America’s Racism And The Mississippi Freedom Trail – One State’s Sobering Civil Rights History…

This was my Saturday night, May 30. My wife and I watched as unrest unfolded in Beverly Hills, about two miles from our home. It was just one of dozens of violent incidents across the country to call for for justice in the senseless murder of a black man.

Unfortunately, what had begun earlier in the day as a series of peaceful protests in the Los Angeles area devolved into random looting and violence across the area – with nonstop news coverage showing a city on fire.

The senseless, brutal murder of George Floyd is another horrific reminder of the racism that still festers in America – until we can, as a country, come to grips with this epidemic of institutional racism, we cannot move forward in peace.

While I applaud everyone who stands up to call out this brutal murder, it’s also despairing to see it turn into senseless violence and looting across the country.

It is, however, another stark reminder that institutional racism exists everywhere, and has since the formation of the United States Of America.

There is much more to be said, but as I watched this unfold, I remembered a very sobering up-close look I had at our racist past…

welcome-to-jackson-mississippi

Walking Mississippi’s Freedom Trail…

It is one of America’s epic-centers of civil right protests in the 60’s. I visited Jackson, Mississippi in late 2015 for a business meeting: and as I always do, I added a few days to my trip to have time to check out the city…and got an up-close look at our civil rights past.

jackson-capitol-skyline

The city is named after General Andrew Jackson, who was honored for his role in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 and later served as U.S. President.

I chose to stay in the historic downtown area, where the state capital was located…

mississippi-state-capital-in-jackson

I chose the historic King Edward Hotel downtown, which was declared a Mississippi landmark in 1990. It was also closed and vacant for nearly forty years before being completely renovated in 2006 – and it is now a Hilton Garden Inn…

king-edward-hotel-jackson-mississippi


Frank Sinatra! The Rat Pack! Jackson’s Racial Divide!

My visit began with a sobering note…

When I arrived at the Jackson-Medgar Evers International Airport, I grabbed a cab and headed to my hotel. The airport was small, and there was an older Yellow Cab sitting out front. My driver was a 75-year old black man who told me he’d lived his entire life in the city.

frank-sinatra-the-rack-pack

This was my first trip to the “deep south”: I grew up in Seattle, so I had never “walked through” the history of segregation in this part of the country in person.

As we drove to my hotel, the Cab driver told me a story, involving Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and my iconic hotel: in the 60’s, when the rat pack came to town to perform, they stayed at The King Edward.

the-rat-pack-segregation-story

My Cab driver told me that when they arrived, Frank demanded that the entire entourage, including Sammy Davis Jr, be housed at the hotel.

He paused for a moment in case I didn’t understand the implication.

“So the hotel was segregated at the time?” I asked, and he nodded.

sammy-davis-jr-frank-sinatra

“Yes”, he told me, “but Frank got what Frank wanted, so Sammy stayed with the rest of the Rat Pack at the hotel.”

At this point, my 75-year told black Cab driver paused again before he continued with the devastating punchline to the story:

“After they left town”, he told me, “the entire hotel closed up…”

He paused again as if remembering the pain of what he was about to say….then added:

“the entire hotel closed so that they could wash it down to get rid of any evidence of Sammy staying there.”

Wow. I was, indeed, in the deep south – a south that has terrible history of racial injustice, violence, and segregation.

segreated_bathrooms

I am glad that I am too young to have lived through this shocking period on our country’s history: it’s impossible to imagine that signs like this were everywhere in the south – hard to imagine that segregation ever existed.

The great film “Hidden Figures” includes a subplot regarding segregated bathrooms as part of the film:

hidden-figures-750x315_orig

You can see more about that here:

https://johnrieber.com/2017/01/23/the-phenomenon-of-hidden-figures-shining-a-light-on-neglected-history/

I was to see many more examples of this past when I took a walk around the downtown area…

jackson-mississippis-freedom-trail

Jackson’s “Freedom Trail!”

There are plenty of opportunities to put yourself in history here: there are many signs like this that showcase important locations in the fight for civil rights and desegregation.

As wikipedia reports:

“the mass demonstrations of the 1960s were initiated with the arrival of more than 300 Freedom Riders on May 24, 1961. They were arrested in Jackson for disturbing the peace after they disembarked from their interstate buses.”

greyhound-bus-stopjackson-freedom-trail

jackson-greyhound-station-freedom-trail-historical-site

The Greyhound station is still there, and the sign gives an in-depth history of the events that took place there in the 60’s…

medgar-evers-auto-briography

Remember that I arrived at Jackson-Medgar Evers Airport? As wikipedia reports:

“In Jackson, shortly after midnight on June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers, civil rights activist and leader of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, was assassinated by Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist associated with the White Citizens’ Council.”

So here was another reprehensible piece of civil rights history – a great Civil Rights leader murdered simply because he wanted equal rights.

Walking further, I came across this historic spot as well:

jackson-mississippi-woolworths-counter-protest


The Woolworth’s Counter Sit-In!

The building is gone now, but this was the site of a crucial moment in civil rights history: can you even imagine a time when black students would be attacked for daring to sit down with white customers? It’s sobering to read these signs and realize the violence that surrounded the struggle for civil rights.

As wikipedia notes:

“Segregation and the disfranchisement of African Americans gradually ended after the Civil Rights Movement gained Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. In June 1966, Jackson was the terminus of the James Meredith March, organized by James Meredith, the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi.”

As I wandered through downtown Jackson, I thought about the history that I had seen up close, and it was surprising to see that the state flag had a confederate symbol on it:

jackson-mississippi-courthouse

mississippi-state-flag-confederate-seal

There have been attempts to have it removed, but when I was there, it still flew. It was a Saturday, and most of the state capital buildings were closed….in fact, the entire downtown seemed closed up:

jackson-city-hall

downtown-jackson-mississippi

The more I walked around, the more desolate and abandoned the downtown area felt to me…here are some of the images I captured on this bright, sunny and deserted day in Jackson:

abandoned-jackson-building

empty-jackson-mississippi-buildings

jackson-sun-and-sand

jackson-mississippi-parkingmeters

empty-jackson-store

I was struck by how dead the downtown area was…while it was a Saturday, and was the state capital, there was no one there.
Seeing the signs of Mississippi’s Freedom Trail, it was a sad reminder of a bygone era, even in the historic Mayflower cafe:

mayflower-cafe-jackson

mayflower-cafe-lunch-counter

This restaurant has been in the same spot for decades, and I can only imagine the history that surrounds it.

shrimp-poboy-sandwich

I ordered a Shrimp Po’Boy, then headed back out – and it didn’t take long to discover another symbol of America’s troubled past – I came across another historical site: The Greenwood Cemetery.

historic-greenwood-cemetary-jackson

Read the sign to understand what I was looking at: more troubling history that is still with us today:

gravestone-jackson-mississippi

That seemed to sum up my excursion around town that day…I changed my ticket and left the next day – there was nothing else for me to see.

king-edward-hotel

I began on a downbeat note about my Hotel, which was segregated at one time as were many of Jackson’s businesses. The city has been the center of our country’s civil rights movement, and some of those scars are still there.

king-edward-hotel-interior-jackson

The renovated King Edward Hotel itself was beautiful and had a great staff…in fact, as I was leaving I passed a sixty-year old black Bellman, who was doing something that almost made me laugh out loud:

He was whistling “The Wreck Of The Edmond Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot!

king-edward-hotel-jackson-mississippi

I had another encounter with our country’s past when I travelled to Atlanta for filming:

This is Stone Mountain, and carved into one side is a mural honoring the Confederate Leaders of the Civil War! It’s really unsettling, especially when nearby is a replica of a Southern Plantation, complete with slave quarters:

You can read more of this story here:

https://johnrieber.com/2017/08/16/georgias-enormous-confederate-memorial-at-stone-mountain-the-controversial-robert-e-lee-stone-mountain-carving/

I am glad that Jackson has put up so many reminders of its troubled past, but as the murder of George Floyd showed, we still have so far to go…



Categories: Books / Media, Memoirs, Politics, Pop Culture, Travel, Travel Memoir

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18 replies

  1. This is a very interesting article, John. I don’t know Jackson and your tour was fascinating. My knowledge of the American Civil War and its causes comes from books I have read, Gone with the Wind, The Red Badge of Courage, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and others. We have been watching the looting and violence in your country which is very sad, especially as it comes after this difficult time when everyone needs to rebuild and create employment. The murder of the black man was a terrible thing, but this behaviour makes the situation worse.

    Like

  2. It’s so sad that the destruction, damage, looting, setting buildings on fire are far beyond the initial peace protesting. The news last night was heartbreaking.

    Like

  3. I teach U.S. History and the stories you mentioned are part of the curriculum. I’m always depressed when we talk about slavery, racism, and civil rights. I think of it as something from the past and then what is happening today makes me cringe and my heart sink. I still can’t believe there is looting and riots in the streets. Ugh!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Stories like this always make me so very sad…I have two abiding memories of my Uncle Charles who in a childs mind I was about 12 on our first trip to visit them in Kentucky was the gentlest kindest man…I loved him…On two occasions I witnessed him refusing to be served by a coloured person both at a store and in a restaurant he made quite a fuss about it…we were ushered away by my parents but as I have grown older I realised how very racist this man was…It is still a puzzle to me…Sobering and scary to read that your country cannot seem to get over this…..

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for sharing John. We have such a shameful past in regards to racism and clearly it’s not over yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was in my teens when much of what you write about was happening. It was reported on the TV news here, and seemed strange to us. But the reality was that at that time, black people still found it hard to rent rooms or apartments in Britain. Hotels were very often suddenly ‘full’, and inter-racial relationships were still frowned upon, as evidenced in the successful film ‘A Taste Of Honey’.(1961)
    We may not have had the violence, but we definitely still had the racism.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. So awful on every count. We are experiencing this on detroit right now, as are many other cities domestically and internationally. One of my sons in law if Adrian American and he had dealt ortho this his whole life, my grandchildren are biracial and this has been a long series of discussion and worry in the family. As for the rat pack story, again so horrible and reminded me of them green book.’

    Liked by 1 person

    • thanks for the comment and yes, the Rat Pack story was made clear again in Green Book – we having problems already underway here again so we will all sit tight and hope peace prevails….sickening that race has to still be an issue we can’t get past.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I remember your original post about your trip John, as was shocked(I don’t know why) over the hotel washing everything after Sammy Davis Jr. stayed there. It’s unacceptable that systematic racism is still very much alive and well.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Sobering…

    Liked by 1 person

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