Looking for some new ways to understand the civil rights quest in America? So is Cultural Heritage TravelingMom. That’s why she staked out a learning vacation in Jackson, Mississippi. See what you think of her tips for delving deeper in current history using art and music and good food.
Ever met a curator of art and civil rights? Quite a combo.
Consider this a clue that civil rights history in Jackson, Mississippi shows up in all sorts of intriguing and engaging ways.
Sure it’s tough. Hard truth. History that matters mightily.
In Jackson, people who live those truths tell their stories in a multitude of ways. I found myself absorbing their stories, and connecting them to previous experiences. After all, each connection gave the others more clarity.
Art Triggers New Notions of Civil Rights History
The curator with the art and civil rights job crossed my path at Tougaloo College and the Mississippi Museum of Art. Curious order of events there: experiencing art through history, instead of the other way around.
Her name’s La Tanya Autry and I recommend chatting with her when you go. Even better, ask for a tour. If the kids are weighing career options, and they love history as well as art, she knows the route to an emerging profession of art, history and Civil Rights.
With her guidance, you can do more than notice pretty landscape paintings. She or Marketing Director Stacy Clark will tell you the artists were avoiding social issues on purpose during the Jim Crow era. They painted scenery instead.
Your eye might pull you toward a painting of strong colors, native Americans on a river bank. If you ask the curator for insight, you’ll learn these are Cherokee on the Trail of Tears on a Mississippi River road.
That’s another Civil Rights story with deep history.
Music Deepens Civil Rights History Connections
Best to have already heard Nina Simone singing “Mississippi Goddam” when you stand in front of the painting in the Mississippi Museum of Art. This is a visual pulling the soulful sound from your memory.
If not, pull it up to read her words and feel her soul with the music. Find somebody who heard Simone sing “Mississippi Goddam” in Carnegie Hall.
TravelingMom Tip: Connect the art and the music further in Jackson. Simone wrote the song in response to the 1963 killing of Medgar Evers. Then visit his home, named a National Historic Landmark May 24, 2018, in Jackson. Afterwards, check out the museum pavilion in the Jackson-Evers International Airport.
A separate trip to Birmingham, Alabama, and the 16th Street Baptist Church matters too. The murder of four little girls there also inspired Simone to write “Mississippi Goddam.”
Civil Rights Museum Engages All The Senses
Thank goodness for the hub and spoke design of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. Each of the eight gallery spokes is intense and thought-provoking.
The hub is art and music under the soaring central gallery ceiling, with soft benches. That’s where I regrouped my energy and my attitudes.
“This Little Light of Mine” is a stunning fabric/light/music sculpture rising overhead 37 feet. Hum along. The oh-so-familiar Civil Rights anthem starts with two voices and ends with a chorus, every half hour or so.
Thousands of little LED lights change patterns within the fabric for this song and also “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”
Draw Your Own Civil Rights Conclusions
The Civil Rights Museum in Jackson presents ample opportunities to contemplate what happened, and what still might.
Even exiting is thought provoking. Here’s what washerwoman Oseola McCarty said—writ large on the final wall:
If you want to be proud of yourself, you have to do things you can be proud of.
Perhaps she was. McCarty quit school to help her family after sixth grade and washed clothes for a living. Then she set up a trust with $150,000 for the University of Southern Mississippi to help students in financial need.
TravelingMom Tip: Seek out lots of stories like McCarty’s to point out to the kids (and ourselves) in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
Monoliths listing names and dates of hundreds of people who were lynched darken every conversation. So do alcove galleries with real photos and footage of lynchings.
The alcove placements are on secluded on purpose. Visitors can choose to experience the starkness of hard truths, or absorb the history in smaller chunks.
Eavesdropping is a very good idea in this museum. People who lived the history come here. I heard hushed tones many times declaring “I was there,” or “That’s my sister” or even “That’s me.”
Some are photographs, and some are black and white murals in the rotunda. Artist Tracy Sugarman captured the essence of Mississippi children and families.
Assume Everybody Has A Civil Rights Story
Don’t overlook the ticket takers in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
Mine was Hezekiah Watkins, a soft-spoken, courteous man with an enormous story. As a 13-year old in 1961, he was swept up in massive arrests and sent briefly to the notorious Parchman Prison.
The next year he actually shared a jail cell with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, estimating he was arrested more than 100 times for standing up for the quest for equality, he’s a gracious museum welcomer with an important authentic voice.
Don’t Overlook Civil Rights History in Downtown Hotel
The King Edward Hotel in downtown Jackson was my sleeping spot. Beautiful Beaux-Arts architecture, 1923 opening – and its own Civil Rights echoes.
Today it’s a Hilton Garden Inn, gracious and welcoming to all, with 186 hotel rooms an 64 luxury apartments.
In 1967 the then-owners preferred shuttering the doors and windows to accepting guests of color.
TravelingMom Tip: Knowing the history of a place can enrich the simple experience of sharing a hotel breakfast space today with all sorts of people.
Hold Your Own Conversations at Tougaloo College
Sit in the handsome 1901 college chapel contemplating strategy sessions held there with Civil Rights icons like Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
I tried to quiet my mind to feel the energy of their deliberations. This campus, says today’s college president Dr. Beverly Hogan, was a safe haven for activists, and a place of many conversations.
The campus Art Galleria partners with the Mississippi Museum of Art and pulls from their extensive collection to present exhibitions called “NOW: The Call and Look of Freedom.”
Why such an extensive collection in a small, southern college founded to educate the children of freed slaves?
Curator Turry Flucker traces the history to New York City activists who built the collection, believing white Mississippi residents would cross the color barrier and come to Tougaloo to see important works of art.
Choose Restaurants For Civil Rights History Plus Flavors
Clearly, a meal in the King Edward Hotel lobby restaurant offers the opportunity to contemplate past segregation and current inclusion.
Walk down West Capitol Street just a block to the Mayflower Café for four generations of Jackson history. This Greek family started serving their own recipes and sauces in 1935.
Comeback is the sauce they say proves the point: Everybody returns, or wants to. Seafood dominates the menu and family and staff linger easily tableside to discuss the flavors or the history.
Drive across town to Bully’s Soul Food. Mac and cheese, fried chicken, rutabagas okra, oxtail, chitterlings and greens – collard, turnip and mustard. That’s just the beginning of a robust menu.
I recommend paying attention to the other people eating with you, waiting in line or picking up take out. They’ll be a mix of long-time Jackson residents who lived the Civil Rights history and foodie travelers following James Beard awards and Southern Foodways Alliance endorsements.
Food should always figure in a Civil Rights Trail road trip.
Discover Civil Rights Tidbits in Unlikely Places Too
Surely glad I carved out a few hours to visit the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson. Lots of information new to me.
Here’s the Civil Rights tidbit – the melody and intonation and note changes in the Muslim call to prayer evokes the essence of the blues in Mississippi!
Listen to both and it’s obvious. Perhaps I should have drawn that conclusion on my own, having heard the lyrical sounds of the call to prayer on a journey to the Kingdom of Jordan.
How would you zero in on a way or a place to enjoy delving into Civil Rights stories? Fourteen states partnered with TravelSouthUSA to launch just such a Trail in 2017. Might be a journey within their map of interest to you.