Intertwined Paths | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Intertwined Paths

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At some point in the research I did for the book of Mississippi political history that Andy Taggart and I wrote, it dawned on me that two of Mississippi's most famous political figures, two of the most diametrically opposite people you could ever hope to find, Sen. Jim Eastland and civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, were neighbors in Sunflower County. What a great idea for a book, I thought! Then Chris Myers Asch beat me to the publishing finish line. Turns out he was already writing a doctoral dissertation on the subject. Now it's a book that has just been published, "The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer " (New York: The New Press, 2008, $27.95). Not so good for my writing plans, but very good news for the reading public.

While plenty of fine articles and biographies have been written about Hamer, there's been precious little published about Eastland, the single most powerful white politician in Mississippi, from 1956, when he assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, until he resigned in 1978. Asch begins to fill the Eastland void.

A native of Washington, D.C., Asch showed up in Sunflower, Mississippi in 1994 as a Teach for America fifth-grade teacher. I know, you're thinking, "Yet one more book by a Yankee who's parachuted into Mississippi and suddenly found the need to write an autobiography about his experiences." This book is not like that. It is a real history book, and a very good one.

The prologue introduces the reader to the Sunflower County of 1994, while chapter one takes us back to the Sunflower County of 1904. In other words, Asch begins the book by giving his reader a context for the story he proceeds to tell. And the story is essentially a narrative of Mississippi history for the past 100 years, as told through the lives of Eastland and Hamer. Throughout the book, Asch moves back and forth between Eastland's life and Hamer's life as historical events affect the country, the state and both of their lives, though obviously in much different ways. This movement from Eastland's world to Hamer's world and back again is almost always seamless and in some cases devastatingly revealing. At one point, for example, Asch lets the Eastland children describe their childhood. He quotes Sue Eastland recalling a "wonderful, happy, relaxed, safe-feeling childhood," and then Anne Eastland comments: "It was a fun place to be white and to be of a certain social class."

Six pages later, we learn about Hamer's childhood. "[Her] family rarely had enough to eat. Dinners of unseasoned greens and flour gravy left young Fannie Lou painfully hungry." Then she went to sleep on a bed that consisted of "dry grass stuffed in a cotton sack."

Hamer once said: "I don't remember how old I was when I got my first pair of shoes, but I was a big girl. Mama tried to keep our feet warm by wrapping them in rags and tying them with string." Fannie Lou Hamer began picking cotton at age 6, typically working from 5 in the morning until dark.

While Eastland's virulent opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision—and the subsequent Civil Rights Movement—has been relatively well-documented, Asch takes his time getting to 1954. We learn much about the Eastland family in the first 50 years of the 20th century, and, as you might expect, what we learn explains much of Eastland's reaction to the demand of black Mississippians to enjoy the full rights of citizenship.

Asch's journey through this period includes well-known milestones like the system of sharecropping, the hardening of Jim Crow, the rise and fall and rise again of cotton, the advent of mechanical cotton pickers, the specter of communism (which animated Eastland almost as much as the threatened demise of segregation), Truman's civil rights legislation and Theodore Roosevelt's backing in 1903 of Minnie Cox, a black woman, to be postmaster in Indianola.

But there is much in Asch's book I learned for the first time. I didn't know the extent to which Eastland used his membership on the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee to harass individuals and organizations he suspected of being aligned with the Communist Party, nor did I know that Eastland's father was the leader of a notorious lynching in Sunflower County. Asch's account of the events that led to the public lynching of Luther Holbert by Eastland's father is riveting, graphic and ultimately so disgusting it takes your breath away.

The years after Brown are more familiar, though Asch does a commendable job bringing them to life from the different vantage points of Eastland and Hamer. By the time we finish the book with Hamer's death in 1977 and Eastland's death in 1986, we've journeyed through 75 years of Mississippi history with two people who helped make it happen, both the bad and the good. It's a journey worth taking.

Previous Comments

ID
129849
Comment

They were neighbors for sure - like a fox to the henhouse, like a barbaric rapist to an innocent and powerless slave girl, like an evil master to a servant, like Jesus to Lucifer. Yet Eastland was and is a Mississippi hero to some. This is why I participated in cursing Eastland out one morning in 1975 or 1976 on a college campus as he pretended to seek our forgiveness for his sins just before Satan called him home to be with more of his kind. Thanks for the note about the book. I will read it. Not sure if I will purchase. I don't want anything in my house concerning Eastland unless a story of his suffering and burning in hell. I would buy that for sure. I hope the book gave the angelic Mrs. Hamer her just due.

Author
Walt
Date
2008-05-15T09:48:11-06:00
ID
129852
Comment

Bitter much?

Author
QB
Date
2008-05-15T09:59:49-06:00
ID
129853
Comment

Some people want to view the past with no feelings and/or compassion or empathy for those wronged. I'm not one of them. Won't ever become one of them either. Nor will I ever trust or like or befriend the type who can look at the past with such lack of feelings despite the horror. You can call me bitter if you like. You couldn't even handle what I think your comment makes you.

Author
Walt
Date
2008-05-15T10:13:01-06:00
ID
129856
Comment

Harry I hope you will keep talking to me. How about telling me where I'm wrong? I'm always open to correction. Why shouldn't I be bitter about what happened to so many innocent black and indian folks at the hands of evil and barbaric white folks? Those dead and abused black and indian people can't speak for themselves. Since I'm a descendant of both, I think it's proper that I speak on their behalf and not pretend that they were worthless. Furthermore, I happen to know quite a bit about how Mrs Hamer suffered. I even had a white lawyer to tell me recently that Mrs. Hamer lied about something that happened to her in Grenada. I happened to know she didn't lie about the brutual beating she took there. I have to leave for a couple of hours and I'm real busy; but I'll take time to converse with you.

Author
Walt
Date
2008-05-15T10:51:27-06:00
ID
129858
Comment

I don't know why so many people got so uptight about people possibly being bitter. I often feel bitter about the same things Walt refers to. I read about Obama being referred to as a monkey in Georgia and a guy in Indiana suggesting, "Hang that darkie from a tree" and momentarily feel bitter and cling to my gun but then I check out the open-minded people on this site and I feel better.

Author
FreeClif
Date
2008-05-15T11:25:37-06:00
ID
129862
Comment

Obama was portrayed as a monkey on t-shirts in Georgia: http://www.ajc.com/metro/content/metro/cobb/stories/2008/05/13/mulligans_0514.html Racists confront volunteers: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/12/AR2008051203014_pf.html These are the spiritual and moral kinfolk of the same people who almost beat Fannie Lou Hamer to death in Winona, Mississippi because she wanted to vote.

Author
FreeClif
Date
2008-05-15T12:12:34-06:00
ID
129864
Comment

Well you know how having a black candidate can bring out the absolute worst in some people. On the other hand when I look at Bush, I've found the chimp caricatures of him over the years mildly amusing and on point because of his facial structure and demeanor, the guttural language he uses, and his facial expressions. Admittedly, its not a very flattering portrayal of our President. I'm sure that Obama's detractors will use these comparisons as cover for making such racist paraphanalia.

Author
Jeff Lucas
Date
2008-05-15T12:37:04-06:00
ID
129866
Comment

Walt, you said yourself that the Republican party is close to both the Nazi Party and the Communist Party. You only want to have a book mentioning Jim Eastland if it details his burning in hell. You do not appear to be a very rational person, based on the posts on this board.

Author
QB
Date
2008-05-15T13:12:36-06:00
ID
129868
Comment

Jeff, I have not seen the depiction of Bush as a monkey that you refer to; however, I remember kids and their parents yelling "monkey, monkey, monkey" when we were coming into the school when the all-white elementary school in West Point was integrated in 1968. I doubt that "monkey" used in reference to Bush has quite the same literal and gutteral (if thats a word) connotations.

Author
FreeClif
Date
2008-05-15T13:35:08-06:00
ID
129871
Comment

"Gutterlike" is what I meant.

Author
FreeClif
Date
2008-05-15T13:51:51-06:00
ID
129873
Comment

Guttural is a word describing clumsy speech. Anyone who has listened to GWB speak knows he can mangle a sentence. And no I don't think ape parodies of Bush have the same impact because of past racist associations. That is what makes it racially offensive when used against Obama and merely stupidly offensive when used against GWB.

Author
Jeff Lucas
Date
2008-05-15T14:01:06-06:00
ID
129874
Comment

Harry, if that's all you got then I suggest you're a waste of my time.

Author
Walt
Date
2008-05-15T14:31:28-06:00
ID
129876
Comment

For African Americans the monkey comparisons harken back to what Condoleeza Rice called this country's "birth defect" that the Constiution originally considered us 3/5 human. It is that lingering philosophy that probably led those white cops to see nothing wrong with beating Fannie Lou Hamer within inches of her life in Winona when she had not broken any law.

Author
FreeClif
Date
2008-05-15T14:40:47-06:00
ID
129879
Comment

Whitley I know why some kinds of people pretend oblivion to why others are angered, hurt and bitter about the past. The answer is because they condone the past wrongs on behalf of their ancestors, hate the victims and their offsprings just as much as their ancestors did, happily benefited or benefits from the past, and yet want to be viewed as unconnected or disconnected to the past just enough to obtain the votes to win offices, the benevolence to be trusted by even those they despise, and the good will necessary to remain in charge and to present a world view of having a moral and righteous centering. All of this can be done with a real metamorphosis or having any sympathy, empathy, compassion or understanding for the situations of others. This is why the n-word can so easily slip from some mouths and some kinds of people get so mad or feign ignorance when the child of a victim calls Eastland a devil. After all, Eastland acted like one for years.

Author
Walt
Date
2008-05-15T15:15:35-06:00
ID
129899
Comment

I certainly would like to read this book. Great commentary, Jere! Whitley, I heard about the T-shirt incident, and I was wondering how long it would take before something like that would happen. Sadly, I wasn't surprised at all.

Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2008-05-16T10:26:38-06:00
ID
129901
Comment

I am not surprised either. Conversely, I must reluctantly admit that, even though I was an early donor, I WAS surprised that he won a plurality of support from white Democrats and independents. I know that Michelle did not mean that she was never proud of her country, but that the number of people for whom race is not the salient factor HAS made many of us REALLY extra proud of the progress this country has made! It did not come out the way she intended and the wingnuts are running commercials in Tennessee attacking HIS WIFE for her gaffe. When they attack your wife and and exploit the cartoon monkey Curious George you know the loony toons are getting warmed up. They REALLY make me less proud!

Author
FreeClif
Date
2008-05-16T10:38:03-06:00
ID
129903
Comment

I know. The primaries aren't over yet, and look at what we've already seen. You can imagine what the road to the general election will be like. Where's the Tylenol?

Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2008-05-16T10:45:50-06:00
ID
129907
Comment

Maybe he should put Hillary on the ticket. It looks like a WWF red-baiting, race-baiting, mudslinging, guilt by association battle royal in the days ahead based on what we are seeing now. She knows how to get down like that :-). She can be his hit woman. She can respond tit for tat because she will not be villified for being angry by the "hard working people". I was glad to see she came out and defended against the "Nazi appeaser" nonsense.

Author
FreeClif
Date
2008-05-16T11:57:03-06:00
ID
129911
Comment

Whitley, I'm so sorry you had to go through that in elementary school. Thank you for your courage.

Author
slugbug
Date
2008-05-16T17:25:09-06:00
ID
129927
Comment

Obama can't use Hillary now as vice president. He secretly and justly despises her and Bill for going southern-styled politics on him - quick, fast and in a hurry. Hillary almost said in West Virginia last week, "I know y'all hate his black ass, too", but she caught herself. However, Obama still needs the Clintons' help, especially Bill's. I know everyone thinks I'm crazy, but Bill has the coolness, insight and loveability to neutralize Coulter, Matlin, Mrs. Dole and other love-starved Fox anchor hit-women who hate Obama and will do all they can to hurt him. I suggest we use Bill to spar intellectually with them initially then date them on the down-low to shut them up. If Bill can handle the female opponents of Obama, Obama and the rest of us can handle the male opponents, some of which are so diseased that they have to be written off any way. And there is still a chance that Hillary will help Obama in the end just to have a shot at the presidency in 2012.

Author
Walt
Date
2008-05-18T11:18:17-06:00

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