A film by David Rae Morris
My father's hometown of Yazoo City was settled in the early 1800s. Situated in the middle of Yazoo County, the largest in Mississippi, Yazoo City is 40 miles northwest of the capitol city of Jackson. Called "the gateway to the Delta," Yazoo City is located half in the hills and half in the flatlands. Like many Delta communities it relied on agriculture and timber as its principal economy and benefited by having the Yazoo River flow thorough on its way to Vicksburg and the Mississippi River. The word "Yazoo" comes from an Indian word meaning death or waters of the dead.The legend holds that Stephen Foster wanted to name his song "Way Down Upon the Yazoo River," until he learned its meaning. Another legend tells of a witch burning down the entire town in 1904. Noted natives of Yazooans include comedian Jerry Clower, actress Stella Stevens, Blues musicians Jack Owen and Skip James, motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, and my father, Willie Morris.
Willie Morris was born in Jackson, Mississippi on Thanksgiving Day in 1934. When he was six months old, his parents moved to Yazoo City, where his father found work with a local oil company. He graduated from Yazoo High School in 1952, and went to the University of Texas, where he made a name for himself as editor of The Daily Texan. After four years in England as a Rhodes scholar, he returned to Texas to serve as editor of the liberal journal, The Texas Observer before moving to New York to become a junior editor at Harper's Magazine. In 1967, at the age of 32, my father was named the youngest editor-in-chief at Harper's. His first book, "North Toward Home," a memoir of growing up white in the South, was published in October of that year and won instant praise and recognition, but angered many of the residents of his hometown because it gave a direct and frank view of race relations in Mississippi.
While Yazoo City was not immune to racial conflict, it avoided the public attention of other communities in the state such as Oxford, where riots broke out in 1962 when James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi, or Philadelphia, where three Civil Rights workers were murdered in 1964. It was sixteen years after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its groundbreaking decision Brown vs. The Board of Education, that 30 school districts in the state of Mississippi finally implemented plans to integrate the public schools. One of the districts included the public schools in Yazoo City. As with many communities in Mississippi and across the South, there had been strong opposition to integration. White parents, lawyers and school officials had repeatedly attempted to block efforts to integrate. A plan called "Freedom of Choice" established in 1967, allowed parents to send their children to any school in the district. While a handful of black students enrolled at Yazoo High, it did not establish the racial balance necessary to comply with the Brown decision. Finally, in the fall of 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that Mississippi's public schools must implement full integration immediately.
As a result, there were rumors of violence, mass boycotts by white students, and a rush by many parents to establish all-white, private academies. Journalists from around the country descended on Yazoo City to cover the story. They included correspondents from Time Magazine, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Charlotte News-Observer, as well as many of the national television networks. My father returned as well to cover the story for Harper's. His subsequent book, "Yazoo: Integration in a Deep Southern Town," was published in 1971. Unlike many other towns in the state, Yazoo City's transition to become an integrated school system went smoothly and without incident and the Yazoo City public schools became, at least for while, a model for racial diversity in Mississippi. It was only in the 1990's that they slowly began to re-segregate. Today Yazoo High School, as well as many of the public schools in Mississippi is almost entirely black.
In the fall of 2010, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, also a native of Yazoo City and then a presumed candidate for the Republican nomination for President in 2012, explained to a reporter from the Weekly Standard why there was no violence in Yazoo City when the schools integrated: "You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK." Barbour said. "Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you'd lose it. If you had a store, they'd see nobody shopped there. We didn't have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City."
Barbour was widely criticized for his remarks because the Citizen's Council was an organization prevalent through out the South in the 1950s and 60s. It was made up of local white leaders and was often instrumental in preventing Blacks from organizing any meaningful opposition to the white power structure. He subsequently announced that he would not be a candidate for president. Barbour's comments immediately intrigued me, and, being my father's son, I wanted to explore the story myself, revisit the past and my father's early writings.
Though a still photographer by trade, I decided that a documentary film would be the most effective medium to pick up where my father left off and tell the story of Yazoo City. For the past year, I have researched Yazoo City's recent history and conducted interviews with various teachers and graduates of the high school and community leaders. Now I have more than 20 hours of footage and a fascinating story is beginning to emerge. The project thus far has been mostly self-funded and a modest grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council has allowed me to produce a rough 30-minute edit.
I have applied for another grant from the MHC, as well as through the Mississippi Film and Video Alliance. I am also launching a new fund-raising campaign through Indiegogo These additional funds will allow me to conduct more interviews and research, bring in specific humanities scholars, assemble archival footage, and complete a feauture length version of the project by next spring.