Reflections on a RARE Trip Through the Deep South

/ May 5, 2024

As my wife and I passed through Greenwood, Mississippi a few weeks ago while tracking down Delta blues history, we stopped to admire the massive, ornate Leflore County Courthouse.

Grave of Black Delta blues legend Robert Johnson

We had just visited the nearby grave site of the most influential of all Black blues legends, Robert Johnson – his songs were later made famous by such groups as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. We had also learned that the notorious murder in 1955 of Emmet Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, took place just north of Greenwood. Emmet was accused of making sexual advances to a white woman.

As we gazed at the Courthouse, our eyes lit on a tall monument in front of it. The monument was in honor of the “Sons and Daughters of the Southern Confederacy.”

Confederate monument in Greenwood, MS

The day before, in Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, we saw a similar monument dedicated to “The Patriotism of Confederate Soldiers” who “gave their lives in a just and holy cause.”

Confederate monument in Oxford, MS

We had seen such monuments in other towns and cities during our three-week car trip though the deep South. Encountering each one, in 2024, four years after America’s “reckoning with race,” provoked feelings of antipathy and disorientation.

I grew up in Seattle and have lived in the area most of my life. As the child of white liberal parents, I learned early to demonize the South. It seemed natural to chastise the region for its history of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, and, during my own boyhood, for its outbursts of violent resistance to the Civil Rights movement. But by the time I entered Roosevelt High School, in 1968, it was obvious that the poison of racial violence was deeply entrenched in the North as well: riots and backlash had hit Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and even Seattle. It seemed that no part of the US was immune. During my senior year I took an elective course in Afro-American History, where I learned more about what lay behind all this and heard firsthand experiences of racism from my Black classmates, including Joe Hunter, who was also my teammate on the RHS basketball team.

Much later, I became a high school history teacher, and taught about the central role slavery and its legacies have played in US History, including today. I read the brilliant, revelatory story of Black migration to the North, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson. She describes the sense of liberation felt by millions of Blacks upon leaving the South for a better life in the North, and the almost uniform sense of bitter disappointment when they encountered pervasive racism in northern cities. Some of the people she interviewed for the book later returned to the South, where they felt more comfortable: racism there was more open there, and was confronted openly, which made it easier to deal with.

Then came George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, a liberal northern city, and the ensuing massive demonstrations throughout the US. After some soul searching I called Joe Hunter to see if he would agree to help facilitate a discussion about race between Black and white RHS alumni of our era. That was the beginning of RARE, which continues today with scholarships for students of color at RHS, Open Discussions on race, and other efforts to bridge the racial divide in schools and their communities. RARE is focused on our own northern city of Seattle, which still badly needs such efforts.

Our recent trip across the South took us from North Carolina to Texas. We saw those Confederate monuments. We also saw stunning landscapes, ate delicious spicy food, and met a lot of people. The bitter polarization we all constantly read about was not evident in our day-to-day dealings. It made us feel better about America, but we also constantly confronted the legacies of the past which are linked to today’s continuing racial injustices.

Monument in front of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute commemorating the four girls killed in a church bombing across the street in 1963.

We visited the renowned Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, across the street from the Black church that was bombed in 1963, killing four Black girls. At the Institute we learned that Birmingham elected its first Black mayor in 1979 and appointed its first Black chief of police a few years later. The city, which appears generally prosperous, is majority Black. On the other hand, as we traveled through Mississippi a few days later we found out that it is the poorest state in the US, and also the one with the highest percentage of Black population.

The US is a complicated, contradictory place. It still has a long way to go to fulfill the ideals it was ostensibly founded upon, not just for Blacks but for all marginalized sectors of the population. Stubborn legacies die hard, in both the South and the North, and they exact a toll on individuals and communities trying to break free from them. The trip gave me a deeper and broader view of the South today, and at the same time stimulated a re-dedication to RARE and its mission.