Memory of a Racist Past — Yazoo: Integration in a Deep-Southern Town by Willie Morris

Yazoo: Integration in a Deep Southern Town

Yazoo: Integration
in a Deep Southern Town

BY Willie Morris
Jennifer Jensen Wallach
JoAnne Prichard Morris
(University of Arkansas Press, 2012)

From the Publisher:

“In 1970 Brown v. Board of Education was sixteen years old, and fifteen years had passed since the Brown II mandate that schools integrate ‘with all deliberate speed.’ Still, after all this time, it was necessary for the U.S. Supreme Court to order thirty Mississippi school districts — whose speed had been anything but deliberate — to integrate immediately. One of these districts included Yazoo City, the hometown of writer Willie Morris.

Installed productively on ‘safe, sane Manhattan Island,’ Morris, though compelled to write about this pivotal moment, was reluctant to return to Yazoo and do no less than serve as cultural ambassador between the flawed Mississippi that he loved and a wider world. ‘I did not want to go back,’ Morris wrote. ‘I finally went home because the urge to be there during Yazoo’s most critical moment was too elemental to resist, and because I would have been ashamed of myself if I had not.’

The result, Yazoo, is part reportage, part memoir, part ethnography, part social critique — and one of the richest accounts we have of a community’s attempt to come to terms with the realities of seismic social change…”

Willie Morris was in many ways larger than life. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, he moved with his family to Yazoo City, Mississippi at the age of six months. He attended and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin where his scathing editorials against racism in the South earned him the hatred of university officials. After graduation, he attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship. He would join Harper’s Magazine in 1963, rising to become the youngest editor-in-chief in the magazine’s history. He remained at this post until 1971 when he resigned amid dropping ad sales and a lack of confidence from Harper’s owners, the Cowles family. He would move to Bridgehampton, New York, before returning to the South to live out his life. His circle of friends included prominent authors like James Dickey, William Styron, and Winston Groom.

Morris’ book brims with confidence and raw emotion. He writes painfully
about the depressed economy of the South and the racism of rural Mississippi.

This new edition of Yazoo (the first edition was published in 1970 under the title, Yazoo… notes on survival) features a foreword by Jennifer Jensen Wallach and an afterword by Joanne Prichard Morris. It is much changed and is an expansion upon a similarly-themed magazine article penned by Morris. Morris’ book brims with confidence and raw emotion. He writes painfully about the depressed economy of the South and the racism of rural Mississippi. Poverty and race are never far from his thoughts as he describes the people, places, and emotions that characterize his travels in Yazoo City and beyond. Starting at the end of the book gives the reader keen insight into the importance of memory for Morris. He concludes the book expressing the complexity of emotions called up by his return home:

When I am in the South and am driven by the urge to escape again to the city, I still feel sorry for most of my contemporaries who do not have a place like mine to go back to, or to leave.

— p. 183

So the South is for Morris. It is both home and a place that causes conflicting emotions, pushing the visitor or resident away.

The book is divided into two parts, Part One containing fifteen chapters, Part Two containing three. Part One was written from November 1969 to October 1970, Part Two from November 1970 to January 1971. Throughout, Morris’s voice is clear. Whether in Yazoo City, at the University of Mississippi, or in Long island, New York, Morris was staunchly opposed to the prejudice he experienced and continued to see in the South. One walks away from this book reinvigorated and inspired by Morris’s commitment and perseverance. The tenacity of this fiery editorial writer for the University of Texas at Austin’s The Daily Texan is still present, even years after his days there.

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