Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Summer of 1974, Indianola, Mississippi

By: Kathleen Williams Renk

In the late 1960s, one of my best high school girlfriends dated an A+ student who was the star of the cross-country team. He was black. When her parents discovered that her new love interest wasn’t white, they took my friend to see a psychiatrist, grounded her for months, and then forbade her from seeing that young man again. They were effectively saying that their daughter was mentally ill for wanting to date a young Black man.

In the early 1970s when I was a 21-year-old university student, my friend Rita and I traveled to Indianola, Mississippi, near where B.B. King was born and raised. We didn’t go there to visit the musician’s birthplace, but to live with the Sisters of St. Francis for the summer to assist in a volunteer program that served disenfranchised, impoverished people in areas of the U.S. and Central America, such as the Mississippi Delta and Native American reservations, but also villages in El Salvador.

While living in the town where B.B. King learned to play the blues, I dated a Black man named Solomon. Like the biblical king, Solomon was an imposing and powerful man. He sported an enormous afro, owned his own soul barber shop, and drove a pink Cadillac.  We saw each other for three months, until I returned to school in Iowa. Before I left, he asked me to marry him. He promised me that, if we married, he would “make me happy every day of my life.” Although I was fond of him and flattered by his proposal, I didn’t take say “Yes,” even though I did desire to be happy every day of my life. I knew that a marriage, or even a long-term relationship with him, would be difficult. Unlike what happened to my high school friend, I felt assured that my parents would not send me to a psychiatrist if I proclaimed that I intended to marry Solomon, but they would not be pleased or give their consent. You see, my dad was born and raised in the Deep South, in Alabama in the early 1900s and, although he always enacted kindness to people of color, stating that where he grew up everyone was poor, black and white alike, he wouldn’t favor the idea that I would marry a Black man.

When I returned home in August and had settled back into my life, Solomon called and asked if he could visit me. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I replied. I didn’t tell him why, but I figured he knew the reason. First, I had never professed that I loved him.  Plus, at least in my view, what I had with him was a summer dalliance, a sort of  cross-cultural experiment, crossing regions and race. And, even though one of my best friends in college was a Black guy, I knew that I couldn’t have a love relationship with him or Solomon the soul barber from Mississippi. That if I did, I would be breaking barriers that, at the time, were still assumed to be indestructible.  Loving v. Virginia, which outlawed banning interracial marriage, had only been decided seven years earlier, and sixteen Southern states, including Mississippi, prohibited interracial marriage up until the Lovings won their case at the Supreme Court. Interracial marriage was still a new world and, even if the law allowed it, the old-world prohibitions against the biological mixing of races, regardless of anti-discrimination laws, remained fairly intact.

I now live in Colorado. I’m thinking about this because yesterday and the day before and the day before that, I saw interracial couples strolling together at the mall or down the street or pushing their kids in strollers at the park. While acknowledging that Black-White romances may still be frowned upon in rural Mississippi, I think that what I have observed recently perhaps demonstrates a monumental change in our society over the past 50 years. The couples here have overturned cultural and racial barriers. They can walk together, eat together, get married and have children, activities that would have been difficult for my friend and her boyfriend in high school. And when I was with Solomon in the Delta, we couldn’t be seen walking together on the street or eating in a restaurant together. One time we drove to the “big city” of Greenwood and ate dinner at a fancy restaurant, but we couldn’t do that in small-town Indianola, where the color barriers were fiercely protected and literally inscribed onto the land.

I remember arriving in Indianola after riding the City of New Orleans train from Chicago. As we passed by trees covered with kudzu, I listened to Steve Goodman’s tune about the train where he sings: “Nighttime on the City of New Orleans/Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee/Half way home, we’ll be there by morning/Through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea.” I was rolling down into Mississippi’s dark, tortured, and violent racial history, where my values and ideals would be tested, and where I would understand race relations in new ways.

 When we drove into Indianola, it was early evening. We passed through the small downtown; its town square dominated by the Sunflower County Courthouse. It seemed like a ghost town. No one was shopping at the stores or walking on the town square. No one was gathering with others to gossip with neighbors. I heard no music. For a minute, it seemed like I’d entered a Twilight Zone episode where aliens had abducted all of the people. But then we crossed the railroad tracks, heading to where we would live, in a house next door to St. Benedict the Moor Church, which served the Black community. Once we traversed those tracks that divided the black side of town from the ghostly white side, it was clear that we were in a different world all together. Black people were milling about, laughing and congregating; I heard music coming from juke joints; joy and fun were in the air. The railroad tracks demarcated two vastly different worlds that seemed antithetical to each other.  The white side was lifeless. The black side was life itself.

As white Northerners, my friend and I lived with three white women, nuns who didn’t look like or act like the somber and temperate nuns who had educated me for 12 years. Unlike the black-habited nuns, who dangled their rosaries by their sides and who never dared show a leg or the hair on their heads, these nuns wore shorts, tank tops, and sandals; they had pierced ears; although cropped short, their hair was visible; and they drank beer on the porch on sultry summer days, practiced judo, laughed a lot, and found joy in life. One was a teacher, another a nurse, another a social worker.  So, the five of us, these  nuns whom the white Catholics from the other side of town called “do-gooders” (and worse) and two college students, were the only white people living on the black side of town.

Reflecting on this memory of racial barriers reminds me of the time when I was fifteen and my family visited friends, the Hazards, in Mobile, Alabama. Suzanna Hazard was a couple of years older than me. Her boyfriend, Jeff, drove a white VW Bug. He came over one summer evening with a friend Tommy, and they offered to show me around town. We all climbed into Jeff’s Bug at about eight in the evening, and Jeff promised Mr. Hazard that we’d be back by 11:00. After showing me the “dead” white downtown, Jeff and Tommy decided to take us into the Black neighborhood. When we crossed the tracks, we saw music halls, juke joints, people congregating, neighbors talking to neighbors. No one paid any attention to the four white kids in a VW bug.

We drove around and were ready to go home a little before 11 p.m. when we heard a bang and the car lurched. Jeff pulled over and got out of the car. The VW’s left rear tire was flat. Suzanna’s boyfriend opened the trunk to find the jack, and Tommy tried to help him, but neither of them had ever changed a tire before; they were baffled about how to do it. Plus, they had no flashlight, and the car was not under a streetlight. Suzanna and I were sitting on the curb when two white police officers drove up.

“What’s goin’ on, kids?” one officer asked, as he shined his flashlight on us.

As he struggled to get the spare out of the trunk, Jeff replied, “I need to change the tire. I’ve never done it before. Can you help?”

“What the hell you doin’ over here in Nigger town? You shouldn’t be here.”

“We were just driving’ around,” Jeff said.

“Well, you shouldn’t have. You’re on the wrong side of the tracks,” the officer replied as he shined his light directly on Jeff’s white face. “You should stay with your own kind.”

“Would you help us please? Or at least call my girlfriend’s parents?” Jeff asked. “Or take us to a pay phone so we can call her folks, so they don’t worry.”

“Why should we? You got yourself into this mess. Get yourselves out,” the officer said as he returned to his car with his Barney Fife-type partner trailing behind him and drove away.

What were these officers thinking? Did they wish to punish us for venturing into a Black neighborhood? We had no way of knowing what they thought. All we knew is that they thought that we shouldn’t have crossed the tracks into a world where, they presumed, we didn’t belong.

Eventually, Jeff and Tommy figured out how to jack up the tire, remove the lug nuts, and put on the spare. We knew we’d be in trouble when we got home but didn’t know how much. We finally returned to the Hazard’s house at about two a.m. The whole house was illuminated, and Mr. Hazard was waiting on the porch. Before Suzanna had a chance to tell her dad what happened, Mr. Hazard berated his daughter, and her mother slapped her. Suzanna cried and tried to explain but her parents wouldn’t listen.

“We were worried to death about you, Suzanna, and you put your friend in danger by being out so late,” Mr. Hazard said to his daughter.  “Where were you?”

“We were about to go home at 10:30, but we got a flat tire in the colored neighborhood.”

“What the hell were you doin’ there?”

“Just drivin’ around.”

Her father clenched his fists and shook his head.

“Nothin’ happened to us, Daddy. And the white policemen who saw us wouldn’t help because they said we shouldn’t have been on the Black side of town.”

“They were right,” Mr. Hazard shouted.

“What was wrong with being there?  The only trouble we had was with the white cops who didn’t care that we were broke down; they were hateful and cruel,” Suzanna said.

“Hush your mouth, Suzanna, and go to bed. We’ll have more to say later,” her mother said.

 My parents, who had been silent witnesses to this scene, said nothing, then gave me a hug and sent me to bed.

I couldn’t sleep. I wondered why the policemen wouldn’t help us fix a flat tire. I wondered if they hated us because we had breached the racial barriers that they were striving to maintain.  Would officers at home, up North, have reacted in the same way, if we had ventured into a Black neighborhood?

My parents were good people, excellent role models for me and my brother. My mother grew up in a St. Louis orphanage after her mother died when Mom was five. Her father couldn’t take care of the five youngest of his ten children, because no one would marry a Ukrainian immigrant with nearly a dozen children. My dad’s mother deserted her children after her husband died. A gentle, compassionate soul who was completely self-reliant, Dad grew up in poverty, living with his paternal grandmother in Alabama. Both of my parents lived through tragedies and had great empathy for others who had suffered. Nevertheless, they were not in favor of me going on that Catholic service trip to the Mississippi Delta. 

“Sissy, if you want to go South, you can visit Aunt Will Ella and your cousins in Avon Park,” my dad said.

“I don’t want to go to Florida. I want to go to Mississippi and work in the Black community. I want to be of service.”

“But isn’t that near one of the places where those young men registering Black voters were murdered?” Mom asked.

Mom was thinking of Freedom Summer in 1964, when three civil rights workers (one local black, James Chaney, and two white men from New York, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner) were arrested by a racist White sheriff and then released and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

“That happened in Philadelphia,, not Indianola.”

“But it’s still in the same area. In the Delta. You’re sure you’ll be safe?” Mom asked.

“I won’t be registering voters. I’ll be working with nuns, Mom. Nothing will happen to me. Don’t worry.”

I had no idea what to expect in Mississippi other than believing that what I would do and learn would shape my views about race and poverty. The Mississippi Delta was and is one of the poorest areas in the country. This would be my chance to contribute and hopefully help, in a small way, to improve the lives of the people I met.

Not long after we arrived in Indianola, we were assigned our duties. I was a musician so I would play the guitar and lead the music at mass at St. Benedict’s. I would deliver meals on wheels and my friend and I would work at Sunflower County’s first integrated day camp for mentally and physically handicapped children.

We drove a white VW van that boasted several bumper stickers, one of which said, “Boycott lettuce,” indicating that the nuns and anyone else who drove the van sided with Cesar Chavez and migrant workers. (The bumper sticker irritated one of the Catholics who attended the white church, an Italian guy, who one day tried to rip the sticker off the bumper.) I drove this van to pick up children in the countryside around Indianola and transport them to the day camp. One child I vividly remember was sweet Howard Ellis, an eight-year-old boy with club feet. He couldn’t walk and used a wheelchair. He lived with his parents and seven siblings in a “shotgun” house (all the rooms were in a direct line, front to back, so any cooling breeze would go right through it; the design had nothing to do with a shotgun.)  Howard had never been to a day camp or a school of any kind because of his handicap.

Whenever we picked him up, he would grin from ear to ear. He would go to school and he, along with the other Black and White children at the day camp, would cross the racial barriers. They, of course, didn’t think about this transgression. They just wanted to go to school, to be accepted, to learn something.

Besides our day camp work, I delivered meals to elderly, home-bound, handicapped Black people; one was Solomon’s grandfather, who was wheelchair-bound and with whom Solomon lived, and another was a blind woman named Mary, who couldn’t get out of bed but who always chatted with me and thanked me profusely for visiting with her and bringing her the one meal she’d eat each day. In all of the houses, I saw portraits of President Kennedy and Dr. King, a visual reminder of the promise of racial equality proposed by the Civil Rights Act that LBJ, Kennedy’s VP, signed in 1964.

In August, the nuns, Rita, and I attended the trial of a young Black man named James accused of raping a teenaged White girl in Greenwood. His Black lawyer was a member of our parish, and we were interested in supporting his efforts to save James. So, each day we drove thirty miles to the courthouse in neighboring Leflore County and sat in the sweltering heat with ceiling fans spinning above us and ladies fanning themselves with Japanese fans. I felt like I was in the middle of To Kill a Mockingbird, but this was real life, and the potential of a death sentence was also real.

The trial lasted for weeks. My friend expressed outrage when one of the jurors didn’t pay attention to any of the proceedings. The juror often stared at the defendant. “Did you see that?” Rita asked. “She should be reminded that she’s supposed to do her job and listen. She shouldn’t stare at James.”

Even so, our parishioner proved to be a persuasive defender, effectively arguing that the young man was not in the area, that he had an alibi. Miraculously James was exonerated and released. We held a celebration for him and his lawyer at our house and everyone in the neighborhood attended. The party lasted until after midnight. A few of us relaxed in lawn chairs in the backyard, listening to the crickets and frogs while we sipped beer.

“What are you going to do now, James?” I asked.

“I have no idea. I haven’t thought about that much. I never thought I’d get off,” he said in the dark.

“You didn’t? Why not?” I naively asked. “Mr. Du Bois is a great lawyer.”

“He sure is, but you know, a Black guy in Mississippi accused of rapin’ a teenaged white girl? What’d you think would happen?”

“Yeah, you’re right,” I said softly.

“It’s like a dream that I was let go,” he said. “I’m hopin’ I don’t wake up and find myself back in jail, like in a Twilight Zone episode,” he laughed. “Then,” he added more seriously, “my life would be over. Maybe just like that kid Emmet Till’s. You know that he was beaten, mutilated, and shot over in Leflore County just for lookin’ at a white girl?” he asked as he looked at me. “His body was thrown off a bridge and into the Tallahatchie River.”

I suppose my idealism would never have intersected with the reality of race relations in the South in the 1970s. My idealism made me naïve. But now, I am more of a realist whose idealism has been tempered by experience. Now, I look at race through the lens of a world where many Black people have been and continue to be killed by the police and by vigilantes, by those that fear the intermingling of black and white.  But I also look through the lens of a country that elected a Black man as president. The latter offers me and others some hope. Yet when will we in the U.S. get to the point where Black men are not automatically assumed to be a threat to white women, when Blacks are not automatically assumed by some to be inferior to whites, where everyone no longer cares if Black and White people are friends, lovers, or marriage partners? When will we in the U.S. arrive at the point when true racial equality exists and is not just a utopian dream? When my friend could have dated the boy that she was attracted to? When I could have, if I had wanted, brought Solomon home to meet my parents so that I could have been happy every day of my life?  Have we moved closer to such a utopia? I would like to think so, especially when I see interracial couples here walking together while holding their children’s hands. The question remains though whether such a transgression, such breaking of barriers is possible everywhere, especially in the Deep South, in the place where Emmet Till was killed; in the place that gave B.B. King the blues.

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