Almost two years ago my daughter’s history teacher and I planned a Mississippi history trip. It was an unbelievably moving trip for me (and, I hope, for the students and parents who attended), but other than sending our itinerary out to my colleagues, I haven’t written about the experience. Today, however, I saw the following tweet from Mississippi author, Kiese Laymon:
“The memorial for Emmett Till has to be bulletproof partially to protect it from college students at my university and that university has the statue of an armed Confederate soldier greeting me everyday I teach. That statue doesn't have one bullet shot into it. Evil is learned.”
As I sat outside in south Mississippi and looked at the essays I was supposed to be grading, I found myself thinking back to that eighth-grade school trip, and I was burdened by the anger and sadness I felt.
I tried to respond to Laymon’s tweet, but the character limit wouldn’t allow me to tell my small, perhaps unimportant and even whitewashed story. I thought about that eighth-grade trip and standing in front of Bryant’s Grocery. I felt, I feel, shame. Laymon is correct when he says that evil is learned. I pray that we are doing better, will do better. That my children will feel and understand the enormous weight of the history of hate and racism in our country and that they will dedicate themselves to being better, to making the changes I know they are capable of making.
We chose to enroll our children in a small, private school, and I do not regret that choice for a number of reasons that I won’t address here. It has been an amazing learning environment for them, and I am thankful for the learning experiences and opportunities the school presented to us. My oldest daughter is now at our public high school, and my youngest daughter will move to that school when she starts high school. But I am also thankful that before she makes that move, I will have the opportunity to, hopefully, take this Mississippi history trip again.
We gave ourselves a weekend. Five parents, a young history teacher, and about half of my daughter’s small eighth grade class. Josh and I drove the van, and the kids all rode with us. The rest of the parents took personal vehicles. Our itinerary was tight, and the kids all had research presentations to give at various sites along the way. Interestingly enough (but perhaps not surprisingly), it was the unexpected moments that, for me, were the most invaluable. We started our trip in Hattiesburg where we retraced Vernon Dahmer’s march on the courthouse in downtown Hattiesburg before jumping in the van and heading for Jackson. In Jackson, we visited the Eudora Welty House and Gardens, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, and the library where the Tougaloo Nine staged a read in. We then drove to Oxford, toured William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak and learned about James Meredith. From there we drove to Indianola, stopping at the Bryant’s Grocery historical marker and Richard Johnson’s grave. We visited the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, visited the Winterville mounds in Greenville, and then drove on to Vicksburg. In Vicksburg, we spent time at the National Cemetery and the USS Cairo Ironclad, and then we drove to Port Gibson to see the Windsor Ruins. From there, we went to see Rodney, a ghost town that you can only access through Alcorn State University’s campus. We then headed to the Emerald Mounds and then to Natchez, where we visited William Johnson’s House and Museum and the Forks of the Road Slave market site. We ended the trip by stopping in McComb, the bomb capital of the world in 1964, and then headed back to Hattiesburg.
I have no doubt that the young people on this trip enjoyed climbing the Indian mounds of Mississippi and basically trespassing in the Windsor Ruins. But, for me, and I hope for each of them later in their lives, there were two narrative threads that made this trip significant. One involved Welty. In some ways, we started our trip with Welty, visiting her home and gardens at our first stop outside of Hattiesburg, but then her words continued to find us. They were framed in the Civil Rights Museum, and they were written on the walls of the B.B. King museum. It was interesting to see her words appear over and over again, but it was also difficult because they seemed to provide some sort of solace, a temporary reprieve from the hate and violence we encountered at every stop. They were brilliant and wise, but they also softened the blow. Even as I write these words, I am not sure they make sense.
In the end, it was Emmitt Till’s story that followed us and that we followed. When we walked into the Civil Rights Museum, a member of the staff stopped me and told me to make sure that students didn’t miss the doors from Bryant Grocery that are housed in the exhibit. “After all,” he said, “they may have been the last doors Till touched.” We walked through the room, read the columns listing the names and dates of lynchings in Mississippi, and we touched the doors of Bryant Grocery. The kids then crowded into a small room to listen to Oprah narrate Till’s violent and gruesome death. I looked at each of these fourteen-year-old children sitting side-by-side on a small bench listening, in all likelihood to the one person’s voice they recognized in the museum, and I was absolutely overcome. Here were fourteen-year-old children learning about the death of a fourteen year old child visiting his family in Mississippi.
The next day, on our way to the Delta, our trip to Bryant’s Grocery was an accident. It wasn’t part of the itinerary. We did a google search for historical markers near us, wanting to be adventurous and off road. Bryant’s Grocery was fifteen minutes from our location, so we headed that way and found the dilapidated and decaying grocery store and stared at the gap where the doors now housed in Jackson once stood. This was a month after our current Governor, Phil Bryant’s, aunt, Carol Bryant, admitted that she lied when she claimed Emmitt Till whistled at her in 1955. It was over sixty years later, and the truth everyone knew was only just then being admitted.
Laymon’s tweet and his later responses about the good his students are doing reminded me of this trip and of watching these young people, only one of whom was Black, and of their responses to the gruesome images of Till’s murder and his open casket. It reminded me of how much I hope I am teaching my own children, as well as the ways I am likely failing in doing so. And it reminded me of the college students I have the pleasure of teaching every single day in south Mississippi, many of whom are fighting the good fight just to be in class, and many of whom are clearly paving paths toward social justice. It reminded me of Laymon’s 2016 essay in The Fader: “America, like Mississippi, is not clean. Nor is it great. Nor is it innocent” and his pledge to be the man he is called to be and to those who came before him and those, “the baby Mississippi liberation fighters coming next,” who are in our classrooms now.
To my fellow Mississippians: we can do better. We can honor those who deserve to be honored and we can admit our roles in the ugly violence and racism of our state and country. I’ve lived in Mississippi for over twenty years, and it took an eighth-grade history trip and looking at my daughter’s fourteen-year-old innocence to understand the necessity of standing in the places of violent history in hopes of finding a better path forward.