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March 2014 Issue [Readings]

Oedipus in Mississippi

By Carol Ruth Silver, from a July 3, 1961, entry in a secret journal of her experiences at the maximum-security Mississippi State Penitentiary, in Parchman. One month earlier, the twenty-two-year-old Silver had joined a civil rights demonstration organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), riding a bus to the state to protest segregation in the South. She was arrested in Jackson and held at Parchman for three weeks. Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison was published last month by the University Press of Mississippi.

About an hour after dark, the cell block was relatively quiet. We decided to have a bedtime story. Betsy volunteered to tell the Ancient Greek story of Oedipus Rex. She was in the last cell, and we, in cell number three, could barely hear her, but rather than complain we strained our ears. In the middle of the story, however, Sergeant Tyson came tromping into the cell block. He was rather obviously angry, and began, “Y’all are going to cut it out or I’m going to take away your mattresses and y’all are going to be sleeping on the cold, hard steel. Y’all hear me?” He glared at us. And started walking out.

After the door crashed, thinking that he had already passed out of hearing, Pauline, our chosen spokesman, called down, “Betsy, will you please continue.”

And Betsy started again. “When Tiresias, the blind seer, arrived at the palace of Oedipus in Thebes . . . ”

“Didn’t I tell you girls to shut up?” Sergeant Tyson was again among us. “Am I going to take away your mattresses and y’all be sleeping on cold, hard steel?”

Betsy had stopped when he came back, so Pauline said, “Sergeant Tyson, we feel that we have been cooperating with you and Sergeant Storey. At the moment we were not making much noise at all.”

A glowering look.

Our policy, decided upon long ago, was not to be intimidated by unreasonable threats. “And so, Betsy, would you please start again?”

Betsy: “He got to Thebes, and was led into the presence of Oedipus by a young boy. There were many people present, priests of Apollo and local citizens, all of whom had come to supplicate Oedipus to do something effective about the terrible plague. Jocasta, Oedipus’ wife . . . ”

Sergeant Tyson walked down to Betsy’s cell and stood in front of it with crossed arms. He must have stood there for a good five minutes while she went on with the story. Then he turned on his heel and started walking toward our end of the block.

In his biggest voice: “Open up two, and send a trusty down here.” The electric door to cell two clanged open. Tyson came into the cell and took the mattresses, and a Negro male trusty — the first we had seen — carried them out.

“Close two.” Clang.

“Open three.” Clang.

At first, between the clanging of the doors and the clomp of Tyson’s boots, we could still hear snatches of the story as Betsy continued on, but by the time they had taken the mattresses from Terry and Marion and me and moved on to the next cell, there was too much noise to hear Betsy at all. Evidently other people were having the same problem, because suddenly someone began singing “We Shall Overcome.”

We all picked it up and sang two or three verses. Then we sang “Oh, Freedom,” “Old Jim Crow,” “I’m Going to Get My Civil Rights,” and just about all of the other songs we know, including “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” with special verses — “He’s got Sergeant Tyson in His hands.”

While we were singing they finished taking all the mattresses out. Then Tyson started at our end of the cell block again, taking from each of us our pillow, then our sheet and pillowcase, then our towel, and then, finally, our toothbrush. Our singing had gotten progressively louder, until toward the end we were practically shouting. In a break at the end of a song Pauline shouted, “And now we will all sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ ” which we did. Then a few people, out of the need to make noise and the frustration of being almost hoarse, began banging on the steel bunks, and soon others joined in, until the noise was deafening. As a final move, having taken away from us everything but the clothes on our backs, Tyson closed all the windows. Then he turned, gave us one last, furious look, and clanged out.

When the noise finally stopped the three of us in cell number three looked at each other and at the cold, hard steel bunks and the cold, hard, dirty floor — and began laughing.

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March 2014

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