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Photos by my cousin Kevin Waller Sr.
I sat at a park in Jackson. I'm told the name was 100 Black Men. How fittin' I think. I wanna taste, see, smell and experience it all. Notebook in hand, my Paw Paw is next to me unamused. All he really wants is shade and BBQ. Bein' the eldest in attendance it's as if i'm in front of royalty. Known' I may never get the chance I begin. I ask of his 80+ years on earth. He stays quiet. A man of few words, I've never known my Paw Paw to say much. I guess it's the quiet Southern spirit in him. I pause then know where to go. Mississippi I think. "Paw Paw, I say. He's exasperated but indulges. "I wanna know more about your younger years. Were you born in Greenville?" It's as if a light clicks. Success I whisper to myself. And the conversation flows. For someone who speaks low and slow I struggle to keep up. There's a ,"born of a midwife, sold ice in rural northern Mississippi here, plowed a mule and tractor at 9 there. 18 drove tractors for Daddy here, finished 12th grade then went to work in jewelry there. Farmin', yes farmin' was in our blood. But I knew this. I needed more. Siblings are mentioned. So many are mentioned I loose count around ten. How did I not know this? Wait, I did but never cared. I mentally slap myself and struggle to refocus while he rambles on about a 64 Chevy he built. Now I really don't care but pretend I do. Army... Now we're gettin' to the good stuff I think. Aww, Basic Training was in Arkansas. Well, that's no fun. I knew we had Miilitary background. I paid attention to that long slide show of the family history night one while the sister cracked jokes. I want more my mind screams. I want the information he's never spoke of. Just sit patient I tell myself. I can't. I interrupt and ask about Greenville. I'd heard stories of how my Momma and her sisters were the first to integrate the elementary school in Greenville. I must know more. How does this even come about in the mid 60's? Paw Paw pauses for a good moment. He starts ramblin' on about the men who attacked him one day after work and how nothin' was done to them cause he was black. Ohh, this I knew. And then he veers. He tells of marchin' in the Mississippi Civil Rights. The things he saw. The love/hate he felt. Walkin' Washington Avenue with a white professor from Tugaloo College and the hate that brave man got. The attack and how he never saw that man again. He talks of planin' to walk into the courthouse protection in hand. He never makes it. He has good enough sense to go home. The next day a younger white gentleman named Kerry Stern walks on his yard as he mows the lawn. His wife in the Kitchen, his kids in the house. "We have a brief- yes sir, no sir chat", he finishes. Then the guy says he knows my reputation around town. He knows I'll fight for my kids. He has a proposition. He wants my kids to go to school.. before he can finish My Uncle Robert is brother becomes intrigued and looks over. "Got 'em", I tell myself . I guess he's never heard this part of the story. By now the spades games has stopped. The little rugrats rollin' on the floor about to catch a whoopin' have ceased and all eyes are on my Paw Paw. Those not listenin' are either playin' basketball, swimmin' or settin' up lunch. He continues... of how a simple conversation lead to a monumental moment in Mississippi history. I'm silent. All my life I'd imagine some grand elaborate moment, some monumental happenstance. When really it was two men forgin' a friendship over their love of tractors. I can't help but smile at the man I call my favorite person. My Paw Paw. And it it's then I realize why he's lived in the same two bedroom house 40+ years. Why he's never left. Why he loves Mississipi so much.
So, Mississippi, I marvel at your beauty, your gracious bounty.Your summer heat and gentle wind. Your kind spirit and Southern ways.
Mississippi, here's to you. 54 years ago you gave to thee.
Happay Birfday, Momma.