By Marianne Todd
Morgan Freeman was about 30 when he began to understand the meaning of the adage “you can run, but you cannot hide.”
After leaving rural Mississippi in search of greener pastures, Freeman – born in Memphis but raised in Mississippi - returned, more knowledgeable and mature than the idealistic young man who left at 18.
“I left with no plans to come back,” said the actor, now 73, sitting comfortably in a well-worn chair at his Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. “I left fleeing racial prejudice. Well, guess what I learned when I came back at 30? We only have the reputation.”
At 6-foot-2-inches, the actor is imposing in both stature and voice. His distinctive voice is familiar to many Americans – especially the Mississippi types. He intones the introduction to the “CBS Evening News” and provides the voice-over narration for Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents.
And he’s landed enough on-screen roles to afford a lifestyle that allows ample opportunities.
“I could live anywhere, but I chose to live in Mississippi,” Freeman said, an arm resting on an autographed vinyl tablecloth. The autographs are not his, but rather of the thousands of people who visit Ground Zero each year. It seems as if no one leaves the club without leaving their mark; signatures fill tablecloths, support columns and walls. “Before you know where you belong you have to make your mark in the world.”
And make his mark, he did. After landing a dozen or so major roles in Hollywood movies, earning five Oscar nominations and carrying home an Oscar for his supporting role in “Million Dollar Baby,” Freeman is still making his mark for the betterment of the state he calls home.
He created Ground Zero in 2001 because people were flocking to the Delta to hear authentic blues music and couldn't find a juke joint for the purpose.
“They were coming here, but they just couldn't find the blues,” he said. The club is aptly named, as Mississippi is the “ground zero” of blues aficionados worldwide. The club serves to celebrate the rich cultural history of the area by providing a stage and venue so that heritage may continue. Surrounding Ground Zero are the support stores and services – everything from Cathead Delta Blues & Folk Art Inc. to the outrageously popular Shack Up Inn down the road. It is what brings tourism revenue to the little Delta town and puts Clarksdale on the map.
Freeman said he is passionate about building on the area's history and exposing the state's musical heritage.
“Look at places like Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia,” he said. “They don't hide their history. They expose it. We also need to be selling the tourist aspects of the state.”
He's also passionate about education and said he feels Mississippi needs to take a closer, more serious look at how it molds young minds.
“Educate, educate, educate,” he said. “National education has taken a huge dive, but in Mississippi, we're on the bottom of the pack. We need to spend some time getting us off the bottom. Education is something we're going to have to concentrate on. This state's potential lies in its education.”
Freeman said he proposes more time in the classroom and diversifying curriculum with language classes taught at an early age. He said he believes that the state's children should be adequately educated to compete with children abroad – especially in China – so that they can be competitive on the global job market.
The lessons his parents and grandparents taught him about home years ago ring true today, he said.
“Home is a deep pull,” he said. “This isn't a high achievement place with million dollar mansions everywhere. I could have that anywhere in the world. But every time I come here, I get what you can't get anywhere else - that same inviting feeling.”