I saw an earth-shattering tweet yesterday. The Fairview Inn in Belhaven was tweeting the link to their blog post heralding the Freedom Riders' anniversary. So what, you might respond. It's just a nice hotel doing good marketing.
Oh, but it's much more than that. It is a statement that Mississippi has changed.
You see, when I first moved back to Mississippi in 2001, I lived diagonally across the street from the Fairview.
At the time, its long-time proprietor William J. (Bill) Simmons still lived there, and his family ran it as an inn. We'd see people of all races park in front of our house and pour into the Fairview for luncheons and weddings. It seemed like business as usual.
But I also happened to know Mr. Simmons' history. To put it mildly, during the Civil Rights Movement, he was a vicious racist who expressed beliefs in scientific racism (basically, the hokum that science "proved" black folks inferior to whites), and he was leader of the Citizens Councils of America. Oh, and he was editor of that angry hateful paper, The Citizens Informer.
After we started the JFP, named for a very different paper from the 1960s called the Mississippi Free Press, I would stand in the window looking at the Fairview, glowing across the way. I would think about how I wanted my newspaper to be the worst nightmare of men like Simmons and his friends in the day, back when they did everything they could (and succeeded too well) to keep our schools segregated by setting up white academies and council schools for white kids to be "safe" from black children.
And it was these same "citizens councilors" who came up with the idea of "youth indoctrination" after the Brown v. Board decision of 1954. Basically, they wanted to convince white children that they were superior, that blacks were more violent (ironic considering the violence committed against African Americans throughout our state's history), that they couldn't trust "the other."
Thus, it felt downright gothic for my paper to come into fruition across from Simmons and the Fairview Inn. I've always believed that God has a wry sense of humor.
Almost everywhere I look, I see evidence that Simmons and his band of fools lost the battle. I live in a Jackson that is actively trying to heal its wounds, where young people (even many who went to those white academies) are inspired to be more than the sum of our upbringing. These young people are rejecting the propaganda--and many are hungry for the adventure stories of the courageous Freedom Riders who helped save us from ourselves.
Of course, we still have vestiges, and they are never nastier than in political campaigns where, inevitably, a handful of fools try to divide the rest of us for political gain.
You can almost feel sorry for a young guy like Madison County sheriff candidate Mark Sandridge--it's probable that no one ever taught him the history that might have stopped him from trying to divide our counties by a highway, the good people on one side, the violent on the other.
Mr. Sandridge, this is the exact kind of rhetoric that Bill Simmons and others pushed to get white people to fear black people; hawking violence for votes is the tired and disgusting rhetoric of the Willie Horton-scientific racist crowd.
What's kind of lovely about the Sandridge throwback to a darker past has been the response, though. People of all races on both sides of the county line have spoken out against his hateful campaign ad.
And some unexpected voices called it for what it sure did look like: racist.
And I'm not talking about the usual "liberal" suspects. Ward 1 Councilman Quentin Whitwell, a young white Republican, didn't mince words. The ad was racist, he said, without any apparent hesitation. Now, understand that Whitwell holds a seat that is known to appeal to white conservatives, many of whom send their kids to seg academies, and one even apologized on the JFP website a few years back for campaigning in front of the Council of Conservative Citizens.
Is Whitwell an anomaly? No. This kind of wink-wink race politics is not appealing to most younger folks, conservative or liberal or whatever. They're just not into it, and as Whitwell proved--bless his heart on this one--they'll call you out on it.
So this is the Jackson the Freedom Riders will revisit this month. We're not there, yet, folks, but we are a diligent work-in-progress. Riders, we pledge to blow your minds with our open ease with talking about race problems in Jackson and in our multiracial alliances that we have formed to make our city and state a place we can all be proud of. And we may still have small-minded bigotry--not quite as blatant as y'all experienced--but we also have white people, plenty of them, willing to call it out.
Most important, you visit a city this time that welcomes you and thanks you for everything you did for us when you put your lives on the line and a mirror in front of the South. Thank you, Riders, and may God bless you all.
Donna, love you and what Mississippi Free Press, JFP, Freedom Riders and other crusaders have done to bring up issues of inequality and help reconcile for my generation.
Welcome, Freedom Riders. We're here with open arms.