King talked on, about his close friendships with black city employees, about
his jocular relationship with " Good Time Charlie" Henson, a radio disc jockey
and the city's first black alderman. Then he paused, drew his breath and
heaved his chest. " I believe in segregation, I'll be honest with you, but
hell, I've grown up with them, played with them, had 'em work for the city. "
Then he gestured to his desk blotter, where a dozen or so names were written
down and crossed out. " See all the scratches there. Blacks will come to me
and borrow $5 or $10 and they pay me back. People are all pretty much the
same. You got some good ones and you got some bad ones. "
In the black section of Philadelphia, in the shade in front of the brick-
faced Mt. Nebo Baptist Church, there is a stone monument to the slain
civil-rights workers, which bears their names and pictures. The monument has
been covered by protective wire mesh, and next to it one day last July were
two vases filled with the dessicated remains of flower stems. Every year, on
June 21, the church is the site of a memorial service, but in recent years
fewer and fewer people have been attending.
Not far from the church, on a busy corner, is the tidy wood-frame and
shingle house of Lillie Jones. Across the street is a dilapidated cement-block
structure that was once headquarters for the civil-rights workers during the
'60s. On a rotting wooden sign out front are the faded letters " COFO,
" which stand for Council of Federated Organizations, the erstwhile sponsor of
the " freedom summer" project.
On a recent afternoon, Mrs. Jones was sitting in her front yard, which is
enclosed by an aluminum wire-mesh fence and filled with well-tended plants and
shrubs, sewing together brightly colored patches for a quilt. In the black
community, she is known as " Aunt Lil" or " Mother Jones. " She is 90 years old
now and spent at least a half century of her life rearing 11 children and
" hoein' in the fields and pickin' cotton. "
She has gray hair and wears silver- rimmed spectacles and treats a white
visitor with old-time deferential politeness, repeatedly calling him " sir.
" Her lined and wrinkled face is full of the strength and character of the
long-suffering, those who, like the heroes in a Faulkner novel, prevail by
enduring. On this day, she was wearing a pink dress and red apron.
In front of Mrs. Jones' house is an ordinary rural mailbox. To Mrs. Jones,
though, the mailbox is also a trophy, because it was she who went to the
federal government during the '60s and successfully demanded mail delivery
for Philadelphia's black residents. In 1966, when the racial climate in
Philadelphia was dangerously explosive, Mrs. Jones risked her life to march
through Philadelphia with Dr. Martin Luther King. She was determined to have
the chance to register and vote in her lifetime.
Pausing from her sewing, Mrs. Jones said, " I reckon there've been some
changes, yessuh, a great many of them. We have drinking facilities ( water
fountains ) where we didn't have them before, and colored people in the
factories have better opportunities in a heap of different ways. And the
colored don't have to wait until the white people is served when they go into
a store and they don't have to go in the back door any more. "
The perception of racial progress is shared by other Philadelphia blacks.
Under the shade of a towering pine tree, in a peaceful clearing next to some
old shacks, Jimmy Lee Shannon, 30, Philadelphia's newly elected black
alderman, was chewing the fat with some friends and constituents as cool
breezes, stirred by lowering skies, swayed the branches overhead. " This town
has come a long way," said Shannon, who works in production control at U.S.
" This town has been burdened with the civil-rights thing for so long. It's
stored up with us and will always follow us. People don't want that kind of
thing to happen any more. "
Clifton Judan, 34, a lanky man who was wearing a T-shirt and an earring,
said: " In the '60s, blacks didn't have a chance. If you went to a movie, you
better not be on the street after dark. They'd slap you upside of the head.
In the old days, every light around here had to be out at 10 o'clock. If you
got caught outside, you got your ass whipped. Now, if you ain't bothering the
police, they won't be bothering you. Pickin' on you just to be pickin' on
you, they don't do that any more. "
His brother, Charles, a construction worker in a bright red, open-collar
sport shirt who returned to Philadelphia in February after a decade in
Chicago, added: " Since I left, it's improved a helluva lot. Black people got
paved roads, a park, a swimming pool, a recreation center. People can buy
houses now. It used to be you couldn't buy no houses. You couldn't go to the
bank and get a loan without getting Miss So-and-So to sign for you, or
putting up a little land. Now, you can get anything you want if you have the
" God has blessed this community that we have moved like we have,
" interjected Shannon, an affable, robust-looking man who was wearing a white
shirt and tie. " We need more industry, and housing is high around here, but
it's a good place to live. We know each other around here. You can go to bed
and leave the screen door open and the window up and you don't have to worry
about it. People who left to get work in the cities up North are coming back.
To Jimmy McWilliams, 31, an auto mechanic and welder who was wearing a
football jersey and who has soft, intelligent eyes, the notion of racial
prejudice in Philadelphia seems ludicrous.
" My mother breast-fed most of them," he said, referring to the town's white
residents. McWilliams, who fought in Vietnam, is one of several Vietnam
veterans in the black community. Over there, in the Army, there were no
whites and blacks, just soldiers. " We slept in the same beds, drank out of
the same canteens, wore the same clothes, ate the same food, shared each
other's blood. Why can't we do that here? " McWilliams asked.
To a visitor, there are many signs of racial harmony in Philadelphia. On the
front page of the Neshoba Democrat one week last July, for example, there was
a photograph of the Neshoba Central High School cheerleaders, who were
attending camp at East Central Junior College. Three of the 10 girls on the
squad are black.
One morning, an out-of-towner stopped for breakfast at the coffee shop in
the old Benwalt Hotel (where for $5.50 you can have all the catfish or
chitterlings you can eat). At the counter, where he had just paid his bill,
Iron Eyes Cody, the Indian who weeps in the " Keep America Beautiful"
television commercials and who was in town for the Choctaw Indian Fair, stood
in full regalia of beads and fringed leather signing autographs for the
appreciative white waitresses. Meanwhile, at a table nearby, several white
good-ol'-boy types were sipping coffee and bragging about the feats of " our
boy" Marcus Dupree, a phenomenal 6-foot-2, 215-pound black halfback for the
Tornadoes of Philadelphia High School. Last fall, as a junior, Dupree was
named the state's Player of the Year after having scored 20 touchdowns, gained
1,700 yards and led his team to a 10-0 record and the Mid-Mississippi
Since January, in an office at the county library, Dr. Seena B. Kohl, an
anthropologist on leave from Webster College in St. Louis, has been serving as
Neshoba County's scholar-in-residence and working on a project funded by the
Mississippi Committee for the Humanities. The name of the project is " Diverse
Origins, Common History," and its purpose is to encourage the county's white,
black and Indian residents to explore their separate and common histories in
an effort to better understand the present and cope with the future.
" The fact that this project exists says a lot about Philadelphia today,
" said Dr. Kohl. " The United States is a racist society and Neshoba County is
no worse than anywhere else in Mississippi. I think the relations between
whites and blacks are every bit as bad and every bit as good as you would find
in any Northern city. "
In the summertime, after the sun goes down and the thick, humid air forms
yellow haloes around the streetlights circling Courthouse Square, the
principal recreation in Philadelphia is playing in or watching one of several
baseball games under the lights at Northside Park, where a dollar will buy a
hamburger and a bottle of Dr. Pepper. For those white youths in their teens
and early 20s who do not like baseball, however, having fun boils down to
watching television at home or tooling around town, " Dukes of Hazzard"
-style, in a hot car.
For the teenyboppers, a popular hang- out is the Pizza Hut. For the older
crowd, it's the A & J drive-in at the Valley View Shopping Center. There,
muscular young men in T-shirts, with nicknames like " Taterhead," " John Boy,
" " Sweet Meat" and " Frog," roar into the parking lot with a spray of gravel
in throaty, jacked- up pickup trucks or rumbling Corvettes, Mustangs and GTOs
equipped with mag wheels and racing slicks. Cute, flirty young women cruise
by in Daddy's gleaming, late-model Lincoln or Riviera. Often, stashed behind a
seat or buried under tarps and lumber in the bed of a pickup are gallon jugs
of moonshine, the essential ingredient in a mind-numbing concoction called
" jungle juice," which is a staple of the spontaneous late-night parties that
occur at the fairgrounds or in nearby parks and that are often heralded by
cries of " Let's get wasted!" and " Let's get naked! "
One recent night, about a half-dozen young men and women were clustered
around two pickup trucks talking about parties, friends, jobs and Philadelphia.
" This is another little Peyton Place, except it's sometimes worse," declared
Connie Lewis, 18, a perky, dark-haired girl who was wearing a pink alligator
shirt and jeans. " Everybody knows everybody else's business. "
The young people were upset because a local radio station that had played
progressive rock had recently " gone country. " They complained about the
county sheriff and his crackdown on drugs. " He's out to get us young people,
" charged a stocky, blond youth in a Budweiser T-shirt. " If you get busted
around here for carrying a joint, it's worse than killing somebody. "
Life in Philadelphia, the young people said, is not very exciting. " There's
nothing else to do around here but drink, smoke pot and run around with wild
women," quipped Rusty Barfoot, 25, the unemployed son of a local
chiropractor. The remark drew giggles from the women, but later Ms. Lewis
griped, " The guys around here don't believe in relationships. They'll pick
you up in the alley behind Sunflower ( a supermarket ) , take you out on some
dirt road and say, 'Put out or get out. ' "
A more serious problem, the young people said, is limited job opportunities,
particularly for those with professional aspirations. " Most people around
here are either factory workers or farmers," said Ms. Lewis. Indeed, many
young people, on graduating from high school, leave Philadelphia for Jackson,
the state capital, or the Gulf Coast, where an able- bodied, conscientious
young man can earn more than $500 a week working on an offshore oil rig. Yet,
many of these young people eventually return to Philadelphia.
" All the young people leave here at one time or another and they all come
back," said Barfoot, a slender, fair-haired man with a handsome, angular face,
" because there's no place like this. You know everybody here and you can
ride around town in about 15 minutes. It's just a mellow place to live. "
Race relations in Philadelphia are civil, the young people said, but there
is very little interracial socializing. " Whites stay with whites, blacks stay
with blacks, and Indians stay with Indians," said Jay Wiggs, 19, the son of a
highway patrolman. " We go to school together, but that's it," said Ms. Lewis.
" We don't go home together.
" When all the civil rights are over, people are still basically prejudiced,
" Ms. Lewis continued. " The other day, I was out at the reservoir and this
black guy got a cramp and went under. They brought him in and this white
chick, she knew CPR ( cardio-pulmonary resuscitation ) , but she wouldn't do
it because he was a black guy. The guy died. "
" When you tell somebody you're from Philadelphia," said Barfoot, who was
sipping from a pint bottle of whiskey, " they think you used to kill niggers.
But it's not as bad as it was made out to be in the press. I don't think
you'd find people any nicer than the people around here. You can't find
anybody in Philadelphia that really hates niggers. White people sit down in
restaurants and eat with them and don't think nothing about it. About the
only thing that would cause a fight between blacks and whites would be for a
nigger to be dating a white girl.
" There are still niggers around here just like in the Civil War. 'Yessuh,
Mr. Rusty, yessuh,' they say. They remember the way it was back then and they
think it's still like that. Most of them like that would do anything for you.
Younger blacks around here are smart-asses. They get real defensive about
being black. They think white people should humble down to them because 200
years ago they were slaves.
" But I don't think it's as bad as what you hear on the news, because they
stay on their side of town and we stay on ours. Just like in your
In northeastern Missouri, about a dozen miles north of Hannibal, the two-lane
blacktop highway that carries a traveler from Palmyra, the Marion County seat,
to Philadelphia cuts through countryside as level as the bottom of a skillet.
On both sides of the road, the prairie land stretches to the horizon, the gold
of the wheat and the blue of the sky forming a perfect razor- sharp seam,
except for those irregular intervals when the two are stitched together by a
wandering hedgerow or an impudent coppice.
If one were searching for the middle of Middle America, the heart of the
Heartland, one couldn't do much better than Philadelphia, Mo. In fact, if one
were to draw a triangle by connecting Kansas City, Kan., Peoria, Ill., and
Des Moines, Iowa, Philadelphia, Mo., would fall at about the exact midpoint of
that triangle's base. This is country with a capital C, wheat, corn and
soybean country, the kind of country where a boy learns how to drive a 165-
horsepower tractor or a combine that costs more than the average new house
before the peach fuzz on his chin has hardened into whiskers.
An unincorporated village, Philadelphia, Mo., has a population of about 200.
Some say it's closer to 190, some say 210. It all depends on whether you count
the chickens and dogs. A couple of roadside signs identify the town, but a
tourist admiring the bucolic surroundings could completely miss Philadelphia
in the time it takes to tune in another country-western station on the radio.
Time and technology have taken their toll on this rustic community, which
was once a busy academic and commercial center and which might have become
another Chicago or Houston if fate - and the Mississippi River - had been a
bit more cooperative.
The center of Philadelphia is the corner in front of the post office, which
used to be a bank in the days when Philadelphia had a bank. Across the street
is a Phillips 66 gas station that has been partly converted into a restaurant
called the Country Corners Cafe. Next door to that is Spratt's IGA, the town's
grocery store. Other notable buildings in the vicinity are the old post
office, a peeling, leaning wood-frame structure that is now the Masonic Hall;
a trailer that serves as the town barber shop (a fact signified by a board
painted with red, white and blue stripes atop the trailer hitch); a
dilapidated garage, and the brick ruins of what used to be the town tavern.
Philadelphia also has its own park (a small picnic grove with a flagpole), two
churches and its own school, a modern, low-slung structure that is probably
the town's proudest possession.
Most of Philadelphia's residents live in one-story, ranch-style houses or
old, white clapboard dwellings whose sharply peaked roofs and long, narrow
windows recall the austere American Gothic architecture celebrated by Grant
Wood. Everyone in town is white, and everyone - except for a handful of
Catholics - is Protestant. A large proportion of the town's residents are
retired and elderly, and many of them are widows who moved to Philadelphia
from nearby farms when their husbands died. " This town always was filled with
old widow women and bachelors," said Clifton H. " Pudy" Ragar, 84, a retired
carpenter and tavern owner who is regarded as Philadelphia's unofficial
The principal industry in the Philadelphia area, of course, is farming.
Those who don't farm generally work in one of the bigger towns nearby, such as
Palmyra, Hannibal or Quincy, Ill., which is just across the river. The major
employers in the area are the local power company, American Cyanamid, which
makes fertilizer and agricultural chemicals, and the American Safety Equipment
Co., which manufactures seatbelts.
Not a lot happens in Philadelphia. In July, the main topics of discussion
among the farmers who gathered at the post office for their mail or at the
Country Corners Cafe for the $3 buffet lunch were the rainy weather, which was
fouling up crop schedules, and high interest rates, which are making it
difficult for farmers to borrow and pay off their loans. Some of the young
folks in town were looking forward to the mud volleyball game the Jaycees
were sponsoring in early August. Other than that the town was pretty quiet,
save for the occasional sound of the door slamming at Spratt's IGA and the
continual drone of a tractor in a far-off field.
" Our big excitement," said Loretta Bevill, 31, a trim, blond, vivacious
woman who is Philadelphia's acting postmaster, " is to get the Spectator ( the
weekly newspaper published in nearby Palmyra ) and see who got speeding
About a dozen miles from Philadelphia, in his storefront office on Palmyra's
main street, Lee Keck, the editor of the Spectator, spent a good part of a
minute searching his mind before he could recall a major Philadelphia news
event. " Probably the most news that's been made there in the last 10 years
was when the school building burned down in 1970," Keck said. The school was
rebuilt, and Philadelphians have staunchly fought to keep it, even at the
expense of higher property taxes. " They're proud, stubborn people, quite a
bit like their ancestors," said Ruth Hastings, a reporter and editor for the
While the happenings in Philadelphia rarely command headlines, the town has
had its moments of excitement. A few years ago, two young drag-racers were
killed in a head-on 100-m.p.h. collision. At the time, the county sheriff
's office was receiving regular calls from angry residents complaining
about screeching tires and rowdy behavior. The magnet was Philadelphia's
tavern, the Boondocker Inn, where drugs were peddled and liquor sold to
minors. A couple of years ago, acting on these violations, law-enforcement
officials were able to shut the tavern down. Shortly thereafter, it was set on
fire by a little boy who, according to the county sheriff, may have acted
after having heard his parents gripe about what a nuisance the tavern was.
Today, all that remains of the Boondocker Inn is some brick rubble and
charred debris, making the inn the most obvious reminder of Philadelphia's
unexpectedly glorious past.
In the 1830s, Philadelphia was an important college town, the site of an
institution that was ballyhooed as " the Harvard of the Midwest. " Later,
during the first three decades of this century, it was a lively trading
center, with several grocery stores, barber shops, garages and blacksmith
shops, two banks, a creamery, a feed store, a sheetmetal shop, a tire-
manufacturing company, an opera house, a telephone office, a hardware store,
a funeral home, a newspaper office, two drygoods stores and a drugstore,
where, according to Pudy Ragar, " they sold whiskey for 10 cents a shot in a
glass as large as a Dixie cup. "
It even had its own municipal government, but in 1915, when the road linking
Palmyra and Philadelphia was being paved, Philadelphia's town fathers decided
to disincorporate to avoid having to pay for the roadwork within city limits.
The man who literally put Philadelphia on the map was a silken-tongued
Irishman named William Muldrow, who seems to have been a combination of P.T.
Barnum and Robert Moses. A Marion County historian wrote of Muldrow: " Mr.
Muldrow was a forcible talker, and whatever he found to do, he did it with all
his might. His power over men was something wonderful. "
In 1831, Muldrow helped a Presbyterian minister named David Nelson found
Marion College on 800 acres near Philadelphia. To launch the school, which was
intended to enable farm boys to gain an education while supporting themselves
through agricultural chores, Muldrow borrowed $20,000 from bankers and
investors in New York. Several impressive brick buildings were constructed,
and distinguished professors were lured from prestigious schools in the East,
so that, according to one account, Marion College soon " had the airs of Yale
and Harvard, if not of Oxford and Cambridge. "
The college, though, was only a small part of Muldrow's master plan for the
northeastern corner of Missouri. In 1835, on the west bank of the Mississippi,
about six miles east of Palmyra, Muldrow began mapping out Marion City, which
he envisioned as " the metropolis of the West," a boom-town gateway city that
would be an important global port as well as the terminus of a railroad
Muldrow hoped to extend all the way to the Pacific.
After plotting the town, Muldrow journeyed east to enlist settlers. He sold
almost all the lots to Pennsylvanians, whose large-scale migration to
Missouri later came to be known as the " Eastern Run. " Arriving in the spring
of 1836, carrying with them all their belongings and, in some cases,
prefabricated wood- frame houses, the settlers discovered that Marion City
was, as one historian put it, " Venetian in the character of its
thoroughfares. " In other words, the town was under water, thanks to the
perennial spring floods.
Some settlers simply grabbed the next steamer out, but others of a more
tenacious bent stayed, building a town that had its own tavern and hotel.
Another flood in 1844, however, washed away many of the houses and covered
the town with mud. A malaria outbreak followed. Then, in 1855, still another
flood routed all the town's residents except the insects.
Earlier, in 1838, before Marion City had experienced the worst of its
submarine misadventures, Muldrow laid out another town, this one near Marion
College, which he named Philadelphia in honor of our Philadelphia and also
because the City of Brotherly Love was the home town of one of his business
partners. Muldrow's idea was to construct a string of towns that eventually
would rival the magnificent cities of the East. From Marion City, he planned
to build a railroad that would run west to Palmyra, Philadelphia and a town
called New York (which was later renamed Newark). Philadelphia was supposed to
be an academic and intellectual center, a town for artisans, professional
men, scholars and divines.
For a time, it all seemed possible. Then a combination of factors - local
resentment of the faculty's anti-slavery sentiments, a depression and an
unsuccessful cattle drive - led to the demise of Marion College in 1842,
while the flood of '44 scotched the railroad project after only four miles of
track had been laid. As his empire began collapsing, Muldrow began feuding
with his business partners, some of whom lost their entire fortunes by
investing in his schemes. Ultimately, Muldrow left Missouri for points west,
leaving behind scores of displaced Easterners who spent the rest of their
lives denouncing him as a scoundrel. Continue