Eubanks turns tale of hatred into tale of affection

BY LYNN DARLING

Special to the Daily Journal

I am a first-generation Southerner. My parents moved to the South – on purpose – in the late 1950s. I have lived all over the South, and have the accent to prove it, but I am not, nor will I ever be, of the South.

Perhaps that is why I am drawn to memoirs written by those who are true Southerners, as I try to truly understand what it means to be connected not just to the culture of the South but to the places of the South.

Rick Bragg comes to mind, and his masterful “All Over But the Shoutin'” and “Ava's Man” provide insights into the Southern experience in lyrical prose.

Edward Cohen is another favorite writer, although his book, “The Peddler's Grandson” sheds light on a distinctly different prospective; growing up Jewish in Mississippi in the 1950s. Reading this book is a powerful experience, as it provides the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of one who's voice is often forgotten when examining the history of this state.

New addition

Add to the list W. Ralph Eubanks, who's memoir “Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey into Mississippi's Dark Past” (Basic Books, $24.95) explores the ugliest aspects of Mississippi's segregated past.

Eubanks, who now lives in Washington, D.C., is stymied by him sons' questions about his youth in Mississippi. As an African-American born in Mt. Olive, there are no easy answers to their inquiries, for the truth is complicated by layers of contradictory memories.

“Mississippi, the land an its history, inhabits an haunts me; its music an rhythms, both the joyful and the melancholy, have followed me my entire life, even when I try to run away from them. I could never escape because being a Mississippian is the source of my inner strength. It lies at the core of my identity.”

Eubanks was born in 1957, the year that Gov. J.P. Coleman, appearing on NBC's “Meet the Press,” was asked if the public schools in Mississippi would ever be integrated. He replied, “Well, ever is a long time. I would say that a baby born in Mississippi today will never live long enough to see an integrated school.”

Despite this grim statement, Eubanks' memories of his early childhood on his family's 80-acre farm are sweetly romantic, with an emphasis always on place.

“There are times when I walk city streets and feel my little town of Mt. Olive, Mississippi, tugging at me, telling me to come back. It's a good feeling, one that reminds me of people and places I love: the calmness of fishing on the banks of a quiet lake, the smell of the food at a summer church revival, and a walk in the hills of my family's farm with my dog. But I have visited rarely since I left Mt. Olive behind, largely resisting the pull and choosing to love the place at a distance.”

But he does come back, in his quest to understand his experiences in Mississippi, uncovering along the way the dismal workings of the state Sovereignty Commission. The body was chartered to “do and perform any and all acts and things deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states, from encroachment by the Federal Government.” In other words, prevent integration at all costs.

This pathetic mission, both ominous and absurd, resulted in a virtual police state in which the government spied on its own citizens. It is ironic that the Commission seemed most to fear a communist plot to overtake the government, and reacted by creating their own communist-like spy network.

Eubanks initially resisted the need to delve into the Commission's files, for he knew that the knowledge gained would forever cloud his mostly happy memories of his early childhood. Eventually he relented, and found his parents' names on the Commission's list of 87,000 people whose behavior was considered “suspicious.”

The real heroes

His parents are the heroes of this memoir, for they endured segregated Mississippi fully aware of the brutal realities of their life. Eubanks' mother, a strong-willed, outspoken woman, refused to drink “colored” water, since water was in fact colorless, and would boldly drink from the “whites only” water fountain in town. Her name appeared on the Commission's list because she was a teacher.

His father, the “Negro” county agent, was reported by a white woman for integrated activities and was listed. At that time, of course, no one knew such a list existed, but African-Americans knew to be cautious. The Eubanks' gravel driveway allowed warning that a car was approaching, an important consideration in a rural community where acts of violence were not uncommon.

Eubanks' father, Warren Eubanks, was a truly remarkable man. Ralph accompanied his father to work every day until he entered school, and was wisely instructed in the ways of the world.

The importance of a firm handshake, and looking people in the eye when speaking to them, cannot be underestimated when you consider the context of the lessons. His advice to his son: “Ralph, be a realist, not a sentimentalist,” is telling.

Warren Eubanks was a man who lived a life of dignity, treating others with respect and demanding to be treated in kind, no small feat for a professional African-American man in the Mississippi of that time. When Ralph visited Mt. Olive years after his father's death, both black and white acquaintances referred to his father, always, as “Mr. Eubanks.”

The gift his parents gave Eubanks, the gift of a carefree, safe childhood, served as an anchor when he encountered racism head-on in school. Armed with love and important lessons in comportment, Eubanks endures a sub-standard “Negro” school, as well as the trauma of the move to an integrated school in the middle of the school year.

The high school was an integrated building with segregated classes. However, as an “experiment,” Eubanks is placed in an all-white class. Thanks to lessons learned from his parents, he endures, and even has the courage to confront a racist teacher. Even more surprising, he attends the University of Mississippi, one of only 50 African-American students in a student body of 800.

Eubanks leaves Mississippi after college, with only infrequent visits home. His sons' questioning forces him to go home again, and we all benefit from the journey. Eubanks uncovers dismal secrets, meets heroes, and confronts his demons, and he still loves Mississippi.

“On each successive trip back to Mississippi, I found out more and more about how the whole state was torn asunder by the forces of race and hate, with its government prodding those forces into open battle. People were murdered, property was destroyed, and lives were wrecked beyond recognition. In time, I encountered people who were caught in the forces of this battle for the souls of Mississippi, and their stories sometimes moved me to anger and rage. I didn't plan on falling in love with a place that would make me clench my fists and grit my teeth. But once I understood Mississippi's past in my head, I could find a place for it in my heart.

Redemption.

This could have been a memoir of rage and hatred, and it certainly depicts a Mississippi tormented by both.

Eubanks, however, is able to quiet his rage because of the overwhelming affection he has for his home and his home state.

The overriding tone of this book is affection, rather than anger, and that enables the reader to push through the ugly stories of people at their paranoid worst.

For this is really a story of people at their best. Thanks to his family, Eubanks is able to recognize that Mississippi is working toward justice and redemption, enabling all of us to love it as he does.