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Last summer we went south, to Mississippi.
Mississippi is the state where the color line was strongest.
Race defined Mississippi: its politics, its economy, its future, its past.

I was reminded
how rural the state was, and is.
King Cotton and Jim Crow once ruled Mississippi

We asked people to recall the past.
We sought their memories,
and their judgments.

In the languid beauty, one could almost forget history:

This was where a 14 year old black boy

visiting from Chicago
whistled at a white woman
in 1955.

Emmett Till.

They took a fan from this gin
wrapped it round his neck
Threw his body in this swamp.

If you ask, anyone will tell you

The memory of Emmett Till haunts this place.

It hovers over the fields
behind the white picket fences of the lovely towns.
Beneath the surface of Main Street
race still runs like a current,
charging the imagination.

Racism threw up, in the white imagination,
grotesque visions of blackness.

Faulkner once said,
"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

In Mississippi, the past haunts the present.

At crucial times in history the past --
the legacy of slavery,
the Civil War,
the Indian removal --

like the kudzu
threatens to smother the living things
over which it climbs.

Race remains a key divide, the color line has not dissolved.

We are trying to understand
how people whose lives have been saturated
with race
understand race
and difference.


Chinese American Grocers - Louise, Mississippi

Hoover Lee

Former Mayor


H: Everyone knew where their line was

Freeda Lee

Southern Baptist

F: They felt that this was their land and their country and we were just crowding them or stepping in. They didn't mind us being there, but they don't want us to step up ahead of them.

Grocery Store Owners

Louise, Mississippi

H: I knew what I could, what my limits were. I knew if I stepped too far, I knew what the consequence would be. So, I mean, if you knew that, you don't do it.

F: So they were building a swimming pool there and Daddy, back there in the 1950s 200 dollars was some money. And when they did, came around, his donation was 200, whatever, for the building of the swimming pool. Which was great, I mean, it was a community project. Well, a day or two before the pool was to be opened we went to Memphis to get our swimming outfits or whatever we needed and when we got home, Daddy said,"You're not to go to the swimming pool." A group of whites had said that they did not want us there. And they had offered Daddy his donation back but Daddy said,"No, just keep it."

Foreigners here in Mississippi

H: I felt like the Chinese sort of had to be on a neutral ground because after all we are foreigners here in Mississippi and when you're in Rome you do like the Romans.

F: Whenever I was with the American way I was American way, when I was with the Chinese way I would be with the Chinese way. I could speak Chinese to Mother's friends and I would be American when I was with my American friends. It didn't, I could keep them separate.

H: So, when you growing up young in Mississippi you sort of do like the majority, or the minority at that particular time, of the people and we weren't here to do any shaking or causing any problems

F: Like I said, it was out of the question for us to marry a white or even date one because at that time it was a Mississippi law, but my parents wouldn't permit it.

H: And it was unthinkable for a Chinese to marry a Caucasian, you know not a Jewish. To a certain extent, the white people had control but if you didn't I would say stay in line, where were you going to go. We didn't have food stamps back in those days. Everybody was looking for food. You know.


Founder of an all white private school. Walls, Tunica County, Mississippi

Betty Furniss

Walls. Mississippi

J: Can you imagine what your parents reaction would have been if you had wanted to date either a Chinese boy? Would that have been ok?


White private school

B: No no that would not have been ok

J: Or a Black boy?

B: No no, would not have been ok.

Christian homemaker

J: Would your folks have felt the same way about an Italian?

B: Yes.

Southern Baptist

J: And what about with Jews?

B: No he would not, he would object to that also.

B: My daddy and mother always said that God made all the people, made the different races, and if He hadn't have wanted you to be separate He would have made us all one race. So therefore we just naturally knew that the Chinese people were Chinese, their culture was different. Black people, the black people was black and their culture was different. The white's culture is different. All the races' culture is different. People that come from India, they have a different culture. The Japanese has a different culture. And they felt like God made the races and God doesn't make a mistake. If the mistake is made we make it by trying to undo what He has done.

1940's Rural Mississippi Childhood

Would you believe that we were sharecroppers whenever I was coming up. And we farmed. I even drove the tractor.

I loved our community because we was such loving people. Everybody looked out after one another, you know. If even, regardless of who was in need, there was people there to help. So. And even whenever my mother would cook, the people, whether they were black or white that was in the field working? She would cook enough for them too. We were neighbors of the black families and I learned quite a bit of their little ditties about, rhymes and dances and things like that, and we always called their mother, to us, was Auntie. Auntie. And we'd always go to her house if we wanted some good cornbread and buttermilk. They would eat at our house as well as we'd eat at their house. We were just kindly buddies.

Memphis, Tennessee, 1960s

We had planned to have our children educated in our neighborhood. And, uh, shortly after this though, this is when the government decided that they was wanting to, um, to integrate the schools. Well that was fine with me. I was all for that because they were government schools. The black schools were the government's and the white schools were the government's. So they wanted to combine them and I felt like it was for, uh, monetarily saving money and it might have been a great thing to do. But that didn't end there. They came in in a few months or a year with great big yellow buses wanting to transfer the students to different schools, out of our neighborhood now, just for the sake of integration.

No race should dominate another race. And that's what was happening in Tennessee. The blacks were more or less overruling or whatever of the white race. It wasn't a healthy atmosphere with the black and white. Because it seemed like that since the government gave the blacks the kind of authority to go ahead with the integration they kindly took advantage of it, kindly. When it comes to the crime, the rapes, the robbery, the carjacking, I blame our government for every bit of it. It's one thing to be integrated, and it's another to be pushed and pushed and pushed until you think wait a minute, now, let's hold back here. We're all in here to get an education. We're not here to control and to get power and to me they were wanting control and power and it was unfair to the whites in this case.

We are different. I don't care what anybody says, we are different. The white are different than the black. Lets don't try to put them together saying they're all the same; they're not. We are, our cultures are so strong, till there is I know, I have even talked to black teachers and they tell me that, that they agree with me that the cultures should be separated because you can get along better. They even tell me that they, that the black teachers should be the ones teaching the black students because they know how to communicate with the black students more than they do the white students and vice versa.


Civil Rights Leader and cafe owner, Mccomb Mississippi

Alyene Quinn

McComb, Mississippi

J: I remember your restaurant

A: yes

Civil Rights Activist

Restaurant Owner


J: And one of the things that I remember that made such an impression on me, it may have been the only time you and I talked, but you were behind the counter

A: yes


J: And you reached down inside your, your dress and you had a pistol that kept there

A: (laughs)

J: Can you tell me about the time that you, about that period, why you carried a pistol?

A. Well, I always carry a gun because you never knew who was going to attack you, you know. I didn't carry it to, just to, I didn't want to murder anyone, but I carried it for my protection, since I was a lady and going to and from work all time of night and early in the morning. So that's why I carried a gun with me.

Yes, they bombed Society Hill, well they bombed Society Hill the same night they bombed my house. And I think it was Sweet Home Baptist Church and Mt. Vernon Baptist Church. It was quite a few churches got bombed.

J: Do you know who did that?

A: Well, I don't know who did that, but I know who bombed my house and the Society Hill Church.

J: Was it people who were members of an organization?

A: Yes

J: Which, which one was it?

A: The KKs

J: It was the KKK?

A: Yes. And then they had the White Knights, and they had different organizations, but it was the KKs was really the one that did all the dirty work. Everybody was just afraid. You wanted to go some place, everybody was, you hardly would catch people out at night, you know, because they was afraid, they didn't know what would happen. They would take people out and they would beat them up and, just whatever they decided to do to you, that's what they would do.

The only time I was afraid was after the house got bombed. Jackie was nine, she was nine in September, the night they threw the bomb I gave her a birthday party. The cake was all everywhere and everything. So when I came back from Jackson that night the curtains were open and the light was on. So that was why they knew where the children were sleeping.

You wake up in the night with 14 sticks of dynamite thrown at your head and everything was just gone, dusty, and they couldn't see, and it was just, it was just something that I, I just didn't think the children could go through with, but they did all right.

Because I might have did something. Because I bought a rifle, a 30 ought 6, and one of them threatened me about it. Because my granddaughter was born in the hospital, integrated the hospital, and they told me that I "have had it" and I guess it was some of the nurse's husbands because they had to tell them, he said that "You have had it." Said, "You have got bombed, and you got burnt out," he said, "but we're going to get you." I said, "Now listen, I have a 30-ought 6 and I'm happy on the trigger." I said, "If you ever pass by here and stop," I said, "I'm afraid I'm going to let you down." And I meant that.


A: I used to feel like, that I, I just thought maybe that white people, I, I just couldn't stand the sight of them. And after my house was bombed, and you know, once upon a time I'd have a butcher knife at every door so if someone tried to come in well I just use that butcher knife--that was my mind. But since then, after my house was bombed, and I began to look at how God had saved my children and all that I have been through with, He saved us. And I said, why should I hate people when God has His hand, he has a hand in those things and He sits high but He looks low


A: I feel like that everybody is, you might be different color, but you all the same. There shouldn't be any races. Now you know we're all different color but we're all the same, we're just as one person.


legislator, plantation owner, and white supremacist. Oktoc Mississippi

Horace Harned

Plantation Owner

Oktoc, Mississippi

H: It was said there were certain big well-proportioned male slaves that were sent around from plantation to plantation to breed up the stock.

State Legislator

H. They called them breeders

White Citizens Council

Southern Baptist

H. Some of the women were breeders. And of course it became profitable, instead of buying slaves – the South quit buying slaves, they raised them. Slaves were the most important thing on the farm, the plantation, because that's where most of the money was. Land was cheap. Housing was cheap, building houses. But slaves weren't cheap at all. And a good slave family, a man and wife and two or three kids was up in the two, three thousand dollar range. And a good slave, top notch slave was priced at around twelve hundred dollars when the best race horse or the best saddle horse was maybe a hundred dollars and a cow about ten dollars and a pig one or two dollars. See, that's the price structure at that time.

Before the War of Yankee Aggression the Southerners kind of cultivated the blacks and were bringing them into their culture system and worshipping with them and influencing them. But then when the Reconstruction period came about the mission of the Reconstruction government was to separate the races. They made them leave the churches. They tried to break off all relationship between the white and the black.

The slaves that they had here on this place were kept in the families. They bought the families together, they kept the families together, they went to church and worshipped with them in the same church. It was a close relationship there. It's hard for us to understand. We can't understand it because we're not in their shoes.

J: What makes different races?

H: The Lord made them different.

J: Are Jews a different race?

H: No, they're not. They're a different religion.

J: Are Chinese a different race?

H: Oh, yeah.

J: Are Italians a different race?

H: Their culture's different. I don't say They're not a different race. They're not a different race. I think the Italians and the French and the Germans and the Russians too, all, white Americans, they're all the same race. But, of course, the blacks are a different race and the Indians are a different race and the Chinese are a different race and then you've got the Aborigines in Australia.

J: How do you distinguish one race from another?

H: Well, by their char..facial ... physical characteristics is the main thing, their physical characteristics.

The good Good Lord charged the Jewish race to be pure and of course they didn't and he punished them [in Biblical times]. And He had his reasons and I don't question them. I believed in that, in racial purity. I surely did. And I still do.

We had one of the most prominent citizens in town here, he had a white family and he had some blacks on the side. And he took care of his blacks. He set his black son up in business on Main Street, right here.

I'm not going to say it was accepted but it was practiced that, there might be a high yellow black woman in the yard. She might be the cook. Of course, they're blaming Thomas Jefferson with some of that. And actually, that may be true. And he's the only president I have any direct relation to. Collaterally, we have some of the same genes. And he's one of my favorite American heroes, Thomas Jefferson. And if he, after his wife died, if he cohabited with an attractive black female there, why you know that, that was winked at.


H. We have universal suffrage now and I just never did believe universal suffrage would work to the best interest of everyone. And I think that the main thing we need to keep in mind in politics and government is: the most important civil right is the right to own property. Property rights, if we stick with property rights we'll be a free country right on.

Now, I'm a kind of an outsider in most thinking in this day and time. They don't listen to me any more, but during the 60s my position was the prevalent one throughout the whole South


Alyene Quinn

I feel like that everybody is, you might be different color, but you are the same. There shouldn't be any races. Now you know we're all different color but we're all the same, we're just as one person.

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