Driving through Mississippi, Max Davidson follows the trail of the southern US state's struggle with racial segregation, depicted in the Oscar-nominated film The Help.
Immerse yourself in America's history in Mississippi
"Yes, we have all seen The Help," says the blonde woman who serves us lunch at a diner in Kosciusko, Mississippi, where we have arrived after meandering through the state in a hired car. "What was nice about watching the film was that there were equal numbers of blacks and whites in the audience - and we were all laughing at the same bits."
The Oscar-nominated film, based on the bestselling book by Kathryn Stockett, and part-funded by Image Nation International, a company owned by Abu Dhabi Media, which also owns The National newspaper, is set in the Mississippi of the early 1960s, when racial segregation was practised as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
The film's unflinching portrait of a divided society, in which black women looked after the children of white women who held coffee mornings or played bridge at the country club, makes uncomfortable viewing today. It revives memories of an unhappy period in American history, one which older Americans still remember.
Racial faultlines are almost as old as the country itself. Before the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, there was the American Civil War in the mid-19th century, when the main issue dividing North and South was slavery - and Southern states such as Mississippi were on the wrong side of the argument.
In the main square of Kosciusko, dominated by the old courthouse, you can still see a monument to the Boys in Grey, as the soldiers of the South were known. "Though your ranks now fast are fading / And the stars and bars are furled / Yet the South will live forever ..." The fading inscription feels like a reminder that no society can ever totally eradicate racism.
However troubled its past, the Mississippi of 2012 is an exhilarating place to visit, a marvellous amalgam of scenery, culture and history – ideal for a fly-drive holiday. The mighty Mississippi itself, more than a kilometre wide in places, is an awesome sight, gliding towards the sea like a muddy brown conveyor belt. But there is far more to Mississippi than the river immortalised by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn.
It is one of the poorer US states, and there are pockets of high unemployment and entrenched poverty. Don’t be fooled by those picturesque cotton fields, shimmering white in the sun – they are a reminder of the old slave plantations, a life of hard grind under an unremitting sun. But throughout Mississippi there is also a sense of communities moving forward – determinedly and in relative harmony – to a better future. “We were invited to the recession, but declined”, reads a sign in one roadside cafe.
Kosciusko, a small town in the middle of the state, is the birthplace of Oprah Winfrey, one of the most recognisable African-Americans in the world. Here, they like to tell you the story of how the TV presenter was asked to pay for a new after-school club for the children of Kosciusko. She agreed, but insisted that the community make its own contribution, rather than relying on her charity. So the town got together and raised US$150,000 (Dh560,000) and Oprah paid the rest – nearly $7 million (Dh26m).
After a couple of hours drive from Kosciusko, we reach Oxford, Mississippi, home to the University of Mississippi or, as it is universally known, Ole Miss. The town centre looks a picture, with magnolia trees in full bloom and students of every race bustling past with books under their arms. The sun falls on cafes and libraries, gyms and laboratories, Baptist churches and organic food stores. A US flag flutters above a white clapboard house, while an old man snoozes in a rocking-chair on the balcony, a well-fed dog at his feet.
But Ole Miss was not always so tranquil, as a plaque on the campus reminds visitors. In 1962, it was the scene of one of the ugliest episodes in the Civil Rights era, when the enrolment of a black student, James Meredith, was followed by violent protests, in which two people were killed. The National Guard had to be called out and Meredith undertook his studies flanked by more security men than the president. A small but symbolic victory had been achieved.
From Oxford, we drive on to Clarksdale, a place of pilgrimage for music fans, the epicentre of the sound that became known as the Delta Blues. Out of brutal poverty – the workers in the cotton fields toiled 16 hours a day for a subsistence wage – came music that would resonate around the world with its distinctive blend of anger and melancholy. There is a delightful little Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, commemorating blues greats such as Muddy Waters, who acquired his nickname as a boy playing a harmonica in the mud.
It is a poor, scruffy town, and memories of racial segregation still cast a long shadow. One of the best-remembered blues stars, Bessie Smith, “the Empress of the Blues”, met her death in Clarksdale in 1937 after being injured in a car accident. She was treated in a squalid blacks-only hospital that later became the famous Riverside Hotel. Prominent black musicians such as Duke Ellington used to lodge there because very few hotels in the state would accommodate them. You can still stay there, in modest rooms run by a charming man called Rat.
Smalltown US, that ripe human comedy where capitalism meets Christianity, has an irresistible quirkiness. We pass a church in Clarksdale with a sign outside which reads: “Exposure to the son may prevent burning”. Another church tries a different pun: “Wrinkled with the cares of the world? Why not give yourself a faith lift?” A third goes with “God answers knee-mail”.
If The Help makes you hate the sheer smugness of the US back then, you feel little of that hatred as you drive around the country today. There is just too much happening, too much energy, too many smiling faces.
Much of The Help was filmed in and around Jackson, the state capital, our next port of call. Jackson is unusual among US state capitals in being the biggest town in its state, a busy urban community with a clutch of universities and medical schools, whose gleaming campuses lend the town a futuristic air.
Some of the wealthier suburbs of Jackson have hardly changed in outward appearance since the 1950s. Imposing two-storey houses look out on lawns that look as if they have just been watered, then blow-dried and cut with nail scissors. A redhead in check trousers gets out of a white Cadillac and unloads her golf clubs from the boot. You half expect a black butler to open the door of the house for her, with a mint julep on a silver tray.
Brent’s drugstore in Fondren, where some scenes in The Help were shot, is like a film set, a world frozen in time. A “Vote for Richard Nixon” poster, flanked by ads for malt drinks and aspirin tablets, looks down on glossy eau-de-Nil banquettes and barstools, where podgy customers fill up with their calories for the day. “Two eggs easy over!” shouts the short-order chef from the recesses of the kitchen.
On a sunny spring day, the idea of violence erupting in these genteel surroundings is almost unimaginable. But Jackson has had more than its share of upheavals, with race central to the narrative. You can still see the art deco bus station, now an architect’s office, where hundreds of freedom riders – activists protesting against segregated transport in the Southern States – were arrested during the 1960s.
Another place of pilgrimage for students of the Civil Rights movement is the Medgar Evers Museum, a simply furnished bungalow in the outskirts of Jackson that has become a shrine to its eponymous resident. Evers was a young black activist who was gunned down by a white supremacist in June 1963 – an act that sent shockwaves across the US and anticipated the similarly motivated murder of Martin Luther King five years later.
Depending on your itinerary and how much time you have, a detour to Memphis, Tennessee, north of Mississippi, is heartily recommended. Here, on the site of the motel where King was shot, you can visit the magnificent National Civil Rights Museum, where anyone with the slightest interest in civil rights could easily spend a day learning about iconic figures such as Rosa Parks – the black Alabama woman who, in 1955, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger.
But there is so much to see in Mississippi that, even if you never set foot outside the state, you will feel yourself immersed in American history and its recurring subtext: the struggle for freedom and racial equality. Heading south from Jackson, we find ourselves in Port Gibson, a once thriving community on the banks of Mississippi. It is a pretty sleepy spot today. There is not a single customer in Yo Majesty’s Hair Salon, and several shops are boarded up. But there is a fascinating monument commemorating the acrimonious Port Gibson Boycott of the 1960s, when blacks refused to buy goods from white merchants, who took them to court. It was not until the 1980s that the dispute was finally settled by the Supreme Court.
Our final destination is the elegant town of Natchez, perched high on a bluff above the Mississippi, with a ringside view of the huge barges inching their way upstream. An old paddle-steamer, now a casino, is a reminder of the town in its pomp, when it was a major commercial port, ferrying goods from all over the US to the Gulf of Mexico.
Natchez is famous for its antebellum houses, redolent of Gone With the Wind with their huge porticos, chandeliered halls and lush gardens overhung with Spanish moss. In the early 19th century, when rivers were the economic arteries of the country, there were more millionaires in Natchez than New York: mainly wealthy plantation-owners with land across the river in Louisiana.
You can glimpse that older Natchez in the First Presbyterian Church on State Street, where there is a marvellous display of old black-and-white photographs taken mainly in the 19th century. All life is here, from preachers to stevedores, from Jewish merchants to workers in the cotton fields, from Southern belles in wedding dresses to fresh-faced school baseball players.
Equally evocative, for other reasons, is the William Johnson House, now a museum. Born in 1809, William Johnson started life as a slave but ended his days as a prosperous barber and businessman. He was clearly a substantial figure in the local community, giving the lie to the idea that racial prejudice was universal and unremitting.
In Natchez, as in Mississippi as a whole, you may see reminders of an ugly racist past, but you also catch glimpses of men and women who dared to challenge the status quo.
If you go
The flight Return flights from Dubai to Houston with Emirates (www.emirates.com) cost from Dh4,320. American Airlines (www.aa.com) flies from Houston to Jackson for US$230 (Dh885) return. Prices include taxes.
The hotels Double rooms at the Fairview Inn (www.fairviewinn.com; 00 1 601 948 3429) in Jackson cost from US$220 (Dh808) per night, including breakfast. Double rooms at the Monmouth Plantation in Natchez (http://monmouthplantation.com; 00 1 601 442 5852) cost from $286 (Dh1,050), per night. Double rooms at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale (www.shackupinn.com; 00 1 662 624 8329) cost from $71 (Dh260) per night. Prices include taxes.