Resisting the magnetic compass pull
to home, we set off
      Deep South in search of the country
        beyond New England snows,
traveling together down whole
           highways of pain and
        wide deltas of grief,
        marking the spot where Dr. King’s
 life bled away,
         in a Memphis motel so sweetly named
                 Lorraine, and where a tour guide’s passion

foretold what lay ahead, and, wandering, wondered
     just what I would learn if Beale St. could talk, as we moved
 on to Graceland, where a certain someone with
      gyrating hips seemed to lack the grace
to give credit where credit was
                  due, hips at rest now,
   midst plastic flowers and chlorinated fountains,
         so onward, onward we pressed
    past the “devil’s crossroad” of Rt. 61 and Rt. 49,
        where the blues were born, that a people’s
               suffering might flow through harps
and guitars, preserved now forever in a museum

            in Clarkesdale, where Big Mama Thornton
  finally set Elvis right, with the real deal “Hound Dog,”
               right here in
        Mississippi, nightmare lynch mob state
of my youth, whizzing by through
            big bus picture windows, the soybean fields,
the catfish farms, the vast flat fields, the sharecropper shotgun
               shanties, now collapsing onto themselves, right
                                      next to those cotton gins of injustice,
     and then we found a place called Mound Bayou,
           where ex-slaves built a dream that Mr. Milburn
Crowe described, a dream shattered but still
                    alive, and the road ran on
    to Jackson, supreme
capital of indifference, whose large gold
dome cast shadows on

             hovels that not even one fellow
citizen should live in for a day, and amidst it all
there was Hollis Watkins, who taught what no
 history book can teach, and helped us,
     hands joined, sing our way to the meaning
of a Movement, recounting, between
militant melodies, his 55 days in Parchman, maximum
        security, death row,
            with a voice that still spoke with a calm
      resolve to see justice done, and some
                          even returned to ask, “Can I
      hug you?” before hurtling down to

            New Orleans, to music in the street,
to creole cooking, to elegant iron balconies wrought by slaves,
             and bales of cotton rolled up ramps to paddle boats called
     Natchez and River Queen, place which pushed the blues to the unconquerable,
             throbbing big four beat of jazz, thence the music of a nation,
                      from this city which defies
                  all categories, as if it was washed down here by the mighty
Mississippi, somehow getting snagged on the shoreline,
   or maybe just a great bubbling gumbo
 cooking under southern

sun. Whew!  And, why are we going back to Mississippi,
     some one whined? Personal business, I thought to myself,
  three boys killed a lifetime ago, two from my city, one from
          my school, the whole business of
                           which needed to be tracked
 to its source, tomorrow,
      in Philadelphia, Miss., and so I relented to video movie,
                      “Meet The Parents,” while I napped, preparing perchance
 to meet the killers, or their friends, or townsmen. Waking
     without an alarm, with only the loud ring of pure

anticipation, we made straight to Shoney’s,
for classic southern breakfast
   to fortify us for trek ahead, and found ourselves
                held hostage for several hours in
classic Klan plot to discourage further
          pilgrims’ progress,

but history’s pull was stronger,
                and there we were on same highway
    where they were stopped, the blinding lights of death
in their rear view mirror, before they were
completely disappeared. Suddenly there was the
     courthouse, and the sheriff’s office, just
  across the street from the charming old soda
fountain store and quaint five & dime of
                         this small southern town,
so genteel and so murderous,
bent over forever by the burden of its past
            oh, look away, look away, away down south
                                           in Dixie,

and we heard an aging editor say, that is, we heard
          the barely audible Mr. Deerman say,
                           the heavy breathing, the accent, the tears collecting
        just below the wells of his eyes, we heard him saying, with
               effort, “There hasn’t been a day
                      in 36 years that I haven’t thought of those

boys,” and later to me privately: “Would you like me to take you
          to the spot they were killed?” And, if a pin had
    dropped, the whole library where we gathered
would have exploded, and then we saw the ancient
           headlines, how the story played out, but this time
 we already knew the ending, and

the clock was running, so back down
               to Meridian we rode, and I turned slowly
       to check for headlights, so no one would
notice, and now we had to find Obie Clark’s
    funeral home, because he alone could guide us
                                               to James Chaney’s grave, and

with him leading, off we went, deep into the
      countryside, over bridges no 26,000 lb. bus would
sanely cross, but they held that day, which was good,
    because it was so important to get
                     there, to a small church plot,

              nearly empty but for a lonely massive stone, and there we were
before it, as Mr. Obie Clark, holding his
grand-daughter’s hand, told us how the grave had been placed here
   because the “home church” was just too afraid, how the original
        smaller stone had been thrown in the woods, how the
                eternal flame had been destroyed,
         how the massive new stone has been erected only
               to be pushed over, how his picture was shot out, how a steel beam was
      put in to hold it up, all this in the last few years, how the man who
pulled the trigger walked free for so long, and then he read
                the inscription, and told us why it was important to remember,
      in a quiet voice, all while holding his granddaughter’s hand,

 yes, here was James Chaney, age 20,
       and Rufaro led us in a chorus of “We Shall Overcome,”
and we placed stones on the grave as if to say, “We were here, James Chaney,
                 you are remembered,” and climbed quietly into the bus, which sped off
     to Alabama dead ahead,

where we walked over the Pettus Bridge, ah, so much easier this
time round, no police dogs or mounted police, and into the
tiny Voting Rights Museum, where Ms. Bland frightened us
     ‘till she made us laugh, and Rev. Reese who marched
                          arm-in-arm with King, described what happened on
“Bloody Sunday,” when they stopped Americans

   from walking where there feet could carry them, and we rolled

    along their march route to Montgomery, with only
Nicole Angueira noticing the spot where Viola
         Liuzzo was killed, and there we saw the great
                          memorial to all those slain, and stood by the waterfall
                                 which whispered of waters rolling down like
    justice, and the water was cool, but we had promises to keep,
and the road led us on to Birmingham, or was it Bombingham,
and we sat in the church where four little girls
   died, saw another museum, and park sculpture
 that spoke to the aesthetic beauty of
      historical remembrance,

and the next day we pulled into Atlanta, to Dr. King’s resting
   place, to his old neighborhood, and to the
    Ebenezer Baptist church,

and now the trip was over, or perhaps just
beginning. There had been boundaries crossed,
         between states and time zones, between past and present,
   and back again, until who could say which was which,
          for while we traveled, Mississippi voted down a new
      flag, James Chaney’s case was re-opened,
and Birmingham was choosing a new jury to
                     try a few more old men who once made a
          bomb that ended four young lives, and, upon our return,
    a frontpage New York Times article greeted us with
                          news that the blues were dying in the delta land
           of its birth, in Clarksdale, so

         we went in search of the country beyond
New England snows, in search of history,
             found a road, found people, found a country
    beyond our imagination, found history on
     the loose, saw things, and were moved
          by much more than a bus.

Then we flew back into blue week.

April 25, 2001

All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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