A year at the crossroads of Mississippi.
Winona has long billed itself as "The Crossroads of North Mississippi." Driving through town, you see the slogan referenced all over. There's the sign on The Winona Times building that says, "Serving the Crossroads." Down near Front Street, there's Crossroads Jewelers. And up Highway 51, you can see Crossroads Family Medicine and Crossroads Small Engine Repair.
Winona has been at a crossroads since its earliest days. The Mississippi Central Railroad laid down its last bit of track there in 1860, completing a line from Chicago to New Orleans. In 1889, another rail line came through, this one connecting the cotton plantations in the west with Alabama coal country to the east. These days Winona is no longer a nexus for transit and trade. Neither railway runs through the town anymore, and most of the industry is long gone.
But Winona does still sit at a crossroads — a cultural one. To the west is the Mississippi Delta, a flat swampy expanse with a large African-American population that's home to the blues, a proud civil rights history and at least one street named after Barack Obama. To the east is the hill country, a mostly white, politically conservative region with a strong evangelical streak, an affinity for deer hunting and roadways more likely to honor Robert E. Lee. Between them is Winona.
The town's population of about 4,500 is roughly half African-American. But unlike in the Delta, where the civil rights movement ushered black leaders into prominence, African-Americans in Winona have struggled to attain political power. In 1994, a proposal to name part of a downtown street after Martin Luther King Jr. failed. Two black aldermen were for it, and three white aldermen voted against it. One of those white aldermen, Jerry Flowers, is now the town's mayor. Winona has never had a black mayor.
That nearly changed in an election last June. Flowers, the incumbent and a former accountant (no relation to Curtis), was challenged by Vickie Baskin, a leader in the town's oldest black church, a social worker and ex-bailbondswoman.
On election night, the race was too close to call. The vote largely broke along racial lines. Winona's two predominantly black areas went overwhelmingly for Baskin, while two mostly white wards supported Flowers. When the final numbers were counted, Flowers was re-elected by 17 votes.
Though Baskin lost, some saw her narrow defeat — she'd lost to Flowers in 2009 by 185 votes — as progress. In fact, the town had very few black elected officials until a class-action lawsuit filed by Winona's black residents forced changes to how Winona elected aldermen in 1991. It converted a system that had nearly guaranteed white hegemony, to one that gave African-American candidates a chance.
"You have to remember till about 1978, you couldn't get elected if you wanted to run for state representative unless you were approved by the White Citizens' Council," said Orman Knox, a local election commissioner. "When you ask me why there's no black people in here, that's it," said Knox, who is black, thumbing through a book of local history published in 1993.
"You weren't missing anything," he added. "It is what it is."
This is a common refrain in Winona. It's often uttered in response to the town's plights large and small — the racial segregation of local churches, continuing job loss and high prices at the local supermarket. "It is what it is" is even scrawled in graffiti under a highway bridge. The phrase acknowledges the resignation that has taken hold in Winona without having to fully engage with it. If "The Crossroads of North Mississippi" is the town's official slogan, then "It is what it is" undoubtedly is the unofficial one.
Echoes of the Confederacy
If you googled "Winona, Mississippi" in mid-2017, around the time we began reporting on the Curtis Flowers case, you'd have seen little about the city's close mayoral election. Instead, you would have hit on the firestorm that followed a Facebook message posted by a man named Karl Oliver, in response to New Orleans' removal of statues honoring confederate heroes like Jefferson Davis:
The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific. If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, "leadership" of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State.
Oliver is Winona's representative in the Mississippi State House. For 24 years, he was also the town's elected coroner. His Facebook post went viral, and caused an uproar on the internet. People across the country denounced him. But on the streets of Winona, reactions were muted.
The Winona Times ran a story — mostly wire copy — with condemnations of Oliver from state officials in Jackson. It had no reactions from the people in Oliver's district. Oliver issued an apology and said he wasn't going to resign. Few of his constituents had called for it.
Orman Knox wrote a letter about Oliver's Facebook post to the editors of The Winona Times. "I've encountered those types of remarks before and I'm ready to hear more as long as I live. I do have concerns not [for] who made the remarks, but who is going to respond," Knox wrote in the June 1 letter. "The idea is to draw debate and conversation."
Knox, a long-time resident of Winona, was worried that Oliver's remarks would be treated as "business as usual." And that's more or less what happened.
As summer came to a close, high school football arrived as a palliative to the town's politics. At 7 p.m. on Friday nights, most everyone filed into bleachers at one of the two area schools, and life went on much as it had before.
One morning in October, Police Chief Tommy Bibbs — the most prominent black official in Winona — was giving a visitor a tour of town. He steered his police cruiser down McNutt Street, lined by a row of identical-looking red-brick duplexes everyone knows as "the new projects." It was here, at 702A McNutt, where Curtis Flowers was living at the time of the Tardy Furniture murders.
Bibbs drove back to the main highway, where he pointed to an H&R Block. There, in 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer and several other civil rights activists were arrested getting off a bus in Winona. Later they were brutally beaten by law enforcement. Bibbs kept driving. He looped past the spot where Martin Luther King spoke in Winona in 1966. All that remains of that building is a Confederate soldier perched atop a marble pedestal.
"You got a Confederate statue right here in Winona. Nobody has said nothing," the police chief said. "I don't want nobody to get started talking about tearing it down cause I don't want to put up with the folks trying to vandalize it.
"Those statues ain't hurting me," Bibbs said. "It is what it is."
As Walmart goes, so goes Winona
As fall went on, Winonans had much to celebrate.
Winona Baptist Church honored one of its congregants, a retiree named Glen Hobbs who's been writing poetry for decades and had just learned that Walmart would begin to sell some of his works on posters.
"I'm thankful that one of the world's largest retail giants has recognized my father," said Hobbs' tearful daughter. "He is now the first African-American in Winona, Mississippi, to be a supplier of Walmart."
In October, the Winona High School Tigers beat the East Webster Wolverines, clinching the district football title for only the second time in 15 years. The team swept through the playoffs and reached the state title game, played at the hallowed Ole Miss stadium. And though the Tigers lost the championship to the Taylorsville Tartars, everyone felt the season had been a success.
At Christmastime, a parade rolled through downtown, past the old mansions and the empty storefronts. Jerry Flowers sat atop a fire truck wearing a Santa hat that read "mayor" and threw candy at kids gathered below. A procession of other elected officials followed.
But the good feelings wouldn't carry into the new year. On January 3, the 85 employees at Winona's Walmart returned from the holidays to news that the store would be closing by month's end. Panic gripped the town. People talked of "Bentonville," the Arkansas town where Walmart is headquartered, like it was Washington, Moscow, or Pyongyang. Rumors spread that the owner of SuperValu, soon to be the only supermarket in Winona, was behind the closure. A Facebook thread about missing people in Mississippi came alive with speculation that the remains of a young man, long rumored to be buried under the Walmart parking lot, might be finally recovered.
On January 5, more than 200 people demonstrated in front of Walmart to save the town's biggest taxpayer. A petition to keep the store open received 300 signatures. Dr. Tom Dulin, a town elder, talked to someone in Bentonville and wrote a guest column in The Winona Times about their conversation. "The executive stated that ... they had to make a real change in their business operation," Dulin wrote. "Amazon Corporation had implemented world-wide online shopping and it proved to be very successful. Walmart has to compete with them." Blame the internet, Dulin urged, not the mayor or the aldermen. "This is not the end of the world for Winona," he wrote.
At an MLK Day celebration two weeks later, the chatter was still mostly about Walmart. Winona's African-American community marched from the neighborhood around the new projects along a route Martin Luther King had walked when he stopped in Winona. The group sang "We Shall Overcome" as it moved toward the courthouse and then filtered into the courtroom.
A drum set was crammed into the attorneys' benches. Ex-mayoral candidate Vickie Baskin led a gospel choir in her powerful voice. A young boy in a sequined glove gyrated to Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" in front of the dais where the judge sat during the four Curtis Flowers trials that were held in Winona. The jury box was filled with African-Americans.
The guest of honor was David Jordan, a state senator and civil rights activist from Greenwood. Delta voters have been re-electing Jordan for 25 years. He would have had a hard time winning an election at The Crossroads.
"Let me tell you something," Jordan said. "I don't care what anybody says about us — white folks and the president's remarks — this country is as much ours, maybe more so than anybody. We watered this land with our tears. Made it rich with our bones. We gave 247 years of free labor. ... Don't let nobody tell you this country doesn't belong to us."
About 150 people sat in the courtroom benches. All but one were black. They echoed each of Jordan's remarks with a cascade of "all rights" and "mm-hmms."
None of the town's white leaders, not the mayor or the aldermen or the municipal judge, had shown up for the MLK Day event.
"It really did surprise me, but everything's good," one woman said afterward. "By election time, they'll show up."
The event's organizer, John Paul Davis, said, "White people?" and then laughed. "This mayor has been invited. ... He had other things on his schedule."
In the weeks that followed, Walmart slashed prices again and again. By closing day, at the end of January, the store was advertising 90 percent off all merchandise. Before it even shuttered, a work crew painted over the sign in the parking lot.
A woman came to stock up on house paint. She said quarts were 75 cents apiece. Her husband was a Walmart employee, finishing his final shift. "These little hometown stores they're doing away with. They're going high-tech, everything big," she said.
She had worked at the Winona Walmart for 25 years. Her dad had helped build it in 1979. "It's kind of home," she said. "Our town has lost a lot of businesses. Some blame it on the Walmart. I don't, because the stores it closed down when it came here, older people owned them. Their sons didn't want the businesses, you know, and they just closed up."
A young employee who described himself as a cart pusher and stockman was not so sentimental. He said he would leave town now that he'd lost his job. He was going to California to shoot videos and pursue his hip-hop dreams. Walmart's leaving would make Winona "a ghost town."
"But," he added, "it is what it is."