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Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi's Dark Past A Memoir

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Like the renowned classics Praying for Sheetrock and North Toward Home , Ever Is a Long Time captures the spirit and feel of a small Southern town divided by racism and violence in the midst of the Civil Rights era. Part personal journey, part social and political history, this extraordinary book reveals the burden of Southern history and how that burden is carried even today in the hearts and minds of those who lived through the worst of it. Author Ralph Eubanks, whose father was a black county agent and whose mother was a schoolteacher, grew up on an eighty-acre farm on the outskirts of Mount Olive, Mississippi, a town of great pastoral beauty but also a place where the racial dividing lines were clear and where violence was always lingering in the background. Ever Is a Long Time tells his story against the backdrop of an era when churches were burned, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King were murdered, schools were integrated forcibly, and the state of Mississippi created an agency to spy on its citizens in an effort to maintain white supremacy. Through Eubanks's evocative prose, we see and feel a side of Mississippi that has seldom been seen before. He reveals the complexities of the racial dividing lines at the time and the price many paid for what we now take for granted. With colorful stories that bring that time to life as well as interviews with those who were involved in the spying activities of the State Sovereignty Commission, Ever Is a Long Time is a poignant picture of one man coming to terms with his southern legacy.

ISBN-13: 9780465021055

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: Basic Books

Publication Date: 01-03-2005

Pages: 264

Product Dimensions: 5.62(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.75(d)

W. Ralph Eubanks is a native of Mount Olive, Mississippi. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C., where he is the Director of Publishing at the Library of Congress.

Read an Excerpt

Ever Is a Long Time

A Journey Into Mississippi's Dark Past
By Ralph Eubanks

Basic Books

Copyright © 2005 Ralph Eubanks
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0465021050

Chapter One

The years have a way of providing what seems to be infinite distance, yet somehow that distance helps me feel more intensely the joys of growing up in a small town in Mississippi. Time has made it possible for me to see what I both loved and disliked, as if both sides are placed on a stage in front of me to observe objectively. As I stand back and watch these two sides of my early life, I recognize that it was both the comfort and confinement of small-town Mississippi life that prompted me to choose a life away from it. The same forces that nurtured and made me feel secure also suffocated me until I found it unbearable.

There are times when I walk city streets and feel my little town of Mount Olive, Mississippi, tugging at me, telling me to come back. It's a good feeling, one that reminds me of people and places that I love: the calmness of fishing on the banks of a quiet lake, the smell of the food at a summer church revival, and a walk in the hills of my family's farm with my dog. There is no feeling of suffocation, only affection. But I have visited rarely since I left Mount Olive behind, largely resisting the pull and choosing to love the place at a distance.

"Place opens a door in the mind," Eudora Welty once said. As I tried to unravel the question of how my parents ended up on one of the lists of people to be watched by Mississippi's segregation watchdogs in the 1960s, one place helped open my mind to the questions of what made my parents and my family marked people: the sleepy Mississippi town of Mount Olive. On its surface, Mount Olive looks like an ordinary small Southern town: black and white, rich and poor, with a few people caught in between. "Mount Olive is a place where nothing ever happens," I remember writing to my cousin who lived in Mobile, Alabama, a place I thought to be far more exciting than my one-stoplight town. But as I began to bridge years of distance, I came to look at the world I knew growing up with a sharper perspective. Much more than I thought happened in that place where nothing ever happens. Tensions and excitement merely disguised themselves in a veneer of quietude, beginning with my own family.

Outwardly, we were an ordinary family: a mother, father, four children. Of the four children, there were three girls and me, the only boy, which felt like an unfair circumstance rather than an ordinary one to be born into. Like most of Mississippi in the 1960s, we lived on a farm, which was made up of eighty acres of rolling green pastures and dark rich fields planted in vegetables and fruit trees-all common in our part of Mississippi, except that we were black. My parents were college-educated professionals, and the middle-class aspirations my parents held could be viewed as both desirable and threatening to some whites. Like a number of black families in Mississippi, we farmed and grew cattle. However, we farmed not as our only means of making a living, but largely because my father was the county agent, or "Negro County Agent," as he was labeled then. My mother held one of the few professional jobs a black woman could have: She was a teacher at what was then a segregated school. Farming our own vegetables and raising our own beef helped my family make ends meet on the meager salaries dictated by Mississippi's system of segregation.

Mississippi's social and political system was set up to keep black people poor and uneducated. Even if you had an education, professional options were few, and my parents held jobs that were part of that limited realm. When I was growing up, it all seemed painfully normal, nothing exceptional; but looking back now, I realize how extraordinary it was. We lived a dignified life in an undignified system of racial segregation, largely ignoring the confines of that system. What I asked myself time and again when I discovered a tie between my parents and the Sovereignty Commission files was were my parents threatening because of the way they lived their lives? Along with the feared outside agitating advocates of integration, what I knew and remembered from overhearing snatches of adult conversations was that people like my parents had to be watched and kept in line, just to make sure they did not try to rise above their station and try to be equal to white folks. Together, my parents fit the profile of the dreaded "uppity negroes" who had to be kept in check.

My mother had bright auburn hair that complemented her creamy freckled skin. She drove fast, wore smart dresses with high heels, and had a mouth more flamboyant than her conservative manner of dress. Lucille Richardson Eubanks radiated a sharp, pointed warmth that announced "approach with caution." She held nothing back and maintained an undisguised disdain for Mississippi's system of segregation. "We don't drink colored water," she would tell us if we went to drink from the water fountain marked "colored." "Water is colorless, odorless, and tasteless," she would proclaim loudly as we drank the cold water from the fountain meant for white people, daring anyone to stop her. Surprisingly, no one ever did.

Someone had to balance out my mother's unrestrained boldness, and that job fell to my father. Warren Eubanks was a quiet, dark-skinned man, both the physical and emotional opposite of my mother. Though deceptively soft-spoken in demeanor and speech, he stood his ground with white people. Clearly, he approached the world of segregated Mississippi far more gingerly than my mother. In order to survive, he had to.

My sisters and I developed within these separate realms of the same family: the unrestrained openness of my mother and the measured, yet determined, approach of my father. Knowing that I would have to navigate the world as a black man, my father kept me rooted in his realm, taking me with him wherever he went, even to work. My sisters, Gretta, Sharon, and Sylvia modeled themselves more on my mother's brash personality and style, a characteristic that differentiates us to this day.

The tensions of those two worlds came to be balanced thanks to the farm. It threaded our lives together, for the land was both our passion and our pride and joy. Life there revolved not so much around our different personalities and mindsets, but more around the rhythm of the seasons and the work dictated by those seasons: planting, harvesting, pruning peach trees, moving cattle from pasture to pasture, stacking hay bales. Perhaps it was the rhythm of those seventeen years we lived on the farm that masked the extraordinariness I now see in my family, for there was a sameness in what we had to do from season to season and year to year. In the comfort of that routine, each of us developed our own unique set of inner resources to bring excitement to what was an isolated, staid, and ordinary existence.

I constructed an inner life for myself that shut out the daily chores on the farm. I wrote letters to children in faraway countries, read books about those places, and imagined myself there, even as I played games with my sisters. That same inner life also sequestered me from that topsy-turvy world of race and racism that controlled the Mississippi of my childhood. Shielded by the distance of years, I decided to go back to Mount Olive to take a closer look at a world I sometimes navigated with my eyes only half open. On a crisp fall day in 1999, I drove into Mount Olive, Mississippi, down Main Street for the first time in almost ten years.

If I was going to figure out what had landed my parents in the 1960s on one of the many lists maintained by Mississippi's Sovereignty Commission, I realized my search had to begin in Mount Olive. It wasn't exactly what I planned, for I thought I could figure out all the connections between my parents and the Sovereignty Commission through examining the commission's archives. There was much information in those archives, so much that I felt considerably overwhelmed. It was after spending hours in the Sovereignty Commission files, reading the grotesque tales included in its investigations, that I felt Mount Olive tugging at me. A voice seemed to say, "I'll help you figure out all of this."

I had always felt safe on the streets and roads in and around Mount Olive. And the people were friendly there. Now I knew this was the place that had shielded me from the hateful side of Mississippi, the very side I had been experiencing during hours of reading the Sovereignty Commission files. And I needed to feel safe again because I had discovered that some of that detestable, unsavory side of Mississippi lurked beneath these very streets during my childhood.

Up until the age of seventeen, Mount Olive was the only place I had ever called home. When I left to go to college, I never came back, and neither did my family. We sold our beloved farm when my father got a promotion that took our family to north Mississippi. As fate would have it, my childhood and my direct tie to my childhood ended at the same time. Two years later, my father was dead after a bout with cancer, shutting the door on my life in Mount Olive even tighter than before.

To my three sisters, Mount Olive seems like a vague memory, just an anonymous place where they grew up. I am the third of the four of us, the one who has returned to Mississippi the most. I was not able to shake free of it. All of us live in the East now, me in Washington, D.C., and my sisters in its suburbs and in Virginia. We all share fond memories of our farm and the town of Mount Olive, but for me, it's different. Mount Olive is forever imprinted on my senses and sensibilities. No matter how sophisticated I think I have become from my years in the East, there is still a bit of the wide-eyed country boy in me who grew up on a farm off a hot blacktop road outside of Mount Olive, Mississippi. I can't let that go. I guess that if I ever abandoned that bit of the country boy, I'd just be putting on airs and pretending to be a born sophisticate, which is something I am not.

When my parents decided to sell the farm, I went on a walk with my father to talk about it. I asked him not to sell; I told him that maybe one day I would come back, live in Mount Olive, and raise my own family on our farm. At the time I thought I would go to medical school, a career path chosen solely at my father's urging, which I naively thought would provide me the means and status to live the life of a gentleman farmer, a lifestyle totally at odds with being a black Mississippian. "Ralph, be a realist, not a sentimentalist," he told me. "It's a lot easier on your heart." We didn't talk about it anymore. A long silence fell between us. But what he said to me that day has stuck with me all these years. As I walked the streets of Mount Olive twenty-five years later, I finally began to understand what he meant.

The streets seemed practically deserted on the day I visited Mount Olive and bore the visible signs of graying decay that looms over many small towns throughout Mississippi and the South. Only a few of the stores I remember were still there, most overcome by the super Wal-Mart nine miles down the road in the town of Magee. Although Mount Olive appears to be fading from the lively little town it once was, no matter how much it changes, my vision of Main Street Mount Olive, Mississippi-my home town-will always shine as it did when I was a boy on that much-anticipated trip into town each Saturday.

There was a time when Main Street seemed to be bustling with activity, filled with wonder, people I knew, and exciting places to explore. My father and I would leave our farm on Saturday mornings in a steel-blue and white 1962 Chevy Bel Air to go to the feed mill or to poultry and livestock auctions on a vacant lot on Main Street, sometimes with my father serving as the auctioneer. Around ten o'clock the whistle of the Illinois Central Railroad would overwhelm the voice of the auctioneer as the train breezed through town filled with passengers from the North on their way South. When I got bored with the auction I would go to Powell's Drug Store and read comic books. Some I would buy, many others I would not, but I read them cover to cover nevertheless. Across the street from Powell's was the town's only phone booth, which I liked to play in since the light came on inside when you closed the door, a small treat for a small country boy. The phone booth was next door to the Green Tree Hotel, where on Sunday mornings, we drove to get our copy of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, after a Trailways bus had dropped it off on its way to New Orleans.

Now the tree-lined boulevard called Main Street only looks weary and tired, like an old man breathing his last. The wrecking ball has long since torn down the Green Tree Hotel, which closed for good when I was in junior high school. Calhoun's Department Store, which I remember as having an almost Teutonic scheme of organization, with sharp rows filled with bolts of crisp new fabric and well-stocked grocery and hardware shelves, now has cheap, tacky merchandise from the store on the sidewalk outside. No one is browsing inside. Neither can I see any reason for anyone to want to go to the sidewalk sale either. The goods are out of date and out of season. It looks abandoned. Then it occurs to me that this store is abandoned and so is this town.

Mount Olive, or Mo'nt Ollie, as it is sometimes called in local dialect, sits southeast of Mississippi's much-romanticized Delta region and just a hundred miles north of the Gulf Coast, popularly called the "redneck riviera." Not known for rich soil planted in vast fields of cotton or casino gambling, Mount Olive was one of a string of tidy and proud little towns that U.S. Highway 49 ambled through during the 1960s before a four-laned version bypassed town and sent people speeding past rather than wandering through on their trips south to the Gulf Coast. There are no jook joints, unless you count "The Blue Goose," a little shotgun house outside of town that illegally sold liquor in this dry section of the Bible Belt. Around here, the standards of decorum have always been tight, and there is little tolerance for things that disrupt orderliness, liquor being at the top of the list.

The towns in this part of Mississippi don't have romantic names like the river towns of Natchez and Port Gibson or coastal towns like Biloxi and Pass Christian. The names are simple and humble, like the people who live in them: D'lo, Mendenhall, Magee, Collins, Seminary. Towns named Hot Coffee and Soso are thrown in to provide a small dose of local color, but a certain dignity seems to govern the choice of the names of other nearby towns.

Settled by whites in the 1840s, on land acquired by a treaty with the Choctaw Indians, Mount Olive anchors the northern part of Covington County with a wide Main Street that was once lined with 100 oak trees, many of which still remain.



Excerpted from Ever Is a Long Time by Ralph Eubanks Copyright © 2005 by Ralph Eubanks. Excerpted by permission.
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