We approached Natchez, MS, our farthest point south, via the southern end of the Natchez Trace Parkway. Natchez is a pleasant little town with grand plantation estates and a memorial to the Forks of the Road slave market. It was there and in Vicksburg that we started to meet more white people and the towns looked….more prettified than the towns along the Blues Highway. I could almost see the New York and LA money running downhill into the area, with precious, arty shops and coffee houses and racial and LGBTQ diversity but socioeconomic divisions remain. In other words, in the name of renewal, some residents are going to get priced out. I recalled Nick Cave’s song God is in the House, where says “drug freaks in the crack house” is stuff for the big cities but here “we have a pretty little square, we have a woman for a mayor, we’ve bred all our kittens white, so that you can see them in the night.” The fantasy of the neat and tidy Ye Olde Main Street is expensive to maintain and bound to keep lower income folks - often people of color - out. There’s got to be something between the current Family Dollar/Dollar General food desert and Disneyland.
From here on out it would be Civil Rights history, which is all about Black struggle in the face off White resistance. From Natchez, we turned eastward towards Alabama, stopping in Jackson for the excellent Mississippi Museum of Art and then Meridian. In Meridian, I purged another one of my demons and visited James Chaney’s grave. Chaney (along with Schwerner and Goodman) was shot and buried in fresh cement at a dam in nearby Philadelphia. For registering people to vote. On August 3, 1980, Ronald Reagan gave a “states’ rights” presidential speech there in order to win over rural voters. Whew. We ran into some local white people in downtown Meridian, who, nice as they were, couldn’t help us find a Civil Rights sidewalk sign that we eventually found a block away. They did suggest a general direction to walk but warned us it was the Black section of town. I don’t want to judge, but really? You have no idea there are Civil Rights markers posted in your own town? When we took an elevator up to a rooftop bar of a nearby hotel, I asked a (black) hotel employee what “race relations” are like there today. I mentioned the recent Republican-led legislation to “clean up the voter rolls” that, well, smelled funny and would make it difficult for - surprise - black voters to vote and generally (further) undermine minority representation in the State. There has been significant pushback, especially from young people (hooray for young people), but it illustrates the importance of continued vigilance. It’s like the popular T-shirt among African Americans that says “Free-ish Since 1865.” Anyway, the man in the elevator just shook his head and rolled his eyes at the tone-deafness of the Republicans, who are shocked-yes-shocked that there could be anything wrong with such a law, that there could possibly be any “optics” problem. This battle over representation and power is never ending, especially when the goal for those in power seems to be power alone and keeping it at any cost, without any real interest in equity or without any realization that helping the least fortunate usually ends up improving the quality of life for everyone.
There were not as many pine trees and more open farms as we crossed into Alabama on the way to Selma and Montgomery. It’s funny how political (state) boundaries mesh with environmental ones. It may be my imagination but the ecosystem seems to shift when you cross state lines. It’s usually gradual of course, and often marked by a river. I once drove from Washington DC to Denver with my dog, who got noticeably excited and stuck her nose farther out of the car window when we entered Kentucky. Must have smelled the bluegrass and bourbon. We stopped in Selma to see the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a Confederate general and leader in the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. After leaving Selma to go to Montgomery, we stopped along Highway 80, the 1965 Voting Rights March route, to visit the Tent City that for two years housed families of tenant farmers who had been evicted from their land by white landowners because they registered, voted or engaged in any voting rights activities following passage of the Voting Rights Act. They were regularly shot at from the road.
As I have mentioned before, regardless of how much I though I knew, I absorbed a whole lot being at actual locations where events occurred and walking through museum exhibits. I was wary of hopping from one museum or roadside plaque to another, and especially wary of getting “empathy fatigue” from all the shackles, slavery statistics, lynching memorials, and stories of the Jim Crow South. Indeed some of the museum exhibits compare to the piles of shoes and hair at Washington, DC’s Holocaust Museum. Horrible stuff all around. I acknowledge that immersion is necessary for me to fully understand what happened and is still happening in less overt ways today. That said, I will admit that it was nice to take a break from the unrelenting reminders of racial Troubles to visit native son Hank Williams’ museum in Montgomery, or the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. There’s no excuse for the vicious behavior of the white establishment towards black people after the Civil War, but white poor or white working class people didn’t have it so good either. The music helped unite, transcend and heal; black people grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper (both white) played with Booker T and the MGs as the Stax studio house band, and the white members of the Swampers backed up Aretha, Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge at Muscle Shoals.
Birmingham. As Randy Newman called it, “The greatest city in Alabam’.” I was ready for ignorance, xenophobic white people, and rampant, overt racism. Instead, we found ourselves at an Orville Peck concert (we had gotten tickets long before the trip) at a venue called Iron City, surrounded by a bunch of very gay country music fans. At one point in the show, Orville threw out roses to deserving, randomly selected fans, including one woman clamoring for a rose screaming “Hey, me, I’m a black girl!” It just shows that sweeping generalizations never work, although I retain a healthy skepticism. There is a racist, segregated history that permeates the area. For the last 20 years however, after a passel of James Beard award-winning chefs set up shop in the city and currently a Black mayor, Birmingham is a bellwether for Alabama; the city - indeed, our entire country - is limping into the 21st century. Birmingham has a capital-C Civil Rights industry - tour buses disgorging people to tour the 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park (site of the firehoses and dogs), and the Civil Rights Institute. All remarkable and very moving experiences, but right outside these sites are reminders of the legacy of segregation and oppression and the same scenes you see in any US city of poor people hanging out and ready to hustle tourists out of a buck.
Heading back north to Nashville, we stopped in Decatur, AL, which was notable if only for a conversation we had with a young black woman who was a recent transplant from Manhattan. She had some corporate job and represented, to me, the new potential in the South, a reverse migration to reclaim roots. Not to manhattanize it, but to help it find a more inclusive version of itself. I love Manhattan and could have had the conversation with her at a bar there, but we were not in Manhattan.
We bookended our trip with Nashville - it had been a good landing spot for our arrival in “the South,” but by the time we made it back three weeks later, someone had switched it with another city. My now-experienced eyes saw Nashville not as part of the South but rather a mini Los Angeles. The people are certainly nice, and the music scene is varied and high quality, but the town lacks the Deep South charm and hospitality. Nashville - like Asheville, Boulder, Austin, Atlanta, others - will be overbuilt. The Country Music Hall of Fame is an excellent museum, well-laid out and curated; we attended a wonderful interview/performance with Dave Alvin (punk-era LA band, The Blasters). Speaking of Los Angeles, Dave talked about his memories - which I share - of going to see great blues artists at LA’s Ash Grove in the late 1960s/early 1970s. So, it was an appropriate finish to our journey.
And just like that, we were done. It was a memorable trip, cathartic even, maybe my best vacation ever. I cried at Robert Johnson’s gravesite. I drove Highway Fucking 61. I met good people, white and black. (Some folks say that black people HAVE to be nice due to their experience with oppression in the South, but I think Southern hospitality is real.) I reflected on the power of the Civil Rights movement, the Second Reconstruction. I ate shrimp and grits and barbecue and collard greens and biscuits and gravy and fried chicken and a bunch of other stuff. Parts of our trip that stood out were the Civil Rights Museum at the Loraine Hotel, driving on Alabama state Highway 80 route of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (lynching memorial) in Montgomery, and the gravesites of Robert Johnson, James Chaney or even the over-the-top one for BB King at his museum in Indianola. Oh, and Easter services with Al Green.
I have now crossed every US state off my bucket list except North Dakota and Alaska, but I’ve gotten close enough to each to smell them so I’m giving myself the win. Randy Newman (again) sang Oh, Baltimore, ain't it hard just to live? I think it’s harder in Mississippi and Alabama. I’m pulling for you.