I walked down to the Mississippi riverfront, symbolic halfway point of my cross-country journey.
Went over to the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. Their exhibition was created by the Smithsonian and it’s excellent. It takes the history of Memphis’s music from the 1920s through the 1970s. They have enough musical selections to listen to for hours, and a great audio tour.
One of the points they make is that rock and roll was about the confluence of black and white influences, and was made possible due to social change (more mixing of the races) and technological change (radio, records, jukeboxes, television). Radio and records bypassed segregation.
Crossed the Mississippi into Arkansas and got to Little Rock.
Took a walk through an industrial area to the Rail Yard, an indoor/outdoor bar/restaurant. Or as they call it “a rolling backyard party.”
Had a pulled pork sandwich and stovetop beans. The beans were awesome, the pork sandwich very good.
Had breakfast at Yazoo Pass. Another great recommendation from Chuck, my host at the Travelers Hotel. Had a delicious omelet and cappuccino. And an OMG cinnamon roll.
Couldn’t leave Clarksdale without visiting the crossroads, where according to legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for prowess on the guitar.
Entered Tennessee – state 14 of the trip.
Got to Memphis after a rainy drive. Went to the Hampton Inn Beale Street. There was a sign at check-in saying “If you’re looking for a quiet place, this isn’t it, because this is the entertainment district. Eat, drink, and boogie and repeat.”
Went to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. That’s where Dr. Martin Luther King was fatally shot on April 4, 1968. A nonprofit group saved the site from foreclosure in 1982.
I’ve been to a few civil rights museums since starting my trip. This one is an extensive, detailed exhibit of what it took, state by state, month by month, incident by incident to fight and win the struggle in the 1950s and 60s. It shows how many people, and how much time, and how much work, was needed in the civil rights struggle. It wasn’t won in a day.
“There is no American culture without Africa” – wall text
“Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement, which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.” – Pres. Lyndon Johnson to Congress, discussing the Voting Rights Act, March 15, 1965
The second part of the exhibit, in the building the fatal shot was fired from, includes some of the evidence.
I see the civil rights struggle as continuing. I’ve copied some wall text from the museum that sketches out a program for the current day.
We are challenged to…
address income disparities between people of white, African-American, Latino, and other backgrounds;
bridge the persistent wage gap between men and women;
make quality public education available to all elementary and secondary students in the United States;
safeguard rural and urban environments;
end discrimination against persons on the basis of sexual orientation, disability, religion, gender, or race;
stop unfair lending and other practices that limit economic opportunity;
raise standards of public and private housing for the poor;
halt the disproportionate sentencing of African-Americans in the criminal justice system;
end brutality and profiling by law enforcement officials against members of racial and ethnic minorities;
elect and appoint more women and people of color to the highest levels of government, including political offices and cabinet posts.
I left the museum after several hours. The rain had resumed in earnest, and I got wet on the way back.
Later, I took a walk down Beale St.
Every place has a neon sign and loud music, some live, some recorded, spills into the street.
I visited the lobby of the iconic Peabody Hotel. The building dates to 1925. (The Twenties was a great era for hotel building.)
The Graduate Hotel in Oxford — the only hotel I know of that plays The Smiths over its sound system. And has a pink-floored elevator.
I went to Big Bad Breakfast. Diner but a bit precious, in a good way.
The South has soul and style. It’s deeply American. Mississippi is my favorite southern state so far. I love how the state worships its great musicians and writers.
Stopped at a Waffle House. My first time ever at one. It was not good.
At around 1 PM I crossed the Tallahatchie bridge. I’m in the Delta now. And it’s June 5, only two days after the song (“Ode to Billie Joe”) took place.
Said Bobbie Gentry of her megahit:
“The story of Billie Joe has two underlying themes. First, the illustration of a group of people’s reactions to the life and death of Billie Joe, and its subsequent effect on their lives. Second, the obvious gap between the girl and her mother, when both women experience a common loss (first, Billie Joe and, later, Papa), and yet Mama and the girl are unable to recognize their mutual loss or share their grief.” (Source: once again, Wikipedia)
Bobbie Gentry has been retired and out of public view since 1981.
Got to Clarksdale, a town that claims to have live music 365 nights a year. The small downtown seemed empty, but as I later learned, there’s a lot going on. Downtown has many historical markers and signs commemorating musicians.
I like the Travelers Hotel lobby. The Travelers is a super-funky boutique hotel with some high-tech touches.
No television in the room. Bravo! No clock either.
Walked over to the Delta Blues Museum and viewed its vast collections.
Spent a good deal of time sitting in my hotel lobby, natural light pouring in the front windows.
To a restaurant called Hooker Grocer. Loved the atmosphere, so laid back and relaxed. Missing Mary Beth, I bet she would love this place.
This is sophisticated food in the guise of a homey joint. Pimento cheese rice balls were amazing. My entree was tuna, just OK, though its vegetables (Hoppin’ John) were good.
Weather nicer today, cloudy and cooler. Driving west, and it’s getting more hilly. I entered Mississippi, the 13th state I’ve visited on this trip.
Oxford, home of the U. of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”) is leafy and beautiful. I got to the Graduate Hotel. Love the lobby with its pink floors.
This hotel is designed to a fare-thee-well.
I’m staying in the historical town center – it’s very charming.
The square was burned by Union troops during the Civil War and rebuilt after.
Went to Square Books, a great bookstore. They have an extensive Faulkner section. He lived here for most of his life and is kind of a patron saint around here. Oxford is my kind of town.
Took a walk to the campus, as far as the statue of James Meredith.
Meredith, an African American, applied to Ole Miss in 1962. His entrance was barred by both university officials and the state’s governor. The governor vowed to disobey a federal court order to admit Meredith. The Kennedy Administration was determined that he be enrolled.
On October 1, a violent segregationist mob of 3,000 rioted on campus in an attempt to bar Meredith. After a night, the disturbance was put down by 30,000 federal troops. Two bystanders were killed and 300 injured, including federal marshals. Meredith enrolled and graduated. Troops protected him the entire time he attended. (Source: Wikipedia).
Another historic marker said that the first buildings on campus were constructed by slaves. The enslaved did both unskilled and skilled labor, including masonry, carpentry, woodcarving, blacksmithing, and making bricks.
Neither fraternities nor football were important on NYU’s campus when I was an undergrad there. But here, they are.
Monday morning, 8:20 AM. Plenty of cars but almost no one walking on the streets.
I have a theory about why the downtowns are deserted. It’s because life is lived in the suburbs, not in the city. And what life there is in the city is not downtown. And in some cities, like Montgomery, the gentrification of downtown is not complete. It’s underway but it’s not complete.
I walked over to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It was built by the Equal Justice Institute and opened in April 2018. It’s set on a hill.
The memorial had a shattering effect on me. It’s a forest of corten steel columns, one for each county where a racial terror lynching took place from 1877 to 1950. Each column is engraved with the names of the lynching victims in that county and the dates the lynchings took place.
Lynchings were done for all sorts of reasons and justifications including standing around a white neighborhood, “scaring” a white girl, voting, passing a note to a white woman, attaining economic success, protesting other lynchings, and many others. They were often “festive” events attended by hundreds or thousands of people and documented with photos.
The columns go on and on over all four sides of the memorial. As you go further, the floor slopes down so the columns are higher and higher until the columns tower over your head.
The hushed atmosphere is very much like the official Israeli Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem.
There were some African Americans lynched in the north and west too, and their counties are included. Orange County, New York is among them.
Because of the memorial, the lynchings have come out of the shadows and into light. As part of the research for the memorial, EJI identified 800 more lynchings than had previously been recognized.
The memorial is everything you have read. Powerful, dignified, effective, and appropriate. Beautifully designed and carried out.
Blood drenches this fair nation.
Went to the Legacy Museum, also established by EJI. Its topic is the history of racial inequality in the United States, from the importation of slaves through the present day. At the end it pointedly raises questions about the present time. Should we abolish the death penalty? Should we spend more on rehabilitating prisoners?
Went to Montgomery’s riverfront. To get there, you go through a pedestrian tunnel under active rail tracks.
I went to the Kress on Dexter, a former department store touted as part of a downtown revival. It’s mostly empty. They haven’t rented much of the space.
Drove to Birmingham, a short drive. At 3 PM I got to my hotel, the Hampton Inn Tutwiler, a grande dame built in 1914.
Walked over to the 16th Street Baptist Church where on Sunday, September 15, 1963, four girls aged 11 to 14 were killed in a bombing by white supremacists. The bombing was one of the events that increased national awareness of the civil rights movement.
Civil rights is an unfinished revolution.
Had dinner at Saw’s Soul Kitchen, a renowned six-table hole in the wall. Had the sweet tea chicken sandwich and fries. The sandwich was fantastic.
Still in Athens, I was looking for a Starbucks and unwittingly drove onto a deserted U of Georgia campus. I parked right next to the football stadium — as lavish as an NFL one. Starbucks turned out to be in the student center and was closed.
Going through Atlanta, I was on a highway that had six lanes in each direction.
Later, I was looking for a picnic spot so of course searched for one on Google Maps. I found something labeled “Tinsley Mill Ruins,” and drove toward it, but the directions led to a cul de sac in a private community. I was sure Google was mistaken, but then I saw a sign saying “pedestrian walk path.” I followed the path and sure enough, there was a beautiful picnic spot with some structures that could have been ruins. I thought someone was going to evict me at any moment, but people kept passing in golf carts and no one did anything except wave.
I entered Alabama, State #12. I gained one hour as I went to Central Time. I’m in Alabama, a state I’ve never been in before.
I got to Montgomery. Saw almost no one on the streets. (That’s turning into a theme of my visits to southern cities, except for Savannah.) Went to my hotel, the Hampton Inn. The lobby is beautiful. It’s an old hotel, the Greystone, renovated. It was built in 1927. The hotel staff were really nice.
I went out. It was hot but bearable. A lot of things are closed on Sunday afternoon.
Went into The Alley, renovated industrial buildings with restaurants and bars.
I had a beer at Sa Za’s bar in the alley. It was nice to just sit and drink a beer and catch the occasional breeze. There wasn’t much else to do in downtown Montgomery.
To get ahead of schedule a little, I took one day instead of two days to go from Jax Beach to Athens. I also tried “shunpiking,” that is avoiding Interstate highways.
The shunpiking worked out well. I love seeing assemblies (those groups of highway shields) and I love a JCT sign. And seeing towns, seeing the way people live, serendipity and the unexpected. It does take a little bit longer, but it’s not as nerve-wracking.
I crossed back into Georgia and back-roaded my way to the university town of Athens, known for its music scene and origin of REM and the B-52s. Athens is set on a hill and has a funky, mysterious vibe with disused-looking railroad tracks through town. It’s a visual equivalent of the darkness of Murmur.
A restful day. I drove down from Savannah to Jacksonville Beach to visit two more old friends, Phil and Susan. They’re retired. They have a big, affectionate dog named Cash (after Johnny). There were no places on my list to visit there. They took me to the ocean beach. Mostly we just sat in their comfortable house talking.
We walked Cash and they showed me the osprey tree.
It was really nice to see them after such a long time.
After some great Louisianan coffee, said a fond goodbye to Ethan and Allison.
Into Georgia – State #10! I drove to my Savannah hotel, the Hampton Inn Historic District, an old building beautifully renovated.
Savannah seems like a much more livable city then Charleston, or is it just that the crazy heat has moderated a little today? There are more people on the streets and it just seems more lived in.
Went to the Grey Market, a New York – Southern fusion lunch counter.
My friend Dani arrived. I’ve known her since I was 22. We were close in the exciting days of New York’s underground music revolution, but in the last few decades we’d seen one another briefly or not at all. She has deep family roots in Savannah.
She caught me up on four decades which included earning a degree from the Iowa Writers Workshop, a PhD in literary criticism in Denver, published works, teaching English at college and high school and much else. I feel lucky to know her.
We went over to the Telfair Museum for a small exhibition of Rembrandt etchings, Rembrandt and the Jewish Experience.
To the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum. Gilbert was a pastor and president of the Savannah branch of the NAACP.
What life was like for African Americans in Savannah into the 1960s. Humiliations that extended into every aspect of life. Everything was segregated. Churches, schools, drinking fountains, restaurants, buses, train waiting rooms, movie theaters. At one prominent department store, Levy’s, they were permitted to buy things but not to eat at the lunch counter.
The exhibit continued with the civil rights struggle in Savannah, which included sit-ins, demonstrations, mass meetings and economic boycotts. It met with some success.
The museum is in what once was the heart of a thriving black commercial neighborhood, demolished in the 1960s to build Interstate 16 through Savannah. This pattern was, sadly and criminally, repeated in many US cities, where the land chosen for interstate highways was usually minority neighborhoods.
In the evening I was grateful that the temperature had gone from hot to warm. Walked to the restaurant Husk Savannah, elegant but welcoming in the southern manner. The cuisine is reinterpreted, locally sourced Southern ingredients and the food was excellent.
Paid a visit to my friend Ethan, an old colleague from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s web site. Really glad to see him. He got older. Well, it’s been 15 years.
Drove downtown to visit Fort Sumter, where the Civil War started. Fort Sumter is on a tiny artificial island. The only way to go there is to take a boat tour that allows you one hour on it.
The fort was built by slaves (assisted by some federal contractors), who among other things made seven million bricks.
Confederate forces bombarded the fort in April, 1861 because it was a federal installation that in their view now belonged to South Carolina. There were only 85 federal troops there, surrounded on all sides by Confederate troops and artillery. The Union troops surrendered after one day of heavy bombardment.
In a talk, a ranger discussed the views of some prominent Southerners in 1861. Some said the north wouldn’t fight. Others thought the war would be bloodless. At least one predicted the disaster that was coming.
At war’s end the fort had been reduced to rubble by a two-year Union siege. It was partly rebuilt and remained an active military installation until 1947, when it was turned over to NPS. It took NPS more than 12 years to restore the fort to approximately its pre-Civil War condition. It opened in 1961 for the centennial of the battle.
On returning to the mainland I visited the Old Slave Mart Museum. It’s the site of an actual slave market, and a museum of slavery. It gave a detailed view of the slave trade and its people, sellers, buyers, and slaves.
I walked through Charleston’s Historic District. The buildings are very well preserved and cared for.
I asked Lyft to pick me up. The driver showed me the Emanuel AME Church, where a gunman killed nine people in 2015. It’s right in the middle of town.
Ethan and Allison have a tiny farm in their backyard. Vegetables, chickens, and bees.
They took me to a great southern style restaurant, The Glass Onion.
After dinner they took me to Folly Beach, Charleston’s oceanfront.