“That boy is one tough son of a bitch.” –John Hamilton Carpenter
My friend, Morris Carpenter, picked me up in Jackson and gave me and my bicycle a ride to his home in Philadelphia, Mississippi. I’d be spending a week with him and his wife Marianna, the first major break in my bike ride. Morris and I go way back, all the way to 1961 when we were in student politics together at a community college in Northern California. Later, we both served as Peace Corps Volunteers in West Africa. I’ve written about that experience in my book, The Bush Devil Ate Sam. Our paths have crossed numerous times since.
When my first wife and I parted ways, Morris even got the kid, our 70-pound Basset Hound, Socrates. Morris was living in Maine at the time, working for the Penobscot Indians. He had kept Socrates for us while Jo and I had spent six months travelling in the South Pacific and Asia. When we had returned and Jo had decided that she wanted a more stable, middle class life than my love of wandering and work for nonprofits supported, I’d called Morris with the bad news and asked if he could keep Socrates for a while longer. “He’s my dog now,” Morris had declared. He had fallen for the lovable, stubborn hound.
Now Morris was working for the Choctaw Indians as their housing director. He had picked up his expertise by rebuilding villages in Vietnam destroyed by the Viet Cong. In coming to Mississippi, he had come home. His roots were deep. His mom and dad had moved from the state to Northern California in the early 40s where his father had gone to work in the lumber industry. Morris, like me, had been born in Southern Oregon. For a while, when his dad had gone off to fight the Japanese in World War II, his mom had moved Morris and his sister back to the small town of Conway, Mississippi to live with their Uncle Wilson. The community is approximately 25 miles west of Philadelphia.
Morris still had many relatives living in the area. I was invited to a gathering of the clan. They wanted to meet Morris’s friend who was so crazy he would go on a 10,000-mile bike ride by himself. We sat around drinking bourbon and eating delicious Southern fried chicken while I entertained them with tales of life on a bicycle. Afterwards, Morris told me that his cousin, John Hamilton Carter, had said, “That boy is one tough son-of-a-bitch.” Morris assured me it was a compliment.
One day he had taken me for a ride over to Conway to revisit his childhood home. While we were out and about, he had driven me by the earthen dam outside of Philadelphia where three young civil right’s workers had been buried in 1964. They had been killed by the Ku Klux Clan in cooperation with the local city police and county sheriff’s department. A Baptist preacher had orchestrated the murders.
The three had been working to register black voters. Mississippi had passed a constitution in 1890 effectively blocking blacks from voting. Using law and violence, the state had maintained the status quo since. Supreme Court rulings in the early 60s had challenged such laws. College students from throughout the nation had been recruited by civil rights organizations to help out during Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer.” Many Mississippians had been infuriated with this outside interference in their state. Thousands had joined the KKK.
I had listened to recruiters for the effort that spring at Berkeley. The idea appealed to me but I had to work summers to pay for my education. While I was driving a laundry truck between Placerville and Lake Tahoe, the young people were killed. Several students at Berkeley, including Mario Savio, had heeded the call, however, and spent their summer in Mississippi. The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley that fall had grown out of the University’s efforts to block students from participating in such efforts. I’ve blogged about my involvement in the protest.
A massive investigation by the FBI was ordered by the US Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy. The FBI designated the effort, Mississippi Burning. (The 1988 movie Mississippi Burning starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe was loosely based on the 1964 incident.) Eighteen individuals were eventually charged. When the state refused to prosecute them, they were tried in federal courts. Seven were eventually found guilty and received relatively light sentences. None served more than six years.
Interestingly, in 2004, a multi-ethnic group from Philadelphia urged that the issue be revisited. As a result, the 80-year old Baptist minister and sawmill owner Edgar Ray Killen, who had avoided prison earlier, was charged with orchestrating the murders, found guilty, and sentenced to serve 60 years in prison.
At the end of the week, Morris had driven me back to the Trace and I had restarted my journey. He had watched me until I disappeared. “I was afraid I might never see you again.” he confessed. Morris thought what I was doing was too dangerous. If you want danger, I had thought to myself, try rebuilding a village the Viet Cong had burned down when the Viet Cong was still in the area.
A day later found me in Tupelo where Elvis Presley had been born. What better place for an Elvis-sighting? Maybe he still haunted the area. When I had graduated from the eighth grade in 1957, our music teacher had asked us to choose a song to sing at the ceremony. We had chosen Love Me Tender. Our choice was immediately squashed. Young women were already swooning at Elvis concerts and they squealed when he wiggled his hips. The older generation was going bonkers over this threat to our morals. We were offered a compromise: The Civil War era song, Aura Lea. Presley had used the tune from the song for Love Me Tender.
BTW: Elvis claimed, “I’m not trying to be sexy. It’s just my way of expressing myself when I move around.” Um, yeah.
NEXT BLOG: I hide in a brick outhouse to avoid a tornado.