Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Mississippi Lessons

(Reporter's Note: My time as a reporter in Mississippi was a great learning experience for me and many of the people I met abhorred racism, this is about the ones who didn't)

"Mayor Polk can't be here this morning, apparently he ate too many watermelons," joked the owner of one of Jackson County's largest auto dealerships, as he held a microphone announcing the beginning the Pascagoula kids parade.  The car salesman was talking about Ira Polk, the recently hospitalized black mayor of Moss Point, Mississippi, a rugged little gulf coast town with a population that is about 70 percent African American.

Mayor Ira Polk
I stood under the towering oak tree, enveloped in the oppressive humidity, saddled with my heavy TV camera, and trapped by a web of black cables.  The armpits and neckline of my buttoned down shirt filled, every second with a measurable saturation of ever increasing sweat lines.  My eyes floated from one white face to another as each peach colored mouth in this upper middle class neighborhood, chuckled carelessly at the racist (and frankly stupid) joke.  I watched as the car huckster, started the parade, "OK Kids, let's get going!" he shouted into the mic and waved as he handed the black cylinder to someone and shuffled out from under the Magnolia tree, as little kids in cardboard boxes decorated as battleships and cars, began their slow shuffle around this well manicured neighborhood.

I awkwardly gathered up my camera, microphone, tripod and light stand, like a vacationer on the beach, trying to usher his cooler, lawn chair and umbrella off the sand before a midday rain shower floods his day.  "Can I talk to you?" I wheezed as I poked my sweaty finger at the wealthy car dealer, "Of course!" he chirped in the slow, friendly drawl I had grown to love during my time as a reporter in Mississippi during the early 90's  "Did you think that watermelon joke was funny?" I asked pointedly as I thrust my mic into his face, "uh, I..." he said caught off guard, expecting me to inquire about the how long the kids floats took to make, or if the heat would ruin the fun of the yearly  Mardi Gras tradition, "I was just pokin' fun?" he reply in a question, as I coiled up my mic cable, and headed back to my tiny office on Market street to broadcast a story about  racism in Mississippi.

As I slammed the trunk closed on the news car, and slid onto the scalding red interior of my 4 door Ford Tempo, within seconds the bag stuffed between the seats of the vehicle began to chip loudly, it was my boss on a new fangled cell phone, "Chris, I just talked to (can't remember the car dealer's name) and he says he made some off color jokes, that you might be putting on the air tonight," News Director Dave Vincent announced into the phone, "Now Chris," he continued  in his grandfatherly monotone, "I think it's pretty clear that these kind of comments happen down here, and although we can't condone them, I think broadcasting them, doesn't do any good for anyone."
Confederate Veteran's Cemetery (Beauvoir)

I'd only been in Pascagoula for a few months when I got a taste of how race and racism was treated in the South.

In Mississippi, as in much of the south, "The War Of Northern Aggression," is quietly revered around every corner.  Just 45 minutes West of Pascagoula, on Highway 90 is Beauvoir, the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.  The pristine shrine to the former head of the insurrection is a a museum honoring Davis and Confederate veterans.  The regal, plantation is dotted  with statues of Davis, a presidential library and a Confederate cemetery, often emblazoned, like a field of flowing raspberries, with blood red rebel flags.

Picture taken by MSSC, numbers indicate people on whom they spied
I remember meeting a group of black candidates for Pascagoula's city council at a small restaurant in town.  The place was actually a converted 2 bedroom house  which I don't think was properly licensed to serve food, but they did.  I remember the candidates, sitting in white plastic chairs, that you would typically find on the porch, and laughing and talking about their times marching with Martin Luther King, as the black owner of the makeshift restaurant would joke, and dish out plates of "slick'um" or boiled okra, to the candidates.  The half dozen or so men and women reminisced about their civil rights work and recent news about The Mississippi State Sovereignty Committee, a state agency founded in 1956, to counter a mounting federal push for civil rights.   The MSSC became a de facto spy agency with the purpose of keeping tabs on people in the movement for black rights, and keeping the state's anti-black Jim Crow laws in place. When the records of the agency were finally opened in 1998 it was revealed the covert agency had spied on as many as 87,000 people.  One of the agency's spies actually passed information about three civil rights workers in Philadephia, MS along to the Neshoba County Sheriff, who was later implicated in the murders of the three people.  The agency wasn't shuttered until 1977.  I was 7 years old at the time.  It still stuns me, just a few years before I turned 10 years old, the state of Mississippi was actively working to thwart racial progress.  Slavery ended 115 years ago, but efforts to keep some vestige of the institution in place, lasted into my lifetime.

Mississippi state flag
The candidates, also lamented about the Mississippi's state flag which to this day is still emblazoned with the rebel insignia.  "My great, grandpa was a slave AND he was forced to cook for rebel soldiers to defend that flag," one of the candidates, said in a ministerial baritone as he ate his pork sandwich, and ran his hand across the grey whiskers on his chin, "Every time I see it wave at the state capitol in Jackson," he said looking at his Styrofoam plate, "it hurts a little bit." he trails off as he pushes a hunk of escaped pork across his plate with a white plastic spoon.

As I sat in the small, hot converted restaurant, with a ceiling fan struggling to push the humid air around the small room, I watched the graying black man think about injustice.  I thought about the story about the racist car dealer that I never aired, and the regret I felt, but also the sad realization that in a state with a profound history of racism, my little story likely wouldn't have made much difference.


No comments:

Post a Comment