Forty years ago in Mississippi, federal judges had had enough. A decade and a half had come and gone since Brown v. Board of Education, and the state's public schools remained segregated.
No longer, they said.
In late 1969, they imposed school desegregation on the entire state, and the court order had the word "immediate" attached to it. I was finishing up my sophomore year at Greenville High School at the time. When I left school in May, it was 96 percent white; when I returned for my junior year in September, the school was 75 percent black.
A few miles up the road in Leland, David Beckwith didn't get to wait. Fresh out of college, he was a first-year teacher at the all black junior high school, one of three white teachers who had been hired as a hedge against desegregation. The federal judge would have none of it and ordered the Leland schools to integrate after the Christmas break. Beckwith's book is about that year.
Beckwith taught that one year, then enrolled in graduate school and has worked for a security business ever since. His book, "A New Day in the Delta" (University of Alabama Press, 2009, $29.95), is based on diaries he kept during that eventful 1969-1970 school term. While Beckwith records the usual ups and downs of a teacher's day in the classroom, this book is different from most of the genre in that the author is working at ground zero of the school integration movement in Mississippi. We are right there with him, day in and day out, as white students and black students, as white faculty members and black faculty members, and as white parents and black parents sort out a world they had never before visited. For as long as Mississippi had been a state, its black and white young people had attended separate schools. That all changed in 1969.
Beckwith's book is full of classroom experiences, but also full of life experiences as black Mississippians and white Mississippians were all of a sudden forced to come to terms with each other.
Beckwith's writing has one of the least encumbered styles I have encountered. He hides nothing, nor does he beat around the proverbial bush with his word choice. He offers an affecting, sincere prose that will pull you into his world (which included an unexpected visitor one weekend. Hint: Think about the author's last name). There's even a love story that weaves its way in and out of the pages. The book ends with a nice surprise about the power of a caring teacher in the life of a student.
With all due respect to Mr. Beckwith, and with my sincere admiration for him able to live a prosper through such a divisive time in our history...not much has changed regarding school segregation in the Delta. All the white kids just go to the Academies. C'mon JFP, let's see a cover story on that!
- The Eskimo