Author Comments

    Early versions of The Last Resort hid behind the mask of fiction. The first was set in south Florida years after the present memoir ends. I called it Wingate after the fictional hero, who was, of course, me. I invented a long list of fake names, but kept slipping up and using the real ones. I thought it was a book about love betrayed.

    Time passed, people died, and I felt easier using real names. I began writing short autobiographical pieces for the Miami Herald's Sunday magazine and, later, for the St. Pete Times.

    Gradually, I came to see the story--mine and Mississippi's--more clearly. I grew up during the `50s and `60s when everything changed. The Civil Rights movement blew us out of our comfortable lives. In the rubble, we looked around and saw things differently. Blacks were not content with separate and unequal. Seemingly placid white people, faced with integration, reacted with physical and economic violence. We chose sides and, as a liberal supporter of integration, I found myself isolated, part of a small, silent, fearful minority. In the midst of this, the women's movement appeared. Reliable birth control arrived in the form of a pill women controlled. I realized I was not happy being a housewife. I wanted more education; I wanted to speak my mind and earn my own money in a larger world.

    The real story was not love betrayed, but freedom for the dark half of our population and, on a tiny scale, freedom for me.


From another’s comments:

“This unsparing and unsentimental memoir documents a woman’s struggle for independence over the course of her lifetime and took great moral courage and ferocious honesty to write. And let me add that this book is so much more than personal memoir. It is an eye on history. Norma Watkins puts us there at the white hot center of the struggle for racial equality in Jackson, Mississippi, in the turbulent fifties and sixties.”

John Dufresne, Louisiana Power & Light

My reaction:

    I did not exhibit great moral courage in the 50s and 60s. I was afraid and fear paralyzed me. I did not have the guts to act, so I ran away.

    What I learned: If you have been cocooned inside a culture the way I was in Mississippi, it’s hard if not impossible to see a way out. Every law and custom is designed to maintain the status quo. Other ways of thinking, even people from the outside, are discouraged. But once you wake up, the way I did after Brown v. Board of Education, or as young people are doing across the Arab world this spring, you can never return to the old blindness.

    In Mississippi, I learned that people cannot be reasoned out of bigotry or ignorance. Arguing only makes them dig in.

    To change people’s minds, you have to change their hearts.

    I think about this when considering our planet. If we can awaken people’s sensibilities—their hearts—to what we are doing to the earth, we have a chance to change their thinking.

    Our goal, when I taught Environmental Ethics, was to get students to see themselves as unique and irreplaceable. Each person’s actions and choices makes a difference. I told them that every atom in the universe was there at the moment of the Big Bang. We are thinking stars.

    I say the same thing now that I teach memoir: you are unique and irreplaceable. No one has your stories or your dreams. If you do not write them down, they are lost. You are watersheds of memory and you owe the future a story.

What else I learned:

    If you are powerless, it’s difficult to gain power for another. I wanted to free the blacks in Mississippi from Jim Crow; but women in the 50s and 60s had almost no power. We were revered, we were told in the south, put on pedestals, the reason for brave men’s actions, but we were to stay on those pedestals and out of the way of political action.

    You cannot free another until you free yourself.

    The women’s movement and civil rights were inextricably bound.

    I read about The Feminine Mystique; I read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and I wanted equality; I wanted to be treated like a person, not a female. I wanted to be educated and to earn my own money. I wanted to live in a place where I could express my beliefs without fear.

    I see freedom for women in Iraq, Afghanistan, and all over the Middle East, as a necessary corollary to political freedom. Free your women and you will free your country. Educate your women and you will prosper.

    In Mississippi during the civil rights years, we were terrified to speak out. No one wanted to be called a moderate, much less a liberal. Dissent was not tolerated and our newspapers and television station helped to maintain this conformity. If a story disagreed with our way of life, we didn’t see it or read about it. We were isolated in a bubble of ignorance. If there were like-minded people, we couldn’t find each other. I’ve been in touch with two people recently, who felt exactly as I did half a century ago, but we never knew.

    Power kept us ignorant and silenced dissent.

    I see it happening today. If I do not accept the beliefs of conservative Republicans, I must hate my country; I am a socialist.

    If I want to raise taxes to equalize incomes, I am an elitist preaching class warfare.

We talk past each other as we did fifty years ago, except today it is not limited to the south, and it makes me afraid for my country.

    Where is good will? Where is the commandment, taught by people of faith, to care for the poor and to be good stewards of the earth?

    In Sunday school in the South, we sang: “Red and yellow black and white/ All are precious in His sight.” Where has that gone when people are ripped from their families and deported for a minor offense, or for not showing papers, after years of working hard and obeying the law of this country?

    I listen to politicians and I hear greed instead of compassion.

    This is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War; it is the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders. My fear, listening to the hateful words in the media and in the halls of Congress is that we learned nothing from the hatred and violence of those events?

Behind the charges against Obama and every program he puts forth—I see racism. Disguised, re-worded, nobody using the “n” word, but the same old booger-man fear we were filled with as children.


This is a piece I submitted for the back page of the Times Sunday Magazine:

Do You Wince?

Norma Watkins

“A measure of growth is how much you wince when looking back.”

    I wince a lot. “You were notorious,” a cousin told me recently. I did not grow up with the goal of being notorious. I was caught in a terrible time; I made a decision, acted on it, and suffered for it. That seemed like enough.

    I teach memoir. I tell my students to write their stories. I tell them, each of you is unique and irreplaceable. No one has your thoughts, your adventures or your dreams. If you die without writing, all that will be lost. You owe the future a story.

    Which doesn’t mean mine wasn’t painful to live and painful to tell. The resulting memoir, The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure, comes out this summer. After writing it, I felt okay. I told the truth and took my share of the blame. It’s been four decades and most of the people involved are dead. My children have forgiven me (I hope). So why do I dread going back to read in the town where I was born?

    “You know they’re going to throw stones at you,” a friend said. Stones? Really? After four decades is anyone who remembers me still hale enough to throw? “People in Mississippi get their feelings hurt,” my editor said. I read that Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, is being sued by her sister’s maid, with the support of the sister. Stockett said people back in Jackson, Mississippi, hadn’t liked the book and some of them stopped speaking to her.

    And her book was fiction. Mine is as true as I could make it. The bad stuff really happened: people were killed for trying to vote or for looking crooked at a white woman. Our cook couldn’t vote because Mother kept her working from before the polls opened to after they closed. We grew up in a segregated neighborhood in a segregated town in a segregated state. I never met an African American who wasn’t a waiter or a maid until I was almost thirty years old.

    When I woke at seventeen from the myth of “our way of life”, I found myself almost alone. Brown v. Board of Education, ordering the desegregation of the public schools, was handed down down in 1954. I felt reborn. Of course, that’s what was wrong. It was our Jim Crow laws, the way we kept half of the population in virtual enslavement. I could hardly wait to talk to my lawyer-father, the smartest man alive. “Isn’t it great?” I said. “Just think, in a few hundred years we’ll all have caramel-colored skin and no pimples.”

    He looked at me as if he’d given birth to a serpent. “Miscegenation caused the fall of the Roman Empire. Africans are primitives. Where are their great civilizations, their books, their culture?” At seventeen, I was long on feelings and short on facts. I tried to blame it on the climate. We argued about integration from that moment to the day I left home twelve years later.

    I never won a fight partly because, unbeknownst to me, I didn’t qualify as a worthy opponent. This was a truth I only gradually came to see. I was a female and women, though treasured (I was told), were given little power and less money. Our opinions were considered silly when they were considered at all. Didn’t I realize the battle to maintain our state’s sovereign rights, our very way of life, was being fought to protect us, the fragrant and easily bruised white magnolias, from them, the sons of Ham?

    I didn’t want to be protected. I wanted to go out into the world and be a person. I wanted to earn my own money, not receive an allowance from my husband. I wanted to be able to talk freely about sex, war and politics without being called a communist. I wanted the freedom to use dirty words, or skip church without someone asking if I was sick. So I left. I broke the bonds of family and custom and became notorious.

    A few years later, I wrote from exile resigning from the Junior League. I sent each member of the Jackson chapter a copy: “I am married to a Jew; I teach black people, neither of which you allow as members.”

    My sister said, “Thank heavens Mother died; this would have killed her.”