Jim Madison

I was walking south on State Street, running a few errands before heading for the hotel, when I saw a man I’d seen earlier that week.  He stood on a street corner with a placard hanging over his shoulders.  He was an older man, in his sixties or seventies, with black, pocked skin and a wiry frame, standing about five-foot-ten.  Despite his age he looked like he could run a seven-minute mile.  He was tight bodied and his intensity radiated.  His placard read ‘Mississippi Stole Choctaw Land.’  He faced north at oncoming traffic, never wavering, like the head of a compass.

‘Excuse me.’  He turned his burning eyes on me.

‘What?’ he barked.

‘May I ask what you’re doing out here?  With that sign, I mean.  I’m just curious.’

‘What does it look like?’  He was a surly sonofabitch.

‘I haven’t a clue—that’s why I asked.’

‘It’s my mission.  Always has been.’  He gazed out over traffic in a self-important way.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Always been my mission.’  Whoever he was, this guy was a character; I was officially intrigued.

‘What is your mission?’

‘I am the lost heir of the Choctaw Kingdom.’

‘Well I’m Jackson Calvert.’

I reached out my hand.  He hesitated before reaching out a hand from under the placard and broke several of the bones in my hand with his crushing handshake.

‘Jim Madison,’ he said.

Yeah right.

The Jim Madison?’

‘Only one I know.’ His face was worn like wood you find at the beach.  He had no use for me; he turned north, resuming the vigil.  I stood watching him for a moment but when he ignored me I continued down State Street.

After a block, I turned and watched him waving at passing cars.  Could that really be Jim Madison? It seemed unlikely that somebody I’d read about the day before in the Commission files would be standing around in the heat of downtown Jackson waving at cars like he was trying to advertise a carwash.  But then I couldn’t imagine why anyone would bother faking such a thing.  I started back toward him.

‘Mr. Madison?’ He turned to me and his eyes didn’t register any recognition.  ‘Mr. Madison, am I correct in thinking you’re the Jim Madison who integrated Southern University in 1962?’

‘Yeah that’s me,’ he said, showing for the first time a hint of softness.

‘Might I buy you lunch?’ I said.  ‘I know a lot about your story but it would be an honor to talk to you for a while.’

Madison tilted his head, considered, and lifted the placard off his shoulders.  He left it tipped against a nearby bench.

‘If you’re buying,’ he said.  He broke into a crisp stride and I had to run to keep up.

‘Where we going?’ I said when I’d caught up to him.

‘Just down the street,’ he said.  He chose Shoney’s.  We entered and a waft of canned eggs swept over me.  We sat in a booth.

‘Thanks for doing this,’ I said.  ‘I really-‘

‘Food first,’ he said.  ‘Want some salad bar.’  He stood up and charged the salad bar, lingering over the tomatoes and Jell-O before returning with a heaping helping of each divided by a sea of lettuce.  He began shoveling lettuce into his mouth.  I ordered a club sandwich and watched Jim Madison attack the Jell-O.

‘I was not involved in the civil rights movement,’ he said, unprompted, over a mouthful of red Jell-O.

‘What?’  For a moment I thought I had been duped—the real Jim Madison was undoubtedly a fixture in civil rights history.

‘I’m Choctaw,’ Madison said.  ‘I never heard of the civil rights movement till I got out of the military and came back to Mississippi.  So that wasn’t my motivation.’

‘Lots of people would say you were a major figure in the civil rights movement.  Certainly in this state you played an important role….’

‘I was never involved in that,’ he said, his eyes sharp on mine.  ‘It didn’t bother me that it coincided.  It didn’t bother me that it helped.  But that’s not what my mission was.’

This wasn’t what I had expected at all, but somehow it was more interesting.  How many times had I read about something in a history book and wondered if it really happened that way, wondered what kind of liberties had been taken with the history.

‘Well then what was your mission?’ I said.

‘Well, ok.’  He paused, crammed a couple cherry tomatoes into his mouth, chewed.  ‘If the Choctaw nation was still located in Mississippi I’d be the head of it.  When the nation was moved to Oklahoma in 1830 my great grandfather was the properly selected leader.  If you know anything much about Mississippi you know that the United States used trickery.  I mean the people they got to sign treaties were their selectees—not the selectees of the Choctaw nation.  Ok?  My job has always been to take it back—take back Mississippi.  Most of what I’ve done, people don’t know about.  I never had to work a day in my life to make a living.  Citizens of the Choctaw nation are obligated to take care of me. So I spent my whole life researching, building the blueprint.  That’s my responsibility.  Maybe nobody beside me will ever read it.’

And I’d thought Clyde King was a crusader.  This guy was a living, breathing Richard the Lionheart.

‘Smartest people in the world come from Mississippi.’  He waved a finger at me.  ‘Mississippi got everybody thinking they’re dumb.  Ignerent.  And they love it.’  He tossed a pickled corncob into his mouth and talked while he chewed.  ‘It’s not complicated at all.  The original ethnic cleansing was in Mississippi.  Up till now nobody’s been able to talk about it.  One of the biggest controversies in Mississippi is how to rewrite that history—as to what really happened in Mississippi from 1512 to 1998.   I have done my part to find out.’  Madison had lettuce in his teeth.  He took a moment to devour more salad and collect his thoughts.

‘Everybody classified as black in Mississippi is classified black because they’re Native American,’ he said, ‘not because of anything else.  Over a million blacks were reclassified from Native American to black between 1830 and 1833.  But the decision—the law was put on the book in 1817 when they made Mississippi a state.  The people in control knew what that meant.’  He gazed into the distance, almost whimsical.  ‘If you try to understand anything connected with me from the perspective of civil rights….civil rights to me is simply a program to get…what…the ten freedoms—or a hundred.’  He stood with his plate in hand.  While he was at the salad bar the waitress brought me my club sandwich.  Madison returned moments later with an arsenal of tomatoes.

‘Civil rights,’ he said, shaking his head.  ‘The present generation is starting to not feel responsible.  The older generation still feels responsible for what their fathers did.  So they feel necessary to cut it off.  But since the information wasn’t destroyed—anybody who wanted to look for it, it’s there.  If you wanted to get Fernando de Soto’s records you’d have to go to Spain but they’re still there.’  He waved to the waitress and ordered a Coke.  ‘Native Americans are associated with wig-wams and tee-pees.  That’s why, you know, you never see anything or hear anything about Choctaw.  There never been a wigwam or a teepee in the state of Mississippi.  When Fernando de Soto came here, a historian recorded the homes they lived in.  Everybody lived in the common homes.  In 1817, when they made Mississippi a state, they already knew that the best farmers, best workers in the world were Choctaw.  There was this theory that Native Americans couldn’t make good slaves, couldn’t be organized.  Nobody knew better than the people who had power in the south that that was a lie.  They set out to take a bit of the land, but by 1817 they knew they was going to take the rest of it.   So the Mississippi constitution, they made only two kinds of people.  Mississippi was the only state that you couldn’t be a free slave in.  If you got free in Mississippi you had to get out before someone else caught you and made you their slave.  Understand?  They made a law you could only be two kinds of people in Mississippi.  White, which was free; black, which was slave.   After they made that law you couldn’t be a Native American in Mississippi.’  Madison leaned toward me.  ‘I tell you the smartest people in the world are Mississippians.  You ever listen to the tapes between Ross Barnett and Kennedy, when James Meredith was getting admitted at Ole Miss?’

‘No.’

‘Kennedy called Meredith ‘the boy.’  Barnett called him ‘Mr. Madison.’’  I nodded.  This was the same Ross Barnett who, as governor of Mississippi, had once walked into the moving prop of an airplane.

‘So did they try to stop you?’ I said.  ‘The local police and so on.  Did they try to stop you from enrolling at Southern?’

‘They tried,’ he said, laughing.  ‘They didn’t want to let me in, but by then there was precedent.  Even in Mississippi.  Meredith was at Ole Miss.  They knew they couldn’t stop me—nobody could stop me.’

‘What about the people who tried to get into Southern before you?  They were set up, right?’

Jim Madison laughed.

‘That’s why I say you have to be pretty bright.’

‘How’d you avoid getting set up?’

‘Knowing what the deal was.  I protected everybody.  I knew they were gonna put the pressure on me.  I made myself absolutely unapproachable by anybody.’

‘How?’

‘Did it day by day.’  He could see by my expression that I was confused.  ‘I don’t know if you’ve seen the word divine responsibility.  I don’t know if you’ve seen it defined.  Now, my divine responsibility—it’s my commission—is to restore the power and glory to my bloodline.  There’s never been a conscious day in my life when I didn’t have that responsibility.’

‘So that’s what Jim Madison is all about?’

‘Yes.  Now people are coming very fast to see that it helps everybody.  Mississippi needs me more than anything else in the world.’

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