Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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2360 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Beardless in Mississippi

by Walter Cummins

The summer of 2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, the media broadcasting many reminders of that heroic time, displaying old footage and photos of brave young people, black and white, who risked—and sometimes lost—lives just for encouraging long disenfranchised people to register as voters. Mississippi was the worst of the South, with its legacy of lynchings, its hulking sheriffs and snarling dogs, its bludgeoned black bodies thrown in ditches. That year I was a graduate student joining protest marches on the campus in Iowa City, far from the nightmare where Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman were murdered.

Reminders of 1960s Mississippi racism still roil me—documentaries, movies, decades-delayed trials of now decrepit Klan members. Back then, I seethed outrage that such a state could exist in America, that people could be brutalized merely for wanting to cast a ballot or go to school or sit at a lunch counter. Something had to be done. Despite the apprehension, the whiff of danger ahead, I felt compelled to become part of that something. But it wasn’t till the next spring, April 1965, that I joined a small group from the university to make a gesture.

The night before we began our drive south to Mississippi I shaved my beard. For days I had been telling myself I wouldn’t fear for my Northern liberal look and my Iowa license plates. But, shamefaced, I lathered up and scraped away for what seemed like an hour, the stinging skin beneath my cheekbones several shades paler than the rest of me. When I looked in the mirror, I knew it had been a foolish gesture. The White Citizens’ Council would spot me a mile away.

During spring break, a dozen of us—young faculty members and final-stage graduate students like me—had volunteered to help Rust College, an all-black institution in Holly Springs, improve its educational program. How we were going to do that wasn’t clear, but we assumed we would come up with ideas once we arrived. When others were putting their lives on the line, the least we could do was help some young people learn. After all, we were teachers.


I drove my new shiny red Volkswagen Beetle, squeezing in Karl, another English grad student, and a young assistant professor of higher education named Doug, along with our luggage. VWs in the 60s were not the luxury machines of today. Interior warmth came from a primitive mechanism, devices called heater junction boxes on each side of the car. Metal flaps wired to a knob near the gearshift regulated the flow of hot air emitted from the rear engine. Loosen to open, tighten to close. Except that, even in a car only a few months old, my knob didn’t work, wouldn’t shut. When we began the trip, I had no grasp of the device’s mechanism. The Iowa winters lasted many frigid months, and I never drove distances long enough to build up a substantial amount of engine heat.

But by the time we crossed the Missouri border, the three of us sweltered inside the tiny car—jackets off, shirts unbuttoned, glistening with sweat. And we still had hundreds of miles to go. After hours of polite squirming—having had enough martyrdom for one day—Karl and Doug finally asked if I could do something. I twisted the knob again, ineffectually. So, I pulled over to a gravel shoulder and crawled under the car, with no idea of what I was looking for. Yet I did notice the open flaps over square tubing coming from the back of the vehicle. I thought to push them closed by hand, first on one side of the car, then the other. That did the trick. No more heat. But it did get chilly. Those were the options for all the years I owned that car—all heat or all cold.


We stopped for the evening in St. Louis, the city of Karl’s undergraduate years, somehow finding our way to old Sportsmans Park for the Cardinals’ season opener. Our cheap seats far out in left field, home plate a distant speck, we shivered in jackets much too thin for the frosty night. Even though it was hard to focus on the game and not our toes, we endured the whole nine innings. Perhaps we knew we deserved the distress for our lapse, the distraction of amusement in the midst of a cause. The people who gave us their floor for a few hours sleep thought we were making a heroic journey. How could we admit frivolity? But, by the end of our first day, we had suffered heat, cold, and a restless night on hard wood.


Holly Springs lies at the top of Mississippi, not many miles below the Tennessee border. As we drove down Route 78 from Memphis, we felt ourselves in a strange land, great tangles of predatory vines and vegetation on both sides of the road, the landscape scarred by wide, empty flood ditches that would become lethal torrents after a storm. This was not the America we knew, the bizarre topography fitting for the realm we had entered, a land of misrule and violence.

When we arrived at Rust College in the late afternoon to join up with the other Iowa volunteers, several officials welcomed us—administrators, faculty, a few student leaders tapped for the occasion. Formal in their greetings, they were all delighted to see us. The dean, a serious grey-haired woman in a tailored suit, called us all Doctor, even those of us not yet degreed. We could see that they had high hopes for our visit.

The small campus was poor, the budget for maintenance and groundskeeping probably minimal. This was a private college. We wondered how many of the few hundred students could afford to pay tuition, even with scholarships. Where was the money coming from? The place had the look of just scraping by, faculty and staff working for a pittance.

We were fed in the cafeteria, pork and bitter greens, and given beds in the men’s dorm, where groups of students slept in large rooms, almost barracks style. Everyone we met was pleasant, as if they had rehearsed, on best behavior for the visiting dignitaries. They kept their voices and their music low, obviously uneasy at our presence. That may have been the reason the college moved us to a nearby motel after two nights. Or the officials may have thought that thin mattresses on metal cots were beneath us. That possibility concerned us. Though thankful for the privacy of a double room, we fretted that the college was wasting funds on our accommodations. We were there to be a help, not a liability.


To give that help, we sat in on classes, Karl and I in the literature courses. The Shakespeare class was typical, the instructor devoting the entire fifty minutes to playing scenes from a recording of Macbeth, now and then prompting the students to listen carefully to this or that speech. What advice could we offer that nice, earnest man? Give the kids a shot of G. Wilson Knight or J. Dover Wilson? The imagery catalogued by Carolyn Spurgeon? The minutiae of the variorum edition? This was his way of teaching Shakespeare. Students leaned toward the tiny speaker, ears cocked, desperate to learn.

Those from our group who visited classes in other disciplines had similar reports. They offered minor tidbits of guidance, suggestions to consider this technique for getting students to answer questions or that for preparing quizzes. At the same time, we felt compelled to fulfill the faith placed in us, inspire a transformation, an illumination. But where to begin?


Uneasy as I was about venturing outside, I was curious to see more of Mississippi than a college campus. A friend who had grown up in the state told me tales that revised my impressions of William Faulkner. What I had assumed products of a Gothic imagination turned out to be reporting, variations on local actualities—the idiot son brought to town who, when not watched closely, would roll down the car window and clamp a powerful hand onto the wrist of a passerby; the spinster sisters who shared an antebellum mansion and the back seat of a chauffeur-driven Packard but hadn’t spoken in decades.

The other Iowans were equally drawn to explore the flat countryside, riding out on the roads that led from Holly Springs into fields and farmland. The Mississippi we encountered fulfilled our expectations of poverty—small paint-bare houses with old wringer washers on sagging stoops, chickens pecking in the scrub grass, tireless cars sunk deep in weeds, scraggly curs snarling fiercely as we drove past, undernourished cattle, acres and acres of open land glutted with thick weeds. We had the sense of driving through a time capsule, back into the days of Reconstruction, only the wrecked machines reminding us of the new century.

Every time a pickup truck closed in behind us on the rutted country roads, we panicked, sure that some deputy sheriff, alerted to our visit, was about to lift a shotgun from its rack and blast away on the excuse of a faulty taillight. But no one bothered us. Perhaps we were small fry, intellectuals too effete and useless to be considered a threat to their way of life.


One afternoon, requiring needle and thread to repair a pair of trousers, I made an anxious trip to the town’s main street. The woman behind the counter of a dry goods store couldn’t have been more friendly and helpful, unblinking at my northern accent. “Yawl come back,” she called as I left her shop, the bell over the door tinkling softly when I pulled it open.


Another day we were taken to meet an elderly black farmer who had long played an important role in seeking rights for his community. My first reaction was to wonder how he had survived, why the White Citizens Council hadn’t dispatched his broken body into a muddy ditch along with so many others.

Rather than that small soft-spoken man, another one struck me as a heroic model, his brother, who strode through the farmyard weeds in high boots, erect, broad-chested, skin glowing like cordovan, casting a fierce eye at us, ignoring our greetings in tight-mouthed silence. I saw pride and arrogance, until someone whispered to me that he was simple-minded.


Back in the motel one evening, the Iowa group gathered in one room after dinner, I referred to the back brace I was wearing, a formidable apparatus of leather, laces, and heavy steel rods that held me rigid from my waist to my shoulders. It had been prescribed and constructed at the University’s orthopedic clinic when an x-ray revealed that, even though only in my twenties, I was suffering a degenerated disk. To demonstrate the contraption, I rapped knuckles on the metal under my shirt. “Hey,” Doug said, “they give me the same thing.” He was close to my age, but Allen, a tenured historian a decade older, revealed that he too was wearing the identical brace.

What were the odds that three of a dozen men assembled at random would suffer disks debilitated severely enough to be strapped into the same cumbersome prosthetic? We did discuss probabilities, compared symptoms, but no one said what we were thinking: while our aches received professional concern, supportive devices, the backs of people in Mississippi were still being whipped and beaten and burned.


The dean, somehow, found out that several of us had not yet received our doctorates and was clearly offended that we had allowed ourselves to be called “Doctor.” We hadn’t corrected her when she first used the word, thinking it might embarrass her in front of her faculty and, perhaps, wanting them all to think they were receiving advice from real scholars. Another mistake.


Our last night at Rust College, a Saturday, coincided with the formal spring dance, the cafeteria tables removed, the booths pushed back against the walls, white ribbons hung from the ceiling, the bare wooden floor a large dance space. Music came from several speakers wired to a record player. The dean and several faculty members officiated, with the students in formal attire—the men in tuxedos, starched fronts, and black bow ties, the women in pastel gowns. Between dances they sat silently in booths, males and females on opposite sides of the room. When the music started, one tune at a time, the men rose, crossed over and bowed before a woman, who stood and accompanied her partner to the middle of the floor. They danced stiffly, barely touching, and not speaking a word. At the end of the song, the men returned the women to their seats and then retreated to their own booths.

We, the academic authorities, clustered near the door to the kitchen, out of place in sport jackets, gaping at the ritual. Once, in Iowa, I had been invited by several of my students to chaperone their sorority dance at a hotel in Cedar Rapids. Despite white gowns, gloves, and dinner jackets, they spent the evening twisting to amplified rock and roll, the band live, the ballroom raucous. “It seems,” Alan, the historian, whispered, “that this is an emulation of a plantation society cotillion.”


In the morning, dean, faculty, and students lined up to shake our hands and thank us for all our help. But we knew we had been useless in Mississippi. Despite our great desire to do something, we had accomplished nothing. To have done so, we should have known where we were going, what we were doing. Today, African Americans vote in Mississippi. Recently they came out in numbers to block a Tea Party U.S. Senate primary candidate. Many have been elected to local offices. They attend the universities. No thanks to us.

When I got back home, driving straight through, many hours in a cold VW, my year-old daughter screamed at the stranger who picked her up. I tossed the razor, re-growing my beard so that both of us would recognize who I was.


“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury