I’ve been day dreaming a lot about travel since the coronavirus lockdown began months ago. I had planned trips to Minneapolis, New Mexico, Washington, D.C., and Raleigh, now all cancelled. My “wallet” at Alaska Airlines is fat; but I don’t feel comfortable booking a flight just yet.
Instead I am dreaming of road trips where I can camp out in my tent or possibly in a camper van yet to be purchased. I’ve outlined a long winter trip, escaping the Portland rain, which involves visiting everyone I know on the entire West coast and Tucson, Austin, Houston, Birmingham, ending on Jekyll Island, Georgia and travelling back through Nashville, St. Louis, and Boise. We’ll see how things look come November.
In the meanwhile, I think about all the places I have been privileged to have experienced already. Now, with the death of George Floyd and the protests and, I hope, new resolve to end police brutality and address issues of inequality and injustice, I am thinking a lot about my Civil Rights trip through the South in 2008.
I remember standing in front of the crumbling shell of Bryant's Grocery in Money, Mississippi, weeping for the life of young Emmett Till, a 14 year old black boy who was murdered because he "needed to be taught a lesson" for the crime of allegedly whistling at a white woman. I stared into the waters of the Tallahatchie River and wept for white privilege that turns hateful and murderous.
Till was murdered in 1955. Many say that it was this murder that galvanized the modern Civil Rights Movement. Till's murderers were acquitted in less than an hour by an all-white, all-male jury. Shortly afterwards, the defendants sold their story, including a detailed account of how they murdered Till. The murder and the trial horrified the nation and the world. Three months later, the Montgomery bus boycott began.
We are in another moment of being horrified by what we have heard and seen. Videos now show us what some want to deny, cover up, blame the victim. Lies are still being told, of course, but who will ever forget the horrific image of a cop with his hand in his pocket, oh so casually pressing the life out of a human being while he gasps for air and cries out for his mother.
In Money, Mississippi, I wept for all the years of struggle and blood that has gone into the fight for racial justice. Of all the places I visited on my 2008 Civil Rights trip, this unmarked old grocery building, off an obscure highway in the Mississippi Delta, represented for me, the depth of the pain and sacrifice of all those born into slavery and its aftermath. The place echoed with a mother's grief for her son and her people.
Fannie Lou Hamer, a mother of adopted children because she had been forced sterilized in her youth, was a powerful and nationally known Civil Rights movement voice who suffered beatings in jail and death threats in her work for voting rights. I visited her gravesite in Ruleville, Mississippi. Buried next to her husband, her gravestone reads, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." Can you imagine what she would say today, 43 years after her death, as we still have lynchings, voting inequities and mass inequality?
What is beyond sick and tired, and what kept those civil rights activists going were the long hours coming together to organize and strategize, to act, to pray, to cry and to sing together.
I drove through the Mississippi Delta, through the cotton-growing land that historically had been farmed by black sharecroppers. At the time of the Civil Rights movement, Mississippi had led the way for anti-black legislation and violence in response to any civil rights effort. But the Delta also represented the strength and resilience of the black population. It was here that the blues were born; it was here that blacks were elected to local and national office immediately following the Civil War. But progress did not last, and in 1890 a literacy test and a poll tax took the vote away from blacks. But blacks fought back, and filed school desegregation suits and held huge civil right rallies all around the Delta.
So here we are, again and again, year after year, protesting, organizing, crying, praying and singing. The mothers’ cries reverberate around the world now.
Can this be the moment that real change happens like it did in those incredible 14 years with the 1954 Supreme Court ruling mandating school desegregation, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act? Because even with this federal legislation, we are still suffering from racial injustices that are at the heart of voting inequities and economic inequality. We are still suffering from racial violence and hatred that are at the heart of our brokenness as a nation, our broken heartedness.
Yes, we are sick and tired. Yes, we are brokenhearted. And the only remedy is for us to come together, led by those most affected by this evil of racism, to organize and strategize, to act, to pray, to cry and to sing together. In friendship, we can do this. We must.
En la Lucha,
*this title is from May Sarton’s memoir, Plant Dreaming Deep
Copyright 2020 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved.