Editor’s note: This article was originally published by ProPublica.
In 1947, my father, along with his mother and older brother, boarded a northbound train in Greenwood, Miss. They carried with them nothing but a suitcase stuffed with clothes, a bag of cold chicken, and my grandmother’s determination that her children—my father was just 2 years old—would not be doomed to a life of picking cotton in the feudal society that was the Mississippi Delta.
Grandmama, as we called her, settled in Waterloo, Iowa, a stop on the Illinois Central line, and a place where thousands of black Mississippians would find work on the railroad or at the Rath meatpacking and John Deere plants. Grandmama took a job familiar to black women of her lot: Working for white families as a domestic.
Almost every black person I knew growing up in Waterloo had roots in Mississippi. Mississippi flavored our cuisine, inspired our worship and colored our language. Still, when speaking about the land of their birth, my dad and grandmother talked about family and loved ones, but seldom about the place.
Mississippi was at once my ancestral land, and the sinister setting in any number of Hollywood movies, a villain in our national narrative, the place where a black boy named Emmett Till was tossed into the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan around his neck. The only image of Greenwood I got from my family was of my great-grandparents’ farm, scenes of chickens and picking peas in the morning sun and my great-grandmother, Mary Jane Paul, refusing to take any mess. It was only when I got older that I learned my family did not in fact own the farm. Depending on who told the story, my family either leased or sharecropped the land that was, in fact, held by white plantation owners. In reality, the difference mattered little.
And though my parents would load us all in the car every summer to head to a different state for our family vacations, my dad never once took us to the state of his birth. Not for family reunions or funerals. Not for graduations or holidays. My father and grandmother both passed away without ever taking me to see their home.
As the nation prepared to mark the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer—that violent and heady 10 weeks during which Northern volunteers joined forces with Southern activists in Mississippi, all working to meaningfully enfranchise black residents—I felt pulled to finally visit this place that ran in my blood but that I had never seen. Last month, at the age of 38, I visited Mississippi for the first time.
My 87-year-old great-aunt, Charlotte Frost, who had followed my grandma to Waterloo, happened to be visiting a granddaughter in Jackson at the same time I planned my trip. I picked up Aunt Charlotte and we headed north on U.S. Highway 49 toward Greenwood, into the heart of the Delta and Freedom Summer’s ground zero.
The Mississippi Delta, named after the river that gives it life, stretches 200 miles long and 60 miles wide, covering 19 counties in the Magnolia State. The ebb and flow of the mighty river left behind some of the richest soil on the face of the earth (topsoil here can reach more than 60 feet deep). This dark, fertile land, and the riches it could produce for the white people who owned almost all of it, would also make Mississippi one of the most dangerous places in the country to be black.
As we drove, I tried to get my Aunt Charlotte to open up about what it was like coming of age in a black family in the Delta. It was here, after all, that life for black people was so grim that it spawned the blues.
But Aunt Charlotte, peering out at the road through round glasses perpetually clinging to the end of her nose, said she never had any problems with white people, that they had respected her family and hadn’t done much to bother them. And then Charlotte went on to talk about the good school she went to in town and all the crops her family grew.
It was a familiar take. She and another great-aunt in Waterloo are the last of my Grandmama’s siblings, and I had tried before to get their stories, but had been met with a resistance to talking about the ugliness of Jim Crow Mississippi. I never push too hard at this gauzy version, because I know that women like my great-aunts—they pride themselves on their durable dignity, dress to nines, don’t use vulgar language and keep impeccable homes with plastic-wrapped sofas—have no desire to speak of the daily degradations they’d faced at the height of Jim Crow.
A wooden sign coated in brown paint announced our arrival: “Welcome to Greenwood, Cotton Capital of the World.”
But it was clear from the rows of lanky corn stretched out before the sign—not exactly squat June cotton—that the greeting’s boast was mere nostalgia.
We first headed to the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church just outside of town. The plain, white structure was where our family worshipped. My great-grandmother and great-grandfather, Mary Jane and Percy Paul, part of the first generation born out of slavery, are buried in the overgrown cemetery, with its haphazardly placed tombstones. It turns out that this church is the one featured in the movie “The Help,” the place where the maids went to worship. I would come to learn that though the movie is set in Jackson, it was mostly filmed in Greenwood because the town seemed largely frozen in time. Its building and homes, and in some ways its culture, form a kind of time capsule of the era when cotton was king.
According to Aunt Charlotte, the church used to be a part of the Whittington Plantation, the white landowners having built it for the black sharecroppers. It’s still surrounded by crops, and Aunt Charlotte, stooped over her cane, pointed to a distant spot in the fields, saying their house, the house where my great-grandmother helped deliver my father, once stood there on the Whittington lands. I soon learned that nearly every black person here came from a family attached through labor (and sometimes blood) to white families and to plantations with names like “Star of the West.”
It was dusk and the Delta heat settled about my shoulders like a wool blanket. Heavy and uncomfortable, it made my notebook paper fall limp and my ink stop flowing. Gnats and mosquitoes swarmed my legs. Aunt Charlotte, wrapped in a memory, paused to listen to an owl hooting a melancholy warning.
“The old people would say someone is going to die,” she said.
Located in Leflore County, my dad’s hometown took its name from Greenwood LeFlore, the last Choctaw Indian chief, who signed over much of the tribe’s land for an Oklahoma reservation while he himself lived lavishly on 15,000 acres of Delta land that he worked with some 400 enslaved black laborers.
The Civil War, of course, left much of the South crippled, but not long after Reconstruction, Greenwood boomed. While white politicians in Jackson led the South in stripping black residents of their elected offices and newly guaranteed citizenship rights, white plantation owners rebuilt the levees on the flood-prone and swampy Delta. Cotton once again stretched as far as the eye could see, and Greenwood took its place as one of the cotton capitals of the world.
But this boom was made possible only by a reconstituted slavery, a system of coerced labor known as sharecropping. Vagrancy laws were passed, making it illegal for black people to stand around “idle.” Often the only defense was to prove one was in the employ of a white person.
White Mississippians, outnumbered by the African-Americans needed to work the land, implemented a violent and absolute form of social control. The nation’s most heavily black state, Mississippi lynched more black people between 1882 and 1968 than any other state in the country.
Greenwood’s Yazoo River is formed by the meeting of the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha rivers, and as we crossed the Yazoo River and headed to the heart of Greenwood, the ghosts of Mississippi grew close, and Aunt Charlotte finally loosened.
Aunt Charlotte told me that she was baptized in the Tallahatchie. She went on to speak of another river baptism, into the perils of the Delta’s color line.
She said her brother Milton—my dad’s namesake—and a cousin had once committed the sin of walking through a white neighborhood for a reason other than to simply go to work. Two white teenagers in a car gave chase, trying to run them down. Her brother and cousin were forced to jump into the murky river to escape. They returned home, muddy and wet, chests heaving from panic and exertion. Her mother, she said, was livid with fear.
“They got a hard scolding,” Aunt Charlotte said. “She said, ‘You’re going to get yourself killed.’”
We drove past the regal white courthouse, with its requisite Confederate monument standing guard out front. Aunt Charlotte told of another brother running home, chest heaving. A cousin who leased farmland from a white plantation owner had the gall to stand up to a white overseer who didn’t like him having taken a rest. Everyone knew that simply asserting one’s manhood could get a man strung from a tree, so her brother raced to get my great-grandfather to help guard his cousin against the lynching mob.
“My daddy grabbed his Winchester and rifle and his .38 long-nose pistol,” Aunt Charlotte said, and he headed to the cousin’s house to keep vigil. This was a well-practiced event: Family members often gathered arms to protect a loved one following a social breach, usually keeping watch until the loved one could be whisked out of town, almost always to the North.
“They usually had to leave before nightfall or the lynching mob would come,” Aunt Charlotte said quietly. The lynching mob did not come that night, but Aunt Charlotte never forgot the fear. That fright was as routine among black people in the Delta as heading to church on Sunday.
It was just a few miles outside of town, after all, where they found the body of Emmett Till. The tossing of black bodies into the muddy rivers for breaching the social order wasn’t unusual. The only reason people across the nation knew Till’s name was that his mother insisted on an open casket and allowed the ghastly photos of his bloated and mutilated corpse to be published in the nation’s leading black publications.
It was eerie being down here where it happened, just a few miles from where my dad grew up, and realizing how easily he could have been Till. We somehow convince ourselves that this is ancient history. But I am not even 40, and my dad was but four years younger than Emmett Till. Like my dad, Till’s mother had also left as one of hundreds of thousands of black Mississippians who fled their homeland during the Great Migration.
Mamie Till ended up in Chicago, and like my Grandmama, sent her son back down South during the summer months. My dad even shared Emmett Till’s light eyes, as well as that bravado that came from living in the North—that bravado that brought out the worst in white Southerners. One of my dad’s cousins told me that when he came back to Greenwood for the summers, my dad liked “progueing,” a local word for strutting around and being seen. He told me my great-grandparents kept Dad close.
Fear and economic exploitation were the twin elements that defined the Delta. Both were made possible by the complete disenfranchisement of the majority black population. North Greenwood, with its wide, tree-lined avenues and “Gone with the Wind” mansions, once prompted the U.S. Chambers of Commerce to name its main thoroughfare one of the nation’s most beautiful streets. Divided from the rest of the town by the Yazoo River, it showcased the vast material wealth under King Cotton. The shotgun shacks in southeast Greenwood, with its unpaved roads and lightless blocks at the time, revealed who paid the price for that wealth.
“You had to sharecrop, you couldn’t sell your own cotton, you had to go to them,” the white people, “for everything,” the Rev. Willie Blue, a Mississippi native who took part in Freedom Summer, told me. “You didn’t make anything, you were always in the hole, and at the end of the year there was never anything left. They controlled your life. It was the same thing as being a slave.”
An entire family could work all year—children as young as 2 had to go to the fields—and walk away with $100. Even though other Southern states embraced mechanization, Mississippi avoided it. As a local historian told me, it was cheaper to “pay” sharecroppers.
White people in Greenwood made up 33 percent of the population but owned 90 percent of the land. Just 2 percent of eligible black voters were registered. Black residents held not a single elected office. In 1964, 10 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, Mississippi was the only state in the country where not a single black child attended a school with a white child.
Still, black Mississippians weren’t just cowering in fear, awaiting saviors from the North.
In 1954, a young man named Medgar Evers attempted, without success, to integrate the University of Mississippi Law School. That same year, the NAACP named him Mississippi’s first field officer, and he spent the next decade enduring death threats and violence as he tried to register black voters.
Black Mississippians attempted to desegregate schools and lunch counters, movie theaters and swimming pools. But sit-ins to eat at an integrated restaurant were one thing. Pushing to access the vote in such a heavily black region was something else.
“If we get the right to vote, we become captains of our own ship,” Blue told me. “I believed that then, I believe that now.” He added: “You are not a first-class citizen if you are not registered to vote. That’s the backbone of being American. The vote is the perfect example of free speech.”
Hank Klibanoff, a journalist and co-author of the book “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” explained to me the promise and threat of black enfranchisement. Not only did voter registration lead to political representation, Klibanoff said, but it also determined who sat on juries. “You become instrumental in ensuring criminal justice is effective and fair,” Klibanoff said. Access to the vote “really made it possible for blacks to finally get justice in the courts, not just criminal but civil as well.”
White Mississippians understood this as clearly as anyone. The toll on black bodies during the effort to ensure voting rights is, for people of my generation, inconceivable. In the years leading up to Freedom Summer, black Mississippians agitating for civil rights were beaten by mobs, castrated, dragged behind cars with ropes, bombed, jailed, beaten with belts and whips by their jailers, shot at, and strung with 100 pounds of rocks and sunk to the bottom of the river. None of this was done in secret: Among the murderers was a state legislator and a county sheriff.
“We have unintentionally reduced racial discrimination to images of white and colored water fountains. And in that context, what passes for violence is somebody pouring mustard on top of a civil rights demonstrator at a lunch counter, when in fact it was open season on blacks,” Klibanoff said. “They could be killed just indiscriminately and with impunity. And I don’t mean now and then, but I mean fairly regularly.”
And this is where it’s easy to cast Mississippi as a grotesque outlier, and to feel a certain smugness about how, as the civil rights veterans put it at the time, Freedom Summer was about making Mississippi part of the rest of America. But the rest of America—exemplified by the federal government—knew what was happening in Mississippi. We knew that Mississippi was nearly half black but had no black representatives in Congress or anywhere, from state government on down. We knew black Mississippians were being denied their citizenship rights and being murdered for having the audacity to demand them. Despite obvious voter intimidation and political assassinations, the FBI operated no field office there. We knew, and we looked away.
Every day, ordinary Mississippians battled on.
Rev. Blue joined the Mississippi civil rights movement in 1963. Blue, who returned home to Tallahatchie County after a stint in the Navy, had been getting pressure from whites to find work on a plantation or to get out of town. Blue instead headed to Greenwood, where he hooked up with Bob Moses.
Moses, a Harvard-educated New Yorker, had come to Mississippi in 1961 to work on voter registration for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC. Greenwood was, according to SNCC documents, a “hard core resistance area.” Moses set up SNCC’s headquarters in Greenwood—those headquarters would be bombed, burned down and shot up—and Blue’s first task was to pick up Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, who were coming to Greenwood to offer their support.
Blue, still green as an activist, arrived at the airport, only to encounter a cadre of armed Klan members. The two-car delegation picked up their Hollywood guests, and Blue, who was driving the second car, soon found himself in a high-speed chase with the Klan. The Klan backed off once the party made it to the black part of Greenwood. Laughing ruefully today, Blue said he didn’t find out until later that Poitier and Belafonte had been carrying tens of thousands of dollars in cash to help the voting rights effort.
Outside of town, on a car-strewn lot tucked between cotton fields, I met with Silas McGhee, whose family, led by his mother, Laura, began fighting Jim Crow long before Freedom Summer. They paid a heavy price. McGhee doesn’t much like to talk about those times. I couldn’t get him to sit for an interview. All he would say was that he was no hero, that he had just done what he was supposed to do. McGhee had been jailed and beaten more times than he could count for trying to desegregate downtown businesses and help register black voters.
But the sunken set of his jaw told the story he would not. At the height of the Mississippi civil rights struggle, a white man pulled up in a car and shot McGhee in his face when McGhee was sitting outside a Greenwood restaurant. The bullet barreled through his mouth, taking his front teeth with it. Blue, who was with McGhee at the time, told me, and McGhee confirmed, that the shooter was Byron De La Beckwith—the Klansman who killed Medgar Evers. I could find no record to prove or disprove it.
As I left McGhee working on a tractor in his yard, I thought of how all but one of Grandmama’s seven siblings who survived into adulthood left Mississippi in their youth. They sacrificed a great deal in seeking a better life for their families. But it was in talking to people like Blue and McGhee that I realized what an act of defiance it was to have been a black Mississippian and to have simply stayed put. Staying to change this state might well have been the greatest sacrifice.
So, no, black Mississippians hadn’t been waiting for saviors—white or otherwise—from outside. But they certainly welcomed them for the national attention they would bring.
Moses—who civil rights veterans say was blessed with the right name—is largely considered the mastermind behind Freedom Summer. When I spoke with him over the phone, he brushed off the credit.
Moses had been tested in Mississippi’s fire. He’d been beaten in the back of the head with the butt of a knife by the cousin of a local sheriff, he’d been shot at, he’d been jailed and beaten some more. Speaking to me from Jackson, where he’d traveled for a Freedom Summer commemoration, Moses called what they were doing back in the 1960s “guerrilla warfare.” They were sniping at the system while being housed and protected by the local community.
“It was the only time in my life where I could any time of night go and knock on a door, and they were going to provide a bed for me to sleep in, food to eat and watch my back,” he said of the network of local black Mississippians who sheltered civil rights workers. “You had in that community people who were willing to take a stand even though they knew what they were doing would enrage white folks.”
In 1963, Medgar Evers joined the long list of racial assassination victims. De La Beckwith followed Evers home and shot Evers through the heart with a rifle. Evers was carrying a box of T-shirts proclaiming “Jim Crow Must Go.” Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett visited De La Beckwith during his trial. Two all-white juries deadlocked and Evers’s killer would live free and in the open until 1994, when he was finally brought to justice.
Moses said the killing of Evers was the turning point.
Two years of voter efforts in Greenwood had led to fewer than 30 black registrations but plenty of shootings, beatings, bombings and arrests. A 1963 memo written by Bob Moses stated:
1. It is not possible to for us to register Negroes in Mississippi …
2. All direct action campaigns for integration have had their backs broken …
He went on: “The Mississippi monolith has successfully survived the Freedom Rides, James Meredith at Ole Miss, and the assassination of Medgar Evers, without substantive change. … The only attack worth making is an attack aimed at the overthrow of the existing political structure of the state.”
It was time to up the ante. Reporters for the mainstream press had largely bought white Mississippians’ protestations that black Mississippians just didn’t care to vote. The idea was somehow to provoke the federal government to act.
So the notion was hatched to recruit college students from across the country who would converge on the state for 10 weeks, setting up Freedom Schools and registering black voters. The goal: To register enough disenfranchised black voters to challenge the all-white Democratic delegation at the national convention in Atlantic City, N.J., and instead seat the biracial Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
To work, the organizers calculated, a significant number of the student volunteers needed to be white.
“We know what they bring with them are the eyes of the country,” Moses told me. “The country is able to see through their eyes what they weren’t able to see through ours.”
We both grew silent on the line, for just a moment, letting those words sink in.
Of course, most everyone knows what happened next. As Freedom Summer began, three civil rights workers—Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two white Northerners; and James Earl Chaney, a black Mississippian—disappeared in Mississippi. Black Mississippians immediately understood what that meant.
“There is no kidnapping in Mississippi,” Rev. Blue reminded me. “We knew they were dead.”
But the murders of those two white men changed everything. “These were not just white folks”; they were “America’s finest, America’s futures,” Rev. Blue said. “Goodman’s richer than whipped cream. He wasn’t supposed to die in Vietnam; he sure wasn’t supposed to die in Mississippi. When America’s brightest are murdered for doing something fundamentally American, suddenly the world knows about Mississippi. It was another nail in the segregated coffin.”
The federal government swarmed Mississippi. The FBI opened an office there for the first time in two decades. The nation’s eyes wound up riveted on a place that many felt had existed outside the laws of the land. And as law enforcement dragged rivers searching for the missing civil rights workers, they found at least nine bodies of black men who’d disappeared well before. The beatings, bombings and jailings of Freedom Summer volunteers and local Mississippians determined to exercise democracy continued all summer.
In the end, despite all the attention to the three slain civil rights workers, and the gathering of tens of thousands of signatures of black Mississippians who wanted to vote but couldn’t, the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party did not unseat Mississippi’s all-white delegation. Their efforts were squashed by the very man who would pass the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Freedom Summer volunteers and organizers left Atlantic City dejected.
So, what, then, was Freedom Summer’s legacy—not just in some grand national narrative but right here in the Delta, as well?
I picked my Aunt Charlotte up from the Hampton Inn on the edge of town and we headed to Mississippi Avenue, where my cousin Lawrence Paul lives. I’d never met Lawrence, but when I had called a few days earlier and introduced myself as a relative from up North and told him of my visit, he’d asked, “Whose daughter are you again?” When I told him Milton, he let out a hearty laugh.
“Ol’ cat-eyed Milton?” he asked. “We used to be real close. Call me when you get here and come on by.”
Lawrence lives in a neighborhood of stately brick homes and bungalows. Greenwood is marked by severe residential segregation and Lawrence explained that the neighborhood used to be all white. But once the first black people moved in, every last one of the white residents moved out. Now it is home to Greenwood’s small black middle class, a collection of civil servants, educators and entrepreneurs.
Lawrence is the grandson of my Grandmama’s brother, the only sibling who hadn’t gone North. Lawrence was 14 when Freedom Summer happened. Sitting in front of the air conditioner and sweating under a blue baseball cap, he smiled at the memory.
“To me, I am not going to use the word ‘revolutionary’—but it felt good knowing we were part of something,” Lawrence said. “It was a hurting thing to be a youngster. Seeing the way the police did our parents, it was brutality. You had a law for white and a law for black. You see an all-white government, all-white police force, all-white everything.”
Lawrence repeated the stories of daily fear, of not stepping off a sidewalk fast enough, or appearing too smart or too proud, and the instant wrath it could bring. As a young boy, he said, he’d learned to differentiate a police car without even having to turn around. Just the sound it made gave it away.
“I can still hear it,” he said. “They’d pull alongside us and we’d say, ‘Yes sir, yes sir.’ We’d fake it.”
Fake what, I asked.
Aunt Charlotte, who’d been sitting in the chair listening, spoke up. “My dad would always say, ‘I’m a man. How old do I have to be to be a man?’”
Outside of the watchful eyes of his parents, Lawrence went to organizing meetings held at the Elks Lodge; he marched to the courthouse and picketed for voting rights that he was too young to exercise. “Our people were too afraid to march, so we did it for them,” he said proudly.
Lawrence didn’t mind at all the white Northerners who had often been portrayed in news media as the face of the movement that summer.
“White people were the key to it,” he said. “They were a major part of the change.”
It reminded me of something Rev. Blue had said: “This movement belonged to all of us.”
At the end of Freedom Summer, most of the volunteers left. And they took with them the nation’s attention. Life remained hard for those left behind. Churches and homes continued to be bombed. Despite the passage a year later of the Voting Rights Act, white Mississippians continued to violently fight efforts to register black voters and gain black political power.
In fact, two years after Freedom Summer, in 1966, James Meredith, the man who integrated Ole Miss, was shot in Mississippi as he tried to complete a “March Against Fear.” Stokely Carmichael, a SNCC veteran, tried to complete Meredith’s march but wound up jailed in Greenwood, marking his 27th arrest in the fight for civil rights. The lack of progress had taken a physical and emotional toll on Carmichael and others who’d spent years in the trenches. It was in Greenwood that a fiery Carmichael gave his first “Black Power” speech, fracturing the movement into those who wanted to continue with a nonviolent agenda and those who decided that if someone hit at them, they were going to hit back.
Despite the passion of Freedom Summer, Lawrence explained, it seemed that little had changed when it was over. “After Freedom Summer, for me, it was still the same,” he said, wiping at his brow with a white washrag. “It was something forced upon them. It didn’t happen fast.”
Changes did come, of course, but achingly slowly. Shortly after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, David Jordan, the son of a sharecropper on the same Whittington Plantation where my family worked, who’d earned degrees from Mississippi Valley State and the University of Wyoming and become a science teacher, established the Greenwood Voters League to register black voters and help them wield the political power their numbers should have brought. But by 1977, a full decade after Freedom Summer, Greenwood’s governance remained lily white. That year, Jordan sued the city under the Voting Rights Act and won the suit eight years later. While the lawsuit against Greenwood worked its way through the courts, Jordan sued again, this time to change the way the state drew legislative districts, which had continued to ensure the election of white candidates. Jordan won there as well, leading to the 1984 election of Mississippi’s first black congressman since Reconstruction.
“Our people were still suffering and we wanted a piece of the pie,” Jordan said. “The only way to get it was to fight.”
The following year, in 1985, Jordan ran for the newly formed City Council and became Greenwood’s first black city councilman.
For his efforts, Jordan has had his life threatened, his property vandalized and, in 2011, his house shot. Today, Greenwood’s City Council has a black majority. It has a black fire chief. It has had a black mayor and chief of police. Jordan himself holds two elected positions; he’s a city councilman and a state senator. Sitting in the City Council chambers, he noted that Mississippi can now boast the most black elected officials of any state in the Union. Through the window at his back, the stars and bars of the Confederacy, enshrined on the Mississippi state flag, fluttered in the wind.
“Freedom Summer baptized Mississippi as part of the nation,” Moses said. “It was no longer a rule unto itself.”
Still, the limitations of Freedom Summer and the Mississippi civil rights movement stand in stark relief. Mississippi remains the nation’s most heavily black state, and also its poorest. Political power has not brought economic power.
Greenwood, the town that bet everything on King Cotton, has suffered from cotton’s demise. But the suffering has not been borne evenly. Entire sections of the once-thriving city center are pocked with vacant storefronts and empty streets. And yet a few blocks over, a bustling collection of shops cater to the tourists and other well-off vacationers and locals drawn to the luxury Alluvian hotel and spa.
In the past, seeking to hoard all the cheap black labor for their cotton fields, the city’s white elite fought to keep other industries away. Today, then, the town struggles to draw any industry whatsoever.
Meanwhile, cotton fields have been converted to much less labor-intensive corn and soybean crops. Those crops have kept many white families well off, comfortable in their sprawling mansions. North Greenwood, where nearly all the city’s white residents live, has almost no poverty to speak of.
But today, well over a third of Greenwood’s black residents live below the poverty line. The lack of industry and loss of agricultural work have left many simply jobless. Across the tracks, the historic all-black Baptist Town is a collection of dilapidated shotgun homes. Those battered and leaning homes, first constructed to house sharecroppers, cannot possibly look any better now than they did during Jim Crow. In significant parts of this community, the median family income falls below $10,000 a year. Its residents are so generationally impoverished that the community is anxiously awaiting two dozen tiny cottages left over from Hurricane Katrina.
Both Moses and Blue said that while a small number of black Mississippians have been able to gain wealth and power, distressingly high numbers still remain mired in grinding poverty. “Those that gained the most from the movement don’t want to trouble the water,” Blue told me. “They are doing so good while most of us are doing so much worse. Integration comes with finance. I can’t go to the country club—not because I am black, but because I don’t have money. I think that’s the failure. The lack of financial power.”
Many who risked their lives for the struggle faced retribution once the cameras went away and the volunteers went home. They talked of being blackballed from jobs, loans, opportunity. Many of them live on Social Security and scrape by.
The younger generation, those for whom Freedom Summer is their inheritance, are in obvious ways better off than those before them. Yet they still can feel trapped. I met 23-year-old Evonna Lucas at the city’s convention and visitors bureau. An outspoken bookworm fascinated by history, she reminded me of myself when I was her age.
Evonna remembers clearly when she first confronted Greenwood’s invisible color line. She was in fourth grade and her mother had sent her to the only Greenwood public school that is majority white. Her best friend was a little white girl named Sarah, and Sarah was having a birthday party. “We were so excited. Then she came one day and said, ‘My momma said I can’t invite black kids to my birthday,’” Evonna told me. “I still remember her head hanging down. She was in fourth grade and couldn’t look me in the eye. That’s when I realized I was different.”
I grew up in Iowa, yet have a story like that of my own. The only difference is I was welcomed at my white friends’ homes; it’s just that their parents didn’t want them coming to mine. I guess Moses was right when he told me that the success of Freedom Summer was it “made Mississippi, for better or for worse, the same as the rest of the country.”
Evonna graduated from historically black Mississippi Valley State University last year with a degree in communications. She returned home, and finding she couldn’t get a job in her field, took what she could get, making minimum wage before landing the job at the visitors bureau. She likes it, but she wants more. She worries that can’t happen unless she leaves. What’s possible when you live in the Delta, she told me, can seem so small.
“I won’t say Freedom Summer didn’t achieve anything, because look at me, I am sitting here in an office that never had a black person,” she said. “We had a black mayor, my doctors are black. But our kids still don’t get the best education and the system is handicapping them. What’s it all for?”
And later that night, I saw the old Mississippi peeking through the veneer.
When I drove my great-aunt back to Jackson, she had rather casually pointed at a restaurant named Lusco’s that had been in that exact location when she was a child. Of course, as a child she’d been barred from eating there. I immediately decided that I would eat there that night upon my return.
Lusco’s was founded in 1921 by Italian immigrants who solidified their assimilation process by banning black diners. Five generations later, the restaurant is still owned by the same family. And its inside looks much as it did during Freedom Summer. The same linoleum, though faded and peeling. The same soda fountain stools, though the soda fountain is long gone.
The clientele is nearly all white, and since Lusco’s is but a few blocks from Baptist Town, a black security guard stands outside, opening the door for every patron coming in and out, and walking them the few feet to their car.
I stood outside and talked to the hostess who’d stepped outside for a smoke. She was part of that Lusco fifth generation. “Our customers don’t like change,” she told me, complaining about the restaurant’s dated interior.
As I talked to her, a boisterous older white couple, probably in their 70s, came out. The woman was charming and seemed used to attention. I was told that everyone simply refers to her as “Mrs. Greenwood.” She was carrying a bottle of wine under her arm, and casually declared that she’d already finished one. Mrs. Greenwood asked me and the photographer with me where we were from.
Just then, two young black men walked by. Quietly, eyes down, they headed to the store at the corner. It was steamy out, and one was shirtless. Mrs. Greenwood’s eyes followed them, and a sneer curled her lips.
“That’s what you call our ‘local color,’” she said. The last word, which she pronounced CAH-la, sounded mean and hard in my ears. The photographer and I exchanged looks but said nothing. Perhaps I blanched, because Mrs. Greenwood tried to recover.
“I’m not being ugly,” she said. “It’s not safe here.” She scurried to the beige town car where her husband was waiting and they drove off, I imagined to their home across the Yazoo River.
I went back to my hotel room and wrote in my notes, “The Delta can be devastating.”
Still, I couldn’t help but recall that same morning when a young white man saw Aunt Charlotte trying to get into her car and rushed over to her, opened the door and then solicitously held her purse while she pulled her arthritic legs into the car. He had called her “ma’am” and wished her a nice day.
I left Greenwood a few days later. At the Jackson Airport, which is now called Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, sits a little portico right at the check-in counters. It’s dedicated to Evers and traces some of the key moments in Mississippi’s struggle for civil rights. At the center in the back stands a bronze statue of a little white girl with her arm thrown around the shoulder of a little black girl.
On the inscription it said: “Reconciliation: a work in progress.”
ProPublica’s Nikole Hannah-Jones has spent the last two years exploring race in America. Read her investigation on the resegregation of schools or join her on Facebook for an ongoing conversation on race and civil rights.