A version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Dorothy Day House in Memphis: Reaching out to homeless families in one of the nation's poorest cities
(To the right, the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality in Memphis)
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The two-story, century-old house sits on a hill next to a vacant lot on Poplar near Cleveland, between downtown and midtown. A Buddhist temple is nearby, and so is the Sacred Heart Church, where masses are held in Vietnamese and Spanish. Beggars with rickety grocery carts wander the pockmarked streets, glancing up at cars that only stop when the light turns red.
When Memphis native Polly Jones walks into that house on the hill, she feels something she doesn’t feel anywhere else in the city. “There’s not a lot of love in my city,” says the 22-year-old homeless single mother of two toddlers, boys aged two and three. “This house, I would rather be here than anywhere else right now.”
Jones and her boys have been at the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality at 1429 Poplar Avenue since May. She plans to leave next February after getting her GED and a fresh start on a new life that includes a future career as a surgical nurse. “I want to better myself for my kids. … Everything they do for you here is for the better. When you come here, you come with a goal.”
The Jones family is one of three families at the Dorothy Day House, the only refuge for homeless families in this predominantly black city of 650,000, the nation’s poorest large metropolitan area and one of its poorest cities. Half the children in Memphis are poor. The city’s other missions limit themselves to either men or women.
(Sister Maureen Griner)
“The whole idea of a Dorothy Day house is to answer a need that’s not being met,” says Sister Maureen Griner, executive director. “It’s the hope you bring to people who are really desperate. By the time people get here, they don’t have pocket change, evicted, probably living in a car. … People don’t think about homeless families. There are hundreds in this city every night.”
Jones came to the Dorothy Day House after a series of life’s blows. She lost both her mother, who had drug problems, and the grandmother who reared her in 2011. “That was a tremendous putdown, and I was pregnant with my first son. I didn’t know my biological father.”
She did factory work for a while but her younger son’s asthma kept pulling her away to take care of him. “It was hard. I kept getting discouraged. When you are a mother, you have choices to make. … I made my son my priority.”
The two-story house on Poplar Avenue is one of more than 185 Catholic Worker communities around the world. Each is independent in its commitment to voluntary poverty, prayer, and nonviolence, and in its outreach to the poor and marginalized of society. Other than the occasional grant, they all depend on private contributions with little or no support from government or sometimes even the Catholic Church.
Dorothy Day, who died at 83 in 1980, was the radical journalist who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement with French peasant-poet-prophet Peter Maurin. Inspired by the social teachings of Jesus and in Catholic tradition, they launched the Catholic Worker newspaper and first hospitality house in New York City at the height of the Great Depression in 1933.
(Dorothy Day in 1934)
“What we do is very little, but it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes,” Day once wrote. “Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest. … Our work is to sow. Another generation will be reaping the harvest.”
In the mid-1930s, Day traveled to Memphis, where she championed the “dispossessed” members of the embattled Southern Tenant Farmers Union (see my Labor South post on July 14, 2015). “I saw men, women, and children herded into little churches and wayside stations, camped out in tents, their household goods heaped about them, not one settlement but many … children ill, one old man dead in bed and not yet buried, mothers weeping with hunger and cold.”
Sister Maureen, 68, a native of Louisville, Ky., who helped found the Dorothy Day House in Memphis 10 years ago, is keeping the flame of Day’s vision alive. The house is only big enough for three families, and she and her small staff have to turn away as many as 10 families a week.
Still, they’ve helped over 40 families get back on their feet over the past decade, and Sister Maureen envisions a “Dorothy Day Village” in the future where they can accommodate more of the needy. A 13-member board oversees the house’s operations, and hundreds of volunteers have come through its doors to help.
“It’s painful to turn people away,” she says. “Dorothy Day said put a pot of coffee on the stove and a pot of soup, and God will take care of the rest.”
A version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.
A version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in the Arkansas Delta memorializes when the poorest of black and white Southerners stood together to "Roll The Union On"
(The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, Ark.)
TYRONZA, Ark. – The black and white sharecroppers of the Arkansas Delta in the 1930s were the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. They worked from sunup to sundown, buried in debt, a Southern peasantry every bit as bound to landowners as their medieval counterparts in Europe centuries before.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had them in mind when he declared the South “the nation’s number one economic problem,” yet the federal government botched its attempt to help them, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, allowing landowners not only to grab federal dollars intended for the peasants but even to evict them from their shacks and shotgun houses.
That’s when the lowest of the low finally stood in protest.
It was in 1934 when 11 white and seven black sharecroppers and tenant farmers gathered in what was known as “Red Square” in this tiny town in the heart of the Arkansas Delta, a combination dry cleaners run by H.L. Mitchell and gas station operated by local marshal Clay East. In that humble building, they established the headquarters of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU).
Inspired by the writings of Upton Sinclair and the speeches of Norman Thomas, Mitchell and East were both self-proclaimed socialists. Like many in the 1930s, they were disgusted with an unhinged capitalism that had plunged the nation into economic chaos and left their neighbors near starvation while plantation owners and their political cronies jealously guarded the status quo.
This rare moment in Southern history where black and white came together to stand for social justice against overwhelming odds is preserved in what must be the most humble of historic places, the nine-year-old, state and federally funded Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, located in the same building where Mitchell and East led the STFU.
Some have called the STFU a predecessor to the Civil Rights Movement, Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, and today’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Ohio and North Carolina and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, each a shining light to the powerless of this nation.
“It took a lot of courage,” says Linda Hinton, director of the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, about the defiance of Southern tradition that the STFU represented. “One of the original members had been a Klansman, but whenever he started looking around and seeing how he was being treated, and saw the blacks were being treated the same way, he joined the union.”
Courage indeed. Earlier efforts by sharecroppers and tenant farmers to assert their rights had met with brutal suppression. An Arkansas Delta picker strike in 1891 ended with nine of the strikers captured by masked vigilantes and summarily hung.
What is probably the worst race massacre in U.S. history took place in nearby Elaine, Ark., in 1919 when black sharecroppers met in a church to organize for better wages. A band of armed white men launched a terror campaign against them that led to more than 100 deaths.
Members of the STFU, too, faced beatings, kidnappings, jail time, and constant threats from gun-toting night riders. However, a strike in 1935 led to several landowners agreeing to better wages. By 1937 the union claimed tens of thousands of members in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Oklahoma.
(To the right, an STFU call-to-strike poster on display at the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum)
“Meetings followed the pattern of religious revivals, with fiery sermons, passionate exhortations, and emotional hymns,” writes University of Mississippi historian Elizabeth Payne in her essay on STFU organizer Myrtle Lawrence.
Great labor songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved” and the classic “Roll The Union On”, written by STFU sharecropper-poet John L. Handcox, came out of the movement.
Takeover attempts by Communist-led unions, internal divisions and other pressures eventually drained the STFU of its original fire, and by the 1940s it was a mere shell of itself.
Decades later, the history remains controversial, museum director Hinton says. “When I started working here, I spoke to a couple of elderly ladies at the church and asked them about it, they whispered, `yes, we do know about it.’ They felt they had to whisper.”
The museum, which gets about 4,000 visitors a year, is part of a four-site “Southern Heritage” tour sponsored by Arkansas State University that also includes the barn studio in Piggott where Ernest Hemingway worked on the novel A Farewell to Arms, Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, and Dyess Colony, the farm cooperative whose most famous resident was country music star Johnny Cash.
The STFU failed to realize its dream of equality and fairness in the Delta. The region remains poor and divided, its biggest change seen in the corn and soybean crops quickly replacing King Cotton. Yet a closing sentence in a 1937 STFU declaration of rights speaks to the hope that the STFU continues to inspire.
“To the disinherited belongs the future.”
Wednesday, July 8, 2015
Workers complain of low wages at Mississippi plant where 600 undocumented workers were arrested seven years ago
Workers are complaining about low wages at a plant in Laurel, Miss., where an estimated 600 undocumented migrant workers were arrested by federal agents seven years ago and many of them sent to a Louisiana detention center without formal charges or even the opportunity to call a lawyer.
Most of Howard Industries’ 4,000-plus current workers are African American, and thus the NAACP also supported their plea before the Laurel City Council last month for higher wages at a company that not only enjoys local tax exemptions but also received a $31 million state taxpayer-funded subsidy back in 2002.
Laurel Mayor Johnny Magee, meeting with reporters after last month’s council meeting appearance by an attorney representing the workers and an NAACP official, said that the city can do nothing about wages at Howard Industries. He and Council President Tony Thaxton also agreed that the company’s local tax exemptions are not in danger.
The workers, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, earn between $3.55 and $6 an hour less than their counterparts in other nearby Mississippi plants, said Roger Doolittle, an attorney representing IBEW Local 1317. Contract negotiations between management and workers have been in a stalemate over the pay issue.
“For the type of work they do, (wages) are incredibly low,” Doolittle said. “It is a travesty that the city of Laurel supports hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax exemptions to that kind of employer. … It defies belief.”
A request was made to Howard Industries for comment but no response has come thus far.
The local newspaper, the Laurel Leader-Call, editorialized strongly against the union on June 17. Unions “are an impediment to good business,” the editorial said. “Unions fleece workers under the guise of working in their best interests.”
The editorial went on to say that the solution to the workers’ complaints is as follows: “If you’re unhappy with your pay or working conditions, get another job.”
Howard Industries, which produces electrical transformers, is the company where hundreds of immigrant workers were arrested by federal agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in August 2008. This was the largest raid at a work place in the history of the nation.
Howard Industries, a company with a reputation for gifts to politicians, pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the nation’s immigration laws and agreed to a $2.5 million fine. Federal prosecutors said the company hired undocumented workers even after receiving word from the Social Security Administration that their Social Security numbers were invalid.
Ironically the only conviction of an actual person in the case was of a Latino, company human resources director Jose Humberto Gonzalez.
Many of those arrested were sent to the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, La. They were held for weeks without formal charges or the ability to see an attorney. The migrant workers were dumped into single rooms holding as many as 250 inmates, according to the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance.
Their crime was working without proper documentation at a company that was fined in June of 2008 for 54 safety violations.
In 2012 the company agreed to a $1.3 million settlement of a discrimination lawsuit by four African American women who said Latinos got preferential treatment in hiring. The company also agreed to hire at least 70 rejected job applicants within nine months of the settlement.
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
Labor South roundup: Journalist Bill Minor's early career chronicled in new documentary; famed burlesque performer Blaze Starr dies; and UAW wins at auto parts plant in Mississippi
This Labor South roundup ranges from a new documentary on trailblazing Mississippi journalist Bill Minor and the recent death of famed New Orleans burlesque performer Blaze Starr to a United Auto Workers victory at an auto parts plant in the Mississippi Delta
Mississippi journalist Bill Minor’s early career tracked in new documentary
(Journalist Bill Minor during a birthday celebration in 2012)
The documentary Bill Minor: Eyes on Mississippi premiered at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., June 14 with hundreds on hand to celebrate a legendary journalist who has been covering Mississippi politics since 1947. Among those in the crowd were former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, Civil Rights-era leader Ed King, and former black state legislator Robert Clark.
Minor, 93, who reported on Mississippi for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, his own publication Capitol Reporter, and in his statewide syndicated column, covered every major event during the tumultuous 1950s, 1960s and beyond, including the 1955 trial of Emmett Till murderers J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the 1962 Ole Miss riot, and the 1964 murders of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner.
Unlike much of the Mississippi press, Minor covered these events with a sharp eye on and total commitment to truth and telling it like it is.
Produced by veteran journalist Ellen Ann Fentress and edited by Lida Gibson, the documentary follows Minor’s career through the Neshoba County, Miss., murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. A sequel is tentatively planned. The documentary included lengthy interviews with Myrlie Evers, the wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and the late journalist Claude Sitton, among others.
Minor continues to keep his “eyes on Mississippi” in his weekly columns. At the event this past Sunday, he told the crowd, “Let’s hope we elect the kind of leadership Mississippi needs to enjoy the kind of progress the rest of the nation has seen.”
Blaze Starr, famed mistress of Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, dies at her West Virginia home
Fannie Belle Fleming, 83, better known as burlesque performer and stripper Blaze Starr, died at her home in Wilsondale, W. Va., this week. She had been experiencing heart trouble.
As Blaze Starr, she became nationally famous in 1959 because of her involvement with Earl Long, the populist three-time governor of Louisiana who has been featured in Labor South several times. She had been a performer at the Sho-Bar club in New Orleans.
Starr's relationship with Long was depicted in the 1989 movie "Blaze" featuring Paul Newman as Earl Long and Lolita Davidovich as Blaze.
Starr's relationship with Long was depicted in the 1989 movie "Blaze" featuring Paul Newman as Earl Long and Lolita Davidovich as Blaze.
Starr later confided to friends and relatives that Long was the love of her life. She must have been a great source of comfort to Long, who had major battles with family members, including his wife, as well as with political opponents in the tumultuous last year of his life.
UAW victory at auto parts plant in Mississippi
A strong majority of workers at the Faurecia Automotive Seating plant in Cleveland, Miss., voted in favor of joining the United Auto Workers earlier this month.
The workers have complained of low wages, poor working conditions, and the French-owned company’s practice of hiring temporary workers.
The UAW continues to mine the potentially rich soil of the U.S. South with an ongoing campaign at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., and a continuing presence at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., and other plants across the region.
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Labor South roundup: Steve Stern's tales from a "East European enclave in Memphis"; the South's Medicaid gap; anti-union secrecy in Chattanooga; and B.B. King singing "poor people's music"
Here’s an early summer round up from Labor South that includes an account of Memphis-born writer Steve Stern’s recent visit to Burkes Book Store in Memphis, a glance at anti-union secrecy in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the South’s Medicaid gap, and finally one more look back at the late great B.B. King.
(Author Steve Stern reading from his new book, The Pinch, at Burkes Book Store in Memphis)
Finding an “East European Enclave” in Memphis, Tennessee
Steve Stern, author of The Book of Mischief (reviewed in Labor South back in May 2013) and other novels and stories about Jewish life in Memphis, the Catskills, the Lower East Side in New York, and Europe, stopped by for a reading and signing of his new book, The Pinch, at Burkes Book Store in Memphis last week. An overflow crowd welcomed him, so many fans that the store ran out of copies of his book.
“I can’t believe people are so nice to me in this town,” the Memphis native said, recalling how as a young man he “shook the dust off this town” but then later “washed up again on its shores” to do the basic research on the city’s old Jewish district, the Pinch. For the past 28 years, Stern, 67, has taught creative writing at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
“When I first saw it, it was this moonscape,” he said of the old district just beyond the levees to the Mississippi River along downtown’s North Main Street that once was home to succeeding waves of Irish, German and Jewish immigrants. “I learned it was a self-sustained, very vital, East European enclave with artisans, fishmongers, tailors. Yiddish was the lingua franca of the street.
The burgeoning writer stumbled upon literary gold. “I guess my stories were looking for a home.”
Indeed, Stern’s wonderful tales put him in a league with the great Jewish writers Isaac Babel (whose stories were an inspiration to him), Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Asch, and Sholom Aleichem. Like those writers, Stern writes of poor shopkeepers and ragmen who live their lives in a world constantly threatened by the larger world outside that neither understands nor tolerates them very well.
The Southern Medicaid Gap
According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation, the Southern states of Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina are home to 61 percent of the approximately four million people denied Medicaid coverage in this country.
“And it’s people in the South who are predominantly left out because Republicans refuse to have anything to do with President Obama,” the Texas-based Progressive Populist recently reported.
Anti-union secrecy in Chattanooga
As the United Auto Workers continues to try speak on behalf of workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., even without official collective bargaining status, the rival group set up to counter the UAW’s presence there operates in relative secrecy.
The American Council of Employees, claiming 381 members compared to the UAW’s 816 members at the plant, boasts of local roots and independence of outside groups but refuses to reveal its funding sources, according to the Associated Press. Plus, “the lawyer who recently filed the group’s overdue disclosures with the U.S. Department of Labor touts his expertise in `union avoidance,’” the AP reported recently.
The group’s filing only listed about $15,000 in “other receipts,” according to Mike Cantrell, president of UAW Local 42.
The UAW’s Local 42 receives its funding entirely from the union’s national office.
B.B. King sang the music of “poor people”
OXFORD, Miss. – Blues music may be singing the “No Future Tomorrow” blues once B.B. King hangs up his guitar for good, Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer warned back in 2004.
(To the right above, the hearse carrying the body of B.B. King makes its way down Beale Street in Memphis en route to his burial site in Indianola, Miss.)
Speaking at a “Blues Today” symposium in Oxford, Iglauer, whose Chicago-based company recorded Hound Dog Taylor and other greats, called bluesman B.B. King the music’s standard-bearer. “Sooner or later he’s going to be forced to retire. He’s an icon. When he does, that blues is history. … I’m very scared about the future.”
To keep the music alive, Iglauer said, blues musicians must be “nurtured” to be able to connect with contemporary audiences. “If we don’t nurture the young musicians, we are talking about a museum.”
King, who died last month at the age of 89, got his nurturing from folks like his cousin, country blues artist Bukka White, and the music he heard along Beale Street in Memphis back in the 1940s. “I’m a self-taught man,” King told an audience in Oxford during that same blues symposium. “Every time I’d hear something I’d learn a little more about it, and I’d play it. It’s like learning a language.”
In an interview I had with the Mississippi-born blues great that same year, he said he was optimistic about the music’s future. “There is a young guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb Mo, Corey Harris. They don’t play what I play. I don’t play like Bukka did. I wish I could. What I’m trying to say is that each generation brings about their own musicians.”
King was right. Compare the clean, soul-rending notes from his guitar Lucille on “Three O’Clock Blues” to the raw chords you hear on Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues” in the 1940s or Charley Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues” in the 1920s. King’s lineage may be more evident in Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 classic “Dark Was The Night”. Johnson’s every emotion-filled moan is echoed by his bottleneck guitar.
(Blind Willie Johnson)
It’s all blues, just different kinds of blues, different generations of musicians with something to say to an audience that knew exactly what the musicians meant.
The nurturing Iglauer called for can be seen today in places like the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, where young local musicians get training that allows them to tap into their region’s rich cultural legacy. The upcoming young blues prodigy Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is a product of that training.
The blues grew out of a South haunted by poverty, isolation, racial oppression, old-time religion, and intolerant, oligarchical rule. It was the music of poor people, a kind of rebellion against those crushing forces. It’s the same with poor people’s music everywhere in the world—flamenco in Spain, fado in Portugal, tango in Argentina.
It crosses racial and even class lines, however. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf liked to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. Bluegrass and country greats Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams all learned from the blues.
To some, the blues lost much of its poignancy when it left the backwater South and went commercial in Chicago. In the 1930s, Mississippian Robert Johnson’s blues laments about “hellhound on my trail” and “me and the devil … walking side by side” were existential cries of anguish. By the 1960s, Texas guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins once complained, practically every Chicago blues song was about a woman.
In many ways, B.B. King straddled those different eras of blues. From learning at the knee of Bukka White to singing duos with Eric Clapton, he was a part of blues’ evolution from the music that W.C. Handy heard at the Tutwiler train station back in 1903 to what the Rolling Stones were singing in the 1960s and beyond. That’s why he was, in Iglauer’s words, “an ideal spokesman for his music.”
“I think one of the things about the blues is truth,” King told me in 2004. “It’s truth without a lot of makeup. If we hear Frank Sinatra, he paints a beautiful picture. He sings about a girl in a beautiful meadow. He finally tells her he loves her. That makes the picture. In the blues, the guy doesn’t know all these beautiful lines. The blues singer just says, `Baby, I love you!’”
That’s a universal language, and people are going to want to hear those who speak it well for a long time, whether the words are about hellhounds, lost love, or loneliness and an empty bed at three o’clock in the morning.
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
A research graphic on "Modern Prisons and Their Predecessors" shows a stain on the nation's conscience
(To the right, a 1911 photograph of convict laborers at Mississippi’s notorious “Parchman Farm” prison)
Labor South has followed the incarceration issue in this country over the years, decrying in one post back in December 2013 how the United States has become “the world’s largest gulag.” Of course, the South, with Louisiana and Mississippi at the forefront, leads the nation in putting people behind bars and often throwing away the key. Twelve of the top 20 incarcerating states are in the South.
The obscenity of private, profit-making prisons is a plague on the land that contributes to the fact that this nation exceeds even China and Russia in incarceration rates. Corrections Corporation of America in Tennessee and the GEO Group, Inc., of Florida are the nation’s top two private prison companies.
Viviana Shafrin, a loyal reader of this blog, recently sent Labor South a research graphic she helped create that details just how big an issue this is. Below is the link to the graphic, titled "Modern Prisons and Their Predecessors:
“Modern Prisons and Their Predecessors”http://www.criminaljusticedegreehub.com/modern-prisons-predecessors/
I think you’ll all find it very interesting.
Here is a short write-up of the infographic Viviana sent Labor South: The United States has the most prisons in the world in order to house the highest number of incarcerated people in the world. In prison can be found 707 of every 100,000 people in the country. Out of every 100 citizens, three work in the justice system. One in nine state employees works in corrections. How this vast prison system evolved is examined by looking back at what was before modern prisons existed.
Here in Mississippi, the prison system has been rocked by corruption at its highest levels with veteran Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps accused of pocketing $2 million in bribes related to no-bid contracts. Reports of medieval conditions with the state’s private prisons have also put the system’s reputation in shambles.
One would have to go back to the early 1900s to find an era as dark (or perhaps I should say almost as dark) as what is happening today. That was when then-Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman, racist though he was, had to weigh in and end the abominable practice of convict leasing in the state’s prison system. Convict leasing was "a source of cheap labor after the end of slavery" in the South, Chris Kromm of Facing South has written.
Thursday, May 28, 2015
B.B. King takes his last ride down Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, the street where he got his start in the late 1940s
MEMPHIS, Tenn.– John White, a 35-year-old schoolteacher in Memphis who got his graduate degree at the University of Mississippi, said he picked up the phone one day as a young fellow and B.B. King was on the line.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalled with a laugh.
He found out that King knew his grandmother, Claudia Jackson. They used to date. “She has a photograph of her with B.B. on one side and Elvis on the other.”
(To the right, John White)
White was one of thousands of fans crowding the sidewalks of Beale Street here in Memphis Wednesday as the great bluesman made his last journey down the street where he began his career back in the late 1940s. King died earlier this month at his home in Las Vegas at the age of 89.
A New Orleans-style brass band played “The Thrill Is Gone” and other classics as it marched down Beale in front of the long, black hearse that had carried King from the Memphis airport, where he had been flown in from Las Vegas, and would bring him to his final resting place in Indianola, Miss.
People called out “We love you, B.B.!” and “Rest in peace, B.B.” as the hearse passed by the B.B. King Blues Club and Schwab’s dry goods store and made its way toward Third Street, where it turned right onto what becomes Highway 61 direction Mississippi Delta. When the hearse came to a stop just past Beale, women walked up to the back of it and kissed the rear view mirror repeatedly. Many cried.
(Bluesman Bobby Rush, center, in the crowd around the hearse carrying B.B. King)
Famous blues singers like Bobby Rush and Keb Mo were in the crowd, but most were regular folks like Lucille Shields and Latham Walker.
“Yes, my name is Lucille,” Shields said, “and I’ve got an ID to prove it.”
Of course, “Lucille” was also the name B.B. King gave his guitars after a long-ago dispute between two men over a woman by that name. The dispute took place in an Arkansas dance club where King was performing and led to a fire and King’s desperate rescue of his guitar from the blazes.
“I’ve been listening to the blues since I was five,” 59-year-old Shields said. “I’m here to celebrate B.B. King’s homecoming from Las Vegas to Beale to back home in Mississippi.”
Latham Walker, 61, is another Memphian who loves B.B. King and the blues. “I’m first cousin with Rufus Thomas,” he said proudly, referring to another Beale Street legend known for his classic “Walkin’ the Dog”. “The blues will never die. The blues will be forever. Everyday everybody’s going through something.”
(To the right, Latham Walker)
I interviewed King back in 2004, and we talked about his career and the future of the blues. He recalled his influences--from his cousin, early era country blues singer Bukka White, to the music he heard up and down Beale Street in the 1940s. Today “there is a young guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb Mo, Corey Harris,” King said. “They don’t play what I play. I don’t play like Bukka did. I wish I could. What I’m trying to say is that each generation brings about their own musicians.”
Maybe among those thousands mourning and celebrating B.B. King on Beale Street Wednesday were a handful of young blues musician waiting for their chance and knowing they’d never forget the day they paid their last respects to the King.