding banks of the Muddy Mississippi still serve as the scoliotic spine of the Deep South, but all of its wealth and prosperity have been supplanted by poverty and loss. The land that used to belong to the state’s planter elite and which was once worked by slaves and later by sharecroppers, who in many ways still were slaves, is now either in the hands of big agribusiness or lies fallow. But, while the ownership of the land may have changed hands over the past 150 years, the ones toiling away without respite or reward have not. It is not by accident that Mississippi is both the poorest and the blackest state in America. No, this oppressive and racially charged poverty is but the latest iteration of a bigotry and a hate that have defined not just Mississippi, but also the South and our entire nation since its very founding. The words of Abraham Lincoln have not been heeded. All of the wealth that was piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil has not yet been sunk and, instead of paying for every drop of blood drawn with the lash with one drawn with the sword, we have spent 150 years creating deadlier and more insidious lashes. Mississippi, like much of America, has yet to learn the simple lesson that even spiritual debts carry interest. Those bondsmen that President Lincoln spoke of during his Second Inaugural may be long dead, but their progeny sure as shit aren’t and the debt they were owed is about 150 years past due. Time to pay up.