The last thing my father needs is more stuff to put on shelves, so for his birthday last year my brother and I promised him a trip with us wherever he wanted to go. We finally made good this weekend, when the three of us went to Mississippi, the site of many of my father’s early triumphs.
We spent our first day in Jackson, where he and my mother lived in the late 60s working for the Lawyers’ Constitutional Defense Committee. The next day we went to Vicksburg, site of the 1863 siege that cut the South off from the Mississippi River, effectively winning the Civil War for the Union. Then we went up through the Mississippi Delta, where my father had argued his first civil rights cases.
Most of the small towns there seemed much better off, he said, than they had forty years before, but he was worried that the improvement had been achieved by the exodus of the poorest residents to cities like Chicago and Atlanta, and some of the small towns we saw, including one called Midnight, seemed to be just as badly off, he said, as they had been in the 1960s. I would post photographs, especially as I’d forgotten what rural poverty looks like, but the people weren’t showing off their penury for our entertainment, and the idea of taking pictures felt odd.
On our way back down to Jackson, we stopped in Indianola to visit the post office, which is at the center of the story of Minnie Cox, one of my favorite civil rights stories of all.
In 1903, the white citizens of Indianola decided they’d had enough of getting their mail from a black postmistress, so they ran Minnie Cox out of town, expecting President Theodore Roosevelt to give the post to a white person. He decided to deal with the situation a different way, however.
He just closed the post office.
And had Indianola’s mail rerouted—remember that nobody had cars yet—to the town of Greenwood, thirty miles away.
Eventually, after a year, during which he naturally kept paying Minnie Cox her salary, he appointed a new postmaster and reopened the Indianola post office; he then downgraded it from third class to fourth class because the year’s receipts had been so low.
Man, I love a good smackdown.
The post office can’t possibly be in the same place as it was over a century ago, but I was nonetheless thrilled to discover that Mrs. Cox has not been forgotten:
Now if only the rest of the state were as enlightened. . . .