In March, 2017, Joan Didion published the notes of her jaunt forty-eight years ago through Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in a slender book, South and West (Knopf). We’ll take a much more in-depth look at the book in a later entry, but first let’s focus on the passage in which Didion meets with the legendary “Voice of the Rebels” Stan Torgerson, in Torgerson’s home town of Meridian, Mississippi.
Bear in mind as you read that the month is June, the year is 1970. Nixon is in the White House for his first term. The nation as a whole is in a somewhat less turbulent mode after the riotous Sixties, but no section is more complacent than the South, where the key word had become progress. This passage is in essence an examination of the ongoing homogenization of the South as seem through the eyes of a transplant from the upper Midwest (Torgerson) and told to a visitor from California. At times Torgerson sounds like a one-man chamber of commerce espousing racial harmony, social equality and industrialization. When Stan says, “We’re not as inbred as we used to be” he’s referring not (necessarily) to genetics but instead to the influx of people and ideas from outside the South; when he says “we don’t wear crinolines any more” he’s telling Didion that Old South is gone. But though he says, “If there were elm trees hanging over the street it would be very midwestern,” as they drive through residential Meridian, the issues of race and poverty he discusses are those of the South.
This section from Didion’s work appears here in its entirety not only for the more compelling reason that it needs to be read in toto to grasp its exhaustive effect on Didion and to understand more fully Didion’s comments in context—particularly the last line—but also on a somewhat sentimental level because those many of you–as I do–remain familiar with Torgerson’s voice from his 17 years on air with Ole Miss sports might recollect his voice in the cadences of the quoted passages.
When I called Stan Torgerson for lunch at his radio station, WQIC, and asked him the best place to lunch, he said Weidmann’s, “but it wouldn’t win any Holiday Magazine awards.” In fact it had, and was not a bad restaurant, but everyone in Mississippi begins on the defensive. “I’ll be the biggest man in a green shirt to come through the door,” he advised me. He was, at lunch, wary at first. He said he didn’t think I knew what I was doing. I agreed. He refused drink, saying he wasn’t in New York City. Stan Torgerson came out of the cold North (Minnesota, I think) and headed to Memphis, where he went into broadcasting. He worked in Miami, and then, for a year, in San Diego, living in La Jolla. He felt ill at ease in La Jolla—his neighbors kept to themselves, had their own interests—and he wanted to get back south. His son had won a football scholarship to Ole Miss. He was worried about his children and drugs in California. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I just haven’t reached the point where I think pot is a way of life.”
When the black radio station in Meridian came up for sale he bought it. He also broadcasts the Ole Miss games, something he began doing when he was in Memphis. “That’s right,” he said, “I own the ethnic station, WQIC. In its thirteenth year of serving the black community here.” He programs gospel and soul, and reaches 180,000 in several Mississippi and Alabama counties, the thirty-second largest black market in the country, sixty miles in all directions and forty-three percent of that area is black. We serve a major black market, program soul music and gospel music, but what does that mean? A month ago in Billboard there was a survey pointing out that the Top 40-format stations are playing basically soul. Jackson 5 with ‘ABC.’ ‘Turn Back the Hands of Time,’ that’s Top 40 but it’s soul. Once in a while we throw in some blue-eyed soul, like Dusty Springfield with ’Son of a Preacher Man.’ We don’t play rock because our people don’t dig it. We don’t play your underground groups like the Jefferson Airplane . .. We have goodly reason to believe that ten to fifteen percent of our audience is white; some of the phone calls we get in the afternoon for dedications, they’re definitely white voices. We get thirty-six percent of the audience.”
He said I was probably wondering why he came back to Mississippi. “I came because I dearly love this state. I have a son—he’ll be a senior this fall—playing football at the University of Mississippi.”
He pointed out that Meridian was timber country, hill country. Pulpwood is the backbone of the agricultural product. He pointed out how progressive Meridian was: its three new hospitals. “In most southern cities there is a much stronger tendency to old-line money . . . Southern retailers stayed in business privately, home-owned, until very recently. In most cases the retailer has just begun to feel the competition from the chains. There’s the greatest business opportunity in the country right here in the South . . . We don’t have a McDonald’s in a city of almost fifty thousand people, don’t have any of these franchises here yet. You give one corner of one intersection in Jackson, Mississippi, or you give me the whole ball of wax right here in Meridian, I’d take the whole ball of wax and I’d put a McDonald’s on one corner, a Burger Chef on the other, a Shoney’s Po’ Boy (sic! jly) ‘cross the street . . . “
His voice kept on, weaving ever higher flights of economic possibility. “There is and must be,” he said, a “continued turning to the South by industry. The climate is certainly one reason. Another is that the South wants industry and is willing to give a tax advantage to get it. Another, of course, is that there is a relatively low level of unionism in the South. Lockheed assembles tail sections here and ships them to California for assembly . . .
“Atlanta is the magic city for the young around here, across the whole social spectrum . . . The great migration out in the past ten years has been black, they get these glowing letters, and of course they’ve got relatively liberal welfare programs in some of the northern states . . . No doubt, too, there appears to be greater opportunity in the North.”
More on the progressive nature of Meridian: “Our radio station has probably got as fine a list of blue-chip clients as any in town, black or not. We’ve got all four banks, and anyone in retailing who’s interested in doing business with the black—the black’s dollar is very important. The minimum wage was probably the most important thing to happen along these lines, and then food stamps were a good dead, I would say they added millions of dollars to the economy.”
“We are in a transitional phase. There’s a tremendous push to education on the part of young blacks. The schools here are completely integrated. Of course, neither you not I can change the older black, the forty-year old, his life patterns are settled.”
“Ole Miss has its standards to keep up. As more and more blacks get an educational advantage, you’ll see blacks at Ole Miss. There’s a feeling among some black leaders that because these kids have not had advantages they should get some kind of educational break, but basically what has to happen is the standards have to stay up and the people come up to meet them.”
We were driving through town at night, and Stan Torgerson interrupted himself to point out the post office. “There’s the post office, the courthouse where the famous Philadelphia trials were held, the trials for the so-called Philadelphia deaths.”
“If there were elm trees hanging over the street it would be very midwestern,” Stan observed as we drove through the residential district. He pointed out his $29,500 house, a two-story frame, “twenty-eight hundred square feet, with magnolia, dogwood and pecan trees.” He pointed out Poplar Drive the “Park Avenue of Meridian, Mississippi, all the houses built by the old-line families.”
Fervently, he kept reverting to the wholesomeness of life in Meridian. His daughter, who would be a high school senior in the fall, had “her sports, her outdoor activities, her swimming. It’s a quiet, pacific type of living, which is one of the reasons I wanted to come back down here. The kids are taught to say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ I know it’s very fashionable to poke fun at the South, but I’ll pit our slum area any day against the slum areas where the Cubans and Puerto Ricans live in Miami, Florida, and Miami’ll lose.”
Meridian is the largest city between Jackson and Birmingham, and there is a naval base there which means a great deal to the community. At apartment buildings largely inhabited by the navy there are cars with plates from all over the country.
Some random social observations from Stan Torgerson included: most of the local children go to college within the state, at Ole Miss or Mississippi (sic jly): the other country club, built with federal money, has a membership which includes “assistant managers of stores and some navy people’: most of the subdivisions in Meridian feature “custom houses.” Torgerson paused dramatically, to emphasize the versatility of the new blood in town: “A fabric store.”
I asked if some of the children did not leave, and he allowed that some did. “Nothing here for the kid with an engineering degree. And of course the girls go where they marry. Southern girls are notoriously husband hunting, but I guess that’s the same anywhere.” It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?
Torgerson was would up now, and I could not stop his peroration. “There’s been a great metamorphosis in recent years in the South, the Volkswagen dealership for example comparable in size to anything you’ll find anywhere.”
“The KKK which used to be a major factor in this community isn’t a factor anymore, both the membership and the influence have diminished, and I cannot think of any place where the black is denied entrance, with the possible exception of private clubs. We don’t have any antagonistic-type black leaders working against racial harmony. Since the advent of black pride, black power, there is a little tendency to be self-segregating. On our station, we have a program we call Adventures in Black History to point out the contributions black people have made—a black minister does it. I have blacks working in the WAIC Soul Shop, and there’s a black druggist here, a man eminently qualified, who is a local boy who went north and came back, received his training at the University of Illinois. We have a certain degree of black business, including this gas station here, which is owned by a black. The key is racial harmony, and education, and we’ll try to provide our people with both, ‘cause we’re gonna live together a long time. Every major retailer hires black clerks, Sears has a couple of black department heads, there’s a black business college here, and a black and white Careen Training Institute.
“Of course we have transplants, too, new ideas, like any other hybrid we’re generally stronger. We’re not nearly as inbred as we used to be. We’ve been withdrawn in this part of the South for many, many years, but we’ve become more aggressive, and as people come in they’ve helped us become more aggressive—we don’t wear crinolines anymore, no we don’t.”
“And about our politics, well, George Wallace got a lot of votes in Indiana, let’s face it. I’m not saying I’m going to have a black minister come home to dinner tonight, ‘cause I’m not. But things are changing. I had a man the other day, owns an appliance store, he never believed you could send a black repairman into somebody’s house. Now he can’t find a white … He asks me if I know a black man who makes a good appearance. That’s progress . . .”
Of course, there’s a tremendous lack of skilled blacks, and the problem is training and education. It’s no longer a matter of lack of opportunity, it’s a matter of lack of skills. We’re still two generations from full equality, but so are they in Chicago, in Detroit, and have you ever been in Harlem?”
Glazed by the two hours in which this man in the green shirt had laid Meridian out before us as an entrepreneur’s dream, a Shoney’s Po’ Boy (!) on every corner and progress everywhere, even at the country club, I dropped him off and drove through the still-deserted streets of the downtown. A few black women were on the streets and they carried umbrellas against the sun. It was almost five o’clock. In the middle of 22nd Avenue, the main street of Meridian, there was a man holding a shotgun. He had on a pink shirt and a golfing cap, and in one ear there was a hearing aid. He raised the shotgun and shot toward the roof of a building several times.
I stopped the car and watched him a while, then approached him. “What are you shooting at?” I asked.
“Pi-eagins,” he said cheerfully.
In this one demented afternoon Mississippi lost much of its power to astonish me.
While those of an age should remember Watergate as a by-word for illicit, illegal political intrigue and machinations, those younger will simply find this amalgamation of pistachio, coconut and pudding a pretty cake for St. Paddy’s Day. Such is the transitory knowledge of history.
1 box white cake mix
1 cup oil
1 pkg. instant pistachio pudding
1 cup lemon-lime soda
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
1/2 cup sweetened, shredded coconut
2 (3 oz.) envelopes Dream Whip
1 1/2 cups milk
1 pkg. instant pistachio pudding
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
1/2 cup sweetened, shredded coconut
Pour cake mixture into two greased and dusted 9-inch round baking pans, bake and cool completely. Whip Dream Whip and milk into peaks, gradually add pudding mix and keep beating into a fluff. Assemble cake, frosting between layers then frost completely, sprinkle with crushed pistachios and grated coconut. Refrigerate before serving.
The corner of Peachtree and Poplar gets sun six to eight hours a day nine months of the year and lies south below a rise that shields it from winter winds. The garden there between the street and an old parking lot is filled with flowers and fruits, butterflies and bees. My hope is for it to become a pocket park, a small public space usually created on a single vacant building lot or on a small irregular piece of land. Too small for physical activities (well, maybe tai chi), pocket parks provide a greenway for wildlife (particularly birds and insects, though you can’t rule out the occasional reptile or mammal ), greenery, a place to sit outdoors and often a venue for the visual and performing arts, if only in the form of a wall and a stage. In upscale neighborhoods, pocket parks are the only option for creating new public spaces of the type that increase neighboring property values. I realize this idea of creating a little park on that busy corner is a pipe dream. All I can do is cast bread upon the waters.
The bill to designate the mockingbird the official state bird of Mississippi was approved unanimously by both houses of the Mississippi Legislature in 1944, which is probably the only time those assemblies totally agreed on anything. Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida followed suit, establishing the Northern mockingbird (fifteen other species of the genus live south of Dixie) as the most popular state bird in the Union.
Mockingbirds are nice enough, of course; they’re sleek and noisy, quite accustomed to human company and iconic of the South. But speaking as a seventh-generation native, I’d like to have an avian symbol for Mississippi that sets us apart from our Great Sister States. Let’s keep the mockingbird, but adopt another winged denizen of our borders to represent us. My nominee is the Mississippi kite, a beautiful raptor that fits well with our state motto: “Virtute et Armis”. These graceful birds can be seen sailing above our woods in the summers, often tumbling in the air as they catch prey on the wing. A pair will usually nest in the same location for years.
I well realize that expecting another unanimous vote on a new state bird is absurd; some fool’s going to suggest a cardinal, another a blue jay and I wouldn’t be surprised if a legislator from the Delta–in the frivolous behavior I’ve found typical of those people–threw a duck in just for fun.
Call me a dreamer, but I like to think we could have a bird of our own; God help us, at least give us that.
Jon Clifton Hinson served in the United States Congress as a Republican U.S. Representative for Mississippi’s 4th congressional district beginning in 1979. During his re-election campaign in 1980, Hinson admitted that in 1976, while an aide to Senator Thad Cochran, he had been arrested for committing an obscene act after he exposed himself to an undercover policeman at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Hinson denied that he was homosexual and blamed his problems on alcoholism. He said that he had reformed and refused to resign. He won re-election with a plurality of 38.97 percent of the vote. Independent Leslie B. McLemore polled 29.8 percent, and Democrat Britt Singletary received 29.4 percent. Hinson was arrested again on February 4, 1981, and charged with attempted sodomy for performing oral sex on an African-American male employee of the Library of Congress in a restroom of the House of Representatives.
At that time, homosexual acts were still criminalized even between consenting adults. The charge was a felony that could have resulted in up to ten years in prison, as well as fines of up to $10,000. Since both parties were consenting adults (and social attitudes were changing), the United States Attorney’s office reduced the charge to a misdemeanor. Facing a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine, Hinson pleaded not guilty to a charge of attempted sodomy the following day and was released without bail pending a trial scheduled for May 4, 1981. Soon thereafter he checked himself into a Washington, D.C.-area hospital for treatment. Hinson later received a 30-day jail sentence, which was suspended, and a year’s probation, on condition that he continued counseling and treatment.
Hinson resigned on April 13, 1981, early in his second term. He said that his resignation had been “the most painful and difficult decision of my life.” He was succeeded in the House by Wayne Dowdy, a Democrat, who won the special election held in the summer of 1981. Soon afterward Hinson acknowledged that he was homosexual and became an activist for gay rights. He later helped to organize the lobbying group “Virginians for Justice” and fought against the ban on gays in the military. He also was a founding member of the Fairfax Lesbian and Gay Citizens Association in Fairfax County. He never returned to Mississippi but lived quietly in the Washington area, first in Alexandria, Virginia, and then Silver Spring, Maryland. Hinson also disclosed that he survived a 1977 fire that killed nine people at the Cinema Follies, a Washington theater that catered to gay customers. He was rescued from under a pile of bodies, and was one of only four survivors of the fire.
In our time we have openly gay public servants, but it’s safe to assume that there are closeted government officials at every level—federal, state and local, doubtless from both parties—who are representing their electorate in good faith to the public trust with which they’re invested. From our perspective Hinson’s crash and fall seems not so much a tragedy as it is a farce, the ridiculous result of a man coerced, perhaps even forced into a role he could not play. It’s impossible for us to imagine the pressures put upon him to become a pillar of the Republican Party in its struggle for a stranglehold on the state of Mississippi, but the weight broke the man, reduced him to disgrace, poverty and exile. Hinson himself is far from blameless; as an openly gay man he would never have been elected to any office in the state of Mississippi, but there’s no reason to doubt that he could have represented his district capably had he exercised more discretion if not to say caution in his personal affairs. Perhaps that’s what he was trying to do, but it’s more probable that like many gay men of his generation in the South, he only knew clandestine solicitation as a venue for sexual commerce.
Hinson, unremembered for any legislation and with no other legacy than creating an ebb in the incessant tide of Republication domination in Mississippi, died in July, 1995 in Fairfax County, VA.
By official records, navy bean soup has been on the menu of the U.S. Senate dining room every day since the early 20th century, but in his enduring classic Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History (Chapel Hill: 1993), John Egerton, the governing genius of Southern culinary matters, claims that “it was a fixture on the menu in the Senate restaurant as far back as the administration of Grover Cleveland in the 1890s,” and suggests that Senator Fred T. Dubois of Idaho was the moving force behind a resolution requiring that the soup be served every day to members of that august body, though he also mentions Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota as the author in 1903. Egerton writes that the official recipe printed on the back of the Senate restaurant menu calls for “Michigan navy beans”, though Craig Claiborne (never one to leave well enough alone) wrote that the best bean for the soup is “a pea bean from California” (of course he would).
Edgerton also argues that the soup is a Southern recipe, and points to the inclusion of smoked ham hocks as proof of his claim. “Does that sound like Michigan? California? Minnesota? Idaho? Of course not!” he declares, adding that it sounds more like North Carolina or Alabama or Arkansas, where cooking with pork is a 400-year-old tradition. “Any fair and honest person seeking the creators of U.S. Senate bean soup would ask not who the senators were at the time the soup was given official status, but who the cooks were,” and in the District of Columbia the cooks in the Senate kitchen, as well as almost any other institutional kitchen in Washington, were black men and women from the South. “There ought to be a plaque somewhere in the capitol to honor those skillful citizens, their names now forgotten, who cooked bean soup in the Southern style with such a masterful touch that even the solons of the North and West came to realize that they simply could not do without it,” Egerton claims, with justice. Fortunately for us run-of-the-mill citizens, you don’t have to lie, buy or steal your way into the U.S. Senate to enjoy navy bean soup, which like all bean soups is a wonderful dish for cold winter nights. Here’s my recipe. It’s not official by any stretch, but it’s warm and wonderful, all the same.
Pick through and wash one pound white (navy) beans, place in a pot with two smoked hocks, cover with water and simmer until beans are quite soft, adding water as needed. This will take about 2 hours. Remove the hocks and cool, then debone, remove most of the rind, chop the meat and a bit of the rind and add back to the beans, ensuring you have enough water to cover. Sauté one finely-chopped large white onion with one or two minced cloves of garlic, according to your tastes, in vegetable oil (not olive, not butter!) and add to beans, . You can add a stalk or two of chopped cooked celery if you like. I often use a ham bone left over from the holidays for this soup, and it’s good, too. Simmer until creamy, season with pepper and salt to taste. Serve with cornbread, of course.
In 1943 Mississippi Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr. along with the governors of three other Southern states—Sam Jones of Louisiana, Prentiss Cooper of Tennessee and Homer Adkins of Arkansas—joined in an action that remains unique in the annals of Southern politics: a last-ditch effort to save a species of bird from extinction. Magnificent in flight, majestic in repose, the ivory-billed woodpecker was the largest woodpecker in North America, second in the world only to its closest relative, the imperial ivory-bill of Central America and the Caribbean. The ivory-bill at first sight is said to have caused newcomers to the primeval woodlands of the South where it once lived to exclaim, “Lord God, what is that thing?!” As the deep and beautiful woodlands of the South fell to the axe during the late 19th and early 20th century the ivory-bill, which required vast tracts of timber to survive (an estimated 2.5 square miles of old-growth forest for a mating pair), fell into decline largely due to starvation, though mindless shooting by trigger-happy gunmen was also a significant factor.
By the first decades of the 20th century, only one sizeable portion of virgin Southern woodland remained intact, a vast area of dense mixed long-leaf pine and deciduous trees that stretched from the Brazos River in Texas to the Sabine River on the Texas/Louisiana border between Nacogdoches and Galveston once covering over 2 million acres, but by the 1930s had shrunk to a mere 800,000 that in an odd twist of fate had been purchased by the Singer Sewing Machine Company to secure hardwood for machine cabinets. This, the so-called Singer Tract, was also the last documented home of the ivory-bill, and the fate of this splendid bird indeed hung by a thread, since in 1937 the Singer Company sold logging rights to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, and in the next year cutting had already begun. Under the agreement, land logged by Chicago Mill and Lumber became that firm’s property, but until then, the Singer Company still held ownership. The survival of the ivory-bill became a subject of national consideration (a significant gesture since the country was involved in the biggest conflict in history) involving not only the four aforementioned governors, but President Roosevelt, the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the directors of the National Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the War Production Board and the National Audubon Society.
In December of 1943, the chairman of the board of the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company met with the brokers of a potential land deal that would have established a national park and refuge for the ivory-bill. The other participants were Louisiana’s conservation commissioner, the refuge director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their attorney John Baker. But despite the offer of $200,000 from the state of Louisiana to purchase the remaining Singer Tract, James F. Griswold, chairman of the Chicago Mill and Lumber board, refused to deal. In what is perhaps the ugliest and most blatant admission of corporate greed and irresponsibility in the history of the United States, Griswold said, “We are just money grubbers. We are not concerned, as are you folks, with ethical considerations.” In a similar vein, Singer Company treasurer and vice president John Morton told Baker that Singer “didn’t care where its money came from”, and refused to intervene. Subsequent offers proved fruitless, and the Singer Tract was clear-cut (by German POWs, no less), creating a wasteland of baked mud studded with stumps and sending the Lord God bird over the abyss into extinction.
The project here at long last is over, and I should be coming home for good, back to the mountains, to the house you love that keeps me on the road to turn it into the home you dream about, to you and to the deep old woods I love.
When I get home, I know you will ask me of this place, what it is like, what its people are like, how it looks, how they live, what makes the city what it is, but once home I do not want to think of it, not because I hate it but because I want to clear my mind of it, so I’m writing you this letter to explain Jackson to you before you ask me about it one night when we’re settled on the front porch with a bottle of wine watching the stars wheel over Balsam Gap.
It’s been three months since I got here in July–I will never forget the heat hitting like a fist when I stepped out of the car onto the parking lot behind the hotel! This leads me to ask: how long does one have to be in a place to know it? My answer would be that it is not so much a matter of time as it is of engagement, not just of being but of living, of going out into the city and seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, tasting it, developing a feel for it, and all that I have done, since surveying the streets has taken me all over the city, north, south, east and west, at all times of the day and often into the nights, though mostly downtown, the strangest part of the city, yet paradoxically its most characteristic.
Jackson is not an old city like New Orleans or Boston, nor even neighboring Vicksburg and Natchez, and it doesn’t look old; there are no beautiful buildings save a few Modernist towers, none of the stately homes one would expect to find in a Southern city built before the Civil War, just blocks upon blocks of decaying buildings, and the face of its main street, Capitol, is punctuated by vacant shops and offices with empty or shattered windows like missing or broken teeth. Even the recent and prolonged transformation of Capitol Street itself into a two-lane thoroughfare with the now-prerequisite roundabouts and pretty narrow verges cannot disguise the squalor. The city lacks grandeur, even faded grandeur, in any degree.
Poverty is one of two characteristics that shape Jackson; the other, closely intertwined, is race or more accurately racial tension, a volatile combination that composes more in discord than harmony the social, economic and political nature of the city. Time stands still here; though a great show is made in the local media of progress, there is no progress. The city weekly, which proclaims to be a smart alternative to the moribund daily, constantly aggravates the cauldron, and the political landscape is dominated by self-serving personalities motivated by a desire to stay in office and funnel federal funding to redevelopment projects designed to achieve that end. No cohesive vision exists because Jackson is not a city, only a fractured collection of people in a place that has lost all sense of itself, a shattered glass best melted and recast.
I can see you smiling as you read this, thinking, “You fool, it’s Mississippi; what did you expect?” Well darling, I did expect more. I told you that before I came here. I expected to find people working together, a marketplace of ideas, a common goal. Tell me that’s why you love me, because I am a dreamer, even though every night here I dreamed only of you in that old house on the mountainside under a starry sky.
All my love,