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Louisiana to Wyatt Tee Walker: Are You Crazy?

How do you tell if a Civil Rights activist is crazy?

Would it help to ask him, “Why do you believe in integration?” Or, “Do you feel like people are against you?”

Or maybe this question would do the trick. “Do you think I hate colored people any more than I hate northern Yankee bastards?”

Wyatt Tee Walker About a year after his arrest in Jackson as a Freedom Rider (right), the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker was arrested in Shreveport, LA, at the Little Union Baptist Church.

It was the evening of June 8, 1962. Inside the church, Martin Luther King was speaking about voting rights. Outside, Walker was imploring the police to guard the rear of the church as well as the front. King and Walker had flown to Shreveport earlier in the day from Atlanta, despite a death threat against King if he came to town.

According to Walker, J. E. Downes, the Commissioner of Public Safety, refused to discuss any security details. “G’wan inside!” was all he would say. But Walker kept asking and soon enough Downes arrested him and Harry Blake, an SCLC associate. The charge? Loitering.

So far, so typical. Louisiana officials, however, were not always content with the standard misdemeanor charges for activists. Earlier in the year Baton Rouge had charged three SNCC organizers with “criminal anarchy” — trying to overthrow the state of Louisiana. Shreveport went a different way: they asked the Caddo Parish coroner to conduct a lunacy test.

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A Confederate Veteran Speaks: What the Monuments Mean

An updated and expanded version of this post appeared in the Clarion-Ledger on August 12, 2018.

What do Confederate monuments mean? This is apparently a question that continues to vex many.

Perhaps Wiley N. Nash, Mississippian and Civil War veteran, can help.

“What good purpose,” he asked in 1908, “is subserved, promoted and supported by the erection of these Confederate memorials all over the South?”

#Shorter Nash reply: “White people shall rule the South forever.”

But of course Nash had studied both literature and the law at the University of Mississippi, so his actual answer came fully attired in his best Lost Cause finery:

Like the watch fires kindled along the coast of Greece that leaped in ruddy joy to tell that Troy had fallen, so these Confederate monuments, these sacred memorials, tell in silent but potent language, that the white people of the South shall rule and govern the Southern states forever.

Wiley was the featured speaker on December 2, 1908, when the white citizens of Lexington, Mississippi, gathered for ceremonies to unveil their new Confederate monument. It was typical of the memorials then going up across the south: A generic soldier standing atop a stone column, in front of the county courthouse.

The column is of modest height, not as tall as the one in Natchez, say, nor does it feature any secondary statues at its base, as the one in Greenwood does. Both were richer cities. Still, the monument’s debut was something to be celebrated. A college band played “Dixie.” A group of school children sang “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” Civil War Veterans paraded along with eleven girls chosen to represent the eleven seceding states of the Confederacy.

Nash was eminently qualified for his leading role. He was a Mississippian by birth, and a lawyer who had served both in the state legislature and as the state’s attorney general.

More to the point, he had fought in the war, riding in various cavalry units. Equally important, after the war he had fought in the campaign to restore white rule in Mississippi. Nash “did as much as any one man,” read one of his obituaries, “to assist in gaining control of the state government and accomplishing the overflow [sic] of carpet bag and Negro rule.”

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New Footage of the Freedom Riders in Jackson

Mississippi, U.S.A. — a 30-minute TV news report first aired 55 years ago — is a significant new addition to the visual history of the Freedom Rides, and a stark portrait of Jackson on the verge of great change.

The news report covered the arrival of the first Riders into Jackson on May 24, 1961. It was produced by WKY-TV, the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City. I recently came across a link to it on Twitter; it’s been on YouTube for about 18 months, part of a collection of early TV news from WKY.

What makes Mississippi, U.S.A. so valuable? It has the first footage I’ve ever seen of the Riders at the Greyhound station in Jackson, and more footage than I’ve seen before of the Riders at the Trailways station.

Mississippi, U.S.A. also has interviews with several key players:

But wait, there’s still more:

Why was a local Oklahoma TV station in Jackson to cover the Rides? I don’t know yet. I do know that Scott Berner, one of the report’s producers, had worked in news at a TV station in Montgomery in the late 1950s, so presumably he would been aware of the movement and been paying attention as the Riders headed south from Washington, DC, in early May 1961.

As a piece of reporting, Mississippi, U.S.A. does a good job of showing and framing the moment. But it stumbles badly in trying to understand the status of the local movement. When William Simmons asserts that most blacks in Mississippi “prefer” segregation, the WKY team meekly concurs. “Outwardly they have shown little interest in the battle” for integration, the narrator intones, unable to imagine (or report) any other reason for the absence of sit-in protests in Jackson the year before, or for the fact that there were no Mississippians among the first 24 Riders to arrive in Jackson. (They would soon join in droves.)

Also, the WKY team doesn’t anticipate the flood of Riders soon to descend on Jackson, despite Charles Oldham clearly explaining CORE’s new plan to fill the city’s jails, and despite the fact that their own footage shows Riders from the third bus into Jackson, on May 28. (See Catherine Burks-Brooks, Etta Simpson and Clarence Wright, left to right, beginning at the 13:45 mark.)

The arrival of the third bus, four days after the first two, meant the Riders had abandoned their original destination of New Orleans in favor of “jail, no bail” in Jackson. But the WKY story doesn’t catch the shift in strategy (even though it does accurately report that most of the Riders had refused to bail out).

As a piece of early TV news, the WKY report is fascinating for its repeated use of “Dixie” as a soundtrack, especially during the several-minute montage showing the Riders at the two bus stations (from 10:10 to 14:28).

As TV, the WKY report is also notable for being shot by Houston Hall, who would go on to become one of the most respected cameraman in the trade. According to one poster at b-roll.net, a TV photography discussion site, “Houston Hall was perhaps the most solid shooter in the history of TV news and the man never zoomed. He just composed beautiful pictures.”

Another poster provides some of Hall’s backstory:

Houston Hall … when I started in the business that name was the equivalent of Babe Ruth in baseball. Houston was a rich kid from Oklahoma City who talked his parents into buying him a professional film camera when he was in his teens. He did some stringing and then was hired by WKY in Oklahoma City around 1960. I can’t prove this but I believe that Houston may be the inventor of the sequence as it applies to television news. He was (and is) a master of our craft and an artist to boot.

Thanks to Hall, Scott Berner and co-producer Gene Allen, we now have this incredible record of the Riders in Jackson. Their reporting and analytical shortcomings notwithstanding, this is a great addition to the history of the Freedom Rides, a wonderful gift on the campaign’s 55th anniversary.

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