FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Farewell to Mississippi With Love and Anger

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

 

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
David Yearsley
Midsummer Music Even the Nazis Couldn’t Stamp Out
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail