On Up the Road – 2019 Great Mississippi Road Trip

As our guests stepped aboard the bus, it seemed that we were placing a bet with each other about the Great Mississippi Road Trip. Will people connect with all this? Will the threads tie together? Will we be ready when the hard truths emerge? This year, it surely felt as though the bet paid off. Here are some highlights.

At Tougaloo College, cradle of the Mississippi Civil Rights movement, we took part in a panel to help celebrate Tougaloo’s 150th anniversary. From the pews of the tranquil Woodworth Chapel we heard veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights movement tell their stories of personal transformation.  Euvester Simpson described being arrested in Winona with colleagues as they returned from an out-of-state voting rights training.  She was jailed and menaced but then returned to her cell where she comforted a badly battered Fannie Lou Hamer with a washcloth and a softly sung spiritual. Margaret Kibbee told how she saved up money as an 18 year old to travel from San Francisco to Mississippi and participate in voter registration and legal services in Sunflower County.  Flonzie Brown Wright recalled how being turned down and insulted by a hostile voter registrar set her on her course to become Mississippi’s first black female elected official. Rev. Ed King, co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, offered a history of the founding of Tougaloo College by the American Missionary Association. Hollis Watkins, a renowned Mississippi voting rights leader,  led us in “Walk With Me Lord,” a spiritual that Ms. Simpson sang with Ms. Hamer in the Winona jail.

As the bus pulled into Canton we passed a poultry plant with loading docks crammed with eighteen-wheelers and parking lots filled with pickup trucks. In a run-down trailer park for immigrant poultry workers less than a block away, there was no traffic and nothing was stirring. Fear still hung over the battered mobile homes due to ICE Raids two months earlier that had swept up 680 mostly Central American workers and separated parents from children. A team of public interest lawyers coordinated by MCJ’s Amelia McGowan has stepped forward to assist these workers, some of whom speak obscure Mayan dialects, before hostile immigration courts over the coming years. To learn more, please watch this video from MCJ’s dinner (password ICERaid 2019).

Inside the fellowship hall at Winona Baptist Church, we shared tables with family and friends of Curtis Flowers, an African American man whose sixth conviction for capital murder at a nearby furniture store was reversed four months ago by the U. S. Supreme Court  due to pervasive racial bias in jury selection. The Supreme Court looked beyond pretextual explanations to the extensive pattern of exclusion of black prospective jurors to reverse Flowers’ conviction. We heard Rob McDuff, director of MCJ’s George Riley Impact Litigation Initiative, preview how to meet the challenges of a seventh trial. Rob’s colleague Alison Steiner, who had represented Flowers in an earlier trial, described how on the first day of jury selection she approached the courthouse to face a long row of white men standing outside, side-by-side, arms crossed, glaring at her. This was her jury pool.  The looming question is whether the racism in criminal justice faced by Fannie Lou Hamer and Euvester Simpson in 1963 would be overcome in 2019 as Curtis Flowers prepares for an unprecedented seventh capital murder trial.

At Tougaloo College, cradle of the Mississippi Civil Rights movement, we took part in a panel to help celebrate Tougaloo’s 150th anniversary. From the pews of the tranquil Woodworth Chapel we heard veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights movement tell their stories of personal transformation.  Euvester Simpson described being arrested in Winona with colleagues as they returned from an out-of-state voting rights training.  She was jailed and menaced but then returned to her cell where she comforted a badly battered Fannie Lou Hamer with a washcloth and a softly sung spiritual. Margaret Kibbee told how she saved up money as an 18 year old to travel from San Francisco to Mississippi and participate in voter registration and legal services in Sunflower County.  Flonzie Brown Wright recalled how being turned down and insulted by a hostile voter registrar set her on her course to become Mississippi’s first black female elected official. Rev. Ed King, co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, offered a history of the founding of Tougaloo College by the American Missionary Association. Hollis Watkins, a renowned Mississippi voting rights leader,  led us in “Walk With Me Lord,” a spiritual that Ms. Simpson sang with Ms. Hamer in the Winona jail.

As the bus pulled into Canton we passed a poultry plant with loading docks crammed with eighteen-wheelers and parking lots filled with pickup trucks. In a run-down trailer park for immigrant poultry workers less than a block away, there was no traffic and nothing was stirring. Fear still hung over the battered mobile homes due to ICE Raids two months earlier that had swept up 680 mostly Central American workers and separated parents from children. A team of public interest lawyers coordinated by MCJ’s Amelia McGowan has stepped forward to assist these workers, some of whom speak obscure Mayan dialects, before hostile immigration courts over the coming years. To learn more, please watch this video from MCJ’s dinner (password ICERaid 2019).

Inside the fellowship hall at Winona Baptist Church, we shared tables with family and friends of Curtis Flowers, an African American man whose sixth conviction for capital murder at a nearby furniture store was reversed four months ago by the U. S. Supreme Court  due to pervasive racial bias in jury selection. The Supreme Court looked beyond pretextual explanations to the extensive pattern of exclusion of black prospective jurors to reverse Flowers’ conviction. We heard Rob McDuff, director of MCJ’s George Riley Impact Litigation Initiative, preview how to meet the challenges of a seventh trial. Rob’s colleague Alison Steiner, who had represented Flowers in an earlier trial, described how on the first day of jury selection she approached the courthouse to face a long row of white men standing outside, side-by-side, arms crossed, glaring at her. This was her jury pool.  The looming question is whether the racism in criminal justice faced by Fannie Lou Hamer and Euvester Simpson in 1963 would be overcome in 2019 as Curtis Flowers prepares for an unprecedented seventh capital murder trial.

(photo: James Tucker)

Shortly before we arrived in Greenwood, housing law director John Jopling invited members of the bus to meet inside to submit comments in support of a crucial fair housing doctrine known as “disparate impact” that is under attack by federal officials. This important doctrine enables a court to pierce a racially-netrual explanation for an action or rule if the plaintiff can show that it more adversely impacts racial minorities and other protected classes than white residents. Under the gaze of artist William Dunlap’s hound dog in the lobby of the Alluvian Hotel, MCJ staff and guests worked together to send off individualized comments in support of the disparate impact rule before gathering for dinner.

(Photo: author)

The next morning at Graball Landing near Glendora, we walked past a tall sign to the banks of the slow-moving Tallahatchie River where the body of young Emmett Till is believed to have been recovered 64 years ago. Earlier that morning at Little Mt. Zion Church, Rev. Wheeler Parker, Till’s older cousin, recounted how on that long ago summer Emmett fell victim to racist white vigilantes for having crossed segregationist codes of conduct.  On this morning, an African American sheriff escorted a long caravan of vehicles down a dirt road between the tree-lined riverbank and acres of tilled farmland so that over one hundred guests could gather to commemorate the River Site. This is the fourth sign, as previous signs were shot up or thrown into the river.  Rev. Parker reminded the guests not to give up, noting that “Faith is not shaken by delays nor circumstances.” To ensure that locations tied to the Emmett Till saga are accorded the historic protection they deserve, MCJ, Latham and Watkins, and Manatt Phelps and Phillips are working with the Emmett Till Interpretive Center to add these sites into the National Park Service system.

Two weeks after our visit, as if to prove how necessary it remains to commemorate Till’s legacy, a handful of white supremacists bearing neo-confederate flags posed in the same location for a video protest of the sign and indignantly asked, “Where are the white people?” Their activities were captured on surveillance video and reported to news outlets by the Till Interpretive Center. The public outcry was immediate and overwhelmingly in support of preserving Emmett Till’s legacy.

(photo: James Tucker)

In our Indianola office, Yumekia Jones co-hosted a series of panels on MCJ’s work in affordable housing, restorative justice in the classroom, and high school civil rights bus tours. John Jopling and Kiara Taite described how we partnered with Delta Design Build Workshop and Hope Enterprise to help a client with an unusual story. A snake crawled inside Lillie Calbert’s home and so she evacuated and stayed with friends. That night, her house exploded due to a systems malfunction. Hope Enterprise helped her get into a Katrina cottage in the same subdivision and MCJ has assisted with title work as Delta Design Build makes renovations. Yumeka introduced a panel of educators from Sunflower County Consolidated School District who described how a cooperative partnership enabled students and faculty to fundamentally change school discipline processes. And finally, Yumekia shared a program she managed that enabled over 100 busloads of high school students to accompany Mississippi Civil Rights Veterans on a tour of Mississippi’s new Civil Rights Museum.

There was more to cover, but we had to move ahead to the B. B. King Museum. We capped off the trip with a delicious catfish buffet and some homegrown blues from Big Time Rhythm & Blues Band at Club Ebony, with soaring guest vocals on Mary J. Blige’s “I’m Going Down” by one of Yumekia’s education panelists, Tina Steele.

(Photo: James Tucker)

As our bus returned to Jackson, it seemed clear that our guests had undergone a deep and powerful experience. We heard directly from the same civil rights veterans who guided museum tours in our high school civil rights project. We saw the deplorable living conditions for undocumented poultry workers represented by the ICE Raid coalition led by MCJ’s immigration attorney. We reflected on the role of race in criminal justice in the upcoming trial of Curtis Flowers with his current and past lead counsel. We took action in support of a key housing discrimination principle. In perhaps the most moving moment of the tour, we joined over a hundred people at a remote riverbank where relatives rededicated a sign in commemoration of the Emmett Till tragedy. We heard about MCJ’s work in education, affordable housing, and civil rights history. And we stepped into the legacy of Mississippi’s ambassador of the blues, B. B. King through a tour of his museum and a dinner and dance at his nightclub. Our memories of these and other events will weave the past and present together to help us better understand the difficult but rewarding challenges of our work going forward.

Reilly Morse,

President/CEO, Mississippi Center for Justice