Notes On My Trip To Mighty Mississipp(i), Part Two
By J.S. Smith
March 6, Corinth, Tupelo and Shiloh
I wanted to go to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, but it’s closed on Sunday, so I had to postpone it. Instead I decided to go down to Tupelo, birthplace of Elvis. A warm and sunny 65 degrees greeted me when I stepped outside. Ah, yes, I’ll take some of that if you don’t mind. Danke.
On the way, I stopped at one of the multitude of little battlefield markers off a little side road. These markers populate the roadways more heavily than rust on a British car. In the 1860’s, the Union Army swept through this area under Grant and Sherman.
Not surprisingly, I am a car nut, so my main objective in going to Tupelo was the Tupelo Auto Museum. Sure, Elvis is cool too—Sun Records Elvis at any rate—but I prefer my sandwiches sans fried banana. They, of course, had some Lansing-built cars on display: a 1902 Olds Curved Dash and a 1904 REO. To complete the picture, however, they were in dire need of Lansing’s most revolutionary product, the 1966 Toronado. I visited on the eve of the NCAA basketball tournament, so I chatted about it with the docents. One of them, a woman in her fifties, informed me “I like MSU but not Michigan. They win too much.” Apparently she missed that year’s Rose Bowl.
I also took a short tour of downtown Tupelo. Like many of the towns I encountered, Tupelo is surrounded by miles of exurban sprawl, which obscure downtown like a thick layer of grime. Downtown Tupelo is sort of an open-ended rectangle centered around a magnificent late 19th century courthouse that prominently features a statute of a Confederate soldier. The courthouse is crowned with a golden dome. Two or three rows of buildings, each no more than three stories, emanate from this center. I was the only one on the streets of downtown, which was deserted on this Sunday afternoon; the strip malls on the fringe were bustling, but everything downtown was closed.
Later, I drove by the Tupelo National Battlefield, which was along a main avenue. I tried to stop there, but, rather oddly, there was no parking. I drove through a neighborhood adjacent to the battlefield. It had both black and white residents, all inhabiting small houses on narrow streets without sidewalks. This level of integration in Mississippi, once the bastion of segregation, was heartening. Incidentally, most of the housing I saw fell into two categories: low-end, from hovel to merely humble, and McMansion. There was little in-between, as if Mississippi entirely lacks a middle-class.
Another peculiar thing I noticed was that white southerners seem incapable of driving cars. This is not a commentary on their vehicular operating skills, but rather their vehicular choices. Trucks and SUVs dominated the roadways. Men, in particular, seem to drive nothing else. This, of course, is completely understandable given the harsh Mississippi winters.
By then noon had passed and I wanted to go to Shiloh National Battlefield, a real national park, not just a road-side marker, which is only fitting for what was, up to that point, the bloodiest battle on North American soil. The park was about two hours north of Tupelo. No interstates pass through northern Mississippi, so I was stuck on a 55 MPH speed limit highway. Even stretching the double-nickel for a few extra pennies, I got to the park just before it closed, so I only had time for a quick trip through the museum and a look at the Union army monuments that the various northern states erected. Unfortunately, however, I missed the Michigan monument.
My next stop was the real gem of the trip: a souvenir shop south of the park. Out front, the US flag flies slightly over two Confederate flags. This was but a primer for what lay inside. The first thing I noticed was the Confederate Flag emblazoned everywhere. As I look around, I found little ceramic figurines of confederate soldiers, generals, Jefferson Davis, etc. A shot glass informing me “Darn Tootin’ I’m a Rebel!” with the now ubiquitous Rebel Flag. License plates, ashtrays, coasters, paperweights, key chains, t-shirts, beer-can insulators, coffee mugs, beer mugs, water glasses, sun glasses, bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, post cards, placemats, pocket knives, iron-ons, bottle openers, patches: you could get it all with and each one, you can be assured, prominently displayed the Confederate flag.
Many items sported more creative messages. A popular one was “We don’t care you do it Up North!” Others: “The South Will Rise Again,” “With Liberty and Justice for Y’all,” “Lee Surrendered at Appomattox, but I didn’t,” “American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God,” “I Vote Confederate,” “100% Redneck!,” “If it’s so great up there, go back North!,” “The South was Right!” There are several posters of General Nathaniel Bedford Forest, a popular “hero” of the Confederacy; there’s also a Tennessee State Park named after him. You may know him better as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. I browsed for far too long, but found a coloring book and reproduction Union hat for my daughter, some other trinkets, and I was off. The experience was certainly elucidating – I have read about the love some people have for the Confederacy, but this was the first time I saw it up close. In all fairness, however, it was the only time I saw any display of Confederate nostalgia while I was in the South. In fact, I probably can see more Confederate flags in rural Michigan than I saw on my trip to Mississippi.
Traveling through Mississippi, I noticed churches everywhere. Just about every mile, or less, there was a church of some Protestant denomination. And only some Protestant denomination: Catholics, Jew, Muslims and others can apparently look elsewhere for their spiritual homes. There were more churches than bars, restaurants, bookstores and libraries put together. Although numerous, they don’t necessarily look “churchy” in any formal sense. Typically, the church is merely a non-descript, somewhat ramshackle building, oftentimes with a discount store-type marquee near the curb announcing its holy purpose.
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