The kinds of stories worth repeating'
Editor's note: This is the first of a four-part series on a new book by historian Hewitt Clarke, a Meridian native. The book depicts the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but also describes an era of honky tonk fighters in Meridian, never equaled before or since. The East End Tea Room was not a Klan hangout but a colorful beer joint that depicts the honky tonk scene during that bygone period of Meridian's history.
By Mike Pierce / special to The Star
Oct. 2, 2002
If you asked my opinion, I would say, "Don't die without reading The East End Tea Room.'" These stories are and surely will continue to be told in both heaven and hell. They are the kind of stories worth repeating.
Author Hewitt Clarke has already demonstrated his writing skills and his ability to take the history of this area and turn it into a book that you wish was a serial. A serial that you could continue reading segments of for the rest of your life. Don't worry, though, there is no law saying you can't read this book twice or a twice a year. And you can tell these stories to any unfortunate soul who did not read this book.
Clarke is well known to most readers through his previous works: "Thunder At Meridian," "Bloody Kemper" and "He Saw the Elephant." He is a Meridian High grad so he had some knowledge of the subject and this area before he did extensive research on the East End Tea Room and the patrons. These patrons had life stories that would make good fiction for a John Grisham novel.
I won't waste a lot a space on this, but even though I didn't move to Meridian until 1962 and I was just a teenager when these events occurred, I identified with something on almost every page.
I have been to Ma's; I have driven by the Tea Room. I played music with Marvin Weir's uncle, Jack, at the Embassy and the Orbit. Wayland McMullan not only was guest singer with our band, but he made sure nobody messed with the band's long-haired, teenaged drummer. I served coffee, daily, to Wayne Robert's father at the Courthouse Drug Store in the summer of 1964.
I could go on and on, but the point is everyone who has ever lived in or around Meridian will recognize many people and places in this book and that is the one thing that can make a good book great.
The time was 1964, the location was 14th Street and 10th Avenue and the business was The East End Tea Room. The former service station got that name as part of a joke that you will read about in the early part of the book. It was truly a time when men were men and the women were glad of it. A time when some of the toughest guys in America could be found at the Tea Room, the Skyview Supper Club and other east Mississippi landmarks.
It was also the beginning of what Hewitt Clarke calls "The Second Reconstruction of Mississippi," more commonly known as the civil rights movement, when COFO workers came South to straighten out problems that were far worse in the big cities of the north.
Whether you liked Wayne Roberts or not, whether you approve of what he was accused of doing or not, regardless of how you feel or don't feel about Wayne Roberts, you will be fascinated to read about his life. You can learn about his part in what Hewitt Clarke calls "Honky Tonk Fighters."
Some people want to forget the Sixties and others only want to show the police dogs and fire hoses. That is all that young people know about the civil rights movement. It is easy to look at some things differently with 21st century hindsight, but the sixties were a scary time. The president, whether you liked him or not, had been shot dead on a public street. The Russians had been putting missiles in Cuba and many were building bomb shelters.
The thought of a second reconstruction or, worse yet, an all out race war, scared folks. A few people, who already liked to fight, stepped to the front lines. Regardless of what people say today, those who resisted with violence had the tacit approval of most of the white citizens of the South. We saw Northern riots on the news. It was a scary, uncertain, dramatic time.
It would be easy to write a dark and dreary book about those days. It was hard times for whites and blacks. It was hard times for the whole country. I always said the forties was a perfect decade had it not been for the war. There were many imperfect things about the 60's, but you won't lay down The East End Tea Room feeling depressed. Here is a small example:
If that paragraph doesn't hook you, then you can go back to watching TV.
You don't have to read the East End Tea Room, before you die, but if you don't, you will not have lived your life to the fullest.
Mike Pierce is news director of radio station WMOX-AM in Meridian.
Tomorrow: Completing the puzzle.