Civil rights history takes center stage on a weekend trip to Jackson, Mississippi

The “City with Soul” remembers its past and looks to a fresh future

When people speak of Jackson, Mississippi, the conversation often turns to the past—the complicated civil rights history that has both shamed and shaped the city. But increasingly, they also talk about momentum. Besides the booming Fondren district and a new downtown hotel, two big-ticket museums just opened in the “City with Soul.”

Jackson, Mississippi

Photograph courtesy of Visit Jackson

Jackson has made a bet, which boils down to this: By acknowledging its past, the city may look forward to a promising future. That bet is paying off. In December, to mark the state’s bicentennial, the capital city celebrated the openings of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The former explores the state from prehistoric times through today. The latter is the country’s first state-sponsored civil rights museum, which unpacks Mississippi’s painful past and highlights the struggle for equality and freedom between 1945 and 1976.

Here, visitors get a no-holds-barred look at the movement that changed the world and the racism that inspired it. There’s a display case with Ku Klux Klan regalia and a tear-gas canister used during the integration of the University of Mississippi. Plaques bear the names of lynching victims, and a wall displays mug shots of Freedom Riders, activists who risked their lives to defy segregation.

Jackson, Mississippi
Brent’s Drugs

Photograph courtesy of Visit Jackson

When Mississippi cut the ribbons for these museums, the eyes of the nation turned toward Jackson, which was poised and ready for its curtain call. Four months earlier, the Westin Jackson had opened downtown, becoming the city’s first luxury chain hotel. Guitars of famous musicians line the lobby walls in a nod to the state’s rich musical past; the lively wine bar and bistro serves honeysuckle vodka from Jackson’s Cathead Distillery.

And of course, there’s always a buzz around Jackson’s Fondren district, where hip young things can be found bouncing around the food and drink scene. It’s perhaps best known for Brent’s Drugs, an old-school luncheonette featured in the 2011 film The Help. Come sundown, it’s also acclaimed for its groovy nightlife spots, including Brent’s Apothecary, where guests slip into the back of the building and stumble upon a dapper cocktail bar.

While Jackson has plenty of new and trendy offerings, visitors won’t want to miss important landmarks from the city’s past. After touring the civil rights museum, follow the Mississippi Freedom Trail to discover key people, places, and events in the fight for equality.

The trail stretches across the state, but a number of significant markers can be found in Jackson, as the city was a flashpoint for protests in the 1960s. There’s a marker that honors Freedom Riders at the former Greyhound bus station and another downtown at the site of an old Woolworth’s store, where activists attempting to integrate a whites-only counter were taunted and beaten. A third marker at Jackson State University honors the lives lost there in 1970 when police opened fire on students.

Jackson, Mississippi
Greyhound Bus Station on the Mississippi Freedom Trail

Photograph courtesy of Visit Jackson

But perhaps the most moving site on the Jackson leg of the trail is the home of Medgar Evers. An outspoken activist, Evers was the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi. Returning home one summer night in 1963, he was shot dead in his driveway. His assassination motivated President John F. Kennedy to press Congress for a comprehensive civil rights bill, which was signed into law the following year. The bullet hole still appears in Evers’s ranch-style house, which can be toured by appointment through Tougaloo College.

Break for a meal at the Big Apple Inn on Farish Street, a bustling hub of the African American community during Jim Crow. Despite its name, the inn is actually a sandwich shop where civil rights leaders once ate, drank, and discussed the movement. Freedom Democratic Party Vice Chair Fannie Lou Hamer often held meetings in Big Apple’s dining room, as did Evers, who kept an office above the restaurant.

Today, fourth-generation owner Geno Lee might sit at your table for a chat. He went to seminary, and while he says that Farish Street is his ministry, it’s obvious he also has a passion for the food he serves. He’ll likely wax poetic about the smoked sausage sandwich, the most popular item on the menu. You’ll see everyone from postal workers to teenagers stop in for a bag of “smokes.”

The atmosphere at Big Apple Inn always hums, and it’s impossible not to wonder what the restaurant was like during the heyday of the civil rights era. Movement leaders coming and going, determined to build a more just Jackson. What would they think now? Certainly, the struggle for racial equality is not over, but the city has come a long way. And by remembering to look back, Jackson aims never to return.

 

More to Explore: Get Down With the Blues

Jackson
Mississippi Music Experience museum

Photograph courtesy of Visit Jackson

The blues run deep in Mississippi, and downtown Jackson is home to plenty of destinations where you can simmer in “the devil’s music.” Here are a few hotspots to get you started.

F. Jones Corner is housed in a former gas station and named after legendary Farish Street businessman Frank Jones. Images of famous Mississippi musicians, including B.B. King and Jesse Robinson, line the walls, along with a sign that reads, “No Black. No White. Just the Blues.” 

Over at Underground 119, groove to blues acts Thursday through Saturday nights. After dark, just look for the building that’s bathed in blue light.

Founded by brothers Hal and Malcolm White, Hal and Mal’s is an iconic restaurant and bar that hosts live blues, jazz, and country acts within the bones of a former train depot.

Mississippi
Westin Jackson

Photograph courtesy of Westin Jackson

Don’t miss the Mississippi Music Experience museum at the Iron Horse Grill, where you’ll find wax statues of blues masters (Robert Johnson, Pinetop Perkins) and learn how the musical genre was born.

Finally, the Westin Jackson offers a deal called the “Music Legends of Mississippi” package that allows guests to play replicas of guitars that once belonged to B.B. King, Prince, or Muddy Waters. Included in the experience is a T-shirt, guitar pick, and tickets to the Mississippi Music Experience museum.

This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Southbound.

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