Of Anger and Alternative Endings

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When I was a teenager, I decided I wanted to be a civil-rights attorney. I had visions of righting the kinds of wrongs done in my hometown of Philadelphia, Miss. I only learned about the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner by people my family knew when I was 14, even though they happened when I was 3.

I had grown up amid air saturated with the N-word, disparaging comments about people in the "N*gger Quarters" (not to mention on the Choctaw reservation), and hearing all the fearful things about crime and rape that bigots tell to justify their putrid ideas.

When I finally found out about "the murders," I was angry. I cried in bed at night at the horrors I read about in newspaper archives, wanting to turn back time and do something about it. I could imagine myself then, using my brain and my sass to change things. If I had only been there then, I used to fantasize, maybe I could have convinced people to do right. I would have had the nerve, I told myself.

I can imagine myself alongside Florence Mars as she held the American flag rigid in salute of Martin Luther King Jr. as he marched through town with her fellow whites flinging bottles and driving cars into the marchers.

I picture myself as an intern to white newspaper owner/editor Hazel Brannon Smith as she worked in her Northside Reporter office, defying the white establishment in editorials that would win her a Pulitzer Prize even as whites boycotted her business.

So I get it that Kathryn Stockett probably had an ache in her heart when she wrote "The Help." She grew up amid the white wealth and power of Jackson, the heart and financial power of the Citizens Council in the 1960s. The big difference between us, I suspect, is that I knew more former Klansmen and she knew former Citizen Councilors. Oh, and her family could afford maids to raise their kids.

But if there was one thing I learned over the years--as I dropped out of law school to ultimately follow the trail Brannon Smith blazed here--it is that you can't change history. As much as we ache for a different past where our families and their friends were less cruel to "the other," we cannot simply rewrite it.

Only the truth, indeed, can set us free.

When I read "The Help" two years ago (I couldn't put it down) and watched the film last Saturday (which made me laugh and cry), I could feel the pain of another white 40-something Mississippian who wants to make it all better. She's pining for a happier ending for our state, and she's using her talents to make it so.

Did she intentionally write a fairy tale? Certainly, her tale is infused with bits of truth about the horror of the time for black women and tragedy of white women raised to love, hate and abuse them all at the same time.

But those nuggets are, seemingly, uninformed by voices of real black women, from former maids (like the one suing her) to female intellectuals like bell hooks and, now, Melissa Harris-Perry, who can teach us if we'll just listen.

I'm still learning, but my pilgrimage to seek, study and listen to African American voices has taught me to see what is wrong with "art" like "Mississippi Burning," "Ghosts of Mississippi," "Blind Side" and "The Help." Those films, which taken together define everything many people know about the black freedom movement, start and end poorly, even if there is some level of truth within. (Click links of those film titles to read criticism.)

The films aren't a problem because, as too many whites complain, "they make the South look bad" or "dredge up the past." Face it, white southerners made the South look bad: Our forebears were horrifying when they joined together to defend their white-supremacist way of life by any means necessary.

The movies are a problem because they dredge up a white version of a much more complicated past (and present) rich with courageous black heroes finding the faith and courage to reclaim a family structure destroyed by slavery, and ultimately changing this nation. But Hollywood seems to believe it takes a white hero saving poor blacks to sell the story. An occasional film like that would be fine--it did happen, too--but it is an injustice when only a victim narrative breaks through.

For me as a hell-raising white woman, "The Help" bothers me even more. I love the strong women in it, but I know our history well enough to see how the movie's naive ending softens our history for newer generations. The story touches on the Citizens Council and Medgar Evers' murder by a Citizens Councilor, but viewers will not know just how entrenched Jackson was in 1963-64. Bill Simmons, the head of the Citizens Councils of America, used to spread race hatred from his Fairview Street home before it became an inn. He used to say he knew where every white person in Jackson stood on the race question.

That meant whites here had two choices: go along with the Council or live in fear of economic or violent retribution. "Help" viewers will not know that taxpayers (including blacks) paid for the Sovereignty Commission, which would spy on "agitators" (including a white gas station owner in Philadelphia who let a black man use his bathroom) and file "intelligence" reports. Then upstanding whites (not just Kluckers) used the information to organize boycotts and threaten the traitor whites. They fed it to local enforcement who were often members of the Klan (such as Chaney's license plate number prior to the Philadelphia murders). If they got caught, the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race paid legal fees collected from the wealthy to help them get off, often in front of Citizen Council judges.

That is, every white person (a) was in on the conspiracy, (b) didn't care enough to speak up or (c) was threatened if they tried to.

"The Help" just could not have ended as it did. Hilly, or her man, would have called the Council on Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. My guess is that Aibileen would have been severely beaten and never hired again in the state; anyone related to Skeeter would have been destroyed economically and at least one cross burned in her mama's yard; and Minny would have been killed and her house burned.

Oh, and my hero Hazel Brannon Smith, the writer and truth teller? She started out wealthy and owned four newspapers in this vicinity. Her papers were bombed and boycotted. In 1985, the bank took her paper and her home. She died penniless. But she still had her Pulitzer. And her self-respect.

Read "An Open Letter to Fans of 'The Help' by the Association of Black Women Historians
Example of a Mississippi Sovereignty Commission "intelligence" report
Read my essay about knowing our race history: "Dredging Up the Past: Why Mississippians Must Tell Our Own Stories
Oral history of late William J. (Bill) Simmons, former Citizens Council leader and owner of the Fairview Inn
Flip through the Citizens Council newspaper, edited by Simmons
Read about Simmons' connect with the "scientific racism" movement
More on Simmons from the best book about the Citizens Council by Neil McMillen
View Sovereignty Commission documents that mention the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race
Search the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission files here.

Previous Comments

ID
164574
Comment

This is my column this week, explaining my problems with "The Help." I've just added a lot of relevant links to criticism of the other films I mention, as well as to Mississippi Sovereignty Commission files. I encourage everyone to click all the links.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-08-17T11:24:27-06:00
ID
164579
Comment

EXCELLENT PIECE, Donna.

Author
JILLCONNERBROWNE
Date
2011-08-17T11:46:41-06:00
ID
164606
Comment

Read this piece about Hazel Brannon Smith and weep with pride for who she was and pain over how the white establishment in and around Jackson destroyed her: Hazel Brannon Smith’s estrangement from the people she loved had to cause her great pain. As early as 1966, Hazel wrote an editorial titled, “Mississippians Break My Heart.” “All my adult life - which has been spent in Mississippi - I have thought Mississippi is a wonderful place and that Mississippians are a special kind of people,” she wrote. “For me there’s no other place in the world - I want no other place. “It breaks my heart to be faced with the indisputable fact that there are sadistic, morally depraved Mississippians who kill, torture, and maim other Mississippians; wicked Mississippians who bomb homes and churches; sick Mississippians who have added an unbearable burden of fear and terror to an already overburdened state.” Yet she never publicly expressed doubts about the course that set her apart from people she loved. After winning the Pulitzer Prize, she wrote, “We have given it all we have, nearly 10 years of our lives, loss of financial security, and a big mortgage. We would do the same thing over, if necessary.” “I’m not sorry,” she concluded in her talk to ISWNE editors in 1975. “I wasn’t trying to set the world on fire, but I knew that I was doing what needed to be done in my county at that time, and that I was the only person that could do it. “I wasn’t fighting for my rights, because I had my rights. They couldn’t take my rights. I’d have just taken them to court and beat ’em in court. But everybody can’t do that. There’s too many other little people that can’t do this. And so, we as editors have to do this ourselves. “This is the only way that this country’s going to work.” Is there anybody out there who can help me get a library named after her? I"m serious; I've thought it for a long time, but it's time. If not a library, another building. If I owned a building, I'd name it after her to help make up for what the ass-wipes did to her, pardon my French.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-08-17T17:46:59-06:00
ID
164628
Comment

I just started digging into Hazel Brannon Smith's sovereignty files. The first one on the list is very telling about how dangerous it was then for everyone trying to defy white supremacy.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-08-18T09:58:54-06:00
ID
164644
Comment

Awesome, Donna. Well said.

Author
Susan T.
Date
2011-08-18T18:58:43-06:00
ID
164671
Comment

I invite all of you to read through and join the conversation in this blog post I did in response to local comments that bothered me greatly: For One Moment: A Black-White Role Reversal You can use your Facebook log-in to post if you're not a member of the site. (Although we invite you to join the 30,000 members of the site as well.)

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-08-19T12:30:34-06:00
ID
164680
Comment

One of the big controversies in Jackson during the summer of 1961 was the attempt to integrate the larger white churches. The pattern was the same for several weeks--a small interracial group showing up at each of the major downtown churches, and the ushers at most or all of the churches refusing entry to the integrated group. At Galloway Methodist Church a resolution was brought up before the Board of Stewards. The resolution proposed that the ushers be instructed to deny admittance to anyone of any race who sought to enter the church for the purpose of "breaching the peace". This gave the Board members a convenient out because the resolution wasn't specifically about keeping blacks out of the church, it was supposedly about keeping out all people who came to cause a disturbance instead of to worship. While some might think such a resolution would pass unanimously in 1961, the vote was 81 in favor and 32 against. That's 32 members of the Board of Stewards who were willing to publicly say that they felt like any one of any race should be allowed to worship at Galloway Methodist. I agree with all of you that it should have been 113 members in favor of allowing everyone to worship at the church, but let's not ignore the fact that there were 32 Board members who were willing to take a stand even when they had an easy out. My dad was one of those 32 who voted against the resolution. Just a somewhat average middle aged businessman, he was involved in working for Civil Rights during the 1960's and 70's because it was the right thing to do. His involvement did result in a cross being burned in the yard, phone calls with bomb threats in the middle of the night, his name being listed on a KKK hit list, and a lot of other things. But he, and others like him, continued to be involved and continued to make a positive difference. I bring these things up because too often the Civil Rights story in Mississippi is portrayed with almost every white being on one side of the fence and every black on the other. This inaccurate portrayal of the past is a hindrance when it comes to race relations of the present. Unfortunately, not many people are interested in changing the history from how it has now been written. Years ago I wrote to Jerry Mitchell regarding the need to do some stories on the involvement of whites in support of Civil Rights. It brought a lukewarm response which wasn't surprising. Stories like that would ruin his reputation. An exchange of letters with the editor of the Clarion-Ledger a few years back also received little interest. Again, I understand why. Like Hazel Brannon Smith, I am fully aware that there were far too many "sadistic, morally depraved Mississippians" in the not too distant past, and I have no problem with those stories being unearthed and exposed to the light. I just find it a shame that no one is interested in the everyday people of that era who, like Hazel Brannon Smith, already had their rights, but that didn't stop them from taking risks to work for the rights of others. I suspect those stories will never be exposed to the light.

Author
FrankEzelle
Date
2011-08-21T14:26:36-06:00
ID
164681
Comment

Frank, your timing is perfect. Lacey is planning a historic story about civil rights and the business community in 1960s Jackson. I'll have her get in touch with you about including your family's stories. I've long wanted to write about them since you first told me about your dad, but there hasn't seemed to be the right opportunity. Now we have it. I'm not surprised that Jerry didn't do it; that's not really his kind of story. He's more about straight reporting about Klansmen of the past. That's been useful over the years, certainly, but I agree with you that much richer narrative stories need to be told.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-08-21T14:32:54-06:00
ID
164777
Comment

Been spending some more time tooling around the Mississippi Sovereignty Commissions files. What a tragic history of Jackson awaits there. And Mississippi as a whole. Today, I ran across this article about the Citizens Council written by Hodding Carter III (whose father correctly called the Council the "uptown Klan"). He also wrote a book about the group that destroyed so many people's lives. And in case you want to think that it was all the uptown white men and business leaders in the Council, note the photo of a Jackson Citizens Council meeting with lots of women there.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-08-29T16:57:32-06:00
ID
164778
Comment

Just to clarify, the Citizens Council did not include all the uptown white men and business leaders among its membership. Here's a blog post about a 1968 paid ad in the local newspaper that shows that plenty of white Jacksonians were willing to publicly go against the Citizens Council: http://wwin39216.blogspot.com/2009/08/statement-of-belief-and-intention-may-1.html

Author
FrankEzelle
Date
2011-08-29T17:20:18-06:00
ID
164780
Comment

Frank, you're right ... sort of. Most white businesspeople either were active in the Council or didn't dare to defy it -- until about the mid-1960s. By then, the lengths the Council was willing to go and the national publicity was getting to people, and the business community started coming together to take a different public stance (such as by 1968). One of the most interesting (to me) components of studying the Civil Rights Movement is seeing the gradual (and sometimes dramatic) shifts that white people, the business community and media went through as the reality of the Movement and resulting violence began to sink in. By spending significant time in the Sovereignty Commission files, you can watch how many whites became less confident about their stance as the 1960s wore on and how others felt the need to put a better public face out there. It's complicated, but so informative. For instance: Stuart C. Irby Jr. Sadly, some if not many of the people on the list that you have recreated on your blog acted differently and even horribly against integration earlier in the 1960s and in the 1950s, although others (such as your family) acted very courageously. The context of that "declaration" is a sad reality, but one that is informative in the larger narrative of how the 1950s and 1960s unfolded and whites gradually saw that they were losing the white supremacist battle. One of the huge tragedies of our race history is that the vast majority of "good" white people were, as I say in my column, above: complicit, silent or intimidated into going along with the program. I'm reading an amazing book about white people's response; highly recommend: http://www.jasonsokol.com/book.htm

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-08-30T10:26:26-06:00
ID
164781
Comment

Also, your list contains George Broussard. Here's the rest of the story on him: http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/index.php/site/comments/alleged_victims/

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-08-30T10:33:13-06:00
ID
164793
Comment

Donna, I meant to get to this when it printed, but modern life and job hunting and all that, anyway, thank you. Your article crystallized and articulated the problems I had with the The Help, especially with Skeeter running away to NYC leaving the hard work behind to those who risked everything. So, thanks.

Author
Pilgrim
Date
2011-08-31T12:25:33-06:00
ID
164797
Comment

You're welcome, Pilgrim. And thank you for sharing your thoughts. It means a lot.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-08-31T15:13:20-06:00
ID
167164
Comment

Her name is Melissa Harris-Perry, not Melissa Perry Harris.

Author
Brian Wiginton
Date
2012-02-27T12:42:42-06:00
ID
167170
Comment

Thanks much for the correction, Brian. I should have caught that long ago, and I'm surprised no one else pointed it out, as often as it was passed around last year. I've made the correction above, and I apologize for the error.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2012-02-27T15:21:08-06:00
ID
167172
Comment

Florence Mars and Hazel Brannon-Smith were two white women in Mississippi who dared side with equal justice and fairness. John R. Salter and Joan Trumpauer of Tougaloo College, though both were white, were assaulted during the 1963 Woolworth's sit-in in Jackson. For a nicely written coming of age novel of a young white man who worked in the 1961 civil rights movement, Danny Duncan Collum's 'White Boy' is a good read. Danny is from Greenwood ("Calhoun" in the novel), and readers will recognize Jackson landmarks in the book. An MC student, Danny lived in Jackson for years and writes from the perspective inside the civil rights movement. 'White Boy' takes 'The Help''s subject matter out into the streets and gets down to the real nitty gritty. His website is http://www.whiteboythenovel.com/.

Author
Belvedere
Date
2012-02-27T22:47:23-06:00

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