Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Mississippi: The Baptists Not There

Mississippi Baptist Beginnings, Highway 61, Mississippi. February 2016.

Right before I left South Louisiana, I read the memoir by Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi. This woman was bold. Bold in life and bold in her writing. 

She's the 23 year-old woman in this iconic photo from the soda fountain counter here:

From right to left at counter: Anne Moody, Joan Trumpauer, and John Salter. 1963 at Woolworth's in Jackson, Mississippi. Credit: Fred Blackwell.

Ms. Moody grew up in Centreville and Woodville, Mississippi. I routed my departure from Louisiana through Mississippi's Highway 61 so I could pass close by these towns of her youth.

What I really would have liked to have done was find her and meet her. But Anne Moody died in February 2015. She was afflicted with dementia in her last years. Her younger sister, Ms. Adline, oversaw her care. When I read this, about her sister caring for her, I thought, holy damn, after what Ms. Moody was wont to write about her younger siblings back in the day, well, I wonder if the sisters had to walk on some prickly paths to get to a good place. In an excerpt from one of Ms. Moody's obituaries:
Adline Moody said Saturday that she admired the courage of her sister, who was two years her senior.
"We came from a very poor family, and when she joined the movement, she did it because it was something that needed to be done. She wasn't out there just to be there," Adline Moody said. "I'm very proud of her for what she did. She made it better for me."


On this day, I was driving on Highway 61, having left my Louisiana nest behind, and I saw signage indicating a historical site on my right as I flashed by. Oh. Did I want to stop? I'd have to turn around and go back, if yes. ... Probably something boring, but you never know, maybe it had something tangential to what I read in Ms. Moody's book. So I turned around and went back.

Right away I was impressed. The very first sign told me that the Baptist church has been in Mississippi since 1791. Wow, that long? 

Being raised a Roman Catholic, I don't know that much about Baptists except they generally feel confident that my kind of people are on the fast track to Hell, not being born again and all. I had thought Baptists came relatively late to the Christian buffet.

The Mississippi Baptist Beginnings historic site is a series of large signs arranged along a semi-circle turnabout, so it's very easy to take in the info while in your car.  When I entered the circle drive, I noticed a car parked up toward one end of the far bend. A woman inside, maybe having a picnic meal or just contemplating life. It's a pretty place.

I moseyed by each sign with my car, taking in about as much history as my brain allows in one sitting. When I got to the end, I thought, wait, something's missing. Did I overlook it? Let me go through it again. So I swung around for another turn through the exhibits.

I glanced over to the woman in the car. Opened my passenger seat window.

"Excuse me. Ma'am?" I asked.

"Yes?" she said, an African-American woman in her 30s or so.

"Is it my imagination or is there an important part of the Baptist history missing here?"

The woman looked at me without expression and without hesitation, and in a matter-of-fact voice, replied: "Yes, ma'am, there is."

In a location so close to where a woman of courage grew up, in the year 2016, was a monument to a history in which it would appear that only white people were Baptists, and only they who effected change in the society.

This is unfortunate. Not just because it fails to acknowledge the African-American contributions to Baptist history in Mississippi, but because it reinforces the stereotype of Mississippi as a backward stanchion of white rule. The historic memorial's blindness to the fuller history would seem to reflect the despair of Ms. Moody's closing passage in her 1960s Civil Rights memoir:

"I sat there listening to 'We Shall Overcome,' looking out of the window at the passing Mississippi landscape. Images of all that had happened kept crossing my mind: the Taplin burning, the Birmingham church bombing, Medgar Evers' murder, the blood gushing out of McKinley's head, and all the other murders. ...I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.
"'Moody...'" it was little Gene again interrupting his singing.
"'Moody, we're gonna git things straight in Washington, huh?'" 
I didn't answer him. I knew I didn't have to. He looked as if he knew exactly what I was thinking. 

"'I wonder. I wonder.'" ...

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