Last week, the day after the JFP's first "Race, Religion & Society" panel discussion, I looked at two e-mails within a couple hours of each other. The first, from a white man in Brandon with a subject line of just "Donna Ladd," opened by dressing me down for devoting so much ink to young Emmett Till's life and death.
"This is not to say that his heinous crime should not be punished, remembered and publicized, but Emmett Till the child did nothing worthy of being lionized. By all accounts he was just a typical, smart-aleck kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is to say that there are many more issues that JFP could and should cover," the gentleman wrote.
The second e-mail came from a young black woman who attended the panel, making suggestions for future discussions. At the bottom, though, she shared a criticism of my work from a black friend of hers. She told me that friend is "offended" by the JFP because we give "white racists space in your paper." She continued, "They appreciate what JFP is 'trying' to accomplish but they probably feel your 'baby steps' are too conservative to the point that its offensive to associate with the JFP."
Now, I don't share both these quotes with you in some facile attempt to show that "both sides" complain about the JFP, so "we must be doing something right!" I'll leave that cliché to daily columnists. And I don't think the two "sides" are particularly equal—personally, I'm less sympathetic to the man who just sees little Till as a "smart-aleck kid," rather than a symbol of the evil that too many Mississippians rationalized for too long. And I certainly get the concern that "baby steps," when you're confronted with major social and racial justice concerns, are not enough. Back during the 1960s, I like to hope that I would not have been one of the way-too-many newspaper editors who said, well, let's just allow integration to happen in its own time.
No. One day in the back of the bus was too many. The present is the only time to make our society better.
The question is how to get there. And that's why I'm sharing these e-mails with you—a readership that is amazingly diverse, and are used to reading that white man's sentiment in places like The Northside Sun and the woman's in The Jackson Advocate—two weeklies that are gerrymandered into certain communities and neighborhoods. I say that we're in this together, so bring it on. Let's tango.
I believe, and how, that we take the higher ground, so to speak, by talking, sharing, eating together, socializing, worshipping and praying together. And the truth is, the white folks who think that the JFP only cares about race issues—a preposterous statement if you actually read the paper—should know that there are at least some black people who think we are afraid to promote real efforts at social evolution and justice. The paper proves them wrong as well.
I believe, and how, that our biggest problem in Mississippi (and the country, but I'm focused on the homeland here) is that too many people do not listen to, nor try to understand, what other people are feeling. That applies to issues of race, ethnicity, economic background, religion and—please don't forget—age. We might work together and lunch together. But we don't really share our stories, our fears, our concerns. And certainly very few of us worship or pray alongside people who are very different from us. That is, we are sharing our most spiritual, raw, vulnerable moments with people a whole lot like us.
To me, that is what a discussion of American's "most segregated hour" is about. Martin Luther King Jr.'s phrase about 11 a.m. Sunday morning is a symbol of missed opportunity to know and love thy neighbor, to understand, to help, to share the bonds of spirituality and family with people whose culture is inextricably intertwined with our own. Everyone should be able to worship, or not worship, wherever and however they want; however, the fact that people of similar beliefs separate themselves during many of their most selfless hours is a portent of the work yet to be done.
About 80 people—from Mr. James Meredith to a group of Christian students from Seattle—came to Mikhail's Northgate Sunday before last on short notice to view Kent Moorhead's documentary about two Oxford, Miss., churches that had tried, and essentially failed, at racial reconciliation. "The Most Segregated Hour" takes a direct look at the fears and hesitations of the two races—from blacks' frustrations that they will not be heard to whites' fears of being "uncomfortable" in such discussions.
Our first "Race, Religion & Society" meet was not exactly comfortable, but it was heartwarming to watch people of all ages, various races and religions (including Jews and Muslims a bit miffed that the first panel was Christian-focused; "wait," I told them) show up ready to say things that aren't often said in mixed company. The film prepared us, as did the snacks provided by Mikhail's and the Crossroads Film Society. More chairs had to be brought in, and my job was to try to make sure that all of the audience members got a chance to speak.
Some amazing things were said, but what was most important to me was that the conversation happened at all. Religion is a vital component of our country, and it seems to be used more often to bludgeon than as an instrument of love—which I believe is at the heart of any authentic religious experience. It's all about love. Spreading love. Feeling love. Using love to help people who need it, people whose circumstances have been less fortunate than our own. I decided after the 2004 presidential election—amid all the hatred being spewed in the name of religion, and often delivered through appeals to bigotry—that the JFP needed to host these community conversations that deal in some way with the intersection of race, religion and society.
Then, this year, when I heard the absurd political furor about "Happy Holidays" vs. "Merry Christmas," I knew it was time to jam, y'all. It was time to put aside the political kvetching, and the excuses, and the rhetoric, and the marketing slogans, and just try to talk to each other, to see if we can find what we have in common and better appreciate our differences. I truly believe that if we can do that, we will quickly discover just how meaningless and stupid an argument about the words "happy holidays" in a Wal-Mart ad really is.
Loving thy neighbor is a beautiful notion that can often be achieved if we try and are honest about it. I am the only person of my kind living on my street. Two of my neighbors welcomed me in. Most others were silent and probably suspicious. It took one 4 years to finally speak to us although I certainly would have won all the awards for the neated yard. All is well now and I think everybody sees just a human being now, not a person of any color.
Needless to say, but I'll say it anyway; I didn't care whether I was accepted or not. I was trying to get as close as I could to the neighborhood I grew up in yet not be entirely in it. That neighbor who needed 4 years to speak to me soon learned I didn't care whether he spoke or not. We even learned shortly to turn our backs when we saw him coming. It sad to say, but I think the turning the back and refusing to acknowledge him eventually made him realize he was wrong.
Hurricane Katrina knocked a very large tree down on the fence of one of those neighbors who welcomed me into the neighborhood. That neighbor was a single female trying to raise 3 boys. After several stressful days by the neighbor as a result of that tree, one of the neighbors went to Home Depot, purchased a power saw, and cut up that tree for that neighbor. The good Samaritan was the person of the different color.
- Ray Carter