Blues In The Alley At A Crossroads?

New photo by John Shaw / Google Photos

Marshall County, Mississippi and its county seat of Holly Springs are ground zero when it comes to the subgenre known as Hill Country blues. After all, the style’s two greatest stars, Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside were from the county, and largely pursued their music careers there for the better part of their lives. As such, there is potential for blues tourism in Holly Springs, and the powers that be there have been slowly attempting to capitalize on it, sponsoring a weekly summer event during the months of July and August on Thursday nights called Blues in the Alley. On previous years, this event has showcased a lot of local and regional talent, including R. L. Burnside’s sons Duwayne and Garry, and Junior Kimbrough’s sons David and Robert, as well as Little Joe Ayers, and other blues musicians steeped in the Hill Country style. A stage is set up on the courthouse square, and on average, several hundred people show up to dance, party and enjoy the music.
Unfortunately, this year was different. When the event kicked off on June 30, Potts Camp legend Kenny Brown was on stage, and he had invited his friend Duwayne Burnside to perform as well.A crowd of several hundred people turned out to enjoy the kickoff, which was capped by a fireworks display. A week or two later, Lightning Malcolm, also familiar to Hill Country fans was the featured artist. But sadly, that was as good as it would get this year. As the summer stretched on, it became apparent that the festival organizers did not intend to book Duwayne or Garry Burnside (Duwayne ultimately appeared at Foxfire), nor Cedric Burnside (who played at New Albany’s Park on the River on July 2), nor David or Robert Kimbrough (Robert played a Sunday evening at Foxfire later in the summer), nor Little Joe Ayers. In fact, as the festival booked unknown bands like the Around The Corner Band, and out-of-town groups like the Juke Joint Three, something even more disturbing became apparent. For the most part, this year’s Blues In The Alley was booking only white artists. In fact, by the time the festival ended on September 1 with Gerod Rayborn, as best I could determine, only two Black artists had been featured all summer, and one of them, Oxford’s Cassie Bonner, is a singer/songwriter and not a blues artist at all. Ultimately, the programming choices affected attendance, which was way down, and skewed the crowds that did show up racially, with far fewer Blacks choosing to attend the weekly event. And this was all the more noticeable, as Holly Springs and Marshall County have a large Black majority. Sadly, it seems there is no way this was coincidental. Local Marshall County artists that are world-famous were passed over in favor of unknown (but white) bands from somewhere else. Although I asked a number of my friends in Holly Springs if they had heard any reason for the drastic change in booking policy, no justification for the change was ever readily forthcoming.
Ultimately, if Holly Springs wants to capitalize on its blues legacy as Clarksdale has managed to do, it must choose to become far less race-conscious as a town. The organizers of Blues in the Alley must understand that the Kimbrough and Burnside names are known all over the world, and that these are the artists that need to be booked if the goal is to get people to visit Holly Springs from other states or other countries. There’s nothing wrong with booking highly-talented white blues artists with impeccable Hill Country credentials like Lightning Malcolm, Kenny Brown or Eric Deaton. But Holly Springs and Marshall County are predominantly-Black, and Blues in the Alley should offer something for the Black majority as well…particularly if public funds are being expended. Otherwise, there may eventually not be a Blues in the Alley at all.

An Open Letter to Governor “Bobby” Jindal

Dear Governor Jindal, you are quoted this week complaining about the emphasis minorities place upon their background and heritage. You decry their refusal to assimilate into some “American” culture that you assume exists. To put this issue in proper perspective, it is important to go back and look at American history from a time long before you were here, and long before your ancestors had immigrated to America.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the southern states quickly set about enacting laws that were called “Black Codes.” These laws made a distinction between whites and Blacks, and set up a standard of second-class citizenship for Black people. The passage of these laws helped bring about a period of so-called “Radical” Reconstruction, where, for a brief period of time, Black people were permitted to vote and hold office. But even then, most of the Reconstruction governments authorized separate and segregated education at primary, secondary and college levels. After the era of so-called Redemption, Blacks were summarily stripped of their right to vote, and then harsh laws requiring separation and segregation of the races were enacted in all Southern states, and by the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, these laws were expanding to many northern and western cities and states. Clearly the white majority in America did NOT want Black people to be assimilated into American culture, because in reality, assimilation is a two-way street, and they rightly understood that elements of Black culture would influence whites as much as white culture would influence Blacks.
Nor was the desire to prevent assimilation restricted to Black people. Many businesses in northern cities denied service or employment to the Irish or Italians. These communities were often viewed with suspicion because of their extreme poverty, because they came to America in large numbers, and because they tended to be Roman Catholic in their religious orientation. Laws were passed in the 19th Century to forbid immigration by Chinese people altogether, presumably because, once again, the culture of Asian people was thought to be “foreign” to America and its form of government.
America also denied the chance of assimilation to the native peoples whose land this country was founded on. Despite a long history of self-government, the native tribes were forcibly removed from the South and restricted to reservations in Oklahoma or other western states.
As for African-Americans, by the time laws requiring segregation and separation were dismantled, bitterness and disillusionment had already set in. Black people had largely grown up in segregated, all-Black environments, and many of the unpleasant incidents of the 1960’s only reinforced their discomfort with attempting to blend into mainstream society. And for the last 30 to 40 years, incidents continue to occur which remind Black people that they are really not welcome in America, and that they are not merely separate by choice, but by design of those who have engineered America’s social and economic structure.
In closing, let me point out, Governor, that nowhere in your comments did you address the considerable amount of damage done by white people who insist on holding on to their “heritage.” Many conservative organizations openly state that America’s heritage is a legacy of white, Anglo-Saxon protestants, and that this legacy is under attack from “diversity” and “multi-culturalism.” If it is necessary that all other races give up their pride of race and heritage in order to be “good Americans”, should not white people have to do the same? And if not, why not? Such a double standard is indeed a glaring proof of the racial hypocrisy that has always been a part of the United States.

John Shaw

The Battle of Morris Park


Rarely do gentrifiers explicitly tell you their plans, but this flyer I picked up at the Trolley Stop in Memphis sets forth exactly what the Victorian Village Community Development Corporation wants to do with Morris Park. The urban park features two basketball courts currently and the best basketball in the city, but the Victorian Village folks claim that “families” are afraid to use the park due to “100” crimes that have occurred there in the last year. Their flyer calls for a “Greener, Cleaner, Safer” park, and at first glance, what could be wrong with that? But the problem is, the folks that like to hoop in Morris Park are mostly young Black men, and by “greener” Victorian Village Inc means getting rid of the basketball courts. To be such a storied town for basketball, Memphis has few public courts. The city removed most of them in the 1990’s after residents claimed that they attracted crime. Now, if the Victorian Village CDC is successful in their efforts, there will be no place for young people to play basketball in Downtown Memphis. While crime in parks is an issue that needs to be addressed, basketball doesn’t cause it and eliminating basketball will not prevent crime.

The Real “Heart of Memphis”: Bitter, Divided and Defeated

#008 Memphis United At the well-meaning Heart of Memphis rally Saturday morning, speaker after speaker praised those of us who had braved the weather to show a different set of values than the Ku Klux Klan. “You are the true heart of Memphis,” was said more than once. Unfortunately it was all wishful thinking, and on Monday, the county commission meeting revealed the bitter truth about the real “heart of Memphis.” After an observer pleaded for a referendum in the county to abolish the residency requirement for all public school teachers, Commissioner Walter Bailey said that would allow outsiders to “absorb” jobs that should go to county residents. Commissioner Terry Roland saw fit at that point to remind his colleagues that he can go to the Republican-controlled state legislature and get the residency requirement overturned. That was followed by Commissioner Henri Brooks complaining that she had been disrespected by her white colleagues on the Commission, comparing their actions to the Ku Klux Klan. So, it is past time that we halt any absurd notions about peace, love or brotherhood being the true heart of Memphis. If it were, we would elect leaders who exemplify those values in their public lives. It is no accident that the KKK repeatedly comes to Memphis to stage rallies. They know fertile ground when they see it.

An Open Letter to Henri Brooks, Member of the Shelby County Commission

Dear Mrs. Brooks,
You were quoted in today’s Commercial Appeal newspaper as saying that Shelby County is a place where “everything is about race.” In the context of the issue that you were commenting on, race would never have been mentioned if you had not mentioned it. In regard to a piece of property at Lamar and Kyle which belongs to the county, a black man offered a proposal to buy the property and use the building on it to train men to fix home appliances. A white man asked the county to donate the land and building for use as a senior citizens’ center. Both ideas were decent ideas that would help people. The first idea was probably better, since the taxpayers would receive payment for the land. But before any vote had been taken, you (unless you were misquoted) made hurtful racial comments about “white colonialism.” Many of us who live in this county are sick of racism and racial arguments and comments. We want to build a community, and we can’t do that if people are constantly mentioning race, and injecting it as an issue where it doesn’t go. If you want to argue that the black man’s proposal was better for the citizens of Shelby County, you had every opportunity to do so, by pointing out that job training is needed in Memphis and that his proposal would pay the county for use of the land and building. But instead, you chose to make the issue about race, as if you expected the vote to go in favor of the white man’s proposal before a vote had even been taken. We must build a community beyond race if we hope to work our way off the “most miserable cities” list. I hope and pray that you will join with those of us of all races who want to quit jumping to racial conclusions when we disagree, for the good of our community and of our children. If you are not willing to do that, please resign from your post. Sincerely, John M. Shaw
Bartlett, TN

The Case For Keeping Bartlett Cops At Home

Yesterday, Bartlett police officers ventured into North Memphis to serve a drug warrant, and ended up killing 43-year-old Malcolm Shaw, who may or may not have been the person being served with the warrant. The killing immediately stirred up a firestorm of controversy, as well as a rebellious crowd of hundreds in the neighborhood. Most of the defense of the Bartlett police online has centered around the dead man being a criminal who pulled a gun on police and thus deserved to die (although I always thought warrants were served to bring people to court for trial, and that, until convicted, a suspect is not a criminal), and that the Bartlett police legally do have the right to serve warrants in Memphis under Tennessee law. However, as a resident and taxpayer of Bartlett, I am not concerned with whether it is legal for Bartlett police to serve warrants in Memphis, or whether they followed proper procedure. I believe it is in the best interests of Bartlett and its citizens to restrict Bartlett police to working within the city limits of Bartlett only. Here are my reasons:

#1. Safety of the citizens of Bartlett: No one can argue that there is no alternative to Bartlett police serving warrants on people in other jurisdictions. Memphis police or Shelby County sheriff’s deputies are available and willing to do this for Bartlett. While Bartlett officers are out in another jurisdiction serving warrants, there are fewer officers inside of Bartlett keeping us safe. Our officers should stay here protecting Bartlett, which they are paid to do, and leave the serving of warrants to the duly-constituted law enforcement agencies of the jurisdiction where the suspect lives.

#2. Liability: The city of Bartlett (and thus its taxpayers) is legally responsible for the actions of its police officers. Thus, if someone is killed while the officers are outside the jurisdiction of Bartlett, and the officers’ actions are found to be negligent, the taxpayers will be stuck with paying out a large settlement to the victim’s survivors.

#3. Safety of the officers themselves: Defenders of the Bartlett policemen’s actions yesterday keep pointing out that the incident could have ended the other way, with the suspect shooting and killing the officers. Although Bartlett police face this risk within the city of Bartlett also, they face a greater risk when taken into other jurisdictions where they have less familiarity with the surroundings and less experience. It cannot be argues that policing Bartlett and policing North Memphis are the same. Clearly, Memphis police would better know the neighborhood, and have a better chance of serving the warrant with everyone coming out alive.

#4. Avoiding negative publicity and controversy: The Memphis metropolitan area has a problem with racial conflict and racism. It annoys most of us, but there seems to be no easy way to solve it. For better or for worse, the Bartlett police (like other suburban districts) have developed a reputation for being racist. It ultimately does not matter whether that reputation is deserved or not, since it is the opinion of most Black Memphians that I know. If the Bartlett police go into Memphis and kill a suspect, the incident immediately takes on racial overtones that it would not if a sheriff’s deputy or Memphis policeman had to kill a suspect, even if it happened while serving a warrant for Bartlett.

Given the above argument, I think that those of us who live in Bartlett should ask Mayor McDonald to order a change in the BPD’s warrant policy. It will ultimately be in the best interests of everyone involved.

Who Protects Us From the Police?

The tragic shooting death of Malcolm Shaw in North Memphis this morning might be Exhibit A in the case for consolidation of city and county government. Letting the poorly-trained, often racist, trigger-happy cowboys from suburbs like Collierville, Bartlett and Millington come into Memphis to serve warrants was asking for trouble, and now we all have it, bigtime. There are some rumors that the officers came to the wrong house, and that the unfortunate man may have been awakened by what he thought were robbers. Grabbing his gun, which would be understandable given the circumstances, got him killed. The issue is not whether Bartlett police had the legal right to come into Memphis and serve the warrant (which apparently they do, at least in certain circumstances), or whether they followed protocols and procedures, which they claim they did. The issue is, rather, why create the needless provocation of bringing police from the white-flight suburban towns into Memphis when MPD officers or Shelby County deputies could have just as easily served the warrant with perhaps a better outcome? And even if deadly force had proved to be unavoidable, at least the incident would not have been so fraught with racial overtones as it will be now. And I’ll close by saying that usually I am annoyed at how everything that happens in Memphis turns into a racial issue, but in this case, I’m convinced that race is involved. It is observable that officers are far quicker to use deadly force when dealing with Black people, and it is useless for them to deny what everyone can see. At the very least, outside officers should be denied the right to serve warrants in Memphis. Mayor Wharton and Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin have the right to request this of all other jurisdictions. In the long run, a metropolitan police force should be established for all of Shelby County, and the small-town forces of Bartlett, Germantown, Collierville, Arlington and Millington should be dissolved. This will insure uniform training, eliminate jurisdictional disputes, reduce taxpayer costs and hopefully prevent a tragedy like the one this morning.

Dr. Herenton’s Neo-Southern Politics

Dr. W. W. Herenton, former mayor of Memphis, kicked off his campaign for the 9th Congressional District seat Saturday, complaining that all of the state’s current representation in Congress is white. This approach is the usual for him, and probably the best strategy politically, since the incumbent Steve Cohen has not done a bad job, and appeals to race often work in Memphis. Of course, Herenton ignores the fact that the predominantly-Black constituency of the 9th District has refused three times to elect a Black representative of the district when they could have. Even arguing, as I’m sure Herentonistas will, that in the first primary, too many Black candidates diluted the Black vote, that still means that on two occasions when Cohen faced only one Black opponent, the majority-Black electorate chose Cohen. So whose right to Black representation has been abridged? But while Dr. Herenton’s racial strategy may be ignorant,it is hardly new, especially in this part of the country. While it has historically been white candidates “waving the bloody shirt” against the threat of “Negro rule”, when Herenton says voters should vote racially, he joins the ranks of Ben Tillman, Tom Watson, James K. Vardaman, Orville Faubus, Ross Barnett and George Wallace, all of whom found political success by appealing to the racism of their white constituents. Usually, they all chose that course of action for the same reasons- the lack of coherent argument as to why they should be awarded the office they sought, or an attempt to hide their failures. They continued to use these methods because they worked. That the South’s politicians have resorted to racial argument to win elections is to their eternal shame. That these tactics have so often worked is to ours.

An Open Letter to Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi

Dear Governor Barbour,
It was with profound regret that I read in the Commercial Appeal about your budget proposal that would result in the closing of three colleges, two of them historically African-American. I cannot say that I was surprised, but I was deeply saddened. You have stated that the state of Mississippi faces a formidable budget crisis. I am sure that all states do during this sad time in our nation’s history. But a state with such a history of educational deprivation as Mississippi can hardly afford to find economy through the closing of school doors and the shutting off of opportunity. You have said that it is unfair to expect the taxpayers of Mississippi to support eight institutions of higher education. I would tend to agree, but the reason that so many institutions had to be established was also unfair. In case you have forgotten how we reached this point, let me review. The Reconstruction-era legislature of Mississippi voted not to admit Blacks to the University of Mississippi, and soon thereafter, Alcorn College (one of the schools you have proposed closing) was founded on the site of an old Presbyterian college. This decision guaranteed that separate education would be required for Black students. A number of Black institutions were founded at this time by Northern churches, but by the time of World War I, these were falling out of favor with white Southerners, who did not want Blacks to receive an academic curriculum, but rather one based in agriculture and vocational work, as suggested by Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. From that point on, Southern states worked to bring the bulk of Black education under the control of state government. The Baptist-supported Jackson College was purchased by the state in 1940, and Mississippi Vocational College (now Mississippi Valley, another school marked for closing) was founded in 1950. State control over Black higher education wreaked havoc with struggling Black church schools-all but a few could not survive economically, so Natchez College, Prentiss Institute, Saints Junior College, Southern Christian Institute, Campbell College, Baptist Industrial College, Okolona Industrial College and Mississippi Industrial College all closed between the 1940’s and today. Therefore, bad decisions of the past led to Blacks being required to be in separate colleges from whites, and that those colleges would not be private and church-related, but rather publicly funded. Now we have reached the point at which the majority of Black students no longer wish to abandon their institutions and attend historically-white colleges. Years of segregation and discrimination have convinced them that there is no point in continuing the folly of trying to make integration work with people who have no desire to see it work. As for my mother’s alma mater, Mississippi State College for Women (Reneau University), which you have also proposed closing, it was founded for similar reasons as those above. The state’s new land-grant college, Mississippi A & M, was founded in 1878 for men only. This unusual decision necessitated a nearby school for women be founded. While men and women should have been admitted to Mississippi A & M (now Mississippi State) from the beginning, they were not, and now women are proud of the fine legacy of their school and do not want to merge with Mississippi State.
If the concern is strictly one of budget, it is strange that you made no mention of, or decision regarding, the unusually-large number of junior colleges in the state of Mississippi. They undoubtedly cost the state a great deal of money, are often located close to each other, and are also often close to the four-year schools. Wouldn’t it make sense to bring them under the control of the various four-year colleges to cut down on administrative costs? This would probably save far more money than what you are proposing.
And finally, even if consolidating some colleges were a sensible answer, I would have to take issue with the schools that are being consolidated. If we were going to merge Mississippi Valley State with another institution, why would we merge it with Jackson State, more than a hundred miles to the south, when it could be so easily merged with Delta State, no more than 50 miles away in Cleveland. Such a University of the Delta could be an economic boon to the area. But could it be that you, Governor Barbour, still would rather see Blacks go to school with Blacks and whites with whites?
I know that the decisions that you and the legislature have to make will be hard ones, but I have reviewed how we got to this point. For better or for worse, decisions were made to separate the races and genders in Mississippi higher education, and people have gotten used to that setup. It is unfair to force the victims of those bad decisions of the past to now be victimized again, with the loss of their schools, traditions and heritage.

Yours Truly,
John M. Shaw