Friday, May 22, 2009

Day 5: Oxford, MS - Indianola, MS

Miles today: 200
Total: 1300

Mississippi is always a crucial part of the course. By the time we get here, students feel comfortable with each other as well as with the basic trajectory of the CR movement, both of which are necessary to dig into Mississippi. For anyone interested in learning more about the state, I highly recommend James Cobb's The Most Southern Place on Earth.

After spending the night on the wonderful Oxford Square [Square Books is one of the best bookstores I have ever browsed, and I'm quite the connoisseur], we headed over to the University of Mississippi. The university was founded in 1848 to educate slaveholders, who seemed to otherwise be going off to college and questioning slavery. It carries this legacy of white supremacy with it today, as do many of our institutions. James Meredith integrated the university in 1962, and his first day on campus led to a riot in which 2 were murdered and dozens more injured. The federalized national guard ensured his admittance.

At the university, we spoke to Susan Glisson, executive director of the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, and two of her student interns. They outlined their work both in the community and on campus. Outside of the university, activists at the institute have helped communities commemorate Civil Rights sites in different areas of the state (we saw several new postings related to Emmett Till today that were new from just last year), guaranteed that civil rights history is now required to be taught in Mississippi public schools (through legislation passed in 2006), and assembled a team to prosecute those responsible for the deaths of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, MS over fifty years later. Finally, they are in the midst of creating a Mississippi Truth and Reconciliation Committee in the vein of the South African one. On campus, they are working on a series of initiatives to better integrate the campus socially and to challenge racist traditions that the university and many of its students continue to practice. We all left feeling inspired and also informed about ways to bring these actions into our own communities.

We spent the remainder of the day touring the Mississippi Delta. We toured the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale (a local museum that is always a student favorite) and ate next door at Morgan Freeman's blues club, Ground Zero. We visited the Sumner courthouse where Emmett Till's trial was held, Fannie Lou Hamer's gravesite and memorial garden in Ruleville, MS, and blues-related murals in Tutwiler, among other sites. To learn more about blues in the Delta, check out Alan Lomax's The Land Where the Blues Began and listen to the recordings he made in the 1930s and 1940s that preserved the work of a generation of blues men and women in the Delta.

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