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Mississippi Memories: “You’re Not Black Are You?”

In Gulfport, Mississippi, 1998, you could depend on the gracious hospitality from whites and blacks alike, a haircut for just $3 — and perodic proof of an uncanny racism.

It’s hard to relate how bigotry on the Mississippi Gulf Coast was any different from racial indifference you might experience in say, Philadelphia or New York City.

But during my two and half years living on the coast, covering a burgeoning casino industry for the local daily newspaper, driving a cab and fronting the Rockin’ Daddy Blues Band, I experienced that unmistakable undercurrent of engrained bigotry.

Listening to the supremacist rhetoric from Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Mississippi) who rallied in Biloxi/Gulfport Monday for today’s Mississippi Senate runoff with Democratic challenger Mike Espy, reminded me of such things.

As an east coast white, yankee boy lover and player of the blues, I was pretty much naive about the south’s present day racial tensions. Hadn’t the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gone a long way towards repairing the divide?

My first night at the newspaper in Biloxi, making calls to find a place to stay, my future landlady asked me over the phone, point blank: “You’re not black are you?”

I remember being taken aback. Up north they wouldn’t put it so bluntly, and yet so smoothly.

For some folks, definitely a minority, it’s like distrust, maybe hate, for the African American race is encoded into their DNA.

On the pseudo-melting pot of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, these bigotries didn’t seem as manifest as in the heart of the “deep south,” but at times they felt as present as any southern charm.

Cold indifference could seep to the surface of conversations and flow from the mouths of the bigoted as if they were casually asking you to pass the butter at dinner.

I was the only white boy in the blues band.

On my band’s first road trip gig north up Highway 49 to a backwoods joint just off the highway, in between Gulfport and Jackson, the scars of Mississippi’s oppressive past and lingering present were evident on Guitar Bo’s face.

Guitar Bo, a black man and Mississippi native in his early 60’s, was an exceptionally versatile guitar player and genuine good soul. And he was intimately acquainted with the Magnolia state’s hateful prejudices.

Bo, surveying the woods-enclosed shack of a bar as we arrived, stopped me outside the bar entrance.

“Now Kevin, you best make sure it’s okay for all of us to order drinks from the bar,” said Bo.

“What do you mean?” I asked baffled.

“Well, you don’t know how some folks still think about black folks in parts of Mississippi,” said Bo, his normally light-hearted demeanor, gravely serious.

I told him not to worry and after I ordered a pitcher of beer at the bar, awkwardly ensured there wouldn’t be a problem with black band members ordering from the bar.

There were no issues. The owners were gracious. But the visceral concern that Guitar Bo had about open racism, and this, just prior to the turn of the new century, has stayed with me.

I couldn’t fathom an east coast establishment on the cusp of the millennium, outright refusing to serve a person due to his or her skin color.

Another time, on a crowded night outside Grand Casino in Biloxi, three older white men agreed to share the cab I was driving with a younger black man.

On the way to the next casino, we all talked, mostly about sports. They were smiling and laughing.

But, after I dropped the black man off first, one of the white guys said concerned: “That boy wouldn’t have been speaking so freely 10 years ago, I’ll tell you that.”

Huh?

The guy was miffed just by the fact that the black man felt comfortable in my cab speaking freely in the company of white folks?

And I’ll never forget how casually the older white-haired, balding barber dropped the n-word as he snipped away at my hair; it just oozed out the way you’d say: “It’s a lovely day.”

The barber was ranckled over how somebody on the beach, probaly a kid, threw a seashell at a seagull and killed it. Referring to a story in the newspaper, he made it sound like a mob of blacks ganged up on the poor bird.

I thought of the irony and said little.

It wasn’t until later, I realized Mississippi was 130 years behind most states in ratifying the 13th Amendment, and the Emancipation Proclamation Act, outlawing slavery.

Mississippi ratified the amendment in 1995, just a year prior to my arrival on the Coast. But even then, due to some unexplained oversight, the state never officially notified the U.S. Archivist.

It wasn’t until Feb. 7, 2013, that Mississippi officially ratified the 13th Amendment, according published reports.

In retrospect, through my brief and admittedly mild encounters with racism in Mississippi, it’s easy to imagine the machinations behind such delays.

With Mississippi finally officially on the books supporting the 13th Amendment, what better time for the state with the largest population of blacks than any in the country, to finally get a true representative?

With a demagogue President, inciting and dividing daily, this Mississippi senate race holds implications not just for the state, but for our nation.

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