In the summer of 1967, my reserve unit formed a convoy and headed out of the Mississippi Delta to Camp Shelby, amid the red-bug infested, piney forests in the southern reaches of the state. The company was headed for its annual two weeks of summer camp, a term that had suffered a severe devolution under the auspices of the United States Army.
Donald Mitchell and I, a couple unenthused privates, were diverted, instead, 160 miles southeast into the hills, to the infamous town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. We were ordered to find the local reserve unit in Philadelphia, pick up a large mess tent and delivery it, along with ourselves, to Camp Shelby.
For me, it sounded like a lark – a day away from Sgt. Eddie Johnson who regarded the two of us as a couple of slackers in need of constant scrutiny and extra discipline. But for Mitchell, a young black man, it was a grim and frightening designation.
It was a startling revelation. Life, in 1967, in the Mississippi Delta, seemed dismal enough for blacks. Plenty of remnants of segregation still abound. And the treatment of blacks by police, the courts, by county government, by employees, was starkly unfair. But the local white power structure let it be known that it would not abide the crudest expressions of racial hatred. There could be a White Citizens Council, an organization dedicated to prolonging segregation by legal and political means, but no Ku Klux Klan.
It hadn’t occurred to me, until that trip, that racism in Mississippi would be measured by degrees and classified by regions. But Mitchell, and most black in the Delta knew, that no such prohibition against the Klan and impromptu racist violence existed in Philadelphia and environs. Three years before the meaner elements of the Mississippi hills manifested with the murder of three civil rights workers who had been registering voters in Philadelphia – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. But on our drive, Mitchell explained that black folks in the Delta had wary of those nasty Philadelphia rednecks long before those particular murders. He said the famous civil rights murders only informed the nation what Mississippi blacks had known since Reconstruction times. The difference was, he said, that the national media had paid no attention to other victims humiliated, beaten, unfairly jailed and killed in Philadelphia.
He was afraid, as we drove into town, that we would be seen as two friends, a white guy and a black guy, who were violating of the local racist social ethic. And they’d beat the hell out of us.
I pointed out that we were in uniformed, in a U.S. Army truck. He suggested that the federal government was not exactly a respected entity thereabouts. Mitchell worried figured that my naïve outsider liberal attitude would both arouse the locals and cause me to underestimate their ferocity.
He stayed low in the cab of the truck. I drove carefully into town. He insisted that we make no unnecessary stops. Not even for beer. It sucked the fun out of the trip. There were no incidents but, once myth and paranoia trumps logic, it’s hard not to imagine threatening and murderous looks from the locals. Besides, it was Philadelphia, in Mitchell’s estimation the meanest town in Mississippi.
We made it to Camp Shelby intact, though considerably more sober than I would have imagined. Sgt. Johnson was nearly shocked that we showed up with the mess tent in such a reasonable amount of time. But Mitchell had just wanted to get the hell out of the hills.
Last week, I noticed that Philadelphia elected a local preacher named James Young mayor, ousting the incumbent. Young is black. The incumbent is white. Philadelphia, with 7,300 residents, is 56 percent white.
Admittedly, by 2009, stories about racial milestones in the Old South have become a little tiresome. But this election had special resonance. As Donald Mitchell once told me: “Philadelphia is different.”
Forty-two years later, Philadelphia finally shed that awful legacy.