Could the plight of women ‘back then’ be a sign of things to come? (A review of The Help and more civil rights discourse)

My Mother’s Witness

The Peggy Morgan Story
Carolyn Haines
River City Publishing

Have I read The Help or seen the movie, yet?

My mother’s enthusiasm was all over the place when she asked me this question. At 94, she had just seen the movie; a group from the Episcopal Church went together for the afternoon showing downtown. I could feel her disappointment when I said no, and I really did try to explain.

“Mom, I lived near Greenwood, Mississippi for several years, and it wasn’t that nice of a place for black people, or poor white people,” I told her. “I am not going to see it, so I can’t really criticize the movie except for what I have read and heard, and from what I know life was really like.”

I know. She and her friends saw the movie, and it made them feel good. “Times really are better,” she offered.

What’s frustrating about all this is that there are apparently some fleeting moments in this movie, when a better, truer, almost good movie seems to be struggling to the surface in spite of itself, as one reviewer, MSN’s Glenn Kenny, tells us. “Moments…that confront the ugly truth of our nation’s history with both a clear eye and some genuine compassion.”

While all the cast members must have done their level best, and were certainly deserving of any and all film awards, their fine performances could not have made “The Help” all that less problematic…perhaps “just merely tolerable whenever they’re in the scene.”

I actually know Greenwood pretty well, because of the research I’ve done when writing about the modern civil rights movement as it played out in the Mississippi Delta. Greenwood was the home to Dr. Aaron Henry, a phenomenally brave man, a WW II veteran who came back home after the war, hoping to change the way his fellow men and women were treated. And in Greenwood, as throughout Mississippi, life could be brutal. Henry was a true hero, and his own story, The Fire Ever Burning, introduced me to the history of these time. (He wasn’t mentioned in The Help.)

Aaron Henry: The Fire Ever Burning (Margaret Walker Alexander Series in African American Studies)

A wonderful woman from Greenwood, Peggy Morgan, a person who I soon met by telephone, after moving to the Delta, often gave me her time freely, sharing her stories straight out of the belly of the Greenwood beast. It was because of her courtroom testimony, that the person who probably killed the state’s first NAACP Field Representative, Medgar Evers, finally went to prison. 

Peggy is a brave soul and spent most of her life suffering with constant and horrid fear – before and after the trial of Byron De La Beckwith – eventually telling her story to Carolyn Haines, author of My Mother’s Witness: The Story of Peggy Morgan. This IS the book to read whether or not you have seen or read The Help. 

Peggy is powerful in her descriptions of what life was really like in this town, telling Haines of the world she shared of torment and transition within the society she was born into; the book starts shortly after the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in nearby Sunflower County, outside of another brutal small town, Drew.

“Shortly after the murder of Emmet Till, Inez Albritton (Peggy’s mother) became privy to information regarding the details of his kidnapping and subsequent death. Till was visiting relatives in the Greenwood area, a city boy who may not have taken the ‘rules’ of Delta society seriously. He allegedly whistled at a white woman, an advance that was not tolerated. Only 14, he was beaten, shot, and his body thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-pound cotton fan bound to his neck with barbed wire.”

But how could Inez Albritton have known any more about this murder committed by Mississippi men? How was she to become a “willing repository of secrets that allowed these murders to range free?” 

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Both Inez and her daughter, Peggy, shared a world that was a mirror image of of the turmoil and violence within their family, and within their society. In a twist of fate, both would be connected with two of the most notorious racial murders committed in Mississippi, drawn into brutality and viciousness by the men in their lives – husband, father, uncle – “and by the very geography of the Mississippi Delta…the rich soil that sprouted cotton so abundantly was also the dividing line of a rigidly enforced social order.”

You see, shortly after  Till was murdered, Inez Albritton became privy to details through her husband and his friends, who knew too many details, and this knowledge was instrumental in her destruction, Morgan me. “Like many women of her social class [poor, white], she was a faceless female, the bearer of children, the provider of meals, sexual pleasure and some small income, the object of drunken abuse – in other words, a wife. Property of the man who gave her his name,” Haines observed.

Ironically, in current times when women are observing with astonishment nearly every day on television news the actions and words of GOP legislators and political candidates such as Rick Santorum (demanding society regain this demanding and hostile status for women), it is probably a good time to review what life was like (and apparently still like, I would guess, for the political spouses of men of this ilk). What have we to lose? (I just caught up my dues to NOW.)

As Inez’s sixth child, Peggy found herself possessing information that would set her on the path to repeat her mother’s fate. I came to know Peggy, and she told me her story, almost ten years ago when we lived in the Delta, when I was writing about Till and others who were murdered in this God-awful (and at the same time fascinating) region. We talked on the phone, many times, from her new home many states away. I have not heard from her though, in several years, and because of the mental state she seemed to be in then, I wonder now if she is still well or even alive. (I have a call out to one of her friends to answer this question.)

But from what she told me, life in Greenwood was anything like life as described in The Help. It was just brutal beyond words for women – poor and/or black. Peggy always wanted to vindicate her mother’s death, and tried very hard through Haines’ book, a must read whether or not you choose to see or read The Help, that is, if you want to know what life was really like. Here is a small taste of what she described of her mother’s paralyzing life:

“Gene walked slowly across the room to Inez. His hand shot out quicker than a snake could strike, and grabbed her arm in a punishing grip. ‘You crazy bitch…the last thing I need is your guts fallin’ out all over the floor right here in front of the children.’ He pushed her hard toward the door, slapping the back of her head hard…[then] went back to the bedroom to find his pants. Inez remained hospitalized until her surgery had healed sufficiently. But her mental condition did not improve. She was thirty-five and the hysterectomy dealt her a terrible blow….now she felt useless. What tiny scrap of self-worth Gene’s fists had not beaten out of her, the doctor’s scalpel had taken.”

Peggy, I hope that I can find you once again. We have more to talk about.

White, male politicians — don’t even think for one moment that you can do this to us ever again.

My Mother’s Witness: The Peggy Morgan Story
Carolyn Haines
River City Publishing