Following the Footsteps of Giants: A 600-Mile Journey Through Mississippi’s Black History
Following the Footsteps of Giants: A 600-Mile Journey Through Mississippi's Black History - The Legacy of the Blues from Delta to Hill Country
The blues originated in the Mississippi Delta, where the fertile soil and plantation economy created conditions ripe for this new musical style to emerge. The Delta blues arose among African American sharecroppers and laborers as a way to express the pain, hardship, and loneliness of their existence. Pioneering blues artists like Robert Johnson, Son House, and Charley Patton developed the Delta blues into an intricate art form during the early 20th century.
As you travel Highway 61 from Memphis down through the Delta, you’ll come across many sites where the original Delta blues masters crafted their influential songs and honed their skills. Stop at the crossroads in Clarksdale where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unmatched musical talent. The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale offers exhibits on Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and other blues greats who got their start in the area.
Be sure to visit the Dockery Farms plantation between Ruleville and Cleveland, where Charley Patton lived and played. The plantation is now abandoned but was once at the center of Delta blues culture. Nearby is Parchman Farm, the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary, which was also an unlikely breeding ground for the blues. Many artists did time at Parchman, where they encountered and learned from other musicians.
As you continue south on Highway 61, stop in Leland to see the gravestone of James “Son” Thomas, an influential Delta blues musician. Then make your way down to Vicksburg to visit the Highway 61 Blues Museum and B.B. King’s Blues Club for a meal with live music.
The Delta blues eventually made their way north up the Mississippi River to Memphis, where a more electrified, rock-influenced city blues took hold. Memphis native B.B. King became the ambassador of blues worldwide, and Stax Records churned out soul music from its studio on McLemore Avenue. Make sure to visit Beale Street, the heart of Memphis blues, and tour Sun Studio where Elvis Presley and others recorded their first tracks. Just south of Memphis, tourists can tour Ground Zero Blues Club owned by actor Morgan Freeman.
Venturing east from the Delta into the hill country of northern Mississippi, the blues takes on yet another form. Hill country blues has a more stripped-down, percussive sound than its Delta cousin. Stop in Oxford to visit gravesites of influential hill country musicians like Mississippi Fred McDowell, then make your way up to Holly Springs.
Holly Springs birthed many hill country blues legends, including Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. Burnside's juke joint is now sadly abandoned, but fans have memorialized the site by painting murals of the man along with his signature lyrics. Make a pilgrimage to Chulahoma, where Kimbrough ran his famous juke joint from his home. Stop in at Red's Lounge in Clarksdale to experience some live hill country blues, which has a more punk, improvisational feel compared to the Delta’s folk origins.
The hill country blues trail eventually leads you to Columbus, birthplace of W.C. Handy, known as the Father of the Blues. Handy was the first to publish and popularize blues songs, taking them from obscure origins along the Mississippi and bringing them to a worldwide audience. Touring the W.C. Handy Home and Museum in downtown Columbus lets you dive into the life story of this musical pioneer.
What else is in this post?
- Following the Footsteps of Giants: A 600-Mile Journey Through Mississippi's Black History - The Legacy of the Blues from Delta to Hill Country
- Following the Footsteps of Giants: A 600-Mile Journey Through Mississippi's Black History - Civil Rights Struggles Along the Freedom Trail
- Following the Footsteps of Giants: A 600-Mile Journey Through Mississippi's Black History - African American Literary Giants of the Magnolia State
Following the Footsteps of Giants: A 600-Mile Journey Through Mississippi's Black History - Civil Rights Struggles Along the Freedom Trail
The fight for civil rights in Mississippi has a long and bloody history, with numerous incidents of racial terror and violence visited upon African Americans who dared to stand up for equality and human rights. As you trace a path through the cities and towns of Mississippi, you’ll come across many sites that commemorate the brave men and women who put their lives on the line in the battle against injustice. This part of the road trip takes you along the Mississippi Freedom Trail, which spans 400 miles of hard-fought ground in the struggle for equal rights.
In the capital city of Jackson, visit the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum which powerfully depicts the state’s history of racial oppression as well as the inspiring activism that led to change. Exhibits honor Civil Rights giants like Medgar Evers, whose assassination in 1963 outside his Jackson home was an early flashpoint in the movement. The museum sits adjacent to the Museum of Mississippi History, offering important context on the state’s past.
Heading south on Highway 51, make a stop in the college town of Oxford to see the Lyceum, where James Meredith attempted to integrate and enroll at the all-white University of Mississippi in 1962. A campus riot ensued, with two people killed and hundreds injured. Meredith did eventually enroll and graduate, but only after the governor was forced to send in federal troops to maintain order. The historic Lyceum building still bears bullet holes from the deadly riot.
Continue south on Highway 49W to the town of Philadelphia, where you’ll find a monument marking the site of the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. These three young civil rights activists were arrested on trumped-up charges then released from the Neshoba County jail, after which they were abducted, murdered, and buried in an earthen dam by Klansmen in coordination with local law enforcement. Their disappearance in 1964 sparked national outrage and their bodies were discovered 44 days later, catalyzing the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Farther south along Highway 49W you’ll come to Laurel, where the Jones County Courthouse stands as the site of the 1964 murders of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee. Two 19-year-old African American friends, they were abducted, beaten, and drowned in the nearby Tallahala Creek by Klan members. No one was prosecuted for their murders until 2007.
Highway 49W meets up with Highway 61 in Hattiesburg, known as the Hub City due to its location on multiple rail lines. Here you can visit the F.D. Burt Memorial Park, which contains sculptures honoring individuals and events from the civil rights movement, like Vernon Dahmer. Dahmer was a leader of the Forrest County chapter of the NAACP who promoted black voter registration until his family home was firebombed by the KKK in 1966, resulting in his death from severe burns.
Continuing south to Columbia along Highway 49, history buffs can tour the Marion Anderson House museum. When civil rights activists were organizing a boycott of segregated bus services in 1953, Reverend Anderson opened his home as a safe haven and meeting place. The museum documents early organizing efforts that paved the way for more visible protests in later years.
In the small town of Prentiss, a roadside marker notes the site of the violent attack on the Freedom Riders. On August 27, 1961, a bus filled with black and white civil rights activists was firebombed and the riders beaten by a white mob as police turned a blind eye. This shocked the nation and inspired more people to join the Freedom Rides movement.
Farther south in the coastal town of Biloxi, visitors can explore the Lower Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, opened in 2017. The museum showcases the diverse aspects of Mississippi’s civil rights history through oral histories from movement veterans and interactive exhibits. One gallery focuses on the wade-ins conducted by the Biloxi NAACP youth council in 1959 to desegregate the beaches.
No civil rights road trip through Mississippi would be complete without a visit to Money, where Emmett Till was brutally murdered at the age of 14 after a white woman falsely accused him of whistling at her. The Bryant Store where the fateful encounter occurred still stands, now as the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. Till’s death mobilized activists across the country to push harder in their fight for justice and was an early catalyst in the civil rights movement.
Following the Footsteps of Giants: A 600-Mile Journey Through Mississippi's Black History - African American Literary Giants of the Magnolia State
The legacy of African American literature looms large in the state of Mississippi, with many prolific writers and poets calling the Magnolia State home over the decades. Mississippi has nurtured some of the foremost voices in black literature, from Pulitzer Prize winners to Harlem Renaissance pioneers. Exploring the places these seminal authors once walked and lived provides insight into the stories and messages they sought to tell through their work.
The small river town of Natchez lays claim to literary giant Richard Wright, one of the most influential black writers of the 20th century. Born on Rucker plantation just outside Natchez in 1908, Wright drew on his impoverished upbringing in the Deep South to pen classics like Native Son and Black Boy. These unsparing novels exposed the grinding poverty and systemic racism endured by African Americans in the Jim Crow era. Visitors can tour the Rucker plantation today to reflect on the environment that shaped Wright’s unflinching perspective and activist spirit. In downtown Natchez, browse the collection dedicated to Richard Wright at the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture.
Travel east from Natchez to the capital of Jackson, the childhood home of Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Eudora Welty. One of the most significant American authors of the 20th century, Welty’s work offered deeply human portraits of life in Mississippi. Her nuanced short stories and novels focused on everyday people while addressing themes of race, gender, and class. Welty lived most of her life in Jackson, drawing inspiration from the surroundings and characters she observed in her beloved home state. Literature lovers can tour Eudora Welty’s historic residence in the Belhaven neighborhood, which provides an intimate glimpse into the life of this literary icon. Don’t miss the Eudora Welty Library downtown, home to an extensive collection of the author’s manuscripts and memorabilia.
Vicksburg boasts literary roots as well, producing acclaimed Harlem Renaissance writer Anne Moody. Her memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi delivered a searing firsthand portrayal of black life under Jim Crow. This wrenching autobiography covers Moody’s youth working as a maid and her courageous activism with the NAACP and SNCC during the civil rights movement, offering an unforgettable testament to the lived experience of African Americans striving for change in the 1960s. Touring the NAACP headquarters and Freedom Museum in Vicksburg connects Moody’s journey to the broader context of the city’s civil rights struggles.
The legacy of bardic blues poetry also looms large throughout Mississippi, as early blues musicians fictionalized their lives through verse set to song. Powerful lyricists like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and Willie Dixon composed blues standards that stand as stark evocations of the black experience in the Jim Crow South. A trip down Highway 61 lets you absorb the landscapes and landmarks that inspired these blues masters’ stirring words and rhymes. Stop to see the Indianola home of music legend B.B. King, now a museum filled with his guitars and recording equipment. Nearby in Leland, visit the grave of poet James “Son” Thomas, who wrote his own evocative blues lyrics.
The countryside outside Oxford birthed literary lion William Faulkner, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949. Though not African American himself, Faulkner gave piercing insight into the lives of black Mississippians in novels like The Sound and The Fury and Go Down, Moses. He pioneered literary techniques like stream of consciousness while candidly examining issues of race and identity in the South. Touring Faulkner’s home Rowan Oak lets you reflect on the author’s uneasy relationship with post-Civil War culture and the racist society he inhabited.
The storied literary heritage of Mississippi also includes iconic poets like Margaret Walker, whose signature work For My People shone light on the historic struggles and spirit of African Americans. A professor at Jackson State University, Walker composed lyrical verses that gave piercing voice to the dispossessed and marginalized black community. The Margaret Walker Center on the JSU campus preserves her legacy while promoting African American poetry and arts to new generations.