By John Hubbuch
Born and raised in southern Indiana, less than 10 miles from Louisville, Kentucky, and having gone to college in Nashville, Tennessee, I've always felt like I had some insight into Southern life and culture — especially compared to my Oak Park liberal friends, most of whom would rather visit North Korea than Mississippi.
But I came to realize that I had never really been to the heart of Dixie — Alabama and Mississippi. So last month, Marsha and I flew to Birmingham, Alabama and toured these two states for the first time. Highlights included a tour of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, aka Bombingham, where the four little girls were blown up getting ready for church one September Sunday morning in 1963. We visited Birmingham's excellent Civil Rights Museum. We saw the Mississippi highway intersection where the devil traded Robert Johnson the blues in return for his soul. We ate at an $11 catfish buffet in the Delta with the Secretary of State of Mississippi, who was wearing a regionally-appropriate seersucker suit. He knew where Oak Park was because he had gone to school at Notre Dame. We saw where James Meredith tried to become the first African-American to go to the University of Mississippi and the lawn where federal troops came to stop the ensuing riot. We visited William Faulkner's modest grave.
At Vicksburg we walked among the unmarked grave of 17,000 Union troops who died in and around that crucial Mississippi stronghold. As a percentage of the population, that would be the equivalent of 170,000 casualties today. We met a genuine ghost hunter. Lest you doubt the claim, I have his business card. Vicksburg was like touring your grandmother's attic — lots of junk with a few treasures sprinkled in. Wandering dogs were an added bonus.
We traveled to Jackson where we saw the home where Medgar Evers was shot in his driveway and died in the arms of his wife. We toured the Capitol where the Confederate flag still waves. Next stop was Philadelphia where we couldn't find the jail from which the three civil rights workers, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were released as a preliminary to their execution — because it is now a vacant lot. Perhaps for the best. We couldn't find where they were executed or buried. Maybe we shouldn't disturb those ghosts.
We concluded our trip in Tuscaloosa, where we toured the University of Alabama. The football stadium was larger than the Roman Colosseum. We checked out the Coach Bear Bryant Museum where his six national football champions are celebrated. He did it without the participation of any African-American players. Times change.
So what did I learn from my brief snapshot trip? I was hoping that my liberal bias would be confirmed, but to my surprise I never heard the n-word a single time. I never saw a Rod Steiger-like redneck sheriff. Sheriffs, mayors and school superintendents are black today. We ate at restaurants that were every bit as fancy as those in foodie heaven — Lincoln Park. No doubt the South is a very different place today. That the terrible events of the past are remembered in stone, plaque and museum is surely a sign of progress and promise.
I was reminded that slavery did not end in this country in 1863. For a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans endured a segregated society in which their rights were guaranteed by law but were in reality a cruel joke. Vote and be beaten. Meet in a church and have it blown up. Look at a white woman and be hung. The separation of the races for that hundred-year period was as rigidly enforced as in South Africa or India. Separate and unequal.
Unlike many Yankees, I like the South. I like the food, the music and the friendliness. I like the dark, conflicted nuances of Faulkner, Twain, Welty, Walker and Warren. I even like the hopelessness of The Lost Cause. There is something very romantic and chivalrous about Pickett and his men charging across a wide-open field at Gettysburg to preserve a culture.
But of course the beauty of the South covers the hideous stain of slavery. A country founded on the principle that all men are created equal was doomed from the beginning because it permitted state-sponsored human bondage. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.
The shadows of slavery and segregation were everywhere we toured. The death and violence of the Civil War and the Civil Rights graves, churches, bus stations and college campuses were a reminder that the economy and history of the South was premised on one man owning another — and then, after he was freed, to keep him in his subordinate place.
Remember, the blues is the wail of slaves. The cuisine is the cheap forageable catfish, grits and greens the slaves once ate. The very trees are ones from which bodies once hung. Slavery and its echo, segregation, are a terrible legacy for a country to bear.
I'm afraid it will be with us for a while.