When Mississippi Rep. Lester "Bubba" Carpenter stepped to the microphone at a Republican rally in Tishomingo County and started warning about a "black judge" taking away funds from white schools and giving it to blacker ones, it was deja vu all over again. We all felt it. It could have been the 1960s with Gov. Ross Barnett booming about keeping black children out of white public schools at the Neshoba County Fair.
Carpenter messed up and left the script that today demands that race-baiting be done in a more subtle manner. He's supposed to talk about "welfare queens," "Democrats taking control" and anything to do with now-majority-black Jackson bilking all the white folks who fled the city and its public schools over Christmas break 1969-70 because black kids were finally allowed to enroll.
This archaic tactic, of course, includes the threat of a "Hinds County judge" being in complete control of how the state's education dollars would be allocated should voters manage to figure out the ballot and pass Initiative 42. It doesn't matter to the less-than-subtle backers of the "Improve Mississippi" ads pushing this idea that it is patently false; it's more important that enough (white) Mississippians are scared, or confused, into voting against a citizens' effort to get the Legislature to simply follow its own laws.
Those laws tell the Legislature how to fund public education in the most basic way (see this week's cover story and jfp.ms/maep) so that poor and often-but-not-always majority-black districts have a fighting chance at providing adequate education to children from families who weren't allowed to send them to my elementary school until I was in third grade—simply because they were black.
This is a sick merry-go-round our state needs to retire, but it seems that the in-state backers of the effort to kill Initiative 42 don't know how. These people include many neighbors you see at McDade's: the leaders of business groups from the Mississippi Home Builders Association to the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association. Of course, some members of those groups are shocked to see them fighting 42, and helping fund dog-whistle advertising: A prominent restaurateur and Realtor from Jackson, both white, apologized for their associations' involvement on my Facebook page.
But thanks to Bubba Carpenter, the bigoted horse is now out trotting in full view, even as he claims to be "deeply sorry" for letting him escape the barn. In a state where the white majority historically fought to keep black children out of white public schools and in subpar substitutes; where 1954's Brown v. Board of Education spawned the white Citizens Council (which turned into the group that Dylann Roof revered before storming the Charleston church); where black and white people died to equalize public education—there are still white people with the nerve in 2015 to demand that we continue the traditions of unequal funding. And they will use barely subtle race coding to get their way, and an intentionally confusing ballot. It's unconscionable, and it's horrifying to see grown people act this way.
The really crazy part is that it doesn't make sense if they're not doing it for racist purposes. Those associations, or owners of any business in this state, know how hard it is to get workers with a solid work ethic and educational background (which, by the way, includes the ability to get along with and respect people who don't look like them). Every study of workforce development will tell you that the groundwork for strong workers is a basic education bolstered by adequate resources that give children the foundation to build on as they go through their careers.
This is true both for children from "good," two-parent families, and it is perhaps even more necessary for kids who aren't, due to no fault of their own. I come from a poor background with a single illiterate mother; my father died when I was young, and my stepfather was an alcoholic we couldn't stay with, may they all rest in peace.
Public school literally saved my life. My home life was often filled with trauma and even violence; my parents couldn't read to me; and we collected various "entitlements" (a word I despise) to keep us eating and me in school. But I went to public schools and found teachers who helped me love reading and writing, and who made me believe I could be anything I wanted to be. We didn't have holes in school walls, and my principal and most teachers wrapped their arms around all of us, black, white and Choctaw, and helped shield us from the hatred outside our gates when the schools integrated.
I owe everything to public education.
It literally makes me want to punch holes in my office walls to see this race-baiting in 2015 in the state I love despite our abhorrent history that tried to teach everyone with my skin tone to be a bigot and distrust people of color. Today, at least I can sit and type this without watching for a lynch mob over my shoulder, but I wouldn't be able to write these words without those public schools that our state had no problem funding well until black children showed up at our gates with cops in riot gear telling us to let them in and not hurt them.
This needs to stop right here, Mississippi. It's time to take a stand when unreformed white men like Bubba Carpenter—and our governor, and lieutenant governor, and House speaker, and all those business "leaders"—take the fight back to black (and white) children and the teachers of all races who try to teach them to become stellar citizens regardless of what their parents were able to learn and overcome.
Yes, Mississippi had the farthest to come from our past because, at one time, we benefitted the most from this racist caste system and the barring of black children, who are now adults you may know, from decent schools. We can be proud of our progress, and I am every day as I look out into my newsroom and my community at a rainbow of young and older people who want to lift this city and state up together. Those are the kinds of people who brought you Initiative 42—after years of watching the Legislature twist itself into illogical pretzels to keep from ensuring that all school districts in Mississippi can provide at least adequate education.
We are tired of this embrace of inadequacy and inequality as if nothing has changed since that 1954 Brown decision that caused the Civil Rights Movement and saved our state from itself. We each have that chance now. This is not a political campaign; this is our moment to do what is right by all of our citizens, including those who died on behalf of public education.
It is time we stand together, regardless of party, and give Mississippi—and every single Mississippian—a fighting chance for greatness. On Tuesday, Nov. 3, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., get to the polls and vote "yes" (twice) for Initiative 42 and help hammer the final nail into Mississippi's dark past.
See the cover of this issue to understand how to vote yes for Initiative 42.