A blood-red sunset had painted over the Mississippi sky when our bus pulled up to the farm. Appropriate, considering where we were. Uniformed facility workers greeted us with smiles and a chocolate cake on a silver platter, while inmates tended to the fields & orchards just beyond a razor-wire fence. The more I learned about this farm, the less I had an appetite for cake.
Parchman was a place where young black men were sent to labor and to die. Built in 1901 by the very hands that were cuffed for petty crimes, then forced into a system of greed and corruption which would inspire documentaries, songs, and multiple lawsuits. A sentence at Parchman meant a life spent laboring on the maximum-security prison farm until sold to the highest bidding plantation owner. The more able bodies tending to their 28 miles of land or being sold off to white folks- whose status was based on how many "boys" they owned, the more profitable the prison became. No matter one's innocence, if you were a black man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, your life would never be the same.
It was 2004 and I was living with a quirky pair of professors who taught non-violence & peace studies at the University of Rhode Island. Their Victorian home sat in a small borough between Baltimore & Gettysburg. I was floundering and they graciously allowed me to coexist with them as I endeavored yet another failed college attempt. We would have jam sessions in their music room, where they taught me protest songs. We would eat hard shell crab with a wide variety of people, while trying to solve the world's problems. It was fun and it was enlightening, but clearly it didn't work because the problems... well, they still persist.
It was through these two that I really learned about the Civil Rights Movement. They were close friends with folks who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They shared their experiences & sentiments with me, and ultimately invited me to join them on a tour of the south, where I would receive the kind of history lesson they don't teach you in schools. While traveling by bus from Greensboro to Memphis, making many important stops along the way to talk about the heroes who gave their lives for a cause greater than themselves, my naive & privileged eyes were opened to the atrocities our country has committed based solely on the color of people's skin. I'm embarrassed to say that until I stepped onto that bus with 40 or so other folks, I had never heard of a man named Medgar Evers. Now I'll never forget him. I stood in the driveway of a little turquoise rambler in Jackson, MS where he was shot for trying to end segregation in public schools the very night President JFK delivered a nationally televised Civil Rights Address. I work at an elementary school and just recently we've started conducting "active shooter" drills with our students. The Evers' kids had been practicing such a drill in their own home for years. They knew that in their case, standing up for what was right could very well get them killed. In Medgar's case, it did.
We ended our bus ride at the Lorraine Motel, the place where King was shot. It's now a museum and holds remnants of our country's dark & dirty past. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr himself was once reported to say, "this is a sick society" and today that seems to hold true on many levels. I've been told by people who were living witness to it that peaceful protests, sit-ins, and non-violent marches can produce the desired results and lead to change, but I've also been told that when people are needlessly and unyieldingly mistreated they'll reach a breaking point and an uprising will ensue. No matter your stance, injustices are ongoing and sadly, will likely be forever recurring. Decade after decade it's the same story with different names falling into the roles of antagonist and protagonist. To me, one of life's greatest tragedies is that as a human race we're so divided amongst ourselves. I'm no expert on anything, but I know where I've been and who I've met and I've heard them tell of their personal struggles and how fighting isn't always the answer, but also sometimes it is.