Jews, blues and the fight for civil rights and freedom in America's Delta plains

Paul Harris takes an emotional journey through the towns and cottonfields of the Deep South of America to the birthplace of blues, soul and rock 'n' roll

'Please thank your people for all you did for us," I was implored. Not once or twice. Or even three times.

It was a constant plea throughout America's Deep South, the centre of the battle for civil rights and against black oppression.

Civil rights' veterans, who had been on the frontline of the brutal centuries' long fight; men and women who had witnessed beatings, bloodshed and murder and who themselves had been bowed but unbeaten wanted to shake my hand when they learned I was Jewish.

From custodians of the civil rights' heritage to worshippers at the Cave gospel church in Jackson, all were aware of a shared history of unjust, sustained prejudice and intolerance.

They were eager to point me to prominent Jews who had championed the cause of blacks when others not only turned a blind eye but caused them untold suffering.

They were aware, too, of their own leaders like Dr Martin Luther King, who often expressed gratitude for Jewish support.

But there I was in Mississippi for the opening of the conjoined museums of civil rights and history, the former celebrating the fight for equality and freedom from oppression for Black Americans.

And yet, on the very eve of their opening, the healed schisms that should have been long buried threatened to derail the much awaited inauguration.

Massive controversy surrounded President Donald Trump's scheduled speech at the opening event.

He eventually opted to address a small group and not the large, assembled audience, as civil rights veterans, elected officials and high profile figures boycotted the ceremony, citing Trump's insensitivity towards minorities and his refusal to condemn the white supremacists in Charlottesville.

And Myrlie Evers-Johnson, widow of Medver Evers, a human rights activist who was gunned down on his drive in 1963, was deeply upset by the need for two museums, initially feeling that there was segregation all over again.

It seemed that old wounds, considered long healed, were about to be reopened.

While the Trump controversy remained unresolved, Ms Evers, while refusing to meet the president, performed a volte face and is now gushing about both museums after a private preview, insisting that now she understands the relevance and need for two.

She addressed the opening crowd emotionally, with silent protesters against Trump listening on, their lips sealed with stars and stripes tape.

Speaking after a rousing rendition of the 'Black American national anthem', Let Every Voice Rise and Sing, sung to the tune of God Save the Queen, Myrlie, still feisty at 84 despite being wheelchair-bound, described how she had emerged from the previous hatred of the state of Mississippi.

"I love my state," she said. "I understand the two museums because one is not complete without the other.

"These museums are priceless and the learning that will flow from them."

On one of the most important days in Jackson's history, even the mayor felt constrained to stay away because of Trump.

Unlike Myrlie, he could not bring himself to see the fruition of years of work which has put his town firmly on the American map with the state's first dedicated civil rights museum.

"I'll simply say this without even referencing Trump himself," said mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, "the opening of the Civil Rights Museum is an important moment of a recognition of struggle, and out of that struggle we've seen people historically rescue themselves in a state that has been known for some of the most negativity that the world has ever seen."

He described Trump's presence at the opening as "an intolerable contradiction".

But Myrlie, who was at home the day her husband was assassinated, the high velocity bullet passing straight through his body and through the walls of their home (the hole in the kitchen wall can still be seen), was enthusiastic about the museums.

"You have the sounds of the horror, but also the sounds of bringing together the state of Mississippi, she said.

Accompanied by her grandson, named after Medver, she insisted: "I believe in the state of my birth and that is something I never thought I would say.

"In going through the museum I got a better understanding of the state, and I thought I knew the state of my birth.

"I wept. I felt the blows, I felt the bullets, but I felt in those people and those children."

But in a scarcely disguised attack on Trump, she declared: "We in America are still suffering from the same ills we have suffered over the years."

I asked her later what she might say to the President if she met him. "It's unrepeatable," she said.

Myrlie describes the Civil Rights Museum far better than any public relations person can. After all, she lived the struggle and suffered for it.

"Learn about those who were prepared to put their lives on the line," she said.

"Come tell it on the mountain that Mississippi has two museums linked together in love, in life and in justice."

She added: "Events that happened during the civil rights era in Mississippi changed America and changed the world.

"That's why there were two museums and not one."

One shows the history of Mississippi and having the Civil Rights Museum made a lot of sense symbolically and practically."

Myrlie admitted that after Medver's assassination all she wanted was to get her hands on a machine gun, "but there are times when I say to Medver, 'Thank you for teaching me to forgive'."

She told me that viewing the museums had changed her in that she had seen what was possible. "I felt renewed, whether or not I was in a wheelchair," she said.

And in another swipe at Trump, she added: "It can happen for anyone - or almost anyone. You can take that any way you want."

I asked her what her message was amid increasing antisemitism.

"Perhaps it is a necessity in this world of human beings to have more than one kind of blot policy that transforms itself into action," she said.

"I personally see negatives as a challenge, a challenge to eradicate the evils of hatred, prejudice, racism and the strength to find ways to fight them.

"I believe in using the words of the old song of the civil rights movement that we will overcome that, but it takes people of strength, determination and the willingness to sacrifice for those freedoms."

At the museum was 78-year-old Wheeler Parker, a civil rights veteran, who was with his friend, 14-year-old African-American Emmett Till, when he was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after a white woman said she was offended by him in her family's grocery store.

The brutality of his murder and the fact that his killers were acquitted drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans.

Parker, today a pastor, told me to be sure to view the exhibit dedicated to Julius Rosenwald, a Jew who arranged grants for community built schools for black children when he realised that the state had refused to provide adequate education for them.

By the time the Great Depression ended in the 1930s, there were 632 Rosenwald schools in Mississippi alone, and 5,000 institutions throughout America.

I had primed myself for the Deep South experience by rewatching the film, 12 Years A Slave, as I crossed the Atlantic and its horrors are borne out a hundred-fold in the museums and commemorative sites of the region.

I'm greeted at the Civil Rights Museum by its director, Pamela Junior, who holds up her right arm and jangles her many silver bracelets which, she says, serve as a daily reminder of the chains her ancestors were forced to wear.

She points to the museum's lynching tree symbol which recalls that more than 600 black people were lynched in the State of Mississippi. Some were thrown into the river.

My quest to understand more about what prompted the civil rights movement in the south and how it emerged victorious, began in Memphis.

Beale Street runs through the downtown, once the centre of black business and today packed with neon-lit blues' clubs, including the iconic BB King's, the Jerry Lee Lewis Cafe and Honky Tonk's.

It was in Memphis that Dr Martin Luther king was assassinated in 1968, Four days earlier he had made his famous "I had a dream" speech.

The National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel, where he was shot, is a timely reminder of the city's unsavoury past.

Visitors can see room 306 in which Dr King was staying before venturing on to its balcony where he was hit by an assassin's bullet.

The hotel was one of the few places which welcomed African Americans.

You get a clear view of the position from where the gunman, James Earl Ray, fired the fatal shot. Then visitors can enter the former lodging house where he had locked himself in a toilet before the attack.

Did Ray, regarded as somewhat simple, carry out the attack at all? Dr King was struck perfectly through his bowtie, the work of a true marksman.

How did he escape to London where he was arrested at Heathrow?

Were the CIA involved? Why were black fireman at their station opposite the Lorraine given time off the day Dr King was due to speak?

The conspiracy theories continue to be advanced.

Dr King was an outspoken advocate of Israel's security and opposed antisemitism, especially among the African-American community.

Dr King once told a Jewish audience in Long Island that there there was virtually no antisemitism within the Negro community.

And, speaking at the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly in 1968, Dr. King said: "Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect her right to exist, its territorial integrity and the right to use whatever sea lanes it needs.

"Israel is one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvellous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.

"Peace for Israel means security, and that security must be a reality."

It is unconfirmed that he once said: "When people criticise Zionists, they mean Jews. You're talking antisemitism."

At the museum famous landmarks in civil rights history are well presented, like the Montgomery bus boycott and the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike started after two black workers, seeking shelter from the heavy rain on their refuse truck were crushed to death its machinery.

White workers, as always, had been allowed to go home because working in such adverse weather conditions was impossible.

One Memphis local told me: "Sanitation workers are rock stars here in Memphis because of what they stood for."

Rabbi Michael Greenstein is a museum board member. Spokesman Faith Morris told me that many members of the local Jewish community attend events there.

"We've had a sort of kinship with the Jewish community. That's why we follow Dr King's example on Jews."

In March, 1965, prior to the voting rights act being enacted, President Lyndon Johnson declared: "There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem."

The following year Dr King said: "I am tired of getting hit, tired of getting beaten, tired of going to jail. But the important thing is not how tired I am. The important thing is to get rid of the conditions that lead us to march."

By 1969, Dr Charles Evers became the black mayor of Fayette, Jefferson County, Mississippi, announcing: "Hands that once picked cotton now pick the mayor."

Virtually every site has a story to tell about civil rights and there are plenty of local who will relate their history.

I'm escorted round Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum by Alana Turner, a house owned in the mid-18th century by Jacob Burkle, a livestock trader and baker.

Alana's mother, Elaine, was a civil rights activist in the 1960s and arrested three times.

Slave Haven is reputed to have served as an escape route for fleeing slaves.

Visitors can see the cellar and secret passages where they were supposed to have been hidden before escaping to boats to take them to the free states north of the Ohio River.

The museum has a wealth of memorabilia, including chilling posters and pictures of the dreadful conditions endured by slaves being transported by sea from Africa, spending 23 hours a day lying on wooden slats in rows.

Alana said: "Slave ships could be herd and smelt from miles away and bodies were just tossed overboard for the sharks. It became embedded in the sharks' DNA. They just followed the blood and didn't hunt for 300 years."

One poster advertises for "100 good Negroes", another "twenty-five likely young negroes", but with more each month arriving from North and South Carolina.

I also hear the story behind some of the quilts on display, made by slaves but often carrying cryptic codes which allowed them to communicate secretly about escape.

Negro spirituals were often secretly coded, too. Swing Low Sweet Chariot for instance refers directly to the Underground Railroad and escape from slavery.

The moment African labourers stepped ashore in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, slaves became part of American culture.

Slavery in America lasted nearly 250 years with 12 generations held captive. Blues and soul music are very much entwined in the history of slavery in America's south.

Soul is often referred to as gospel music with secular lyrics.

In the 1950s, James Brown, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke were instrumental in bridging the musical worlds of gospel and rhythm and blues.

Stax Records, now a museum, was founded in Memphis, in 1957 as Satellite Records, the label changing to Stax in 1961.

It was a major factor in the creation of Southern soul and Memphis soul music, also releasing gospel, funk, jazz, and blues recordings.

A spokesman told me: "Stax was in the hearts and minds of the people, not in the bricks and mortar. Stax will live on for ever."

Names such as Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Booker T and the MGs, Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett will for ever be associated.

Hayes' solid gold Cadillac is on display, presented to him as part of a new contract.

The Lorraine Motel, where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated, was one of the few places where black Stax personnel could socialise.

They held meetings there, swam, ate fried chicken and drunk cherry "kijafa" wine.. Many visiting artistes stayed there too and numerous songs were written in the bedrooms.

Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd wrote In the Midnight Hour in Wilson Pickett's room, which became a huge hit, as did Knock on Wood, which they also penned there.

Dr King's death led to the demise of Stax which had been an integrated company with black and white personnel working together.

Within six months Otis Redding's plane had crashed and Stax's catalogue was lost to Atlantic Records.

"The company lost its musical past, its biggest stars and momentously its spirit," added the spokesman. "Stax was colour blind."

The Blues, soul and rock 'n' roll have their roots in Memphis and were born directly from the slave trade and black oppression.

The story began in the countryside of Mississippi where the cotton-pickers expressed their trials, tribulations, hopes and dreams through song.

They migrated to Memphis to obtain better employment, and brought their music with them, including country gospel, jazz and blues.

Cotton had been king among the black and white share-croppers who worked side-by-side.

Each generation added its own instruments and styles.

BB King's Blues Boy was specifically about conditions black people faced in America. Music made people feel better about themselves. As one musician commented to me: "The Blues make a sick man get out of his bed and walk."

Dockery Plantation, a cotton plantation and sawmill between Ruleville and Cleveland, Mississippi is widely regarded as the place where Delta blues music was born. Musicians resident at Dockery included Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf.

Sun Records, opened by Sam Phillips, attracted artists from poor backgrounds, including Charlie Rich, Howlin' Wolf and Johnny Cash. It was the first major studio in Memphis when it opened in 1950.

Today it's a museum and visitors will see Elvis Presley memorabilia, for it was there that he was first discovered after arriving to make a personal $4 recording of My Happiness. Its studio is still used today.

The Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, under the auspices of the Smithsonian features early blues, the Sun Studio and Stax Records era of the 1970s, and its continuing influence today.

It honours the musical pioneers who overcame barriers to create music that took the world by storm.

It's a civil rights' story in itself, with black and white teenagers coming together, the latter becoming obsessed with black music and its rhythm.

There's the Arcade Diner where Elvis Presley would take his regular window seat and his former red-brick home.

Visit Presley's Graceland mansion. There's also a museum on site featuring much of his gathered paraphernalia, with his collection of cars, featuring a pink Cadillac and black and white Rolls Royces.

Climb on to his Corvair 770 plane and see the dining room, his bedroom and luxury bathroom.

Mound Bayou, a city in Bolivar County, Mississippi, was notably described by former president Theodor Roosevelt as "the jewel of the delta".

It was founded as an independent black community in 1887 by by Isaiah Montgomery and his cousin Benjamin T Green former slaves of Jefferson Davis, brother Joseph Davis, former President of the Confederacy.

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