Mississippi Burning— Plus Elvis… The 10,000 Mile North America Bike Tour

I met this little fellow in a Natchez Trace Information Center in Kosciusko, Mississippi. He looked like he wanted to give me a hug so I decided to pass him on to you.

I met this little fellow in a Natchez Trace Information Center in Kosciusko, Mississippi. He looked like he wanted to give me a hug so I decided to pass him on to you.

 

“That boy is one tough son of a bitch.” –John Hamilton Carpenter

 

My friend, Morris Carpenter, picked me up in Jackson and gave me and my bicycle a ride to his home in Philadelphia, Mississippi. I’d be spending a week with him and his wife Marianna, the first major break in my bike ride. Morris and I go way back, all the way to 1961 when we were in student politics together at a community college in Northern California. Later, we both served as Peace Corps Volunteers in West Africa. I’ve written about that experience in my book, The Bush Devil Ate Sam. Our paths have crossed numerous times since.

Morris lives on Azalea Drive so I photographed one.

Morris lives on Azalea Drive so I photographed a bush of them.

When my first wife and I parted ways, Morris even got the kid, our 70-pound Basset Hound, Socrates. Morris was living in Maine at the time, working for the Penobscot Indians. He had kept Socrates for us while Jo and I had spent six months travelling in the South Pacific and Asia. When we had returned and Jo had decided that she wanted a more stable, middle class life than my love of wandering and work for nonprofits supported, I’d called Morris with the bad news and asked if he could keep Socrates for a while longer. “He’s my dog now,” Morris had declared. He had fallen for the lovable, stubborn hound.

Socrates' grand dad had been a Canadian and America champion, or at least his papers so claimed. To us he was just a lovable dog who kept me company on backpacking trips.

Socrates’ grand dad had been a Canadian and America champion, or at least his papers so claimed. To me, he was just a lovable dog who kept me company on backpacking trips. Those feet could move more dirt than a steam shovel. I sometimes had to file environmental impact reports on his digging. (Kidding.)

Now Morris was working for the Choctaw Indians as their housing director. He had picked up his expertise by rebuilding villages in Vietnam destroyed by the Viet Cong.  In coming to Mississippi, he had come home. His roots were deep. His mom and dad had moved from the state to Northern California in the early 40s where his father had gone to work in the lumber industry. Morris, like me, had been born in Southern Oregon. For a while, when his dad had gone off to fight the Japanese in World War II, his mom had moved Morris and his sister back to the small town of Conway, Mississippi to live with their Uncle Wilson. The community is approximately 25 miles west of Philadelphia.

Morris has now retired. When he worked for the tribe, their primary source of income was light industry. Now it is this Casino located just outside of Philadelphia.

Morris has now retired. When he worked for the Choctaw, their primary source of income was light industry. Now it is this Casino located just outside of Philadelphia.

Morris still had many relatives living in the area. I was invited to a gathering of the clan. They wanted to meet Morris’s friend who was so crazy he would go on a 10,000-mile bike ride by himself. We sat around drinking bourbon and eating delicious Southern fried chicken while I entertained them with tales of life on a bicycle. Afterwards, Morris told me that his cousin, John Hamilton Carter, had said, “That boy is one tough son-of-a-bitch.” Morris assured me it was a compliment.

One day he had taken me for a ride over to Conway to revisit his childhood home. While we were out and about, he had driven me by the earthen dam outside of Philadelphia where three young civil right’s workers had been buried in 1964. They had been killed by the Ku Klux Clan in cooperation with the local city police and county sheriff’s department. A Baptist preacher had orchestrated the murders.

The Pearl River as it winds through Neshoba County Mississippi. Authorities would drag the river for the slain civil rights workers until an informal told them about the dam.

The Pearl River as it winds through Neshoba County, Mississippi. Authorities would drag the river for the slain civil rights workers until an informant told them about the dam.

You see a beautiful, bucolic sight like this in Neshoba County and wonder about the prejudice, hatred and violence that once existed in the county.

You see a bucolic site like this in Neshoba County and wonder how such prejudice, hatred and violence could exist in such a beautiful place.

The three had been working to register black voters. Mississippi had passed a constitution in 1890 effectively blocking blacks from voting. Using law and violence, the state had maintained the status quo since. Supreme Court rulings in the early 60s had challenged such laws. College students from throughout the nation had been recruited by civil rights organizations to help out during Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer.” Many Mississippians had been infuriated with this outside interference in their state. Thousands had joined the KKK.

I had listened to recruiters for the effort that spring at Berkeley. The idea appealed to me but I had to work summers to pay for my education. While I was driving a laundry truck between Placerville and Lake Tahoe, the young people were killed. Several students at Berkeley, including Mario Savio, had heeded the call, however, and spent their summer in Mississippi. The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley that fall had grown out of the University’s efforts to block students from participating in such efforts. I’ve blogged about my involvement in the protest.

A massive investigation by the FBI was ordered by the US Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy. The FBI designated the effort, Mississippi Burning. (The 1988 movie  Mississippi Burning starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe was loosely based on the 1964 incident.) Eighteen individuals were eventually charged. When the state refused to prosecute them, they were tried in federal courts. Seven were eventually found guilty and received relatively light sentences. None served more than six years.

Interestingly, in 2004, a multi-ethnic group from Philadelphia urged that the issue be revisited. As a result, the 80-year old Baptist minister and sawmill owner Edgar Ray Killen, who had avoided prison earlier, was charged with orchestrating the murders, found guilty, and sentenced to serve 60 years in prison.

At the end of the week, Morris had driven me back to the Trace and I had restarted my journey. He had watched me until I disappeared. “I was afraid I might never see you again.” he confessed. Morris thought what I was doing was too dangerous. If you want danger, I had thought to myself, try rebuilding a village the Viet Cong had burned down when the Viet Cong was still in the area.

This pull off along the Natchez Trace is known as Pigeons Roost for the thousands of Passenger Pigeons (now extinct) that once roasted in them.

This pull off along the Natchez Trace is known as Pigeons’ Roost for the thousands of Passenger Pigeons (now extinct) that once roosted in these trees.

There is nothing endangered about this pretty daisy (Fleabane, I think) that was growing at the site.

There is nothing endangered about this pretty daisy (Fleabane, I think) that was growing at the site.

We pulled off to check out these beautiful horses.

Peggy and I pulled off to check out these  horses.

While we were there, a bike tourist who was riding the Trace, Don Glennon, stopped to talk with us.

While we were there, a bike tourist who was riding the Trace, Don Glennon, stopped to talk with us. His outfit looked a little neater, more organized, and more waterproof  than mine had.

While Peggy and I were talking with Don, I suddenly felt several bites on my leg. Fire ants had worked they way up though a crack in the cement sidewalk and were rapidly moving up my leg. Much faster than it has taken to write this description, I was in the van and had taken by pants off. Nasty, nasty bugs they are! I had scars for weeks afterwards. The photo above is a fire ants nest.

While Peggy and I were talking with Don, I suddenly felt several bites on my leg. Fire ants had worked their way up though a crack in the cement sidewalk and were rapidly moving up my leg. Much faster than it has taken me to write this description, I was in the van and had taken my pants off. Nasty, nasty bugs! I had scars for weeks afterwards. The photo above is a fire ants’ nest.

A day later found me in Tupelo where Elvis Presley had been born. What better place for an Elvis-sighting? Maybe he still haunted the area. When I had graduated from the eighth grade in 1957, our music teacher had asked us to choose a song to sing at the ceremony. We had chosen Love Me Tender. Our choice was immediately squashed. Young women were already swooning at Elvis concerts and they squealed when he wiggled his hips. The older generation was going bonkers over this threat to our morals. We were offered a compromise: The Civil War era song, Aura Lea.  Presley had used the tune from the song for Love Me Tender.

BTW: Elvis claimed, “I’m not trying to be sexy. It’s just my way of expressing myself when I move around.” Um, yeah.

This road takes you to the Presley Museum in Tupelo that is located where Elvis was born.

This road takes you to the Presley Museum in Tupelo that is located where Elvis was born.

The house that Elvis was born in and where he spent his first years.

The house that Elvis was born in and where he spent his first years.

A bronze statue of the young Elvis with guitar in hand.

A bronze statue of the young Elvis with guitar in hand.

NEXT BLOG: I hide in a brick outhouse to avoid a tornado.

36 comments on “Mississippi Burning— Plus Elvis… The 10,000 Mile North America Bike Tour

    • Thanks, Peggy.
      Someday, I will devote a whole blog to Socrates. Fun to know you had a basset hound. They are such characters!
      And yes it was good to see some justice. Sad that so many of them weren’t punished. Hopefully, Karma did its job. –Curt

  1. I saw Elvis several times when I visited Las Vegas!
    Really like that picture of the casino!
    I watched a programme on TV some time ago about an African tribe and as an initiation ceremony the boys of the village were obliged to stick their arm into a nest of fire ants, gosh, those boys were brave!

    • Morris had mixed feelings about the casino. The Choctaw were well on their way to being a highly successful tribe and working hard to get there. Morris thinks the casino makes it all too easy, that something important was lost. Native American groups all across the US have gotten into the Casino business. For the most part, I say why not. It’s a bit of payback for all the property we took away from them, for all of the broken treaties that happened.
      As for Elvis, I never did see him perform live, although Peggy did.
      A time honored tradition among some Native American tribes was to bury their enemies alive up to their neck and let the red ants go to work. The most ferocious ant I have come across in my travels have been the army ants of West Africa. I was at war with them for several days as they insisted on moving next door to us and invading our home. –Curt

      • I have ants in my front lawn, a nuisance but not aggressive.
        I didn’t see the real Elvis of course!
        I guess the American settlers treated the native Americans rather badly but Europeans were hardly any better when they colonised Africa!

      • Ah, an Elvis impersonator. I’ve seen a few of those. 🙂 As for Africa, my major in International relations was focused on Africa. A dark history indeed. –Curt

  2. I have a cherished photo of my wife and I sitting on that front porch swing at Elvis’ boyhood home in Tupelo, with our 2 year old daughter in my lap and our 4 year old son sitting next to us. That was 23 years ago. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Thanks Susan. It’s like life, our lives intertwined with the past, present and future. One of the fun things for me about the bike trip, however, was how simple it was: Get up in the morning and bike 60-100 miles. Things don’t get much more basic. –Curt

  3. You’ve reminded me that I was allowed to pick the sheet music for my first clarinet solo, and I chose “Love Me Tender.” Half the audience probably thought I was playing “Aura Lee.”

    As for those fire ants — they’re the bane of my existence since I started roaming the ditches in search of wildflowers. Despite the heat, barn boots are the best defense. At least you’ve got the chance to knock them off. And, yes: we had army ants come through the house a couple of times. The good news? Not an insect or gecko was left when they were gone. The bad news? Someone once forgot to take a bird from its cage. Oh, dear.

    The KKK wasn’t intent only on racially-based mischief. They were huge in Iowa in the 1920s: where they were both nativist and anti-Catholic. In a way, the Klan was responsible for my growing up Methodist. That story will get told, eventually.

    • I expect you didn’t wiggle your hips when you played it Linda. It was such a wonderful love song. The anti-Elvis hysteria is quite amusing when looked at from the perspective of today’s pop music.
      We are very lucky not to have fire ants! Hopefully they will stay in the South and limit their bites to members of the KKK. 🙂 The anti-catholic/popist movement in America was as virulent as anything being thrown at emigrants today. It was still alive and kicking when Kennedy ran for President. –Curt

  4. Ah the fear hatred bigotry and violence that human beings are capable of boggles the mind. I read recently that bigotry is an emotional response to an unexamined belief. That kinda summed it up for me. Just last week people of Chilliwack, a small rural town two hours west of Vancouver, woke up to little plastic bags on their lawns. In the bags were grains of white rice and KKK flier. The wording on the flier included, as part of the tirade, the words “white lives matter”. God help us all. Why Chilliwack of all places? It’s a *very* multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic community. The police are investigating.
    Alison
    PS Your ride continues to sound amazing, and thanks for the hug from the Beaver 🙂
    PPS I think John Hamilton Carpenter got it right.

    • I drove through Chilliwack a couple of years ago, Allison. It seemed like a pleasant community. I suspect it is, overall. You just never know when hatred and bigotry are going to raise their ugly heads. Their roots run deep. It is always easier to blame someone else for our problems or to rationalize our behavior toward others using prejudice.
      Happy you are still along for the ride. John Hamilton Carter also figured I had to be a little crazy. 🙂 –Curt

    • I have a story about backpacking with Socrates that I like to tell, Melanie. I am going to do a backpacking series when I finish this one on my bike trip. I will be sure to include it. 🙂 –Curt

    • I’ve always loved history, Hillary. It was my favorite subject in school and has continued to be up until the present. So I like to know something about the history of the areas I travel through. I think it makes travel more meaningful. –Curt

  5. After reading this post, I’m recommending you read anything by Greg Iles, although I imagine you have. It’s about as Deep South as it gets — the good, the bad, and definitely the ugly. But there’s a lot he didn’t have to make up! And that Presley phenomenon? Still strong today! Another good post, Curt.

    • Actually, I haven’t read Iles. I’ll check him out. And much that is good, as well. I certainly met lots of friendly, generous people along the way. Elvis lives! 🙂 –Curt

  6. This one is full of stories. Sounds like a great chance to connect to an old friend and many of his people. I’d love to have folks on my side in Mississippi – I’ve heard it can be a rough introduction if you are a stranger. How nice it was that Socrates found a perfect home and adopted father. At least there was one less thing to give you grief in a difficult time. Love that name. My father always talked about getting a Basset Hound and naming him Frank Lloyd Wright. I don’t know why.

    I am intrigued by Elvis stuff, though I’m not a huge fan. I think he had a great voice, but I don’t get the fame – guess you had to be there. Anyway, my thought here was looking at that little shack and thinking it’s probably in better shape now than it was when he lived there. Isn’t that a shotgun shack? Even with all the shiny paint, I see poverty. I look at it and remember how much want there is in our country, and particularly in Mississippi, one of the states perpetually having the hardest time.

    • Frank Lloyd Wright?! Your dad and I would have gotten along well, Crystal.
      Mississippi is a strange state, usually way down the chart in terms of education, health, poverty, etc. I doubt I could live there like Morris. And yes, I was lucky to have such an interesting in with his relatives. Even though we were total opposites, they couldn’t have been more gracious. And the fried chicken was to die for! 🙂 Peggy went to an Elvis concert once and said it was great, especially watching the girls swoon. She says he was a good performer. –Curt

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