Newt Knight and the Free State of Movie Mania

There’s been a lot of excitement around Jones County and South Mississippi lately because Gary Ross of Hunger Games fame (just for a start) is gearing up to shoot a film about a local Civil War Era legend by the name of Newt Knight.

If you want to know more about Newt, Google is your friend, and I am in too much of a hurry right now to say much more. But I want to make a contribution to the movie mania anyway, so here’s a poem that I wrote about Newt Knight. It’s one of a series.

The Murderer

Your one job is to pull that trigger.

Make the barrel appear
as if from nowhere,
dark against darkness.

Aim. Crook your finger.
Say a prayer to your God.
In the bang of creation,
in the deafening crack
that brings death to life,
allow yourself to be swallowed
whole by the night.

The rest of the job is ours.

You will not be found.
You will not be brought
to justice on this night
by anything other than
the sheer luck or good
talent of failing
to leave a trail.

This will not stop us from naming you.
This will not stop us from casting you
in our own image:
Good and Evil,
the epitome of both,
the double nature of us all.

On the floor in a house
that will be haunted
from this night forward,
a Confederate officer lies dead,
the only clues the death itself,
and the broken window
from which it came.

Of you we sing.

You are one man,
containing the multitudes of us,
everything we love and hate
about the South,
everything we love and hate
about ourselves.

Did you do it?
Of course you did, if only
because we have told it
as gospel truth for so long.

Of course you did not, if only
because we have nothing more
than legend to place you at the scene.

You are the eternally unobserved.
You are both true and untrue
in equal portions, both there
and not there, both guilty and innocent,
both hero and villain.

You need nothing more than us
to make it so, nothing more than
our telling and retelling
of you as we see ourselves,
nothing more than
our insatiable hunger
to believe in one true version
of any legend ever handed down.

Why I Stand With Thad

I hesitated to speak up about the senate race in Mississippi. I had friends and family members on both sides. I didn’t want any conflict. I also didn’t think that Chris McDaniel had a real chance. I thought most of the support for him was concentrated in Jones County and that he wouldn’t generate the same level of enthusiasm statewide. I was somewhat correct about that, but I underestimated the degree to which Jones County would turn out for the election in proportion to the rest of the state.

I hesitated because I thought I would be dismissed by my Republican friends as being too liberal to have a say. I thought I would open myself up for attack in a way that I lacked the time and energy to deal with. After seeing the results of the primary in which the vote in Mississippi split down the middle in just as contentious a manner as we’ve seen at the national level for the past several presidential elections, I felt like I needed to start sharing a few basic facts. Obviously, education is close to my heart, particularly two-year college education, so I have been sharing articles related to education, hoping at least a few people would stop and think about what they are really asking for in “getting the federal government out of Mississippi.”

After seeing my friend Kate Cochran attacked, and deliberately misconstrued, for supporting her father, the nastiness of this political climate that we have now brought home to Mississippi has become a little too personal for me. I want the chance to say that I stand by Kate in supporting her father, and I want the chance to say why.

I know that I am viewed as a liberal by many of my nearest and dearest in Mississippi, but I see myself as a moderate. I am not being disingenuous in supporting Thad Cochran now. I did not come late to the game. I have been voting for Thad Cochran since I was old enough to vote. Please don’t take that as proof that he is liberal enough to appeal to someone who also liked Bill Clinton. I have voted for Cochran when I adamantly disagreed with his votes in the Senate. I never once thought he was in the same political camp as Clinton. I thought he was far more conservative. I voted for him, despite disagreeing with him, because I love my state, and I thought he was the best thing for Mississippi even if I wasn’t always pleased with where he stood on national issues. I voted for him because I respected him. I voted for him because I knew how much he was doing to protect the schools and to protect the economy in Mississippi. I voted for him because I trusted him to be levelheaded no matter what his politics. I voted for him because I knew that if something went wrong in Mississippi, he would do everything in his power to help.

If Thad Cochran wins the runoff, I will vote for him again in the general election. My support now is not bait-and-switch. I stand with Thad.

I will not vote for McDaniel if he wins the runoff. I will vote for Travis Childers in that case. This is not because I am looking for the most liberal of the two. It is because I am looking for the least radical of the two. I am the middle political ground.

This morning I read an article posted by one of my Facebook friends that attacked my friend Kate Cochran for her words posted to Facebook a few days ago expressing support for her father and expressing distress at the current political climate in Mississippi. I too am distressed. I was distressed by the tone of the attack on Kate. I have been distressed by the tone of this election. I am distressed by the fact that the person who wrote the article had gone looking through Kate’s Facebook page for “evidence” to use against her father. I can assure you that my Facebook posts do not represent the political views of my father. Kate’s politics are not Thad’s politics. She has never pretended that they were. What I see in Kate’s unfailing support for her father is evidence of a loving family. What I see is evidence of levelheaded, intelligent people who can love and support each other no matter what their disagreements on particular issues. What I see is further evidence of the man I saw when I met Thad Cochran: a gentleman who works with people rather than against them while still standing firm in his own convictions. This is the kind of person I want representing me in Washington.

Thad Cochran has been a friend to the community college and to education as a whole in Mississippi. I know this because I have seen the results of his work firsthand. I am grateful for this, and he has my vote.

I do not want to see Mississippi go the way of national politics. I do not want to see us as a house divided against itself. I pray that we can all work together and respect each other and support each other. I pray that we can all bring to the table the spirit of family love and goodwill that I have seen embodied in Thad Cochran.

Lake Mississippi: Father of Waters, Mother of Floods

Here are some pictures I took this afternoon of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg. I’m not real happy with the pictures. It was too bright out there for perfect shots…at least from me. But you can still see how much water there is.

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This is the river bridge from today.

Here’s a shot of the river bridge from a little over a year ago on a day when it was at a normal stage.

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Here’s another from today.

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If you look at the markers on the shot from last year — the ones that aren’t visible on the shots from today — you can get some idea of how much higher the water is.

It’s high enough that there are tree tops poking out of the water.

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There is water in places where you wouldn’t normally see it.

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And this marine supply place is probably having to use some of its own supplies.

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This ain’t no Huck Finn party, but the barges are still getting through.

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So is the debris.

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And I imagine it takes some experienced river people to navigate through. The river appears to be lost in the middle of this big lake.

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Freedom Summer by Bruce Watson

18 of 52 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

I bought Freedom Summer months before I read it. The reviews were good. I expected it to be a decent read, but I dreaded it. I read it because I thought I ought to, not because I wanted to.

This is about something that happened in Mississippi. This is about something that is too close to home.

I like to live in the Mississippi where people go to Starbucks and Target and integrated Little League baseball games, where they eat sushi and read the latest New York Times best sellers, and complain about the price of gas, but don’t worry too much about race relations because all those bad times are in the past.

This Mississippi is imaginary and real in nearly equal proportions. People do go on about the business of living in a Mississippi that is just like everywhere else without worrying about the violent past that is very much in the past. They also live with the remnants of that past and the enduring attitudes of that past in ways that are very much reality.

There is a sort of general attitude in Mississippi that we don’t like to have bad things said about us, that we get tired of dealing with everyone’s negative impressions of us, and we just wish everyone would shut up already about how awful Mississippi is. I share in this feeling, but I also believe it is an attitude that is self-destructive. I think we have to face the past, not ignore it, if we ever hope to recover from it.

It was with this in mind that I read Bruce Watson’s Freedom Summer. I cringed through the whole book as I once again experienced the story of the slain civil rights workers who came to Mississippi only because they were young and hopeful and believed in a cause.

I thought about how only a week before I talked to a friend about what happened in Nazi Germany. I said, “It’s so horrific to think about. It seems impossible to imagine that any group of people could let this happen, but I’m afraid it is possible that something like that could happen here.”

She said, “Something like that did happen here. Just look at the Klan.”

That’s the hard part to think about. Anyone could explain how a group of crazy people could turn violent and do atrocious things. The difficult thing is to explain how normal people let it happen, how they turn a blind eye or fail to take a stand or hold on to just enough of their own prejudices that they validate those at the more extreme.

However we go about looking at this, what happened in Mississippi in the early 60s is just not defensible. What the Klan did with the lynchings and the burnings and the murder and mayhem is pure evil. What the rest of the state did in resisting change to such a degree that they allowed for an environment in which the Klan could thrive was also evil, though the state was incapable of seeing it as such at the time, and to a large extent remains incapable of seeing it as such.

I remember once talking to a friend about growing up in small churches in Mississippi, and he said, “They lost their moral credibility when they came down on the wrong side of civil rights, and once they lost it, they could never get it back.”

Too many people came down on the wrong side of civil rights, and too many people contributed to Mississippi’s loss of moral credibility. No matter how normal life seems as we drink our lattes and listen to our iPods and go about being just like everyone else, we know that it is possible for unimaginable atrocities to happen here. They already have.

And what does this have to do with reading the particular book at hand? Nothing other than the fact that it is impossible to be from Mississippi and read this book without experiencing all of these thoughts and feelings. If you are thinking about reading it, it’s okay if you put it off until you have the emotional capacity to deal with it. That’s what I did.

That said, I think the book is fair. It does paint us in a bad light, but that reminds me of another conversation with a friend. Someone said to him, “Does this skirt make my butt look big?” He said, “Honey, your butt makes your butt look big.”

This book doesn’t make us look bad. We made ourselves look bad. This is an account of something that really happened, and there is very little conjecture in it. Watson does a thorough job of explaining his sources. He also does a good job of putting the violence in Mississippi in context by covering what was happening around the country at the same time. We might have made ourselves look bad, but we weren’t alone. Racial tensions were flaring across the country. They were just particularly bad in the Deep South, and Mississippi happened to have hosted one of the worst events from even the Deep South.

Aside from spending the whole book wanting to throw up just thinking about how terrible things were right here in my own home state, I did feel like I learned from it. Watson draws a clear time line and fills it in with a great deal of explanation.

One of the most interesting ways he creates the context for what happened is through incorporating letters to the editor from the Jackson papers at the time. It’s pretty hard to deny the racist attitudes of the state when you find them in print straight from the original sources.

Not surprisingly, an idea that frequently cropped up in the Jackson news was that the civil rights workers were just “stirring up trouble,” “interfering where they didn’t belong,” and “asking for a fight.”

To which I say this. The civil rights workers, for the most part, were just college kids. They were young and idealistic and full of the passionate conviction that any hope for the future this country was up to them. If the grownups who lived in Mississippi at the time had been behaving with decency and addressing their own problems and standing up for right, no one would have felt the need to come in and try to save them.

I finished this book reminded of what a great tragedy the murder of the three civil rights workers was. I tried and tried to think of a way this tragedy could have been avoided. I tried, as I have tried my whole life, to explain to myself why Mississippi lacked the moral courage and credibility to stand up against the Klan.

No doubt I will spend the rest of my life struggling with this same question. Meanwhile, I’m looking for something lighthearted to read next. Facing reality might be necessary, but I still like to pace myself with that.

Go Akbar

In case you missed it a few weeks ago, here’s a video about the movement to make Admiral Akbar the new Ole Miss mascot.

Understand, I went to the university on the other end of the state, but I have a vested interest in this decision, mainly because my interest will annoy my brothers. I’m all for Akbar. Akbar would totally rule as a mascot. Unfortunately, Lucas Films failed to see what Ole Miss could do for Akbar and denied permission.

That’s a real shame.

It’s even more of a shame when you see the choices Ole Miss has seriously put forward.

This is the best you can do? Really?

Bwahahahahaha!

Got Adventure?

I admit it. I’ve been in my own little world lately…like for the past 40 years or so but more than usual this week. I’ve been busy. I’ve been blocking out things I didn’t have to deal with so as to make more room in my life for coping with things I did have to deal with. It was just that kind of week.

So now that it is Friday, and I can breathe a little more freely, I’ve been catching up on the news. Of course, I’m not prepared to pay that much attention to the world around me. I skipped the depressing stories and went straight to important info. Did you know J.K. Rowling has been talking to Oprah? She made the shocking statement that she might write some more Harry Potter books. She also said, “Ha ha. Just kidding. Might not either. Just call me Just Kidding Rowling.” Well, anyway, that’s what she meant.

The other tidbit that caught my attention is that National Geographic named Hattiesburg an “Adventure Town.”

That’s interesting. After spending nearly 20 years of my life in Hattiesburg, I’m sure I would have named it as one of the top 100 adventure towns too. Sure I would have.

Remind me again, though….where’s the adventure?

Ha ha. Just kidding.

Almost.

Way to go, Burg.

Do not go gentle

For the 29 faculty members and 21 programs “down-sized” at The University of Southern Mississippi this week.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

~Dylan Thomas

Maybe this isn’t an appropriate piece for the situation, but it sure feels morbid enough to me to warrant words about growing old and dying.

I spoke to a student today who said, “What am I supposed to do if my major no longer exists?”

I don’t know, I said. I just don’t know.

Oilmaggedon, Day 15

USA Today has an animated map that helps put the oil spill into perspective. I’ve been imagining this as a drifting blob. The map helps you see that it is spreading more than drifting. Usually, you want to calm your fears by “putting them into perspective.” I’m sorry this doesn’t do that. I’m sorry that’s not what I meant.

The USA Today map also shows the locations of the booms. I found that interesting. It helped me understand the comments made a few days ago by a Gulfport councilman that Mississippi and Gulfport in particular were being sacrificed as the booms helped steer the oil away from Louisiana wetlands. My first reaction to that was to feel defensive on behalf of my state. I even felt justified in this when I heard on the local news that there were no booms at Gulfport at a time when predictions had oil coming straight toward the Mississippi Coast within the next day or so.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. The weather, currents, and all of the other factors involved just aren’t as predictable as we like to think. But look at those booms on the map. They’re actually pretty scarce when looking at the ocean as a whole. They are set up around federal wildlife reserves and other highly sensitive areas. They aren’t nearly prevalent enough to actually guide the oil to any particular place, though. It’s going to go where it goes. The Coast Guard, no matter how hard at work, has very little influence.

Meanwhile, everyone is squawking about what’s what. Some say this is doomsday. Some say it’s not so bad. In truth, it is that bad. It is that big. But maybe we aren’t completely without hope of containing it.

On that note, I found two real significant pieces of information today. One, BP is going ahead with the long range plan of drilling a relief well to try to divert the flow from the one that is leaking. This could take up to 90 days to complete. That’s depressing. We can’t afford 90 more days of oil pumping into the Gulf at the current rate. I don’t even want to imagine. This is only one part of the plan, though. Let’s hope some of the more temporary measures work to bandage it up in the meantime, and let’s at least be grateful we do have a long range plan.

Next, they are trying to clean up some of the oil on the water by doing controlled burns. Maybe other people already knew about this, but I just heard about it today. Bad for the air, but good for the fish, except for the ones that get fried, of course. I don’t know whether controlled burns are good or bad, but at least they are trying something. It makes me feel better to know that they are attempting to reduce the amount of oil floating around out there.

I’ll try to remember it made me feel better when the black clouds start hovering over my house.

Random Thoughts

1. Despite the fact that tens of thousands of oil rigs have been operating in the Gulf without significant incident for decades, it only takes one catastrophic incident from one rig to kill a whole ocean.

2. No one, not even giant companies with giant budgets at stake, can be trusted to be prepared for the worst.

3. Nature has an astounding capacity to recover itself from catastrophes of nature. It has little hope against man-made catastrophes.

4. Dead sea animals are already washing up on the beaches at Waveland and Pass Christian. I know this because of pictures friends from coastal towns have posted on Facebook, not because it is being reported in the news.

5. Gene Taylor is downplaying the significance of the oil spill. Gene Taylor evidently has a political death wish.

6. The boons being used to protect the Louisiana wetlands from the oil spill are also being used to direct the oil toward the Mississippi beaches. I’m speechless on this. Thanks, Coast Guard. Mississippi is always happy to be the nation’s dump.

7. Too many people around here make their livings from the oil field for Mississippi to get behind shutting down the Gulf oil operations even if we do take the worst of the hit here. We do need to be a lot more concerned about getting out from under our oil dependency, though. We need to step up efforts toward conservation and toward moving to alternative fuel sources. We also need to step up efforts to bring in other industries to provide jobs.

8. Whatever happens this week along the coast will only be the start of a long term nightmare. We’ll only hold the attention of the national news until the first wave of high drama subsides.

9. The Sun Herald has put together a list of links to organizations and volunteer efforts for cleanup efforts. It seems to me that one of the best places for people from other places to support financially is The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport. They’ll be training people to help with cleanup in addition to trying to save animals.

10. I don’t eat seafood, but if I did, I’d be eating whatever I could get this week.