On The Shelf: History may not always be pretty but it is always relevant

Published 11:39 am Wednesday, December 13, 2023

This column was submitted by Evangeline Cessna, Local History Librarian at the Warren County-Vicksburg Public Library.

This week’s column features Civil Rights and Mississippi titles located in the New Adult Nonfiction collection.

“A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America and the Woman Who Stopped Them,” is by Timothy Egan. The Roaring Twenties has been characterized as a time of excess and frivolity. But it was also the pinnacle of the uniquely American hate group, the Ku Klux Klan. Their goal was not the old Confederacy, but the Heartland and the West. They hated Blacks, Jews, Catholics and immigrants in equal measure and took radical steps to keep these people from the American dream. And the man who set in motion their takeover of great swaths of America was a charismatic conman named D.C. Stephenson. Stephenson’s life story changed with every telling. Within two years of his arrival in Indiana, he’d become the Grand Dragon of the state and the architect of the strategy that brought the group out of the shadows – their message endorsed from the pulpits of local churches, spread at family picnics and town celebrations. Judges, prosecutors, ministers, governors and senators across the country all proudly proclaimed their membership. But at the peak of his influence, it was a seemingly powerless woman – Madge Oberholtzer – who would reveal Stephenson’s secret cruelties and whose deathbed testimony finally brought the Klan to their knees.

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In “A Slow, Calculated Lynching: The Story of Clyde Kennard,” Devery S. Anderson tells the story of a man who paid the ultimate price for trying to attend a white college during Jim Crow years. In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, countless Black citizens endured violent resistance and even death while fighting for their constitutional rights. One of those citizens, Clyde Kennard, a Korean War veteran and civil rights leader from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, attempted repeatedly to enroll at the all-white Mississippi Southern College in the late 1950s. Anderson examines the relentless campaign against Kennard, including the cruelly successful attempts to frame him — once for a misdemeanor and then for a felony. This second conviction resulted in a sentence at Mississippi State Penitentiary, forever disqualifying him from attending a state-sponsored school. While imprisoned, he developed cancer, was denied care and then sadly died six months after the governor commuted his sentence. In this prolonged lynching, Clyde Kennard was robbed of his ambitions and ultimately his life, but his final days and legacy reject the notion that he was powerless. Anderson highlights the resolve of friends and fellow activists to posthumously restore Kennard’s name. He was gone, but countless others still benefit from Kennard’s legacy and the biracial, bipartisan effort he inspired.

Next is a story of obsession, injustice and the ties that bind, “In the Pines: A Lynching, A Lie, A Reckoning.” The book by Grace Elizabeth Hale shines a light on the desire to set straight the historical record and to understand and subvert white racism, along with its structures, costs and consequences—and the lies that sustain it. Grace Hale was home from college when she first heard the family legend. In 1947, while her beloved grandfather had been serving as a sheriff in the Piney Woods of south-central Mississippi, he prevented a lynch mob from killing a Black man who was in his jail on suspicion of raping a white woman — only for the suspect to die the next day during an escape attempt. Years later, as a rising scholar of white supremacy, Hale revisited the story about her grandfather and Versie Johnson, the man who died in his custody.
The more she learned about what had happened that day, the less sense she could make of her family’s version of events. With the support of a Carnegie fellowship, she immersed herself in the investigation. What she discovered would upend everything she thought she knew about her family, the tragedy and this haunted strip of the South. Because Johnson’s death, she found, was actually a lynching; but guilt did not lie with a faceless mob.

Natalie G. Adams discusses Mississippi’s history of civil rights in education in her book, “Just Trying to Have School: The Struggle for Desegregation in Mississippi.” After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, no state fought longer or harder to preserve segregated schools than Mississippi. This massive resistance came to a crashing halt in October 1969 when the Supreme Court ruled in Alexander v. Holmes Board of Education that “the obligation of every school district is to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate now and hereafter only unitary schools.” Thirty of the 33 Mississippi districts named in the case were ordered to open as desegregated schools after Christmas break. With little guidance from state officials and no formal training or experience in effective school desegregation processes,
ordinary people were thrown into extraordinary circumstances. However, their stories have been largely ignored in desegregation literature. Without losing sight of the important macro forces in precipitating social change, the authors shift attention to how the daily work of “just trying to have school” helped shape school desegregation in communities still living with the decisions made 50 years before.

“Mississippi’s Natural Heritage: Photographs of Flora and Fauna” by Wesley L. Shoop spotlights the plants and animals of the state. Featuring four hundred gorgeous color photographs and a complete index of included species, “Mississippi’s Natural Heritage” is the first book of its kind dedicated to Mississippi’s natural world. Photographer Wesley L. Shoop spent years photographing a vast array of invertebrates, fossils, amphibians and reptiles, birds, mammals, plants and fungi and the book features a section dedicated to each group. The photographs in this book were taken in LeFleur’s Bluff State Park, a dazzling, well-known Mississippi park and urban natural area that exemplifies the biota of Mississippi. Over a thousand species of flora and fauna have been identified on the park’s bluff and floodplain. All of these species can be found in forests, parks and backyards across the state. LeFleur’s Bluff is a fascinating microcosm of Mississippi’s ecological community.