Tupelo: Hometown in Turmoil
By Betty Norwood Chaney
Vol. 1, No. 3, 1978, pp. 16-19
“Hey, they got a jitney jungle,” a Black kid with a Michigan brogue exclaimed to his traveling companion as the bus wound its way into the small Mississippi town. “That’s boss,” he concluded with approval. This link to his own home in the North suddenly elevated the South a bit in his esteem.
I awoke from a semi-doze at the kid’s words and looked out the window. I caught sight of a shopping center to my right and a fairground to my left. The streets were deserted and clean. As we pulled into the station my eyes scanned the top of the city’s courthouse and the police station. A view of the downtown shopping area, only a couple of blocks down the street, was cut off by some buildings.
Feeling a tinge of excitement, as I always did when arriving in this place, I aroused my sleeping four-year-old on the seat beside me.
“Wake up, honey,” I told him. “We are in Tupelo. Mama is home!”
It was a pleasant June evening, so pleasant that when I called the house for a ride from the bus station and found the line busy, I decided to walk the four blocks home. With bags in hand, my son and I walked north up the quiet familiar streets. The breeze was gentle and warm. When we reached Spring Street, I looked down out of habit to where my brother has a shoe store/shop. It is in the block with the pool hall, a cafe and the supermarket that gives
credit, an area that for years has been dominated by rural Blacks coming to town on Saturdays.
Although my little boy and I were two Blacks walking the streets of Tupelo, Mississippi at ten o’clock at night, it did not occur to me to be afraid. My only concern was that some dog might spot us and make a fuss. Yet, this was the same Tupelo that one reporter graphically described that summer as a place where “a war of sorts” is being fought in the streets and “to some in this racially divided northeast Mississippi trading center, your skin is your uniform.” It wasn’t that I was unafraid of meeting some hooded Klansman patrolling these streets, the thought merely did not occur to me. For me, this was simply home, the place where I had grown up, where my mother and most family still lived and the place that I loved to visit much more frequently than I had the opportunity. It was, too, the place where, ironically enough, I felt most safe.
Our walk home that night was uneventful. Except for an occasional remark from me to my son, who was quieter than usual having just awaken, the walk was made in silence. Not even a resident dog acknowledged our presence.
On the surface, Tupelo appeared to be the same uneventful town that I grew up in during the fifties and sixties. At that time, although White families occupied the last three houses on my street – houses of comparable sizes and conditions – the similarities ended there and our paths rarely crossed. Racial confrontations between us were practically nonexistent.
On school days, I and my Black friends and neighbors beaded north to school and my White neighbors -certainly not friends – headed south or westward. Some of my schoolmates came from a further distance south, from a poorer, more dilapidated area across the tracks called Shake Rags.
When I was in school, it was a rare occasion for Blacks to get their pictures in the paper regarding school events. I can recall following the activities of the White girl my age that lived on my street through various newspaper clippings. Although we grew up within a few feet of each other, we never had an occasion to actually meet. She was always a popular girl and one year she was chosen one of Tupelo High School’s beauty queens. I remember reading the different newspaper accounts with a mixture of pride and envy – pride because a girl from my street was featured in the paper and envy because the same kind of coverage was denied to us Blacks.
All of that has changed now. A few years ago one of my nieces was chosen “Miss Tupelo High.” Her Black face graced the pages of the paper that had denied our existence ten years before. Now, it is not at all unusual to see Blacks pictured alongside Whites in photographs of school activities.
School desegregation in Tupelo had been another of those uneventful occurrences. Black parents here, unlike many others, both North and South, have few – if any – horror stories to tell about school integration or busing. Total integration of the schools in Tupelo exists and children from all over the city now head in the same directions for school without incidence.
Another visible change in Tupelo since the fifties and sixties is in housing. The reely structures in Shake Rags that used to house a large percentage of the Black population have been torn down and replaced with a housing project in the north end of town. Blacks are also moving into apartment buildings and complexes and some homes that were for “Whites only” a few years ago. Most important of all, “nice,” attractive brick homes are darting up constantly, bearing witness to the fact that Blacks in Tupelo are indeed progressing.
At least, this was the appearance of things. Because a temporary halt had just been called to the picketing while a recently-formed biracial committee held negotiations behind closed doors, this quietude easily belied the fact that “a war of sorts” was being waged here. The spring and summer of 1978 had been anything but quiet in Tupelo.
The Black community that laid dormant, for the most part, throughout the turbulent sixties when Blacks in many other Southern towns were raising up in protest of racial discrimination, had at last taken a stand and declared racial discrimination to be very much a factor in their town. They bad shocked the White community and some Blacks by calling and supporting a boycott of White merchants that was 80 percent effective in protest of police brutality and job discrimination. And in so doing, they had inflamed the radical element in the White community and brought forth the long-subdued Ku Klux Klan in numbers and force unknown in recent times. Near confrontations between demonstrating Blacks and countering Klansmen became common occurrences that spring and summer.
While actual racial confrontations seldom had occurred in Tupelo, an analysis of the city by the United League, a state-wide civil rights organization first invited to the area to help stage demonstrations in protest of police brutality, revealed that Tupelo had one of the worst records in the state in terms of racial discrimination.
The analysis showed that Tupelo with a population of approximately 27,000, of which around 25 percent were Black, bad very few – and in some cases – no Blacks in decision-making positions.
According to a spokesman for the League, at the time the analysis was done, with the exception of one alderman, there were no Blacks in city government in decision making positions; there were no Black store managers in any of the department stores or supermarkets; a brother of mine, appointed a few years ago after the schools were integrated, was the only Black on the school board. In no instances were Blacks employed in the workforce in proportion to their percentage of the population, except in menial positions.
There had always been grievances that needed to be addressed. I remember that in the sixties when I was in college my community’s lack of activity was a source of some embarrassment for me.
According to Attorney Lewis Meyers of the North ‘ Mississippi Rural Legal Services the unique economical situation of Blacks in Tupelo has been a major factor keeping race relations “good.”
In Tupelo, the per capita income and the standard of living is high compared to many other areas where the plantation/sharecropping system needed only raw, unskilled labor. With Tupelo as a mercantile center, Blacks moving into northeast Mississippi were a bit more well-to-do. These middle-class Blacks became the traditional “Negro” leadership, Meyers recounts, and bad heretofore been successful in keeping the peace in Tupelo. They were a buffer zone for powerful Whites who were the ones the Black landlords and the funeral directors and the store owners had to face downtown on the bank board when they needed capital. Because of “interest tied to capital” the White power structure had been able to rely upon these Black leaders to “keep the peace.
Life began to change, however, after the Vietnam war drained the Black community and left scores of young, vibrant Black men jobless. The veterans that returned to the South in a recession to face unemployment in their hometowns and states, were a different breed from the ones a generation’ before. Disillusioned by the war, most faced no jobs, lack of stimulation and lack of direction. They were in no mood to let the peace be.
One of the forces which channeled this unrest into protest was Alfred “Skip” Robinson, a building contractor from nearby Holly Springs and founder of the United League, a grassroots organization that claims 35 chapters and about 70,000 Black members throughout northern Mississippi. According to Robinson, a middle-aged father of six, he gave young Blacks an identity, a sense of direction and a sense of purpose. Even his detractors admit that they are impressed with his ability to arouse the interest of the Black community. Walter Stanfield, a League organizer, says that Blacks in Tupelo have been willing to deal with past grievances, but until the League came to town, there was no organization around to provide the necessary leadership.
Robinson does not sound like the sixties’ leaders. He speaks of old problems with a different perspective. “We are not trying to integrate the neighborhood schools,” said Robinson. “In so many ways, integration was the worst thing that ever happened to Black people. We lost so much of our identity, things that were our own. Before integration there were more Black school principals in Mississippi than anywhere else. Now, around here, you can count them on one hand. We are taking up where the movement of the 1960s left off.”
Since Robinson’s leadership and the League’s work, there have been several important victories. For one thing, League-led protest resulted in the removal of the two officers from the police force that were implicated in the brutality suit. Not only that, but according to Stanfield, a Black building inspector has been named to the city government structure and a Black assistant has been assigned to the light and water department. Also Blacks have reportedly been hired as store managers in two stores and in several cases have received jobs that they would not have received otherwise. Meyers said, “We’ve gotten more people around here jobs than Mississippi Employment Service ever did.”
However, Robinson is increasingly being criticized for his uncompromising position by both Blacks and Whites. Several Blacks voiced their frustration over his refusal to negotiate on a settlement. Mary Douglas, a young Black mother who marched with her children on the picket line and later served on the biracial committee created to air grievances for the city, referred in particular to a meeting that included Mississippi senatorial candidate Charles Evers. Robinson had been so late for that meeting, it had to be rescheduled.
The Rev. William Rittenhouse, pastor of the biracial committee, said he saw Robinson’s continual failure to negotiate as a “betrayal of willingness to work problems out.” Aaron Henry, state NAACP president, denounced Robinson’s behavior as an attempt to exploit the situation to gain power for himself and his movement.
The animosity between the League and the traditional Black leadership has also divided the Black community. League members have frequently referred to old leaders as “Uncle Toms” and suggested on one occasion that since they bad not done anything for the Black community in all this time, maybe it was best they stay out of things now.
Many of the League members are so-called “street people” – the chronically unemployed, some with minor criminal records and former drug users – some of the established leaders point out. If they cut themselves off from us, they ask, where are they going to go when they need people to fill the leadership positions they are seeking?
Kenneth Mayfield, the local Black attorney who brought the police brutality suit sparking the protest was one of a group that extended the imitation to the League to organize in Tupelo. Despite the divisions, he is optimistic. He feels that all things considered what has happened in Tupelo in recent months has been -good.”
As a result of some of the activities over the past seven months, grievances have been brought to the fore and a “framework has been set” for finding solutions to those grievances. Mayfield is on a committee with four Whites that has been designated to draw up an affirmative action
plan for the city to be approved by the mayor and the board of aldermen. The plan will attempt to increase jobs and representation of Blacks by Blacks, particularly, in the areas where they are most affected.
Mayfield has little doubt that the city administration will approve an affirmative action plan. In order for the ” sore to heal,” he says, the city must come up with an affirmative action plan.
A weekend visit to Tupelo in late October again found the city undergoing a quiet period. A “silent” boycott was on, but a lot of Black residents had gradually begun shopping again in the White-owned stores.
The League’s activities had been halted while they awaited the affirmative action committee report. The Klan reportedly busied itself that weekend by making an appearance at a high school band festival. A group of robed Klansmen supposedly walked past a group of young Black teenage boys and girls on the street and, as they passed, one of the boys, to the amusement of the other kids, grabbed the band flagpole and jestured at the Klansmen, 11 show you who’s afraid of who.”
All fear of the Klan appears to be gone from the Black community. Their main importance in Tupelo this whole period, one observer noted, has been in providing theatrics for the media. While the presence of the Klan did much to draw attention to the area, Rittenhouse feels that the situation in Tupelo was blown out of proportion indeliberately by the press. Although Blacks and Klansmen openly displayed weapons, no violence erupted, he pointed out.
However, Tupelo, the “All-American City,” with its symbols of growth and progress in northeast Mississippi, has had difficulty in explaining why this ‘littleness in thinking,” as Rittenhouse characterizes the Klan, experienced a rebirth in their town. Many Tupelo citizens have, frankly, been embarrassed by the whole situation.
The city now quietly awaits the results of discussions to what will be tomorrow’s situation. This time amid the quietude I sensed that something was indeed transpiring. Maybe it was the undercurrents of a grassroots organization again mapping strategy, or the Klan regrouping, or more division taking place among the Black community, or maybe it was simply a city making plans for a communal Thanksgiving Dinner as Ritterhouse, the Baptist minister, would like to think.
Perhaps, the change was within me – my perceptions. For, I had realized that Tupelo was indeed a battleground for racial issues not because it caught up with the protest of the sixties ten years later -not because of any one individual or organization. Instead, Tupelo had become the nation’s best known town for racial conflict largely because of the people and events which have grown since the civil rights movement. Like other places in Mississippi or Massachusetts, Tupelo’s signs of progress may have given most Whites the opinion that race relations are good” and many Blacks a reason to expect more.
In this way, quiet or in turmoil, my hometown is everyone’s. Tupelo is our town.