This is the story of how rural black people struggled against the oppressive sharecropping system of the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta during the first half of the twentieth century. Delta planters, aided by local law enforcement, engaged in peonage, murder, theft, and disfranchisement. As individuals and through collective struggle, black men and women fought back, demanding a just return for their crops and laying claim to a democratic vision of citizenship. Nan Woodruff shows how the freedom fighters of the 1960s would draw on this half-century tradition of protest, thus expanding our standard notions of the civil rights movement and illuminating a neglected but significant slice of the American black experience.
Come in at the Door
William March University of Alabama Press, 1934 Library of Congress PS3505.A53157C57 2014 | Dewey Decimal 813.52
William March's debut novel, Company K, introduced him to the reading public as a gifted writer of modern fiction. Of that World War I classic, Graham Greene wrote: “It is the only war book I have read which has found a new form to fit the novelty of the protest. The prose is bare, lucid, without literary echoes.” After Company K, March brought his same unerring style to a cycle of novels and short stories—his “Pearl County” series—inspired in part by his childhood in the vicinity of Mobile, Alabama.
Come in at the Door is the first in March’s “Pearl County” collection, and it tells the story of Chester, a boy who lives with his withholding, widowed father, and Mitty, who keeps house and serves as a surrogate wife to Chester’s father and a mother to Chester. One morning before dawn, Mitty takes Chester to the Athlestan courthouse to watch the hanging of a man who’d killed “a grotesque, dwarflike creature” he thought had “laid a conjure” on him.
Throughout Chester’s rambunctious young manhood, the gruesome memory hovers just below the surface of his mind, recalled in detail only at his father’s death, when the book sweeps forward to its shattering denouement. A classic of Southern Gothic that illuminates family, class, race, and gender, Come in at the Door marks the homecoming of a Southern storyteller at the peak of his craft.
The son of black sharecroppers, John Oliver Hodges attended segregated schools in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the 1950s and ’60s, worked in plantation cotton fields, and eventually left the region to earn multiple degrees and become a tenured university professor. Both poignant and thought provoking, Delta Fragments is Hodges’s autobiographical journey back to the land of his birth. Brimming with vivid memories of family life, childhood friendships, the quest for knowledge, and the often brutal injustices of the Jim Crow South, it also offers an insightful meditation on the present state of race relations in America.
Hodges has structured the book as a series of brief but revealing vignettes grouped into two main sections. In part 1, “Learning,” he introduces us to the town of Greenwood and to his parents, sister, and myriad aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, and schoolmates. He tells stories of growing up on a plantation, dancing in smoky juke joints, playing sandlot football and baseball, journeying to the West Coast as a nineteen-year-old to meet the biological father he never knew while growing up, and leaving family and friends to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta. In part 2, “Reflecting,” he connects his firsthand experience with broader themes: the civil rights movement, Delta blues, black folkways, gambling in Mississippi, the vital role of religion in the African American community, and the perplexing problems of poverty, crime, and an underfunded educational system that still challenge black and white citizens of the Delta.
Whether recalling the assassination of Medgar Evers (whom he knew personally), the dynamism of an African American church service, or the joys of reconnecting with old friends at a biennial class reunion, Hodges writes with a rare combination of humor, compassion, and—when describing the injustices that were all too frequently inflicted on him and his contemporaries—righteous anger. But his ultimate goal, he contends, is not to close doors but to open them: to inspire dialogue, to start a conversation, “to be provocative without being insistent or definitive.”
Remembering Emmett Till
Dave Tell University of Chicago Press, 2019 Library of Congress E185.93.M6T45 2019 | Dewey Decimal 364.134
Take a drive through the Mississippi Delta today and you’ll find a landscape dotted with memorials to major figures and events from the civil rights movement. Perhaps the most chilling are those devoted to the murder of Emmett Till, a tragedy of hate and injustice that became a beacon in the fight for racial equality. The ways this event is remembered have been fraught from the beginning, revealing currents of controversy, patronage, and racism lurking just behind the placid facades of historical markers.
In Remembering Emmett Till, Dave Tell gives us five accounts of the commemoration of this infamous crime. In a development no one could have foreseen, Till’s murder—one of the darkest moments in the region’s history—has become an economic driver for the Delta. Historical tourism has transformed seemingly innocuous places like bridges, boat landings, gas stations, and riverbeds into sites of racial politics, reminders of the still-unsettled question of how best to remember the victim of this heinous crime. Tell builds an insightful and persuasive case for how these memorials have altered the Delta’s physical and cultural landscape, drawing potent connections between the dawn of the civil rights era and our own moment of renewed fire for racial justice.