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Delta Dawn : NONFICTION : MISSISSIPPI: An American Journey, By Anthony Walton (Alfred A. Knopf: $24; 279 pp.)

February 18, 1996|Gary Phillips | Gary Phillips has family land in the Mississippi Delta. His second mystery novel, "Perdition, U.S.A.," will be out in May from John Brown Books

Like a sardonic blues refrain by Willie Dixon from Vicksburg or Charlie Patton off the Dockery Farms, the lessons of Mississippi offer hope and ruin.

Wrestling with that burden of memory, writer Anthony Walton, who is African American, sets out in "Mississippi: An American Journey" to discover the place his father couldn't wait to get away from.

Early on, Walton provides a violent backdrop to the state once known for having the highest number of lynchings within its borders. Beginning his exploration in Natchez, he recounts how the homelands of Native Americans like the Chickasaw and Natchez were first plundered by the conquistador Hernando De Soto in 1541, who demanded slave labor from his Chickasaw hosts, who promptly attacked the Spaniard's garrison in retaliation for his racial arrogance. It would be the French in 1740 who would finalize the genocide of the Natchez, then lose their usurped land to the English.

The maritime expansion of Britain in 1603 created more demand for the heretofore rare and durable material culled from raw cotton fibers. This spurred further expansion in the loam-rich states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. In 1720, the first African slaves were brought to Mississippi. In 1793, Eli Whitney's cotton gin was introduced. The machine sped up the process of separating the seeds from the cotton bolls. The slaves could now produce much more than the cost of their upkeep and racial arrogance finally turned a profit.

Walton slips easily from present-day interviews and thoughts into observations of the histories of the various regions of Mississippi. His reflections on the battle for Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold of the Civil War, is an example of his compelling writing:

"Here at Vicksburg an organized, modern commercial society had struck the older feudal order a harsh blow. I couldn't help wondering what had motivated those foot soldiers. For what did they think they were fighting?"

Maybe they fought to install the Black Codes barring citizenship rights to freed slaves after the Civil War. Then came those who would forge the divide of the races for the next century in the state.

Gazing at Gothic Revival mansions, Walton reflects on Tennessean Nathan Bedford Forrest, responsible for forming the Ku Klux Klan, as a murderous pale wraith who would plague blacks seeking equality in Mississippi. He writes of the head of the Mississippi Democratic Party, James Vardaman, as a conniving racist who spawned a legendary protege, politician Theodore Gilmore Bilbo, someone so vile to black people that even up North his name was synonymous with crackerhood. Then, after Bilbo's term as senator, there was James O. Eastland, another in the genealogy of haters whose reason for being was to disenfranchise darker Americans.

The author pays tribute to Mississippi freedom fighters like Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer. But it's at junctures such as these that Walton's book falters, his narrative skipping over people and events also significant to Mississippi.

He could have deepened his musings by introducing more about the unrecognized contributors, like Dr. T.R.M. Howard.

Howard, of Mound Bayou, was a black man who in 1952 helped organize the first annual meeting of the Mississippi Regional Council of Negro Leadership. Untapped too in the book is the work of the Communist-led Unemployed Councils in the 1930s, that organized in parts of Mississippi. In the '40s, the Committee of One Hundred for the General Improvement of the Condition of the Colored People worked for black voter participation; in 1946, the Progressive Voters League was established out of this grouping, some of the black and white organizers of these efforts dying in blood like Evers.

As Walton comes to the '60s, other aspects of the state's quixotic past are absent. Possibly this was to ensure a more personal balance to the tone of the book. For he skillfully uses Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, as a touchstone of the unresolved business of the state throughout the book. He manages an evocative passage about attending a football game where thousands of miniature Confederate flags are waved around him.

But the killings of protesting black students by police at Jackson State in 1970 are not considered here. Because this event often gets left out of historical accounts, while the killings of white students at Kent State that same year is always referred to, it seems an odd oversight. There is, as well, no mention of the Citizens Councils--the Klan in business suits--that operated with complicity from the FBI and used black informants as infiltrators and agents provocateurs in the civil rights movement.

Possibly the further intersections of politics and race are for some other memoir, some other analysis of Mississippi. "Mississippi" does provide insights into this small state of 2 million, whose large sombrous cloud hangs across America.

A place that even today we recognize, like a half-remembered distant relative--but, as Walton puts it, we would rather not embrace the bones.

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