On July 1, 1966, when thirty year old Norma Watkins bid farewell to her husband of ten years, her four young children, and the good life in Jackson, Mississippi, she was effectively engaging in a personal act of secession from the Magnolia State. Not only did she say “good-bye” to days filled with tennis, bridge, and church bazaars, tasteful, noncontroversial volunteer work for the Junior League and the Jackson Country Club, but she also fled the racism, sexism, violence, repressive politics, and family intolerance, all associated with the so-called “Mississippi way of life.” As Ole Miss historian James Silver wrote in 1963, Mississippi was indeed a “closed society.”
Ms. Watkins, my cousin whom I have not seen since 1957, has just published a riveting, soul-searching, brutally frank memoir about growing up in segregated Mississippi in the 40s and 50s, and becoming disillusioned with the state’s big lie ? “Blacks are inferior to whites, and, therefore, deserve to be treated accordingly.” In her new book, The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure, Watkins demonstrates an uncanny grasp of every nuance of what it meant to live in a state-enforced racially segregated society. Although she was the daughter of firebrand, racist Governor Ross Barnett’s personal attorney, she developed an empathy for the plight of her family’s black servants trying to survive in a culture in which literally everything was stacked against them.
Norma Watkins combines the story-telling skills of Mississippi writer Eudora Welty with the compassion and political passion of North Towards Home author Willie Morris and the psychological sophistication of psychotherapists such as Rollo May and M. Scott Peck. Interestingly enough, the book was published as part of the Willie Morris Books in Memoir and Biography Series by The University Press of Mississippi. Ironically, in 1962 when Governor Barnett tried unsuccessfully to keep African American James Meredith out of Ole Miss, Tom Watkins, Norma’s father, was in charge of Barnett’s legal team.
The setting for nearly half of the book is the family’s hotel and spa, Allison’s Wells, located a half hour north of Jackson. Norma and her family lived there between 1943 and 1945 while her father was serving in World War II. She and her sister Mary Elizabeth worked there every summer until they finished high school. Allison’s Wells was Norma’s metaphor for Mississippi and laboratory testing ground for her evolving attitudes about black-white relations in the South. It was there that she had a chance to observe and ponder the Mississippi Caste system in which blacks cooked all of the meals for the elite hotel guests but were never allowed to eat with them or socialize with them. It was at Allison’s Wells where the seeds for the radicalization of Norma Watkins were first sewn.
Notwithstanding her increasing doubts about the Mississippi form of justice, or lack thereof, Watkins allowed herself to be temporarily seduced by the lifestyle afforded the daughter of a prominent Mississippi attorney married to a successful white businessman. By late 1963 she and Fred Craig, whom she married in 1955, had four children, but a happy marriage it was not.
By that time Watkins’s life was in a state of turmoil. She had resumed her pursuit of a college degree, the James Meredith affair had taken its toll, racial violence was on the increase, the civil rights movement had reached fever pitch proportions, and JFK had been assassinated. In the midst of all of this Allison’s Wells, The Last Resort, burned to the ground.
Allison’s Wells was Norma’s safe haven where she was loved and understood by her aunt who ran the place, all of the black employees, and the white hotel guests as well. Life in Mississippi for Norma was effectively over once Allison’s Wells was gone. She stood alone as the old system continued to implode. She became increasingly radicalized and politicized as her personal life came unglued at the seams. Norma had to go.
Then one afternoon in early July in 1966, much to the chagrin of her family and friends, Norma climbed into the blue Triumph convertible of her lover, a Jewish civil rights lawyer, and off they drove to Miami to a life of teaching, writing, and political activism at Miami Dade College. Free at last!
Life is full of an endless series of secessions including birth, death, divorce, graduation, job changes, leaving home, ending relationships, and moving to another place. Secessions are often painful, unpleasant, and unpopular with others. Norma Watkins’s decision to leave Mississippi was no exception to the rule. Although her decision was based on a strong sense of betrayal and moral outrage, she has written about it with honesty, clarity, sensitivity, style, and class.
The Last Resort reads like a well written classical Southern novel in the tradition of Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty. Only it happens to be true.
My only regret about this compelling book is that it makes me wish that I had known Norma Watkins a lot better back in the 1950s when we grew up together in Jackson, Mississippi. We might have had a lot to talk about. My father’s job also depended on Governor Ross Barnett. I seceded in 1957.
Thomas H. Naylor is Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University. His books include: Downsizing the U.S.A., Affluenza, The Search for Meaning and The Abandoned Generation: Rethinking Higher Education