Thursday, July 13, 2006

Biloxi: You Raise Me Up

New Orleans, Louisiana

They formed a tight circle on the white beach sands of Biloxi, Mississippi. In the center stood Richard Long, 61, and words written for the occasion by a black woman in Minneapolis were read.

They formed-up in two facing columns, two-deep, perpendicular to the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.

Between the columns, they unrolled a white fabric runner leading to the water.

As Richard was led through the columns, they joined hands and sang their signature, "Walk hand in hand with me."

Stepping into the Gulf of Mexico, Richard was surrounded by more than 100 brothers singing, "We shall overcome."

No dry eyes on Biloxi's waterfront.

Several of those present were not born in 1965 when Richard was stationed nearby at the Keesler Air Force Base. Black people were not welcome on the Gulf beaches in those days. The power of the federal government, represented by 17,000 soldiers, was no match for the power of attitude in Biloxi, Mississippi.

A reporter-with-camera from the local newspaper was present to record the scene, as were the archival cameras hired by the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus to follow their tour of four Southern states.

The day started with a 90-minute bus tour of Mobile, Alabama, narrated by three community volunteers.

Our Magnolia Express bus had the gracious stories of Linda, who told us "You can say anything you want about somebody in the South if you finish with the words, 'Bless their heart!'"

The City of Mobile (pop. 250,000) is built on a swamp, Mobillians claim to have started Mardi Gras with the arrival of the French in 1702. That other city, further west, did not start its Mardi Gras until "missionaries" arrived there from Mobile in 1850.

Live oak trees, 150-200 years old, are everywhere throughout the city. Unlike some people, they are protected by law, and cannot be trimmed in the slightest.

Mobile receives the highest annual rainfall of any urban city in the continental U.S., operates the 15th largest port, and provides 24% of the nation's seafood.

Mobile Bay is only 3-to-10 feet deep in all of its 30-mile stretch to the Gulf.

TCGMC's Mobile partner, Bay Area Inclusion, was exceedingly well organized, and obtained full underwriting for the performance. They feted all of us handsomely afterward, and many went clubbing with some of the guys until the wee hours.

The only hitch in the proceedings occurred when the air conditioning in Bishop State Community College went out yesterday afternoon. Fans were on, wool tuxedos were dispensed with, and artists and audience got "pitty" together.

Seven Mobile police officers volunteered their services for security on their day off, and one of them gave his phone number to one of the soloists.

The three bus drivers who have been with us all week attended for the first time and said they enjoyed themselves a great deal. Their previous gigs have included multi-state transport for at least one George Bush campaign.

Driving along the Gulf Coast today, and into New Orleans, was a sorrowful, sobering experience of disbelief. It is as bad -- and then some -- as the pictures on television.

We have a few hours before starting the pub crawl to hand out publicity for tomorrow night's performance. And -- best news -- we don't have to be checked-out and on a bus by 9am in the morning.

Time to see this city, up close, on foot.

You raise me up so I can stand on mountains.
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas.
I am strong when I am on your shoulders.
You raise me up to more than I can be.

-- Act 1, TCGMC, Great Southern Sing Out Tour