In 1954, I was three years old. In that year, my parents moved from Louisiana to Jackson Mississippi. Our family of four, soon to be six souls, stayed in Jackson until I was in the sixth grade, 1962. Then we moved back to Louisiana.
All around us at that time the world was changing big time. I was, of course, clueless, being just a kid. Living in a humble, GI-bill enabled suburb, l and my whitey neighborhood playmates were quite insulated from the maelstrom of civil rights-fueled social change that was gathering momentum in Jackson and in the whole state of Mississippi and the South, and later the North.
I was in a Catholic school; it was nice enough, and I had some good friends there. Although the US Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, had established a legal path toward school desegregation in 1954, I never saw a black classmate until I was in junior high school in Baton Rouge a few years later.
My first impressions of black folk in Jackson came mostly through our maid, Aleen. She was a very nice lady. Many an afternoon, my sister and I would accompany my mother as she drove Aleen home from her day-job at our home. Aleen’s home was what we would politely call the “other side of town,” although it wasn’t really in town, but seemed to me to be out in the country somewhere nearby. The vivid image in my child’s mind was of a dirt road lined by houses that I later learned are called “shotgun shacks.”
In 2011, Dreamworks released a movie about what was developing in Jackson at that time. You’ve probably seen it: The Help. It is an excellent film, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett and it absolutely confirms all my juvenile impressions and memories of Jackson in the 1950s. But of course, as I said before, being a kid I had no idea of what was really going on behind all that docile southern comfort status quo.
Recently, I have decided to write a fictional historiography about growing up in the South during that time, and about how being a born-n-bred southerner interfaced with what the rest of our country was becoming. This novel, my fourth, is tentatively named King of Soul. (Preview: I am not “the King.”) The book being written follows the novel Smoke, which I have just published.
I do a lot of historical research. Learning about history is what propels me as a writer. I turn the research into fiction that, I feel represents a certain time period or zeitgeist. Finally I am doing one now on the actual time and place of my growing up.
My daughter Katie, who nobly attempts to be my editor, tells me that my protagonist’s depth suffers in the midst of all my fictionalized history. She is of course correct in this critique. Certainly I will learn the lesson of satisfactory protagonist development in this next project, instead of obsessing with making the history itself the main character.
To begin research I have picked up several books at the Belk library, Appalachian State University, here in Boone NC where I live, where Pat and I have raised our three grown young’uns. This researching will be my modus operandi. Before King of Soul is finished in a few years, I probably will have consulted with a hundred or more sources from that library, as well as our local Watauga County library.
The Kindle, and Wikipedia, and real historians posting online, and so forth are also major components of my publishing projects.
To get into the King of Soul, I am reading, among other things, Michael Vinson Williams’ opus of history research, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr, and also A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg.
So, by doing, I am finally getting the back-story of what was really going on while I was growing up in Jackson Mississippi in the 1950s and Baton Rouge Louisiana in the 1960s.
I graduated from high school in 1969. What does that tell ya? Should be a fascinating period to reflect upon.
All of this to say: at the present moment I am here to share with you three of the most interesting historical facts I have learned in preparation to writing the fictional historiography.
1. From Williams’ book on Medgar Evers: When Medgar returned to the USA after soldiering to defending our country and Europe in 1946, he had to “go to the back of the bus.”! What kind of a welcome was that for a man who had survived D-Day and World War II in Europe? Mr. Evers went on to do very persistent, determined work in voter registrations in Mississippi in the ’50s and ’60s, and became a great leader in the civil rights movement before he was shot down in the dark of night by a white supremacist in his own front yard in Jackson in 1963. That was just a few months before they got Kennedy.
2. From Greenburg’s book on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): Through volunteering in the civil rights movement in the South, empathetic activists from other areas of the country learned how it’s done. For instance: after working with the blacks down south, Mario Savio took his SNCC experience back to Berkeley, where he lead the Free Speech Movement that soon initiated protest against the Vietnam war. Also, after working with blacks down south, Tom Hayden returned to Michigan and authored, with his SDS comrades, the Port Huron Statement which was the beginning of Students for a Democratic Society.
3.What I am seeing now about the time period is this: As the civil rights movement gathered steam in the mid-’60s, a rift developed between the moderates (such as Medgar Evers, the NAACP, Dr. King, SCLC, John Lewis, Julian Bond, etc.) and the radicals (such as Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, SNCC, Panthers, Malcolm X, etc.) This parting of ways is similar to what happened among the anti-Fascists and also among the anti-Communists in Europe of the 1930s, a subject of my new novel, Smoke. The peaceful v. violent disagreement is also, I believe, indicative of protest movements generally, such as the two biggies: the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. Probably the next revolution, too, whatever becomes of that.
As for me, the kid growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, well. . . shut my mouth, I’m a child of the South. But I’m a commencin’ to write about it. Thank ye for your time.