April 1979

Tupelo’s No Honey
By Paul DeRienzo

In Mississippi the sun shines on rural hills and small towns all year long. The slow drawl and friendly character of the people is what first impressed me as our bus from Madison, Wisconsin stopped for breakfast in Northern Mississippi.

We were politely accepted and served by the white restaurant people who approached us in a reserved manner that betrayed curiosity. Our own attitude was curiously cautious since we had traveled 1,000 miles in one day to join a civil rights march in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Tupelo is a small but fast growing city in northeastern Mississippi. It is where battle lines are being drawn between the old and the new south.

The old south is represented by those who call Jimmy Carter "that peanut in the White House" and wear the hood of the Ku Klux Klan.

The new south is big and getting bigger.

As inflation brings multi-national corporation more profits than ever before they also are looking around for places to invest all the surplus cash. Why not the south, defeated and subjugated by the industrial, capitalist north after the Civil War. It developed much slower and had not presented a good opportunity for the market hungry mega-business of the world.

But the search for markets and profits is like a fire that can never be put out. The arms of big business and the influence of big government have reached their lifesucking tendrils into a new field of expansion, the once sleepy and always militaristic south.

And along with the factories comes the jobs, but in the south there are no unions and many "right to work" laws so pay is poor and the companies make bigger profits and inflation rages like a war.

The average black farm family in the U.S. earns less than 50 percent of a white farm family.

23,000 people live in Tupelo and 22 percent of them are black. Of all the city jobs in Tupelo, blacks hold 19 percent. About 60 percent of these workers are in the sanitation department, which is 70 percent black.

In the words of the Ku Klux Klan Imperial Dragon Doug Coen the problem is obvious.

"The Federal government keeps the south down" is his answer, he goes on to say, "there is no new south, it’s all media

Doug could afford to talk, he was surrounded by inquiring reporters from college newspapers, some from national media and even local dailies. Coen was not alone, he was with at least 50 Klan members all decked out in hoods and robes holding ax handles and some even had butts of pistols sticking from their belts.

Coen stood on the front step of the Tupelo Police Station. Locals grinned and offered information: "That’s half the police force out here today," said one.

The Klan boasts that they have a bazooka. A story goes that a black cop hired through affirmative action guidelines found a locked door in the station. One day he got a key and opened the door, inside he found a room where Klan robes were stored along with a flamethrower.

People had come from all over the United States to march against racism in Tupelo, Mississippi. Two thousand came, from Burlington, Vermont to San Francisco, California. People came from Chicago, Kent State, Ohio, Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. Stop Rizzo workers came from Philadelphia along with busses full of New Yorkers.

The march–itself was impressively organized by the United League, which has 55,000 members and is the umbrella group for all the liberation forces in the south.

According to Skip Robinson, the chief organizer of the tightly run League, "We have to be prepared to fight and maybe die. "

Black workers in Tupelo have had enough of exploitation by industry and they want the political power they have always been denied. The demands are simple, Land, Jobs, Political Power.

White businesses in Tupelo are being boycotted, a boycott the United League calls 90 percent effective.

Blacks in Tupelo want real change and they are tired of waiting. So they say that they will fight the Klan if necessary to win Justice.

But the terror of the Klan runs deep. Life in small town America leaves little room for class and racial friction. Day after day the people of Tupelo are reminded of the gulf that has always been between them.

We left a little chilled by the experience, a chill that even the warm southern air could not cure.

The news came after our return to the north that somebody had shot at two carloads of our people driving east through Alabama. A third car was stopped, the two men inside were dragged out and beaten. One landed in a hospital with 15 stitches in his scalp from a blow by an ax handle.

It became clear to us that there is a war going on in Mississippi. A war of liberation and survival and it seems that as the terror and violence spreads the war takes its toll in lives and in hate. Meanwhile, big business just gets rich.

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