There have been 45 Presidents of the US since King George III was sent packing. The US, though, has had three kings, who have left a lasting legacy. Next year is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, BB King was King the Blues, and Elvis was King of rock’n’roll. In this series we look at how they changed their country and the world.
It has been a long journey getting here – 6,800kms, 24 hours, two flights and a three-hour drive through the seasons.
But it has been a longer journey still for America – 50 years and counting. Fifty years since the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King.
Sixty years since the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till by two redknecks, the life that was famously not ‘worth a whistle.’
A hundred years of Jim Crow segregation laws and lynchings until the Civil Rights Movement overcame in the Sixties.
And 400 years since the first slaves were transported in coffin ships from Africa.
But we are here now.
Here in Jackson, Mississippi, for the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Museum of Mississippi History on a momentous morning in December, with hope and unseasonal Christmas snow (at least for this part of the world) in the air.
We are here with victims and descendants, while the rest of the world is watching for President Trump. He is inside for his own private visit.
We have much to look back on and much to look forward to, with 2018 set to be marked by a year of commemorations of Dr King, entitled MLK50.
We started off on this journey in Memphis at the Mason Temple where an under-the-weather Dr King was persuaded in 1968 to speak to the congregation.
He told his followers that he had been to the mountain top and seen the Promised Land before cautioning that he might not get there with them.
Our guide Ekpe is an ordained minister, like Dr King, and is representing the most arrested family of the Civil Rights movement as the youngest of 14 children.
It is 50 years since the darkest of dark days for that movement, but Ekpe has an instant recall of April 4, 1968 – the day of Dr Martin Luther King’s assassination – and how, even as a child, he felt that his world could never be the same from that day on. It is a privilege to be in his company.
We will meet his niece Alana too on this journey. She will escort us around Memphis’s Slave Haven museum where she proudly talks of her roots and how the family had managed to trace them back to West Africa.
For those who wish to trace the roots of author Alex Haley, who for many of us was our first introduction to the African-American story through his groundbreaking TV series Roots, in the Seventies, his boyhood home is nearby in Henning, Tennessee.
Haley was a contemporary of Dr King, a fellow son of slaves, adding his important narrative to the unfolding story of the march to freedom.
In April 1968, Dr King was writing his own final chapter. He had come to Memphis to support the sanitation workers who were striking for equal rights with white council workers. Two African-American workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, had been crushed to death in a compressor.
Black workers were exposed daily to dangerous working conditions and could not afford to be off work: they would not be paid if they were off sick or late.
The deaths were the final straw for their colleagues.
Dr King was to be met with opposition from the authorities who accused him of stirring up trouble. Undeterred, he warned that he would return if nothing was done.
He received more death threats during his visit, prompting that eerie forewarning that he might not get to the Promised Land.
And he didn’t – shot down the following day at the Lorraine Motel, now incorporated into the Civil Rights Museum where we choke back the tears, not for the last time on this journey.
Myrile Evers-Williams did get to the Promised Land, but not her husband Medgar, Mississippi’s leading Civil Rights activist who was shot down in his carport in 1963 as he took T-shirts out of the boot, Myrlie having to duck for cover inside and usher the kids to hide in the bath.
She is there for the opening of the museums in Jackson, as are the Evers children, here to tell it on the mountain top.
She admits that she has wept and has felt the blows. But she has also felt the hope and is still prepared, even at 85, to carry on the fight.
Fannie Lou Hamer was a fellow foot soldier on the march to freedom, taking her message for African-American voter rights all the way to the Democratic Convention and to the television screens of America.
She was ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired.’
You can follow hers and the story of other African-Americans, or slaves as they used to be known, here in Mississippi along the famous Highway 61, immortalised in song by Bob Dylan as was Medgar Evers.
There is a Freedom Trail where you can visit Fannie Lou Hamer’s statue at Ruleville (think Jim Larkin’s on O’Connell Street) and grave, and Blues Trail (music is where the Movement found its expression).
And you can follow their journey too in Memphis where you can pick up the track of the Underground Railroad at Slave Haven where blacks were spirited to freedom along the Mississippi and up to the North, sometimes by well-meaning white masters, often at great risk to themselves.
We did both.
Waking up on the coach journey going from Memphis, Tennessee to Cleveland, Mississippi, to a blanket of snow covering the fields of Mississippi conjured up images of a different time, a different season.
Of cotton fields and thousands of slaves out a-pickin’ in the fields in the 90-degrees-plus heat of the summer with 90-degree-plus humidity, working their fingers to the bone to meet their quote so they wouldn’t be whipped – or worse.
Now, most of the world’s cotton is produced in China.
The slaves would sing their gospel spirituals to keep their spirits up – but not because they were wide-eyed simple innocents dreaming of delivery from their hell on Earth and redemption in the next world.
The slaves, the flower of their tribes when they were taken in chains onto the coffin ships, were instead plotting their escape in Wade Down By The Water when they sang about getting off the trail and wading in the Mississippi, Ohio and tributary rivers as to give the bloodhounds the slip.
Many were led to the Promised Land of the free states by Harriet Tubman (she will feature on the new run of $20 bills) who escaped but returned to lead more slaves to freedom along the Undeground Railroad.
One of the most familiar spiritual songs, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, was said to refer to Harriet, who had a bounty equivalent a million dollars on her head, coming to carry slaves home.
It and many other slave songs, born in the cotton fields of Tennessee and Mississippi would have been regularly sung at Dr King’s services and in the juke joints and blues bars of those two states where Riley ‘BB’ King really was king – and where our journey takes us next.
NEXT PART; THAT’S WHY THEY CALL IT THE BLUES… BB KING, BEALE & THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA
HOW TO GET THERE
Jim flew with United Airlines www.united.com. Dublin to Newark, New Jersey and then onto Memphis, returning Jackson, Mississippi to Houston, Texas, then onto Newark and onto Dublin. Car hire, three nights Memphis – Peabody Hotel, one night Cleveland, Mississippi at the Hampton Inn, two nights Natchez at the Burns B&B, two nights Jackson, Mississippi at the Westin. Costs may vary. Lead-in cost per person £1,655 (€1865). Visit Mississippi Civil Rights Museum www.mcrm.mdah.ms.gov. Visit Museum of Mississippi History www.mmh.mdah.ms.gov. Visit Slave Haven www.slavehaven.memphis.com. Visit Civil Rights Museum incorporating the Lorraine Motel where Dr King was assassinated www.civilrightsmuseum.net.
First published in the Irish Daily Mail in December 2017