Some Other News from Around the Deep South #12

Welcome to “Some Other News from Around the Deep South,” my quarterly look at news stories from the region that may not have gotten so much attention.

We’ll start off an admittedly Mississippi-heavy installment with an always reliable source of prime comedy: state government. In early February, Jackson’s Clarion Ledger ran a quippy little story on things that a few state leaders have said recently. It’s not a terribly meaningful story, but my sentimental side couldn’t ignore it. Laughing at Deep Southern state legislatures just appeals to my better nature.

Anyway, on to actual discussion-worthy news: also in February, the Atlantic was reporting on “A School District That Was Never Desegregated” in Cleveland, Mississippi. This small town is still trying to figure the actual methods by which it will racially integrate its schools in response to a lawsuit “originally filed in 1965.” According to the article, the previously all-black schools are still basically all-black. This issue of school desegregation still lingers on this country, especially in the Deep South; the article tells us:

Cleveland is one of 179 school districts in the country involved in active desegregation cases. Mississippi has 44 of these cases—more than any other state.

If that statistic is correct, then that notoriously difficult Deep Southern state alone – one of fifty states – has about one-quarter of the nation’s ongoing “active desegregation cases.”

Reading further, the article says that the order to get moving on integration came in 1969, that magnet schools were created thirty-one years later in 1990, and that an IB curriculum was instituted at the black school in 2012— all to minimal effect. So, the Department of Justice is going to step in and give them a hand . . . Just what all Deep Southern politicians love and adore— oversight from the Feds.

Moving from Mississippi’s school system to its legal system, NPR reported in mid-February about a federal judge there who gave a stirring historically minded speech as he was sentencing three white defendants who had been convicted of killing a black man. In this fairly long speech, which evokes the history of lynching and racism, prominent perspectives on a racist past, and vivid details about the murder of the black man, Judge Carlton Reeves refuses to lighten the burden of Southern racism as a driving force of cruelty and inhumanity. As in some of my other commentaries in this series, rather than try to restate, I will simply direct the reader to the speech itself— there’s no way I could tell it better.

About a month later, in mid-March, the Daily Beast reported from Mississippi that “a 54-year-old African American man, Otis Byrd, was found dead hanging from a tree.” Due to the eerie circumstances that greatly resemble an old-style lynching, the ears of law enforcement perked up immediately. According to the brief story, a friend had dropped Byrd off at a Vicksburg casino and the next time anyone saw him he was dead and “hanging about a half mile from his last known residence.” Byrd had once been convicted of murder but had been out of prison for nearly ten years.

In a more extensive reporting on Byrd’s death, MSNBC’s coverage on March 21 explains in more detail that Otis Byrd had a robbed a small store in 1980 and had killed a white woman, the store’s owner. He served about two-and-a-half decades for that crime, but had mostly stayed out of trouble since being released. By late March, an investigation of his death, which involved the Department of Justice, was well underway.

By early April, the case was still unsolved. CBS News coverage from April 8 tells us that it was still unclear to law enforcement whether his death was a homicide or a suicide. However, his family had hired a lawyer who is quoted this way:

“The family is grieving. They do plan to take action. There is a long history of lynching in Mississippi. Byrd was found dead three weeks ago and the family still has limited information and wants answers,” Dennis Sweet III said.
Moving over to Louisiana, Mother Jones online ran a story in early March from the strange annals of pop culture trivia: “The Town From ‘True Blood’ Is Filled With Toxic Explosives the EPA Fears Will Blow Up: The government’s plan was to set them on fire.” That site of filming for the HBO vampire series “True Blood” – Doyline, Louisiana – is sitting right near a former army base where “a munitions recycling company” is now “storing 15 million pounds of toxic military explosives on-site.” The MoJo article provides a little history on the situation then goes on to say:
Now the race is against the clock. The bunkers are falling apart—pine trees are growing on the roofs of several of them—which means the increasingly unstable materials are now being exposed to moisture. And the EPA has warned that the explosives, which become more unstable over time, are increasingly at risk of an “uncontrolled catastrophic explosion.” So in October, the EPA announced it would do something it had never done before—approved a plan for a large-scale controlled burn of the hazardous military waste.
Locals are none too pleased about the discoveries, which came from a raid of the company’s operations on the former base facility. Yet, the folks in Doyline are kind of safe— for the moment: “The Army’s best guess for when the materials would become serious risks for self-combustion was August of 2015.”
Over in my necks of the woods, in Alabama, reported in March that the “Alabama Police officer who slammed down Indian grandfather indicted on federal civil rights charges.” This incident got some national attention (for a minute) as another unfortunate case involving a white police officer and a person of color. In this case, an Indian-born grandfather had moved to Madison, Alabama to help his family with a new grandchild, and the article explains that he liked to take a walk in the morning . . . but:
Video from a dashboard camera shows [police officer Eric] Parker and another officer confront Patel. At one point, Parker slams the 57-year-old Patel to the ground. Madison police later called paramedics. Patel was left partly paralyzed. He was transferred from Madison Hospital to Huntsville Hospital where he underwent spinal surgery.
Eric Parker was then charged with having used excessive force— and Alabama made national news for racialized violence . . . again.
Finally, in news of far more local interest, the state of Alabama has lost one of its distinct and recognizable institutions, and is set to lose another. Recently, Birmingham’s Bottletree Cafe closed. Well-known as a venue for great music, Bottletree had hosted every kind of band you can imagine. (I still regret skipping a chance to see Black Joe Lewis there a while back.) This story from does a great job of summing up their great history, and this one, “How Birmingham Became an Indie Rock Destination,” will provide some insights, too.
And so goes War Eagle Supper Club, well-known to Auburn alums and fans. This Opelika Auburn News article from July 2014 covered Supper Club’s 77th anniversary and also provides a little sense of place and its history. Unfortunately, this article from the same source in early April 2015 covers the fact that it’s closing at the end of the year . . . So sad.
That’s it for the twelfth installment of “Some of Other News from Around the Deep South.” Check back for lucky number thirteen in July.

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