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.

Writers will find Chapter 2, in Part One, particularly interesting. Morris writes:

The most terrible burden of the writer, the common burden that makes writers a fraternity in blood despite their seasonal expressions of malice, jealousy, antagonism, suspicion, rage, venom, perfidy, competition over the size of publishers’ advances—that common burden is the burden of memory. It is an awesome weight, and if one isn’t careful it can sometimes drive you quite mad.

— p. 11

Memory haunts the South, a theme Morris returns to regularly. This push and pull is evident throughout the book as Morris relates heart-warming tales of family and friends along with the debilitating racism that divided many in the South after the United States Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated public schools. Morris describes skillfully the impact memory has on the individual. It is a theme throughout the book, often explored through Morris’s anecdotes about friends, acquaintances and adversaries. Both a blessing and a curse, memory shapes our lives and informs our writing. For Morris, it was the memory of racism past that manifested itself in racism present. Morris was never free from the Southern town he grew up in, nor from the Southern university he attended. He remained shaped by the powerful experience of growing up in Yazoo City, which he captures breathtakingly in this book. But while memory burdens, it also informs and motivates. Had Morris not experienced the deep-seeded racial antagonisms of the South, one hazards to think he would have approached the world as a writer-scholar-activist in the same ways. Yazoo City gave him the strength to crusade against it and the difficulties he saw persisting to the present. Without these memories, Morris’s crusade against segregation and racial injustice would have seemingly been unlikely. That he saw racism, spoke to racist members of the community, as well as racists across the country in his experience as an editor and teacher, radically oriented him toward the oppressive politics of the Jim Crow South.

For Morris, it was the memory of racism past that manifested itself in racism present…. He remained shaped by the powerful experience of growing up in Yazoo City, which he captures breathtakingly in this book.

Legal scholars will find Chapter 9, also in Part One, intriguing as Morris discusses his meeting with American Bar Association President John Satterfield. Morris recounts Satterfield’s hesitancy to endorse the Brown decision, portraying staunchly conservative Satterfield as the consummate racist — racist to the core, but too polite to indicate so. Morris’s discussion of his meeting with Satterfield is one of the text’s highlights. In this brief account, Morris opens a window on the racially-coded rhetoric of white Southerners, particularly those in powerful positions. Morris’s discussion is illuminating as it gives a first person account of the racial animosities lurking under the surface of official rhetoric.

This book is highly recommended for its ease of reading and intriguing portrait of a literary giant’s relationship to the South. Readers with an interest in Southern history, the history of race and racism, the Civil Rights Movement, and even legal history will find this book informative and enjoyable. Jennifer Jensen Wallach and Joanne Pritchard Morris contextualize the work and provide valuable biographical insights into the life of Willie Morris. The lesson is clear. Through a commitment to equality and social justice, racism can effectively be challenged even in the direst of circumstances. As Joanne Pritchard Morris writes in the “Afterword” about Willie Morris and the need for continued scholarly works on racism: “A guardian angel is expecting them.”

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