Tennessee to Mississippi - Where civil rights history meets rock ‘n’ soul

Fifty years after Martin Luther King was assassinated, new museums and memorials are highlighting the civil rights movement, writes Isabel Conway, as she travels from Tennessee to Mississippi.

Bertha Looney’s name is not found on the roll call of American civil rights martyrs and activists who helped bring about change in a society relentlessly clinging to white supremacy, and segregation in America’s Deep South. Yet, in her own modest way, she was a trail blazer.

We meet inside the National Civil Rights Museum that incorporates the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King JR was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee 50 years ago, on April 4, 1968. “I have a dream,” Dr King famously said. The leader of the Civil Rights Movement’s dream was that all individuals, regardless of who they were, or where they were from, would be given the unalienable rights of life, equality, liberty, dignity, and the pursuit of happiness.

Imagine what it must have been like to be Bertha Looney back in 1958, then a teenage high school graduate with top grades, and eligible to study at a State University reluctantly forced by law to de-segregate and admit the first black students that same semester.

“My mother’s white employers showered me with congratulatory gifts after seeing my photo in the newspaper, they naturally assumed I would go to a black university. When it transpired I’d be going to their daughter’s college they wanted to fire my mother; you see it was impossible for Madam’s daughter to share the same classroom as the black maid’s girl.”

Worse was to come. Bertha, a smartly dressed septuagenarian who taught English for over 50 years, tells how she and seven other African American students arrived on campus with armed guards for protection. Trail blazers in their community, Bertha and her fellow students were handed down the Dean’s restrictions as soon as they passed through the college gates.

“We would be seated in class by 7.55am and we had to be off campus by noon to avoid any out of class contact with white students; visits to the restaurant or library, physical education or any occasions of interracial ‘mingling’ was forbidden.” Was she frightened? “Oh lord, yes. I remember the relief of leaving that hostile environment and returning to civilisation at noon.” Later her fear centred on the dread of failing exams “and being put out of school, defeating the whole purpose of being there”.

Experiences like Bertha Looney’s abound to this day and interested travellers can hear the sad and shocking stories and also those of courage and resilience. There’s always a Blues venue and session to enjoy and ‘lighten the load’ down here too. Blues legends like Charley Patton, BB King, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters are among those celebrated forever along Mississippi’s Blues Trail. Memphis has the King of them all — Elvis — the Arcade restaurant where he slipped in the backdoor for breakfast of peanut butter and banana sandwiches — the highlight a short drive from town Graceland, the ultimate shrine to his memory flanked by a mall crammed with merchandising.

Touching the surface of civil rights tourism, during a recent week-long inspirational journey from Tennessee to Mississippi, I am shocked by the shortcomings of my own knowledge about atrocities of white supremacists and the long bloody battle for civil rights in the US. My generation learnt nothing in history classes about Jim Crow State and local laws enforcing racial segregation and tolerating and inciting horrific violence against African Americans.

For decades since the passing of the Civil Rights Act (a high density of suburban housing and social life remains segregated throughout the South) tourism in some Southern states conveniently papered over an ugly brutal past. Much of 300 years of slavery, the collapse of secession, the Confederacy and rise of the Klu Klux Klan was airbrushed.

Safe topics like country music, the magic of the Blues, hearty southern comfort food, the legacy of The King (Elvis), of Rock N Roll, were highlighted.

Now two outstanding new museums in the State’s capital, Jackson, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History focus attention on the past unafraid to confront the truth. Mississippi Freedom Trail Markers highlight the achievements of martyrs such as Medgar Evers, outspoken activist for voter registration and social justice.

Medgar was assassinated by a white supremacist Klansman in the driveway of his home — today a historic house museum — in a suburb of Jackson and it took 31 years and two trials with hung juries to convict his killer. Visitors hear how Medgar his wife Myrlie and their three young children slept on mattresses to be out of range of shooters firing through their custom built high windows.

During the Freedom Summer 1964 registering black voters became the pivotal goal in the Civil Rights movement, marked by protests and violent white supremacist attacks and police reprisals throughout the South. Medgar Evers vowed: “There’s something out here that I’ve got to do for my kids, and I’m not going to stop until I’ve done it”, haunting words inscribed on a wall of the powerful Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

Harriet Tubman, a Civil War era abolitionist, who helped many hundreds of enslaved people escape across the Mason-Dixon line to the North, an extraordinary figure of the past, was a name new to me on our journey.

The Deep South produced many more heroic African American women whose courage and bravery shaped the fight for equality and empowerment.

We hear of Harriet at Slave Haven on a wall covered in advertisements for slave auctions. A reward of $40,00 was put on her head. This small museum tells you unspeakable things about slavery and cruelty with a cellar that sheltered runaway slaves in the slave market district of Memphis near the banks of the Mississippi.

On a grey December day we stop in Ruleville heart of the Mississippi delta, its flatness broken by scatterings of dilapidated ‘shotgun’ shacks and Cotton Gins. Tiny puffballs of cotton speckle fields that seem to stretch forever across the sombre winter landscape. A day later these fields are blanketed in white following an unusual flurry of snow.

An inscription on Fannie Lou Hamer’s statue at Ruleville reads: “I’m never sure when I leave home whether I’ll make it back or not. But if I fall, I’ll fall five feet and four inches forward for freedom and I’m not backing off it!” For most of her life a share cropper (but a small step up from slavery) she was the first woman inducted on the Statewide Mississipi Freedom Trail to mark her brave relentless fight for the vote and equal rights.

Tennessee and Mississippi are rich in music, much of it closely woven into a past of crossroads juke joints where the share croppers gathered to sing the blues, dance and drink.

Beale Street’s blues venues, legendary recording studios like Stax, mecca for Soul music, now a museum and Sun Studio where the King Elvis Presley and greats like BB King, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and others were discovered draw millions of music fans to Memphis. It’s a short drive down the legendary Blues Highway 61 to another fantastic music themed attraction, the Grammy Museum in Cleveland, Mississippi.

The Memphis Smithsonian Rock ‘N’ Soul museum is outstanding. The executive director, John Doyle, is proud of his Irish heritage with people who emigrated from Dublin and Cork in the early 19th century. “Here in the south we often say Blues and Country music had a baby, and the baby was Rock ‘N ’Roll, the most international, culture-changing musical genre of all time,” he said.

Blues originated from the music slaves sang in unison while working in songs infused with lyrics about either celebration (freedom) or hardship.

“Both of these emotions fed right into the emerging Civil Rights struggles, both are joined; the Blues became an anthem of the American Civil Rights movement and white rebellious young American teenagers migrated toward this music that spoke of freedom and hardship; Rock ‘N’ Roll was born out of this rebelliousness.”

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King the talk again is of civil rights, its achievements, Dr King’s legacy. Questions about whether his killing was carried out by James Earl Ray singlehandedly or as part of an officially sanctioned plot will re-surface. What would he make of the Trump presidency and far right rhetoric, were he still alive, people will ask.

A towering slab of white marble — the statue of Martin Luther King himself — a memorial deliberately half- finished stands on Independence Ave, Washington DC inscribed with a line from his “I have a Dream” speech from 1963. Last summer, I stood there reading “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope”. The sculpture has been left unfinished, our guide that day pointed out “to show the struggle goes on”.

  • Why Go: Some of America’s most important civil rights history and sites are in Tennessee-Mississippi, including the National Civil Rights museum at Lorraine Motel (www.civilrightsmuseum.org). Memphis is home of the Blues on neon lit Beale Street, legendary Stax museum, Smithsonian Rock ‘N’ Soul museum (www.memphisrocknsoul.org) where you catch free shuttles to Graceland and Sun Studio where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and BB King first recorded. In Jackson don’t miss the new Civil Rights and History museums  (www.mscivilrights.org)
  • Getting there: Isabel travelled to Memphis via Newark from Dublin with United Airlines. Cheapest Economy return fares from €970. (www.united.com). See also www.bon-voyage.co.uk who offer fly drive8 night itineraries from €1873 staying at top hotels such as the luxury Peabody Hotel Memphis and Westin in Jackson, included in accommodation. Ireland based US specialists; American Holidays (www.americanholidays.com); Tour America (www.touramerica.ie); Sunway (www.sunway.ie) and Platinum Travel (www.platinumtravel.ie) who specialise in all things Deep South USA – all offer good value deals, including flights from Ireland car hire and accommodation. Further information see www.deep-south-usa.com www.memphistravel.com and www.visitmississippi.org

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