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Civil rights tourism may protect Mississippi history

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:

The Mississippi Delta attracts blues fans from around the world. The Delta is also a big part of America's civil rights story. Some Mississippians want to weave both those things together in a deeper way. NPR's Debbie Elliott covers the American South, and NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on rural America. And they have this report from the Mississippi Delta.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: As the legend goes, blues man Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in Clarksdale, Miss.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CROSS ROAD BLUES")

ROBERT JOHNSON: (Singing) I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees.

ELLIOTT: That exact crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 is about an hour's drive south of Memphis in the huge, pancake-flat Mississippi Delta.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: And today, Clarksdale is all in on blues tourism as a way to help this long-struggling rural region.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGLER: You walk along John Lee Hooker Lane, and you kind of get the chills with all the history here and the legit juke joints with nightly live blues like Red's and ground Zero.

ELLIOTT: Worn sofas and vintage concert posters beckon you inside Ground Zero from the wide front porch.

TAMEAL EDWARDS: This is Ground Zero - the writing on the walls, the mismatched tablecloths, the flags, all the Christmas lights. This is Ground Zero.

SIEGLER: And this is Tameal Edwards, the club's head booker. She's wearing bright pink glasses and is beaming.

ELLIOTT: Ground Zero is back after a long, difficult pandemic when live shows stopped and tables were empty. A guitarist is doing a soundcheck before her gig. And dozens of seniors on a riverboat cruise from Arkansas are waiting for a catfish dinner.

EDWARDS: Somebody told me there's two things that can unite people, music and food. And here, I truly see it every single day. It doesn't matter - rich, poor, old, young, Black, white, stateside, international. It doesn't matter. You know, they're here.

SIEGLER: Lately, Clarksdale elders like Jimmy Wiley, president of the local NAACP, have noticed some of these tourists are hungry for more context.

JIMMY WILEY: And they come to the blues thing. And even though they're at these places, they ask about civil rights. Where's the civil rights museum? I guess they just assume we had one.

SIEGLER: Wiley, an 84-year-old retired teacher, and his friend Brenda Luckett are raising money to build a civil rights museum in Clarksdale. Until then, Brenda, who's 64, is leading walking tours around town.

BRENDA LUCKETT: You see right over there, those stairs right there?

SIEGLER: She's pointing across a parking lot to the old Paramount movie theater. There's a rickety staircase up the back that looks like a fire escape.

LUCKETT: That was the Black entrance to the movie theater there. And so they decided not to remove those because that's part of civil rights history.

ELLIOTT: So many things, she says, that no one would know about unless you take her tour. Luckett and Wiley worry that tourists who travel the Mississippi Blues Trail just get the warm and fuzzy version with the difficult, fuller history edited out, that is, how blues was born from oppression and was instrumental in the fight for equal rights.

LUCKETT: At some point in time, there must be a meeting of the minds between those who were advocating the blues and those who were advocating civil rights.

SIEGLER: Now, there is a place in the Delta where that connection between the blues and civil rights is explicitly laid out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BB KING: I was raised up listening to my family.

ELLIOTT: The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola. An entire gallery here is devoted to conditions that led to the civil rights movement. It's called "Turbulent Times." Museum Director Malika Polk-Lee.

MALIKA POLK-LEE: B.B. came from this. He came from plantations picking cotton. He actually lived through that time of Jim Crow.

ELLIOTT: In one video, B.B. King explains how his family warned him that breaking those strict segregation rules could get him killed.

POLK-LEE: It's a very dark moment in our history, but it's a dark moment in America's history. So as a state, I think the state is learning now how to tell our own story.

SIEGLER: She says just like B.B. King's music bridged racial divides during the civil rights era, the museum is now striving to use this space as a way to get people together to heal. But there's a delicate balance to get everyone at the table.

POLK-LEE: We are still in the South. And we do have - there's a political game that you play, unfortunately, because you have to do it in a way not to offend and still be as truthful and honest as you can.

SIEGLER: Right now, lawmakers in conservative states like Mississippi are trying to restrict how the subject of race is taught in schools.

ELLIOTT: This is partly why people like Tim Lampkin think civil rights tourism on the scale of Mississippi's Blues Trail may be premature. Lampkin runs a nonprofit that helps Black entrepreneurs in the Delta.

TIM LAMPKIN: I don't know fully if we're ready because of the groundwork, the conversations, the actual hard work hasn't been done.

SIEGLER: The Mississippi Delta is majority Black, but much of the region's wealth and land remains largely in white hands, the way it's been since the Civil War.

ELLIOTT: And when it comes to the blues, there's been tension in the delta around who is profiting and how. Some commercial gimmicks come across as a little tone-deaf, like places where you can stay in replicas of shotgun shacks for a tourist experience of what it was like to be a sharecropper. Back in Clarksdale, there's an acknowledgement that the full story hasn't always been told.

JON LEVINGSTON: We must do a better job teaching our own history to ourselves and to our children.

ELLIOTT: Jon Levingston runs the city's economic development partnership.

LEVINGSTON: Not the history the way we would like for it to have been but the way it really was so that we really understand who we are and what we're capable of becoming in the very best way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGLER: The blues has sparked the redevelopment of old buildings downtown into trendy hotels and cafes and brought new jobs.

ELLIOTT: At the Ground Zero juke joint, booker Tameal Edwards is proud of that.

EDWARDS: Mississippi has the worst rep for everything. They say we have lower education. They say we're poor. They have all these negative things to say about us, but yet we have so much good. We have bands that are going overseas, doing these amazing European tours that's putting us on the map.

SIEGLER: And that map might be getting more destinations with plans for a true civil rights trail here, too. I'm Kirk Siegler.

ELLIOTT: And I'm Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Clarksdale, Miss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.