A journey through the Deep South is a journey through some sordid American history. The footprints of slavery and segregation lie all over the land, leaving museums and memorials as poignant reminders of how society can go so wrong. One can't take in the mansions and cotton fields without recalling the slaves who were imprisoned there, just as one can't drive through the Selma's and the Birmingham's without remembering the flames of last century's struggle for Civil Rights. And one can't help but notice the poverty and racial divides that still exist in some places, right alongside the wealth of waste.
From Thomas Jefferson's Virginia plantation where he contradicted his self penned Declaration of Independence by owning hundreds of slaves, we travelled to South Carolina's Old Slave Mart where men, women and children were sold as possessions in the Domestic Slave Trade of the 1800's. We drove through Alabama, where countless Confederate flags gave a chilling reminder of the slave holding tendencies that instigated the Civil War and kept the South deeply segregated through the first half of last century. We headed onward to Memphis, Tennessee, inspired by Paul Simon's search for Graceland, but left inspired by another man entirely.
The intensely emotional National Civil Rights Museum is housed in the untouched Lorraine Motel, where Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in 1968. It chronicles the story of the African American struggle for equal rights through the 1950's and 1960's. Bringing to life the marches and riots, the heroes and martyrs, the deaths and dreams of this era, the museum left an extensive mark. I was reminded how easily one can become complacent, and how far we still have to go. In only fifty short years, an amazing amount has changed and in some lights - or should I say some cities - you can look around the integrated faces and feel happy that the world is as it should be in MLK, Jr.'s Promised Land.
But that light fades away as you find yourself on the poorest side of the city, or wind your way through town after destitute town in the country's poorest state and notice, not for the first time, that you're the only white person around. Where the only break in the miles of trailer parks on Mississippi's Great River Road are the pristine mansions dotted in between - and these ain't the cute trailer parks I waxed lyrical about a few weeks ago. When the tourists on New Orleans' main strip drunkenly throw bills at bars and souvenir shops, while the homeless sit around the corner hoping for just one dollar bill. Or when you meet someone who reminds you that not everyone sleeping in a van in the Walmart car park is doing so by choice.
I know I'm not just talking about the South anymore, or African Americans in particular, or even just the United States of America. But I guess the extremes seem to be super-sized here, just like lots of things in this crazy country. By our second day at the museum, we were getting to know the staff, and were privileged to meet a lady who fought on the line for Civil Rights back in the 1960's, and by volunteering her time at the museum and other places was still fighting the battle against poverty and discrimination today. "Were we doing our bit for the cause?" she wanted to know, making it sound like the party no one should want to miss out on. And what was my answer? That yes, I'm on the cause's side, that I do my bit.. but maybe not enough? That I had signed up for the cause a long time ago but seemed to have lost my membership papers over the last few years? Well, Ma'am it's quite the thought provoking question. And just to clarify, I reinstated my commitment to the cause right there on the spot.