Mississippi is home of the blues and key to civil rights past. Locals tell the story
With pandemic restrictions lifted, tourists are returning to Mississippi's famous Blues Trail. Civil rights leaders are noticing some are now hungry for more context about the music's origins.
CLARKSDALE, Miss. — Bluesman Robert Johnson played the guitar with such genius that legend has it his talent was a gift from the devil in exchange for the musician's soul. That deal was done, according to lore, at "the crossroads" in Clarksdale, Miss.
That exact crossroads, of U.S. Highways 61 and 49, is about an hour's drive south of Memphis in the huge, pancake-flat Mississippi Delta. It's the largely rural region in the northwest corner of the state that runs along the Mississippi River.
Walk down John Lee Hooker Lane in Clarksdale and visitors can admire the markers honoring the famous musicians who got their start here – from Johnson to Muddy Waters to Howlin' Wolf.
Now new local artists like Christone "Kingfish" Ingram are carrying on the tradition. And you can catch live music just about any night of the week at authentic juke joints such as Red's and the Ground Zero Blues Club.
Clarksdale has gone all in on blues tourism as a way of helping this long-struggling region's economy. And it's proven to be a business driver. In Coahoma County, home to Clarksdale, tourists spent more than $68 million in 2019, according to a state tourism report.
"Even though they're coming here for the blues, people are spending money everywhere," says Tameal Edwards, Ground Zero's booking manager.
The Mississippi Delta is world famous as the home of the blues. But less publicized is the fact that the region is also integral to America's civil rights story. Now some are hoping to tell both stories in a fuller way.
Trying to square blues tourism and blues history
With pandemic restrictions lifted, and live shows resuming at a fevered pace, Edwards is relieved.
On a recent night at her club, which was started by the actor Morgan Freeman in 2001, a riverboat load of seniors from Arkansas was sitting down to a catfish dinner. A musician warmed up her guitar during a soundcheck, the reverb echoing across the mismatched red tablecloths, worn sofas and walls adorned by vintage concert posters.
"Somebody told me there are two things that can unite people — music and food," Edwards says, beaming behind bright pink eyeglasses. "Here I truly see it every single day. It doesn't matter, rich, poor, old, young, Black, white, stateside, international. ... They're here."
And lately, Clarksdale elders have noticed that many of these tourists are hungry for more context.
"They come to the blues thing and they ask, 'Where is it? Where is the civil rights museum?" says Jimmy Wiley, president of the Coahoma County branch of the NAACP. "I guess they just assume we had one."
Wiley, who is 84, and his friend, retired teacher Branda Luckett, 64, are raising money to start a North Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Clarksdale.
"Civil rights, it's the next blues, as far as tourism is concerned," Luckett says.
For now, Luckett leads civil rights walking tours around town, taking tourists to the historic churches along Martin Luther King Blvd. where King met with Medgar Evers in the 1960s. But her tours also focus on less obvious, unmarked sites such as the old Paramount Movie Theater, where there's a still-intact rickety staircase up the back that looks like a fire escape – it was once the Black entrance. Nearby is the old Greyhound Bus station —now a fast food restaurant —where Black activists staged sit-ins to force desegregation.
Luckett and Wiley worry many who travel the Mississippi Blues Trail are only getting the warm and fuzzy version, with the difficult fuller history edited out — how blues was born from oppression and was instrumental in the fight for civil rights.
"At some point in time there must be a meeting of the minds between those who are advocating the Blues and those who are advocating civil rights," Wiley says.
This is "still the South"
There is one place in the Mississippi Delta where that connection between the blues and civil rights is explicitly laid out. Sixty miles to the south, in Indianola, is the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center where an entire gallery is devoted to the civil rights movement.
It's called "Turbulent Times."
"B.B. came from this," says the museum's executive director Malika Polk-Lee. "He came from plantations picking cotton. He lived through that time of Jim Crow."
In one video, King explains how his family warned him that breaking those strict segregation rules could get him killed.
"It's a very dark moment in our history, but it's a dark moment in America's history," Polk-Lee says. "I think the state is learning how to tell our own story."
Like in Clarksdale, Polk-Lee says visitors today are looking for a deeper understanding. The B.B. King Museum is also used as a community space where people can come together to heal, much like how King's music itself bridged racial divides during the civil rights era.
But there's a delicate balance to getting everyone to the table, according to Polk-Lee.
"We are still in the South and there's a political game that you play," she says. "You have to do it in a way not to offend and still be as truthful and honest as you can."
Some think Mississippi isn't ready for a full-blown civil rights trail
All of this comes as lawmakers in conservative states like Mississippi are trying to restrict how the subject of race is taught in schools and there are renewed efforts to limit what history books are available in libraries. This is partly why people like Tim Lampkin think civil rights tourism on the scale of the blues trail in the Mississippi Delta may be premature.
"I don't know fully if we're ready because the groundwork, the conversations, the actual hard work has yet to be done," says Lampkin, CEO of Higher Purpose, a nonprofit that helps Black entrepreneurs in the Delta.
The Mississippi Delta is majority Black. But much of the region's wealth and land remain largely in white hands, the way it's been since the Civil War. And when it comes to the blues, there's been tension in the Delta around who is profiting and how. Some commercial gimmicks come across as tone deaf, like replicas of shotgun shacks tourists can stay in to experience a bit of sharecropper life.
"We have to wrestle and tackle the past and I don't think that has really happened in a very concerted way," Lampkin says.
A pledge to do better in telling the full story
Back in Clarksdale, there's growing acknowledgement that the full story hasn't always been told.
"We must do a better job teaching our own history to ourselves and to our children," says Jon Levingston, executive director of Crossroads Economic Partnership, a local economic development group. "Not the history the way we would like for it to have been, but the way it really was."
The blues and tourism dollars from it have helped spark the redevelopment of old buildings downtown into trendy hotels and cafes and brought new jobs. Thousands flock to the small city for juke joint festivals and its famous blues jams throughout the year. Figures from Visit Mississippi, the state's tourism agency, show that in 2019, the sector generated some $7 million in tax revenues.
At the Ground Zero juke joint, booker Tameal Edwards is proud to see the changes in the economy of her hometown.
"Mississippi has the worst rep for everything," Edwards says. "They say we have lower education. They say we're poor. They have all these negative things to say about us yet, we have so much good."
This story is the first in a two-part series.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.