Our road trip through the Delta had felt like a journey through epic times. We would enjoy a family get together in town the next day. My father’s only living sister, Aunt Ruth, came down from Memphis on Sunday. Her son Emmett had driven along with his lady friend. We all met at Dad’s house then settled on lunch at a Mexican restaurant near downtown.
During our meal, it occurred to me that this was the first time I had been at a large family gathering and had really felt like interacting again. I had struggled just to drag myself to a chair the last couple of times we were together. My strategy for those meals had been to find a table relatively close to the restroom, hunker down, and try to get through the meal without having to go more than once. I would be tired from dragging my left foot by the time I sat down, and talking was even more of a labor. I had enjoyed the idea of dining out with family, but it was constant work and only made me feel slightly less alone.
Going out to eat with family was now fun again. I didn’t need them to park right next to the entrance or help me up the steps. When we got inside, we had such a large party that our table was very close to some of the booths. It felt amazing to be able to tiptoe in and out of narrow spaces that would have been impossible one or two years ago. I laugh and joked, happy that I could project my voice or even keep up with the rate of conversation. Gone were the days when I would have to take in a gulp of air at the beginning of every sentence then listen as other people impatiently finished my sentence for me.
At the end of dinner, I asked Aunt Ruth if she could take a picture of the table with my phone, since she was on the end. She wasn’t able to get the perspective with herself in the shot. So I got up, walked to end of the table, and took a selfie so you could see everyone behind me. I purposefully didn’t try to get everyone’s attention. I wanted to get a more spontaneous looking shot. Some people are eating; some have their backs turned; others are talking; only a few have looked up and paused for the camera.
I feel like this communicates the ease with which I was moving that day. I was in the middle of eating when I stopped to snap a picture. Without grabbing my cane, I stood up, sidled past Aunt Ruth’s chair, walked in front of the table, spun and clicked. It didn’t require planning my movements to avoid a fall. I performed all the calculations in my head so quickly that I didn’t distract most of the family from their activities. In the picture, it almost looks like I “photo bombed” in. Like I had the speed and balance to just dart into someone else’s family photo. It only looks so effortless because of years of grinding work.
After we finished eating, we stood around outside trying to figure out what to do next. Since he hadn’t been there before, Jonathan suggested that we go to the civil rights museum. I had gone when it opened two years ago, but I had required a wheelchair to get through it. Back then, I had only been lifting weights for a few months. I could walk, but my legs had been too weak to get through the museum on my feet. I had vowed to walk all the way through the museum the next time I went. This was my chance.
We had to walk several hundred feet to get from our vehicles to the museum. Everyone else walked at a normal pace to get inside from the heat. I walked the majority of the way alone. I had just shaved my head the previous day, so sweat ran into my eyes. Every minutes or so, I had to stop and wipe my face. Walking didn’t tire me out; it just annoyed me how slow I was getting to my destination. The best method was to look down and concentrate on something that could take my mind off the task at hand.
As the security officer swung open the door to let me inside, cool air hit me in the face. It was wonderful. Because Dad was a member of the museum, we got free admission. They brought me a wheelchair, but I refused it. Dad told me that I might need it in order to keep up with the group. So I reluctantly agreed to take it.
As we went past the first exhibits, I listened to Dad telling everyone about it and realized how natural he was as our guide. I have a degree in history and can describe the times and concepts just as well, but you could definitely tell how adept he was from years of lecturing in the classroom. He walked back and forth, pointing and gesticulating. He would pause or emphasize his points in ways that conveyed the most important information.
After we had stopped three times in the first exhibit, I decided that keeping up with the group was not going to be a problem. I asked Jonathan to hold my wheelchair in place. I stood up and balanced with my cane, allowing the expected jolt of involuntary tone to temporarily straighten my leg. After the surge, I was able to start walking. I strolled slowly, letting the other pass me so they could hear Dad. I had been here before and was capable of guiding myself. I wanted to have time to linger and take individual photos of certain exhibits. I could easily catch up with the group if I lagged too far behind.
Whenever I visit a really good museum, I struggle with which part to tell my readers about. I love taking pictures of the larger, more striking displays. While I thoroughly enjoy communicating my awe, I am leery of my tendency to say too much. I want the visitor to the museum to still have opportunities for surprise. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is no different. I could spend an eight-hour day there and never run out of things to read. So I think any description will just add to the reader’s enjoyment.
Upon turning the first corner in the museum, the visitor sees a series of immense black panels. They are made of glass and chronicle the names of hundreds of lynching victims. The first time I saw these obsidian hanging scrolls, there were so many in the room that I didn’t even notice that there were also two behind me. The scrolls bear testament to the scores and scores of people who died at the hands of hateful men determined to stop progress. They could not stop freedom’s sun from rising.
This time I noticed that there were several smaller panels scattered throughout the museum. One titled “RACIALLY MOTIVATED KILLINGS” was divided by years Scanning 1955, I located the name, Emmett Louis Till. This adolescent boy was tortured and killed by white men for the alleged crime of whistling at a white woman. The obvious “real” transgression was not respecting the color line. “That boy don’t know his place” was a charge that could get any black man killed in the segregated South. A careless faux pas was often something that the tenuous white power structure would not brook.
It is nearly impossible to fathom what these people endured. It must have been sheer terror knowing how arbitrary the rules of segregation could be, yet they were enforced swiftly and often with deadly consequences. It was in this stifling environment that African Americans finally reached the limits of acquiescence. The murder of the youth inspired a wave of defiance among black Mississippians that helped to usher in the modern day civil rights movements.
One of the things that seem present in every civil rights museum is the segregated schoolhouse. There are scale models of “White” and “Colored” classrooms juxtaposed to show the disparities. Many people can convince themselves that Separate But Equal wasn’t really that unfair. But exhibits like these show in graphic detail the material differences between what each set of students had to deal with.
There are other factors that hinder a student’s ability to learn: Did she have anything to eat this morning? Did he have to come to school in the winter with no socks? Is one parent incarcerated? Now imagine upon making it to class under these conditions – often byproducts of segregation themselves – and having inadequate learning materials and a crumbling building. Sure, a motivated student can learn under stark conditions. But a child living in the wealthiest society on earth shouldn’t be asked to – certainly not when there is a demonstrable ability to build a proper school for white children in the same county.
A couple of rooms away there is a mock up of a jail cell. This is often the destination of civil rights demonstrators. The walls are littered with the mugshots of many students the state of Mississippi rounded up and housed like livestock. Segregation was enforced so strictly that when extrajudicial lynchings didn’t work to intimidate people out of demanding change, the power of the state could be brought to bear down on them.
Whether in Memphis at the National Civil Rights Museum or here in Mississippi, these jail cells communicate to me in powerful ways. I will sit in the shadows and contemplate that long line of ancestors stretching all the way back to slavery. Whether they resisted with arms or performed the far less lauded task of ensuring that their descendants would survive. It is because of them that I can walk the earth a free man. I am forever in their debt.