Cover image for Back to Mississippi : a personal journey through the events that changed America in 1964
Back to Mississippi : a personal journey through the events that changed America in 1964
Winstead, Mary.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Theia, [2002]

Physical Description:
x, 305 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F345 .W55 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Mary Winstead grew up in Minneapolis, captivated by her fathers tales of his boyhood in rural Mississippi. As a child, she visited her relatives down South, and her nostalgia for that world and its people would compel her to collect her fathers stories for her own children. But Winsteads research into her family history led her to a series of horrifying revelations: about her relatives ingrained racism, their involvement with the Klan, and their connection to the infamous 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney.Writing with dignity, humility, and a profound sense of time and place, Winstead chronicles her awakening to painful truths about people she loved and thought she knew. She profiles her father, a man of remarkable charm and secretiveness. She traces her familys roots through post-Civil War poverty, Southern pride, and Jim Crow laws, exploring racism on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Most movingly, she details her own inner war, a battle between her love for her family and their untenable beliefs and practices.

Author Notes

Mary Winstead has been the recipient of the Edelstein-Keller Fellowship and the McKnight Artist's Fellowship. She teaches English and creative writing in her hometown of Minneapolis, and has published articles in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Monthly magazine, and other publications

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Winstead grew up in Minneapolis, but her father's fond memories of family and life in Meridian, Mississippi, and his management of the cultural divide between North and South always fascinated her. When she sets out to write a family memoir, it turns into a probing examination of how white citizens in Mississippi stood by and tolerated the murder and mistreatment of black citizens and, more specifically, how a distant member of her own family orchestrated the plot to murder civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in the summer of 1964. Her loving bond with her southern relatives was tested and strained as she probed the family's casual and deeply ingrained racism and tried to find out what family members knew and felt about the murders. Unearthing family secrets and questioning social attitudes open the unspoken, uncomfortable differences between her and her family, until Winstead is forced to choose between family harmony and a sense of justice. A painful and revealing look at family and racial attitudes set against the backdrop of infamous murders. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

Although Winstead was born into "a family of storytellers" and possesses a promising tale, the pedestrian style and rickety structure of this memoir defuse what could have been a riveting and revealing historical account. The story concerns her discovery of her father's cousin's involvement in the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in rural Mississippi. Amid the ragged juxtaposition of bits of research with unabsorbing details of daily life, Winstead's periodic sketches of the victims (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner) are often more intrusive than significant. This is also the case with her depiction of cousin Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen, who coordinated the killings and was released in 1967 by a deadlocked state jury. (According to Winstead, his case will be tried again soon, and Mississippi's attorney general has named him as the state's main suspect. He did not talk to Winstead for this book.) Winstead's colorless retelling of growing up in Minneapolis during the 1950s and '60s, with occasional trips to visit her father's Mississippi family, suggests comparison with Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home (2001). Alas, writing one's life does not always mean examining it. Winstead's acceptance of the notion that "most people in Philadelphia [Miss.] believed that the whole thing was a hoax" calls for greater scrutiny of her source, the Meridian (Miss.) Star. Andrew Goodman's mother tells Winstead the event was a very important time in the nation's history, and that for a long time not much was said about it at all. Winstead adds little to that record. (Aug. 7) Forecast: The recent trial over the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham, Ala., church could pique readers' interest in this book; those who enjoyed McWhorter's masterpiece might pick it up, too. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Though billed as a memoir, Winstead's first book is a compelling history of the 1960s South from the inside out. A Minnesota-based journalist, Winstead grew up in Minneapolis but was raised on her father's stories of his boyhood days in rural Mississippi. When as an adult she visited her many relatives down South to connect names with faces, she got more than she bargained for. Along with the love and humor of family ties, Winstead discovered racism, involvement with the Klan, and an undeniable tie to the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers. The author masterfully merges national news with firsthand narratives and anecdotes. Emotions change by the paragraph, as a favorite aunt and uncle laugh over childhood mischief and in the next sentence utter racial epithets. The author is caught between the conflicting feelings of love and revulsion and has to reconcile the two. This book would be an excellent choice for a book discussion group and is recommended for public libraries. Deborah Bigelow, Leonia P.L., NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Meridian, Mississippi, 1997 It's the middle of February, the middle of the night, and I don't know what time it is. I haven't known what time it is for five days. Maybe two weeks. From the foldout couch in the family room, my father's snoring rattles through his sinuses like a ripsaw. Unable to sleep, I open my door and cross the room in my nightgown, breaking through waves of sound that vibrate at frequencies varied enough to confuse a heartbeat. The room is full of antique clocks: grandfather and grandmother clocks, school and mantel clocks, each pendulum ticking out its own metronomic pulse. I search their faces for the right time but don't find what I'm looking for. One of the clocks strikes four. Across the room another chimes six. Half an hour ago, it was midnight. When time becomes disjointed, it interrupts my sleep and interferes with hunger. It has even confounded the onset of menses: my monthly cycle is all fouled up. I've never been much of a sleeper, so the rhythms of this temporal dissonance seem almost natural. I often wake at odd hours from recurring dreams of houses, water, and crying babies. I wander the house in the middle of the night, doing household chores other people take care of during the day: washing dishes, folding laundry, dusting the coffee table. Which means I've learned to snatch fragments of sleep when I can: my head on the desk at work, catnaps on airplanes, stretched out on the sofa with a book open across my chest. My father does this too. He pulls the car over in the middle of the day, locks the doors, and closes his eyes, falling asleep with his mouth open, his head leaning back against the headrest. When I was little, I'd crawl into bed with him, making myself as small as possible, straight and still on the narrow strip between his broad sleeping back and the edge of the bed, unable to fall asleep for trying not to fall onto the floor. I loosen the dead bolt and slip out the door to sit on the front step. Camus wrote that even though all is not well under the sun, history is not everything. In Mississippi, family history comes together bit by bit, from a past that reveals itself to me in fragments: photographs, papers, interviews, and the mother lode of my father's memory. But there is a reservoir behind the wall of consciousness that informs my instincts, like a blind girl feeling her body with her fingers and discovering another world. The clocks belong to Auntie Lu, my father's sister, whose full name is Allma Lumiere (pronounced loo meer '). Uncle Ed collected them after he retired from his job driving a Coca-Cola truck. He plundered old barns and haunted collectors' fairs. He found them at auctions and in junk stores. He usually got them for almost nothing. Only he could see the beauty in the disparate parts: the polished oak, delicate hands and stern but helpful faces beneath the layers of grit, broken glass, and warped, yellow varnish. Often he brought them home in pieces, then replaced the springs and cogs in the clockwork until they kept perfect time. For thirty-five years, Ed drove U.S. Highway 80, "Ol' 80," my father calls it, the only good road connecting Jackson, Mississippi, and Meridian before construction of the interstate in the 1960s. Uncle Ed lugged wooden cases of wavy green bottles into the roadside restaurants that today stand vacant along Ol' 80, now a little-used frontage road that lies in the shadow of the elevated freeway. This afternoon, I'm in Lumiere's kitchen, reading a newspaper article about Ol' 80, looking at four-color photographs of the dilapidated buildings that once were lively with people stopping along the road for a snack and something to drink. There's the old Nelva Courts, where you could order all the fried catfish you could eat for a dollar, and a dead-tired roadhouse without a name, just the word CAFE stenciled in big letters across the side. Not everyone could stop there, however. In a snapshot over a sidebar about the slow death of Jim Crow thirty-five years ago, the WHITES ONLY signs hang weathered and lopsided over the boarded-up rest rooms. Auntie Lu is at the stove, putting the finishing touches on my father's favorite dishes. A platter of crusty fried chicken-the crispiness comes from cornmeal-waits at the sideboard. There's sweet potato pecan pie for dessert. The table is set with my grandmother's pink rosebud china. "I'm own tell you the truth, Mary," she says, fishing out a piece of boiled bacon from a saucepan and placing it on top of a steaming bowl of black-eyed peas. "Don't anybody like sittin' on a toilet when they don't know who's been they before." I put the newspaper away, butter a wedge of hot corn bread, and put a forkful, moist and crumbly, into my mouth. Auntie Lu explains about the clocks. She points to a small, hump-backed timepiece that sits at the center of the mantel. It wears a black enamel coat that's crazed and chipped. It has a yellow face and delicate, openwork hands. "This little ol' bitty clock was listed in Ripley's Believe It or Not ," she explains. "Grandma Collins carried it out of five burning houses." I ask about the houses the family grew up in, but it's hard to tell how many. There's the big white house, long vanished, with tall pillars across the front that my father draws in pencil on a page in my notebook. He sketches seven rooms and a porch with a swing at each end. "The closest we ever came to antebellum," he says. After the stock market crash they lived in a boxcar, then in their grandparents' cabin. During cotton season, it was a series of two-room sharecropper shacks. I have come back to Mississippi with my father to dig through boxes of old photographs, to drive along remote clay roads in scrub pine forests, to listen to my aunts and cousins while we sit in the kitchen and chat. And eat. There's always food on the table. Lumiere's banana cream pie with crushed vanilla wafers for a crust. Pearl from across the street has brought her Christmas fruitcake, even though it isn't Christmas, because she remembers that it's my favorite. Cousin Darla brings okra from her garden. Cousin Troy stops for chicken. We eat and talk. Rather, we eat and they talk. I listen. I discover aunts who love me so much that at times I question my capacity to return it in kind. I find cousins who welcome me with affection, though we really don't know one another at all. At home, we don't seem to get as close. Auntie Lu invites intimacy. I tell her how lonely I am, so many years after my divorce, and she takes my chin in her hands. "Y'all so pretty, Mary. It's gonna take somebody truly special to win your heart again." Her voice melts like heavy syrup all over me. Later I sit on the back steps and wonder if I've ever learned to love. To discover the truth here, a person has to do some digging: a dark path leading through time. I piece together the fragments I've gathered. My great-grandfather watches General Sherman march along the Pine Grove Road in February of 1864. In a shoebox full of old photos from a cousin's closet there is a sepia-toned daguerreotype of a mixed-race family, taken sometime after the Civil War. Aunt Ruby once pulled from her top dresser drawer a tiny pair of brown leather driving gloves that belonged to her mother-in-law, Miss Effie Lester, whose husband, Mr. Matthew, owned much of Neshoba County in the early part of the twentieth century, my father says. And I visit sharecropper shacks from the 1930s and 1940s, where I find, beneath the rotten shingles of a caved-in roof, pages from my great-grandmother's Bible. And in all of these fragments, I find my father. Linked to the stories of his grandparents, who were eyewitnesses to the burning of Meridian, the fall of Vicksburg, the emancipation of the slaves. Who watched the overseers weigh the cotton of the black sharecroppers while the white pickers just tossed their bags onto the truck. Who remembers his mother yoked to her sister as they carried ten-gallon dinner pails to the fields at noon beneath an August sun so hot it kept the chicken pan pie bubbling beneath the crust inside the metal buckets. Who traveled from lumber camp to lumber camp with his mother and brothers and sisters after his father lost everything in 1929. Who listened to his mother sing opera ("she was classically trained," my father says) as she stood in the wind to pull greens from between the railroad ties to cook for dinner. Revival tents. Uncle Spike's still. Missing a year of school because he didn't have shoes. Names that sound funny at first to the northern ear, like twin cousins named Wilber and Milber-and a distant cousin that nobody claims. For most of my life, Mississippi was a scrapbook of sepia-toned photographs collected in my father's memory. There was no one in Minnesota to confirm or contradict his stories, and the images always pointed to the end of his childhood and the end of an era, of which leave-taking there was no specific destination. But this is a story of generations, where nothing is ever finished, where endings become beginnings and the stories go on forever. I finish my black-eyed peas. I've become witness to a century in a rural Mississippi county so quiet you'd think that nothing ever happens here. But there's history waiting to be discovered, buried beneath decades of interpretation, as if a roof had collapsed and covered over everything. Chapter Two Fishin' for Chickens I come from a family of storytellers. We've got dinner table sermonizers, ribbon-cutting speechmakers and stand-up comedians. We've got cussers, complainers, and mythmakers. We are poor listeners and interrupters and embellishers of the truth. For a family of storytellers, an ordinary life isn't good enough; it has to be special . Unfortunately, the neighborhood where I was raised tried very hard not to be special. I grew up in south Minneapolis in the 1950s and 1960s, where elm trees that had been planted forty years before met in a leafy arc over the street in July, and in January brushed their bare branches together against the gray winter sky. The streets had been graded in the 1910s and 1920s so that the three- and four-bedroom bungalows were built into the sides of a hill that curved alongside a narrow creek. Most had two stories, sloping roofs, and a front porch that ran half the width of the houses. My mother was a Minneapolis native whose only foray from home had been a four-year stint in Washington, D.C., during World (Continues...) Excerpted from BACK TO MISSISSIPPI by MARY WINSTEAD Copyright © 2002 by Mary Winstead Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Memphis, Tennessee, December 1982p. 1
Part 1 A Family of Storytellers
Chapter 1 Meridian, Mississippi, 1997p. 13
Chapter 2 Fishin' for Chickensp. 18
Chapter 3 Aunt Jemima and Uncle Benp. 28
Chapter 4 The Wonderful Tar Babyp. 36
Chapter 5 A Lind Girlp. 53
Chapter 6 Sinkin' Spellsp. 69
Chapter 7 The Patron Saint of Lost Causesp. 81
Part 2 Kin
Chapter 8 The Soft Glow of Our Ignorancep. 95
Chapter 9 Monuments and Ruinsp. 109
Chapter 10 At the Reservoirp. 123
Chapter 11 On the Farmp. 138
Chapter 12 At the Cemeteryp. 154
Chapter 13 Lallapaloozap. 164
Chapter 14 The Vietcongp. 174
Part 3 Back to Mississippi
Chapter 15 The Collector's Fairp. 187
Chapter 16 Salvagep. 201
Chapter 17 Bogue Chittop. 215
Chapter 18 Grave Markersp. 223
Chapter 19 Kinfolk and More Kinfolkp. 238
Chapter 20 Who Owns History?p. 255
Chapter 21 The Double Helixp. 272
Epilogue: Philadelphia, Mississippi, November 2001p. 283
Endnotesp. 295
Bibliographyp. 303