Birthing a Revolution by Deborah Wiles
I am heading into Mississippi this week with my new book, Revolution, and I want you to go with me. I am going as an explorer, like Thor Heyerdahl in Sunny’s beloved Kon-Tiki, the book she has (temporarily) stolen from the Greenwood, Mississippi public library in Revolution.
I am an explorer whenever I write a book, and I will be more of an explorer than ever this week, as I continue to try and make sense of My Mississippi, so beloved, and so challenging.
As I wrote Revolution, I explored citizenship and justice and friendship and family — my usual suspects. And I wanted to write about Mississippi because it is the landscape of my heart, my childhood, and where I grew up, the summer of 1964 during Freedom Summer, just like Sunny grows up in Revolution, with the Beatles and The Moonspinners, old horror movies at the local theater, and a pool to swim in all summer… until it closes with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
My Mississippi was south of Greenwood. I grew up with piney woods and sandy clay soils. I ran barefoot and fished for catfish and swam in Lake Walkaway. I rode in my grandmother’s car as we crept behind long, slow log trucks hauling pine trees to the freight trains that would carry the logs to the sawmills.
Sunny grows up in the Delta, in cotton country, where the soil is rich and dark and the rivers deep and mysterious; where the light is low, and the land is as flat as the eye will carry it.
But we both grew up with the same heat, the same rhythmic call of late-summer cicadas, and the same 100 years of segregation since the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. I wrote about that segregation in 2001, in my first book, Freedom Summer, which was reissued this year, the 50th anniversary year of Freedom Summer, with a new cover and forward. I thought I knew what Freedom Summer was, when I wrote that book, but I had only scratched the surface.
In writing Revolution, I found myself scouring the Delta with generous people who had grown up there, who could show me the landmark places I needed to know, as Greenwood was the headquarters for SNCC during Freedom Summer, and that’s where I needed to set my story. I spent long afternoons in the Freedom Summer archives at the McCain Library at the University of Southern Mississippi, collecting oral histories and photographs and ephemera I would use in Revolution’s scrapbook sections. In doing so, I gathered My Mississippi to me, once again.
What I found when I researched Revolution, and what I know I’m going back to this week, is a more subtle form of segregation than I experienced in 1964, when racial lines were drawn firmly, due to the passage of Jim Crow laws. Today, whites and blacks mingle at The Crystal Grill for a meal, can go to the same theaters (although Greenwood no longer has a theater — or a public pool), and schools are no longer segregated, by law. But look more closely.
It took the National Guard coming to school campuses (mine was one of them, in Strom Thurmond’s Charleston, South Carolina in 1969) to force many southern schools to integrate. Some schools, like the one my cousin Carol taught second grade in for 29 years, in Brandon, Mississippi, made the transition quietly and efficiently. We have made great strides as a people in Mississippi, while at the same time we remain stuck, too, in our old, deeply-ingrained traditions.
“This is Mississippi,” said a friend. “I’m not sure your book will be an easy sell for schools here. People are…..” he trailed off.
But three weeks ago, Jamie Kornegay, owner of Turnrow Books, wrote me: “I’m getting some interest from teachers and I want to coordinate this properly.”
This coordination has turned into correspondence with a Teach for America teacher at Amanda Elzy High School, the only public high school in Greenwood. I will be visiting his second period history class. I can’t wait. In looking up Amanda Elzy online, these are the stats (Gillette likes his stats, in Revolution) from U.S. News and World Report’s “best high schools” academic indicators study for 2014:
The Advanced Placement participation rate at Amanda Elzy High School is 13 percent. The percentage that passed the Advanced Placement exam: 0 percent. The total minority enrollment is 100 percent. College Readiness Index 3.3, Algebra Proficiency 2.4, English Proficiency 1.7, Student/Teacher Ratio 13:1. There are 611 students in grades 7 – 12. Amanda Elzy High receives Title 1 Funding. 4.2 percent of students are considered college ready. One hundred percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and 100 percent are eligible for the free lunch program.
Then I looked up the stats for Pillow Academy, the private school on the outskirts of Greenwood, which was started as a segregation school in 1966. I found them at usaschoolinfo:
Pillow Academy is a college preparatory school, home to 789 students in grades K through 12. The largest ethnic group of the 789 students is white. This is followed by Asian (1.8%), Black (1.6%) and Hispanic (.03%). Student/Teacher Ratio is 8:1.
While I have been invited in the past to speak at Pillow with my Aurora County, Mississippi novels — Love, Ruby Lavender, Each Little Bird That Sings, and The Aurora County All-Stars, as of this writing I have not been invited to Pillow with Revolution, a novel about the one thousand souls who came south to Mississippi in 1964, most of them college students and white, to register black voters and open up Mississippi, the Closed Society.
In 1964, white students in Greenwood went to public (white) schools. In 2014, they attend Pillow Academy. The other choice is St. Francis of Assisi School, which is mentioned in Revolution as home for the many Chinese students who lived in Greenwood in 1964 and whose families mostly operated grocery stores in the Delta. Today, St. Francis is home to 108 students, 61.1 percent of them black, 16.7 percent of them Hispanic. There is one Asian student. One white student.
Greenwood is not unique, of course. But it is, too. The Delta is another country, they say, even in Mississippi. The Delta is the land of shimmering green swamps and hangin’ trees, and rice fields and Indian trails — the home of Greenwood Leflore, the Choctaw Indian Chief who signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, which led to the Indian removal from Mississippi, which was the model for the Trail of Tears that followed.
I want to pay attention and ask questions on this trip — the very thing I tell students to do when I visit their schools and have them write for me. The Greenwood Commonwealth, the local newspaper, has asked me for an interview, and I’m thrilled about that. The Commonwealth appears in Revolution as I tell the story of editor Thatcher Walt, who wrote editorials in 1964 urging cooperation with the Civil Rights Act, and who stepped over the white picket line with his family, to attend a movie at the LeFlore Theater. His family was harassed, he was booted out of a job, and the Walts left town.
I tell the story of Silas McGhee — he becomes Raymond in Revolution, the kid from Baptist Town who is determined to integrate the Leflore Theater, single-handedly, if he has to. Silas McGhee, who still lives in Greenwood, has finally broken his decades-long silence about that summer, and you can read his story — and the story of the young Freedom Summer volunteers, including my model for Jo Ellen — here, in the Boston Globe, today.
I want to share Revolution with young readers everywhere. I want them to know that their voices count, that every human being is worthy of dignity and respect, and that every person’s story is important, that it takes each one of us — and each vote — to make the world go ’round, and to create a literate, civilized society.
When you read this, I will be on my way home from my Mississippi adventure. I will have catalogued what I see, feel, taste, touch, and smell, and what I experience. This week I will be an explorer of my own heart, and I will be willing to let it break, as I allowed Sunny’s heart to break in Revolution. I will also be on the lookout for joy. And there will be joy! I will be home, with my family, and we will celebrate.
I am always searching for truth. I am always running after a truth I cannot yet touch, although I felt it so keenly as I wrote Revolution. Beautiful, humble, awful, powerful, grace-filled and life-changing truth.
Deborah Wiles is the author of many books for young readers, including Revolution, a documentary novel and book two of the Sixties Trilogy following Countdown, published by Scholastic Press. To link to her Mississippi adventure, and to learn more about her, start by visiting her website: www.deborahwiles.com.