John Ross: Time travelling down the Mississippi

|
()

 Editors note: John Ross is wandering the country on a book tour, sharing his observations of Obamalandia, 2010. You can read his previous dispatches here and here  

I. Role models

 

When I finally made Chicago, they were all waiting for me down there two blocks south of the end of the Blue Line, through the wrought-iron gates of Forest Home Cemetery, past the ostentatious mausoleums of fabulous gypsies and clustered around the heroic monument to the Haymarket Martyrs: Red Emma, looking a little dingy these days; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Rebel Girl; William Z. Foster, the CPUSA's most rigid ideologue and the leaders of its black sector Henry Winston and William Patterson; the anarchist femme fatal Voltairine de Cleyres; hobo-ologist Ben Reitman; and, of course my personal role model, Lucy Parsons, who outlived her Albert (hung by the State for the Haymarket frame-up) by 50 years, traveling this poisoned landscape from sea to stinking sea speechifying to the masses and hawking her incendiary pamphlets to make ends meet. A single wilted rose adorned the soft granite pillow that bears her name and dates.


Scattered amidst the tombstones of the 70-plus anarchists and communists, radicals and rabble-rousers that Irving Abrams and the Pioneer Aid Society planted here are the DNAs of Joe Hill and Big Bill Haywood and Eddie Balchowsky, the one-winged barrelhouse piano player who gave up his arm to Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Irving himself has a box seat at the foot of the Haymarket marker, now a National Historical Landmark managed by the government that these brave souls in residence once sought to overthrow.

Emma Goldman and her condescending epitaph ("a people must rise up to liberty") was unquestionably Irving's greatest steal, having won the bidding war for her cadaver after she croaked up in Toronto, to bring her home to the country from which she had been deported decades before for counseling young men not to sign up for the First Imperialist War. But despite the old-time luminaries in repose, I had journeyed down to Forest Home to visit with a recent implant, Franklin Rosemont, the anarchist writer and majordomo of Charles Kerr, the oldest radical publishing house in the U.S., now being sustained by his widow Penelope.  

"Surrealism Forever!" reads Franklin's slab, in keeping with the celebratory tone of this section of the old boneyard. Franklin, who passed abruptly last year, is buried within the arc of the Haymarket monument.  The Cottons, Clara and Warren (not known to be subversives), keep him company.    

I doubt that our current president, whose adopted city Chicago is, has ever communed with these noble spirits, but it would be an educational experience if ever he should make his way down to Forest Home. Enveloped by deal-making devotees of Chicago's backroom Democratic Party politics like Rahm Emmanuel, Valerie Jarrett, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan (now neck-deep in a hometown scandal for A-listing the scions of the influential in Chicago's elite public schools), the examples set by Lucy Parsons and Emma Goldman might have stiffened Obama's shaky backbone and taught him to stand up for the principles he has abandoned as the CEO of the planet's longest-running criminal conspiracy.

Michael James rules the venerable Heartland Café in Rogers Park in the extreme northwest of this windy metropolis, a schmooze and booze venue for the left side of the local Democratic Party machine for the past three decades.  Both Obama and Bill Ayers have crossed its threshold occasionally at the same time, and Michael, the facilitator of "Rising Up Angry," a militant Uptown youth group at the tail end of the turbulent '60s, is now the chairperson of the local Demo ward committee. Although he will never concede that Baracko has squandered the faith that millions invested in him, I sense growing disappointment with Hope Man's wishy-washy performance 15 months into his tainted term in office.  

As always, I bunked with the James Gang -- Paige, the kids, and the estimable Che, a Labrador with a most dignified demeanor -- and plunged into Chicago's stimulating cultural mix. Also in residence: the foot-stomping Irish fiddler Paddy Jones, just in from Tralee -- three years ago, Mike dragged Paddy and I off to the Korean baths where the local political class conspires. We sat buck naked in the sauna and Paddy insisted I regale him with the cautionary tale of El Che (the revolutionary martyr not the mutt).  

This time around, Michael escorted me to the late Nelson Algren's birthday party in a church close by this quintessential Chicago scribbler's beloved Division Street neighborhood, during which mash notes from his lover Simone de Beuvoir were read, lending credence to Frankie Lyman's pointed inquiry "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?"

Yet another highpoint of my weeklong pilgrimage to the Hog Butcher of the World were a pair of meetings in Pilsen, an industrial enclave where the U.S. Communist Party first convened hard by Blue Island Avenue back in 1919 and now the most pertinent barrio in Mexico's second U.S. city. More than a hundred Latino activists showed up to hear me rant and rave about the prospects for a new Mexican revolution and plot this year's May 1st march in a city where immigrant workers first took to the streets 124 years ago to demand redress for crimes inflicted upon the working class by the bosses of industry and commerce. Four years ago, a half million immigrant workers marched here to demand recognition of their rights and despite the broken promises encapsulated in the Schumer-Graham proposed Immigration "Reform" bill, Chicago's Mexican community is warming up for another red-hot May Day.  

II.  Resurrection

I followed the contours of the mighty Mississippi from Chicago to St. Louis through rich bottomland that is now the domain of Archer Daniels Midland. St. Louis is an urban hub that features wide, well-kept lawns and bushels of dirty money -- Monsanto, Boeing, Peabody Energy, and Talx, which counsels greedy congloms on unemployment compensation, are all headquartered here.  

Yet, despite the capitalist connivance, the city has its own sui generis radical history. The 1877 railroad strike spread from the east to St. Louis and set the style for labor strife in the west, and the anarchist Flores Magon brothers published "Regeneracion," the bible of the 100 year-old Mexican revolution, here before they were run out of town in the teens of the past century.

My days in St. Louis were well spent. I preached an Easter Sunday sermon at the Mid Rivers Ethical Society, sharing my vision of resurrection and insurrection in the aforementioned Forest Home boneyard, and offered up my palaver at a Black Green Party forum in a soul food parlor off Delmar, spreading the news of the Mexican government's execrable persecution of  electrical workers pushed out of their workplaces last October at bayonet point by the military and police in a scheme to privatize electricity generation south of the border.  

I walked the St Louis Walk of Fame, stepping over the stars of the likes of William Burroughs, Chuck Berry, Walker Evans, and Fontella Bass, all of whom had to leave town to achieve a modicum of notoriety. I even encountered my very first St. Louie Cardinal, a crimson-hued bird perched in a sapling, spring zephyrs ruffling its crest, from which the Anheuser Busch dynasty drew the logo for the local nine in this beisbol-intoxicated town (they were previously dubbed the "Perfectos" after a popular cigar.)

III. Black & Brown

Further down river, the scrublands of Mississippi spread into the horizon beneath the cramped commuter flight in from Memphis. I had not touched down in the state since Freedom Summer 1964, when I arrived on the very day that the bodies of three civil rights workers (Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney) were unearthed beneath a dam in Philadelphia, Miss.  

Although Black and White speak more cordially to each other these days and there are few black bodies swinging from the poplar trees, Mississippi God Damn (dixit Nina Simone) is still moldering down below. I could feel the heat at my hotel just off the Millsaps College campus in Jackson, where a statewide PTA meeting was in progress. In the conference rooms, black parents squared off against white school administrators over curriculums and the unequal quality of education. This is a commemoration year for black activism, the 40th anniversary of the killings at Jackson (and Kent) State and the 50th for SNCC -- and old grievances burn long and deep.

The old civil rights movement achieved only token parity in this the poorest state in the union. Now a new civil rights movement is focusing on the flood of Mexican and Latino workers who poured into Mississippi in the wake of Katrina, and brown people are today's niggers down at the bottom of the food chain.

Only 34,000 "Hispanics" were officially counted in the 2000 state census but Bill Chandler, a veteran of the Texas farm workers union and spokes for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), thinks that three times as many undocumented workers, lured to the state by casino construction, were overlooked back then. In 2010, Chandler calculates that the immigrant numbers have swelled to 200,000, nearly 10% of the state population, and taken together with close to a 40% Afro-American share, Mississippi now verges on becoming a majority People of Color entity. A similar equation is at work throughout the Deep South with Alabama and South Carolina and Georgia also hanging in the balance. Such changing demographics help to explain the vitriol the Teabaggers and White Citizen Council types shower upon the newcomers.

Back in August 2008, Immigration Control and Enforcement broke its own despicable workplace raid record by imprisoning (in Jena La., the site of other racist outrages) and deporting 595 Mexican and Latino workers who had been employed by Howard Industries down in Laurel. Chandler thinks the pogram was accomplished with the complicity of the company which was intent on cheating workers out of their wages. MIRA eventually won checks for most of those detained and deported.

An even more outrageous incidence of lingering Mississippi bigotry was the treatment of Cirila Balthazar Cruz, a mono-lingual Chatino indigena from Oaxaca who was picked up by police as she stumbled along the highway shoulder trying to get to a local hospital to give birth. Her baby daughter Ruby was subsequently stolen from her by child welfare authorities who deemed her an unfit mother because she couldn’t speak English and given to a well-appointed childless white couple. As might be anticipated, such blatant racism struck a tender nerve south of the border and a year later, Ruby was returned to her birth mother.  

Justice in Mississippi, as in much of Obamalandia, remains elusive but every once in a while the push of the people from down below captures such small prizes.

On their East Coast swing, John Ross & "El Monstruo" will visit Washington/Baltimore (Red Emma's April 19th/ University of Maryland - Baltimore on the 20th/ Institute for Policy Studies the 21st); New York (NYU the 22nd/ Sixth Street Community Center the 23rd/Bluestockings the 25th); and Boston (Harvard Coop the 27th/David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies the 28th/Mass Global Action the 29th/IPS-Jamaica Plains the 30th/ topped of by a May 1st rally on the Boston Commons between Noon & Two.) All events are all free.