By LaReeca Rucker
As a lifelong Mississippian, I grew up an hour from Memphis. Most North Mississippians claim the city as part of their world.
My parents lived in Memphis for a while. Many of my fun childhood experiences happened in Memphis. It’s where we always went on field trips to the zoo, the Pink Palace, Mud Island, boating on the Mississippi River, and we took short vacations to Libertyland, Graceland and a nearby Native American village.
Places and their history become part of who we are.
Last semester, I gave my University of Mississippi journalism students a challenging final project. I wanted them and readers to learn about the effects of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination that happened 50 years ago this April in Memphis.
I was drawn to this story because it is part of my world as a North Mississippian, but I also had a personal reason for assigning it. I wanted to better understand why my father purchased a gun on April 4, 1968.
A .22 revolver with a two-inch barrel and pearl colored handle was part of my childhood. It lay in a box about an inch thick atop the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets in our home. It was sometimes moved to different locations, but always placed high and seemingly out of reach. I was forbidden to touch it and rarely disobeyed, but sometimes I climbed on furniture and the counter so I could curiously examine it for a moment.
Never removed from the box, the gun was covered in a thick layer of oily dust. There were also bullets or ammunition in the container. I suppose if I had been inclined to do so, I could have taken it down, experimentally loaded it and fired it, but I had been warned not to touch the gun, so I didn’t.
The gun had been in the house since 1968 after my father purchased it the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. At the time, my father co-owned a community store, and a gun salesman came in April 4 selling handguns.
I was born six years later in 1974. The gun remained in the house until I was an adult. Furniture changed, wallpaper changed. Most items are temporary in our mass produced culture, but the gun was a constant household item, much like a Bible.
It was also a particularly remarkable item because my parents were typically left leaning Democrats in a sea of Republicans who viewed America from a perspective of being one step above poverty like most people we knew – children of parents who had survived the Depression. They were addicted to coffee, newspapers and the nightly news, and unlike many Mississippi men I knew, my father and his family didn’t hunt, so we had no other guns in our home.
Their interest in news and national and world events is probably part of the reason I became journalist. And if you work as a reporter in Mississippi – a state that often ranks first or last in poverty, health and quality of life issues – you are, perhaps above all else, a social justice reporter. It’s an important beat I had been hoping to incorporate into classroom assignments that I knew would challenge students to step away from common campus stories and learn firsthand about our state’s recent history from those who had endured it.
Any assignment or journalism project you do with students is always experimental because you know some will deliver and others will not, so I wasn’t exactly sure what the completed project would look like. Their objective was to interview a person over the age of 70 about their lives, their memories of Dr. King’s assassination, and the impact they believe his life and death had on them and the world. Many returned with compelling stories.
One student found Mary Redmond, who had met King after one of his speeches. He shook her hand and told her “things were going to get better.” This was an important encounter and message for a woman whose father was beaten to death because, as a child, she accidentally bumped the arm of a white girl.
They interviewed Hezekiah Watkins, who met King after Watkins was jailed at age 13 for being one of the youngest Freedom Riders. When he and one of his young friends wanted to get a closer look at the people who were traveling through Mississippi fighting for equality, they rode their bikes to the Greyhound Station in Jackson. There Watkins, a child, was arrested and jailed along with the others.
Students interviewed Senator Samuel Jordan, who personally attended the trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, charged with the murder of Emmett Till, 14, in 1955. Pitching in a quarter each for gas, Jordan set out for Sumner, Mississippi with friends and watched reporters interview Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother.
Students interviewed minister John Perkins, who in 1970, was tortured and almost beaten to death by law enforcement officers after students from Tougaloo College and Jackson State University organized a protest against police brutality.
They found and interviewed Roscoe Jones, a Meridian native and Bloody Sunday marcher, now 70, who had a personal relationship with Dr. King when he was president of the youth chapter of the NAACP during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
They interviewed Dr. Malcolm Taylor, one of Mississippi’s first black cardiologists, who became involved in the Civil Rights Movement in high school as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The group played an important role in civil rights demonstrations throughout the South, in the 1963 March on Washington, and with the Mississippi Freedom Summer, helping organize voter registration drives in the South.
They also interviewed others with memories they can’t shake. When Belinda Carter was around 10, her school bus driver drove past Carter and her siblings for a week as they stood on the side of the road waiting for the bus because the driver refused to pick up black children.
As a kid growing up in the 1960s, Cut Miller was a member of a student boxing team. About 50 percent of the team was black, but only white members were allowed to use the restroom of a local restaurant because the sign on the door read “White Only.”
While we are conscious of the fact that horrible things like this happened in the 1960s and prior, many stories are still shocking to read. It’s almost impossible to believe a nation collectively agreed it was acceptable to treat other human beings unfairly, and often brutally, because they viewed them as inferior and unequal. As Senator Jordan pointed out: “My whole life, I’ve wondered how a man can be faithful to the word of God and be a racist.”
Today, there is another wave of social justice activism happening in our country. Conversations are needed, but there is a lack of communication, listening and understanding – a roadblock for modern civil rights progression.
There is also a difference in reading about history in books and meeting someone face to face who has lived it. That is why I intend to continue using this project as a teaching tool.
As with the Holocaust, when people die, we lose their perspectives that are part of the Mississippi and American story. Their words offer a more detailed look at a time we must never repeat. They are warnings to treat others better, to evolve, to obey the Golden Rule and love our neighbor – principles of truth almost impossible to reject.
Some students who participated in this journalism project, like Sarah Kane, said their thoughts about it changed after interviewing their subject. “I realized that this was more than just another project,” she said. “This assignment was very special, and the content needed to be delivered in a very respectful and proud way. I look at life in a different way now because of my interview with Ms. Carter, and I am extremely honored that I got to take part in this assignment.”
Student Morgan Quinnley said she felt anxiety about the interview, but that changed during the conversation. “It was very insightful to see the world through someone else’s eyes,” she said. “After interviewing my subject, I became excited to complete the project and share her perspective. It was almost as if the project was designed with her in mind; everything came together seamlessly once I had her input.”
Student Katherine Johnson said the project made her realize how widespread King’s assassination was felt. “It was not consolidated to the African American population in any sense,” she said. “My time with Willingham allowed me to understand how this event molded the world that we see today. He shared with me his ideas on further breaking down the racial barriers in our society, and impressed that these were a continuation of King’s ideals. In my mind, this project changed from being about something isolated in the past to a topic that remains current and important in our modern world.”
Student Benjamin Warnick said after his interview, he saw things more clearly. “I truly understood the importance of preserving Dr. King’s legacy. In a time when our country is struggling to progress civilly, writers must shine a light on those who still believe in the right way to create change, as Dr. King so passionately dreamed of.”
The recent opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is another part of the Mississippi story and an example of state progression. I was struck by a quote from Merlie Evers, activist and wife of slain civil rights leader Medger Evers, who said: “If Mississippi can rise to the occasion, then the rest of the country should be able to do the same thing.” There is hope that we can lead the nation by teaching what we, as a whole, have survived and learned.
Many interviewed for the project recalled the aftermath of the assassination during which turmoil, violence and protests erupted all over the country. Some were uncertain how to continue a fight without a leader who emphasized peace. Should they take a different approach in the fight for equality? Change was coming one way or the other.
The gun my father bought was never used as an instrument of destruction. It was purchased for protection, defense against impending chaos and uncertainty sparked by the death of a peaceful leader. As Roscoe Jones said, “We prescribed to nonviolence, because we knew if we turned to violence, we would get everyone in Mississippi killed.”
Today, when I look back, I think the gun represents the fear of a changing world and Mississippi society. It was part of my life, yet never used, because Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on April 4, 1968.