7 community heroes who are creating positive change in the American South



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1. Ronald Lewis and New Orleans street culture

Mr. Ronald Lewis of the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans is preserving the living street culture of the city. In New Orleans, music, parades, second lines, Mardi Gras and all the krewes and social aid groups that support those activities aren’t just fun — they are the very fabric of the community. But tourists tend to just flock to Bourbon Street and only see a skewed version, so Lewis is trying fighting the cheapening of New Orleans culture. Lewis’s resume reads like New Orleanian royalty — he’s a founder and former chief of the Mardi Gras Indian tribe the Choctaw Hunters, president of the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club and the 2008 King of the Krewe de Vieux. Any local seeing those names would know this is somebody whose roots go deep into the city.

After nearly overflowing his own house with Mardi Gras Indian costumes and art, Lewis created the House of Dance and Feathers in a shed in his backyard. The museum is a “celebration of New Orleans street culture” and showcases art, “throws,” costumes and photography from every spectrum of the music and life lived out on New Orleans streets. From the gorgeous artwork of a full Mardi Gras Indian suit or a Krewe of Muses’s shoe to the fun paraphernalia of Krewe de Jieux’s gold painted bagels, the museum immerses you in the color of New Orleans. It also includes displays from Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out much of the Lower 9th ward.

Lewis aims to educate the rest of the world about New Orleans, he says:

I was at the point in my life where, “Okay, I can make a Mardi Gras Indian costume, but I want to educate the world about our great culture, how we do this, and why we are so successful at it even though the economics say we ain’t supposed to be.”

Lewis is a champion for his neighborhood and his culture, keeping communities alive via street culture.

2. Esther Tricoche and educational progress

Hailing from Houston and a graduate of Rice University, Esther Tricoche works toward closing the education gaps via technology and knocking down boundaries to allow for more Latino and Black leaders in education technology. She is featured as one of Forbes “30 Under 30” for 2016 for her work in pushing for equality in education. She co-founded New Schools Ignite and is an associate partner with the New Schools Venture Fund. Prior to New Schools, she worked behind the scenes in the New Orleans school revitalization movement and led educational strategy for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Tricoche is passionate about leading the next generation into reaching their potential as creators, she writes:

“As schools shift from a focus on memorizing science facts to engaging in critical analysis and scientific problem solving, tools that connect students to real-world applications will inspire the next generation of creators and experimenters across all domains of society.”

She is fighting for those very tools to be available for every student.

3. Joel Salatin and organic farming

Joel Salatin is a Virginia farmer dedicated, according to his website, to the “redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture.” Salatin employs innovative, organic farming techniques to provide local produce and has become a hero for farmers and urban gardeners around the country. Refuting the idea that the organic movement is for the elite, Whole Foods shopper, Salatin considers himself a ”Christian libertarian environmental capitalist” and lives a life that is more practical than hipster or elite. He feels that the organic label has been co-opted by large farms and bureaucracy.

Salatin is not only a farmer but a prolific author and speaker, preaching the gospel of his mix of old-fashioned and new high-tech farming that creates a more sustainable food source. He’s been the inspiration for many farmers around the country and was featured in Michael Pollan’s seminal book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the New York Times called him the High Priest of the Pasture. When he’s not speaking around the country, he can be found explaining his farming choices to tours on his land in Virginia.

4. Chuck Reece and story of the South

Chuck Reece is editor and co-founder of The Bitter Southerner the beautiful, online literary magazine “for the rest of us, those that are bitter about the problems of the South, but also about how the rest of the world ignores the beauty of the South. It is about the South that the rest of us know: the one we live in today and the one we hope to create in the future.” The Bitter Southerner puts out gorgeous, photo-filled features every week, along with shorter “folklore” pieces and videos, exploring every facet of Southern life from “a certain progressive Southern ethos,” a bit like a “Vice of the South,” reports Forbes. The Bitter Southerner produces in-depth, highly personal pieces on such topics as the group who led the Confederate Flag protests in South Carolina or homegrown fashion in Alabama.

Reece himself spent time working in media in New York City, facing odd looks for his Southern accent. He now writes about anything Southern, from gospel music to cocktails. He’s determined to not only change the stereotype of the South but to change the story of the South itself. He strives to have a diverse writing staff and to tell diverse stories, no matter how taboo or controversial they may seem. He told NPR that in this way he hopes the Bitter Southerner “moves us a little further down the road, getting people to think in a new way about certain things, while celebrating the parts of our collective heritage that are worthy of celebration.”

5. Janisse Ray and environmental activism

Janisse Ray fights to protect the lands of the rural South, particularly in her home state of Georgia. She has written multiple books on environmental issues and has been called the Rachel Carson for the “forests of the South.” Her latest work is on the issue of open-pollinated seeds and the revolution to save food from the industrial food corporate complex. Ray speaks around the country on environmental activism, when she isn’t on her farm in rural Georgia.

She recently wrote a striking expose on the hazards of coal ash in small towns in the South, where residents and the land face risks from toxic waste. Ray was also inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame last year for her memoirs and writing on the environment.

Through her writing, she mourns the changing cultural and environmental landscape of the South: “Naturally, having known something so beautiful as the rural South and its people, I find myself a bit lost these days,” she writes in her piece on coal ash. “What was here is almost gone. The people who thought trees were sacred and didn’t question that belief … who believed in manners first and foremost … who contained their complicated and colorful lives in story … who loved the land … who spoke with Elizabethan lilt and lyricism … who didn’t mind hard work…” But even while she mourns, she continues spreading the message of respect for the Southern landscape.

6. Michael Twitty and Southern food

Michael Twitty is a food scholar and Southern chef who explores the African roots of Southern food, using food to tell the story of Southern culture and history. While he spent years learning to cook from his grandmother, working as a Smithsonian Folklife intern, and studying and writing about food on his blog Afroculinaria, his name became known not for all of his meticulous work, but for what is now common in the internet age — a viral post. Specifically, Twitty wrote an open letter to Paula Deen after she used a racial profanity. In his letter, he scolds her for erasing the African history wrapped in Southern food but ended by inviting her to cook a meal together.

A Jewish convert, Twitty loves how the black and Jewish communities “use food to talk about their past while they eat it,” as he told the Post. He focuses his food study on two brands: Kosher/Soul and Antebellum Chef. Within the Antebellum track, he writes that “The responsible exploration of the Southern food heritage demands that the cooks of colonial, federal era, and antebellum kitchens and enslaved people’s cabins be honored for their unique role in giving the Southland her mother cuisine”. But even with all the recognition — Twitty has been a TED fellow and plans to publish a book — he remains committed to growing, cooking, eating, talking and always sharing about Southern food.

7. Sam Olens and fighting sex trafficking

Sam Olens is the Attorney General of Georgia, and the first Jewish politician elected via a statewide race. Olens has made it his goal to end sex trafficking in his state. Thanks to his work, Georgia has some of the toughest laws against sex trafficking in the United States. Olens appointed a state prosecutor, Camila Wright, solely to tackle the tough issue of trafficking and both were honored last year by the nonprofit Civil Lawyers Against World Sex-Slavery for their work.

Referring to his work with anti-sex trafficking nonprofits, Olens told NPR Atlanta “It’s been my honor to assist them, but it’s also what we’re supposed to do to protect those that have no one looking out for them.” Olens is carefully non-partisan in his position as Attorney General, although he caused a stir when he told Georgia governor Nathan Deal that he couldn’t block Syrian refugees from being settled in the state. Whenever he is questioned about his future political plans, he refers again to how he wants to strengthen anti-trafficking laws, and that’s where his focus lies.


The massive amount of wood needed to build the railroad, including railroad ties, support beams for tunnels and bridges, and sheds, necessitated cutting down thousands of trees, which devastated western forests. Towns and cities that sprung up along the railroad further encroached upon what had been wild areas. And the railroad and other rail routes that followed made it easy for large numbers of hunters to travel westward and kill millions of buffalo. That slaughter impacted Native Americans, who had hunted buffalo in moderation, and weakened their resistance to settlement of the west.

Chinese immigrants working on the Northwest Pacific Railway in the 1880s.

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images


Totem Poles and Animal Ancestors

The Native Americans of the northwestern United States and Canada believe that each clan or kinship group is descended from a particular animal, such as a whale, wolf, or bear. This animal has become the group's totem, a powerful symbol of its identity. People display their identity and status with totem poles—tall standing logs carved with images of mythical animals. Totem poles mark the approaches to villages and the burial sites of chieftains and stand at the entrance of each clan house.

sorcerer magician or wizard

supernatural related to forces beyond the normal world, magical or miraculous

ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern

In many societies, people believed that shamans had animal helpers who guided them through the supernatural realm. This idea is similar to the common image of a witch's "familiar"—an animal, usually a black cat, that gives the witch certain powers. Animals offer helpful advice to ordinary people in many legends. Generally, those who ignore the animal's advice will fail to achieve their goal.

Sometimes a family, a clan, or a whole society feels a special attachment to a certain kind of animal, usually one that they consider to be an ancestor or protector. This connection, called totemism, defines social groups and their behavior. Hunters are sometimes forbidden to kill their group's totem animal, for example. Among the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, the beaver, the eagle, the raven, and the killer whale are all associated with particular clans.

Many cultures have legends of human children raised by animals. The Romans claimed that a wolf mother had fed Romulus and Remus, their legendary ancestors. The story of Tarzan, raised by African apes, is a modern version of this ancient myth.


Freedom Rides

"At our first stop in Virginia . . . I [was] confronted with what the Southern white has called `separate but equal.' A modern rest station with gleaming counters and picture windows was labelled `White,' and a small wooden shack beside it was tagged `Colored.'"
-- Freedom Rider William Mahoney [26]

In 1947, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) planned a "Journey of Reconciliation," designed to test the Supreme Court's 1946 decision in the Irene Morgan case, which declared segregated seating of interstate passengers unconstitutional. An interracial group of passengers met with heavy resistance in the upper South. Some members of the group served on a chain gang after their arrest in North Carolina. [27] The Journey of Reconciliation quickly broke down. Clearly the South, even the more moderate upper South, was not ready for integration.

Nearly a decade and a half later, John F. Kennedy was elected president, in large part due to widespread support among blacks who believed that Kennedy was more sympathetic to the civil rights movement than his opponent, Richard Nixon. Once in office, however, Kennedy proved less committed to the movement than he had appeared during the campaign. To test the president's commitment to civil rights, CORE proposed a new Journey of Reconciliation, dubbed the "Freedom Ride." The strategy was the same: an interracial group would board buses destined for the South. The whites would sit in the back and the blacks in the front. At rest stops, the whites would go into blacks-only areas and vice versa. "This was not civil disobedience, really," explained CORE director James Farmer, "because we [were] merely doing what the Supreme Court said we had a right to do." But the Freedom Riders expected to meet resistance. "We felt we could count on the racists of the South to create a crisis so that the federal government would be compelled to enforce the law," said Farmer. "When we began the ride I think all of us were prepared for as much violence as could be thrown at us. We were prepared for the possibility of death." [28]

The Freedom Ride left Washington DC on May 4, 1961. It was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17, the seventh anniversary of the Brown decision. Unlike the original Journey of Reconciliation, the Freedom Ride met little resistance in the upper South.

On Mother's Day, May 14, the Freedom Riders split up into two groups to travel through Alabama. The first group was met by a mob of about 200 angry people in Anniston. The mob stoned the bus and slashed the tires. The bus managed to get away, but when it stopped about six miles out of town to change the tires, it was firebombed. The other group did not fare any better. It was greeted by a mob in Birmingham, and the Riders were severely beaten. Birmingham's Public Safety Commissioner, Bull Conner, claimed he posted no officers at the bus depot because of the holiday, however, it was later discovered that the FBI knew of the planned attack and that the city police stayed away on purpose. Alabama governor John Patterson offered no apologies, explaining, "When you go somewhere looking for trouble, you usually find it . . . . You just can't guarantee the safety of a fool and that's what these folks are, just fools." [29]

Despite the violence, the Freedom Riders were determined to continue. Jim Peck, a white who had fifty stitches from the beatings he received, insisted, "I think it is particularly important at this time when it has become national news that we continue and show that nonviolence can prevail over violence." [30] The bus company, however, did not want to risk losing another bus to a bombing, and its drivers, who were all white, did not want to risk their lives. After two days of unsuccessful negotiations, the Freedom Riders, fearing for their safety, flew to New Orleans. It appeared that the Freedom Ride was over.

At that point, however, a group of Nashville sit-in students decided to go to Birmingham and continue the Freedom Ride. Diane Nash, who helped organize the group, later explained, "If the Freedom Riders had been stopped as a result of violence, I strongly felt that the future of the movement was going to be cut short. The impression would have been that whenever a movement starts, all [you have to do] is attack it with massive violence and the blacks [will] stop." [31] The Nashville students traveled to Birmingham and asked the bus company to let them use their buses. Attorney general Kennedy also leaned on the bus company and the Birmingham police. He was determined to enforce the Supreme Court's decision that called for integration of interstate travel, and he worried that if the Nashville students remained in Birmingham much longer, violence might erupt. On May 17, the Birmingham police arrested the Nashville Freedom Riders and placed them in protective custody. At 2 AM on Friday, the police drove the Riders back to Tennessee, dumping them by the side of the highway at the state line. After they got a ride back to Nashville, 100 miles away, they went right back to Birmingham.

Meanwhile, Governor Patterson agreed to meet with John Seigenthaler, a Justice Department aide and a native of Tennessee. In the meeting, Floyd Mann, head of the state highway patrol, agreed to protect the Freedom Riders in between Birmingham. Attorney General Robert Kennedy then pressured the Greyhound bus company, which finally agreed to carry the Riders. The Freedom Riders left Birmingham on Saturday, May 20. State police promised "that a private plane would fly over the bus, and there would be a state patrol car every fifteen or twenty miles along the highway between Birmingham and Montgomery -- about ninety miles," recalled Freedom Rider John Lewis. Police protection, however, disappeared as the Freedom Riders entered the Montgomery city limits. The bus terminal was quiet. "And then, all of a sudden, just like magic, white people everywhere," said Freedom Rider Frederick Leonard. [32] The Riders considered leaving by the back of the bus in hopes that the mob would not be quite as vicious. But Jim Zwerg, a white rider, bravely marched off the bus first. The other riders slipped off while the mob focused on pummeling Zwerg. Floyd Mann tried to stop the mob, but it continued to beat the Riders and those who came to their aid, such as Justice Department official John Seigenthaler, who was beaten unconscious and left in the street for nearly a half an hour after he stopped to help two Freedom Riders. Mann finally ordered in state troopers, but the damage was already done. When news of the Montgomery attack reached Washington, Robert Kennedy was not happy. He decided to send federal marshals to the city.

Martin Luther King, Jr., flew to Montgomery and held a mass meeting, surrounded by federal marshals, in support of the Freedom Riders. As night fell, a mob of several thousand whites surrounded the church. The blacks could not leave safely. At 3 AM, King called Robert Kennedy and Kennedy called Governor Patterson. Patterson declared martial law and sent in state police and the National Guard. The mob dispersed and the blacks left safely.

After the violence at the church, Robert Kennedy asked for a cooling-off period. The Freedom Riders, however, were intent on continuing. James Farmer explained, "[W]e'd been cooling off for 350 years, and . . . if we cooled off any more, we'd be in a deep freeze." The Riders decided to continue on to Mississippi. They were given good protection as they entered the state, and no mob greeted them at the Jackson bus terminal. "As we walked through, the police just said, `Keep moving' and let us go through the white side," recalled Frederick Leonard. "We never got stopped. They just said `Keep moving,' and they passed us right on through the white terminal into the paddy wagon and into jail." [33] Robert Kennedy and Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland had reached a compromise. Kennedy promised not to use federal troops if there was no mob violence. Both men kept up their end of the bargain. Unfortunately, the Freedom Riders were now at the mercy of the local courts. On May 25, they were tried. As their attorney defended them, the judge turned his back. Once the attorney finished, he turned around and sentenced them to 60 days in the state penitentiary.

More Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson to continue the Freedom Ride, and they were arrested too. Freedom Riders continued to arrive in the South, and by the end of the summer, more than 300 had been arrested.

The Freedom Riders never made it to New Orleans. Many spent their summer in jail. Some were scarred for life from the beatings they received. But their efforts were not in vain. They forced the Kennedy administration to take a stand on civil rights, which was the intent of the Freedom Ride in the first place. In addition, the Interstate Commerce Commission, at the request of Robert Kennedy, outlawed segregation in interstate bus travel in a ruling, more specific than the original Supreme Court mandate, that took effect in September, 1961. The Freedom Riders may not have finished their trip, but they made an important and lasting contribution to the civil rights movement.


A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

With the end of the Civil War in 1865, hundreds of thousands of African Americans newly freed from the yoke of slavery in the South began to dream of fuller participation in American society, including political empowerment, equal economic opportunity, and economic and cultural self-determination.

Unfortunately, by the late 1870s, that dream was largely dead, as white supremacy was quickly restored to the Reconstruction South. White lawmakers on state and local levels passed strict racial segregation laws known as “Jim Crow laws” that made African Americans second-class citizens. While a small number of African Americans were able to become landowners, most were exploited as sharecroppers, a system designed to keep them poor and powerless. Hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) perpetrated lynchings and conducted campaigns of terror and intimidation to keep African Americans from voting or exercising other fundamental rights.

With booming economies across the North and Midwest offering industrial jobs for workers of every race, many African Americans realized their hopes for a better standard of living—and a more racially tolerant environment—lay outside the South. By the turn of the 20th century, the Great Migration was underway as hundreds of thousands of African Americans relocated to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York. The Harlem section of Manhattan, which covers just three square miles, drew nearly 175,000 African Americans, giving the neighborhood the largest concentration of black people in the world. Harlem became a destination for African Americans of all backgrounds. From unskilled laborers to an educated middle-class, they shared common experiences of slavery, emancipation, and racial oppression, as well as a determination to forge a new identity as free people.

The Great Migration drew to Harlem some of the greatest minds and brightest talents of the day, an astonishing array of African American artists and scholars. Between the end of World War I and the mid-1930s, they produced one of the most significant eras of cultural expression in the nation’s history—the Harlem Renaissance. Yet this cultural explosion also occurred in Cleveland, Los Angeles and many cities shaped by the great migration. Alain Locke, a Harvard-educated writer, critic, and teacher who became known as the “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, described it as a “spiritual coming of age” in which African Americans transformed “social disillusionment to race pride.”

The Harlem Renaissance encompassed poetry and prose, painting and sculpture, jazz and swing, opera and dance. What united these diverse art forms was their realistic presentation of what it meant to be black in America, what writer Langston Hughes called an “expression of our individual dark-skinned selves,” as well as a new militancy in asserting their civil and political rights.


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