Is racial reconciliation a myth or a mission? This is the question that a group of Jacksonians came together to discuss at the Annual Human Relations Day Program of the Mary Church Terrell Literary Club, held at the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center on April 14. The museum was formerly the Smith Robertson School, the first public school in Jackson for African Americans, and is the state's largest museum dedicated to the preserving of African-American culture.
Dr. Cora Norman, founding executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, began by praising the efforts of the Council in fighting for racial harmony. One of the Council's first objectives in 1973 was to improve education, a difficult task because school superintendents were leery of federal money, seeing it as tainted because it had to include everyone, blacks and whites.
"There was no place in our community where blacks and whites could get together, and a program bringing together all sides of an issue was unheard of," Norman said. The bi-racial Council, Norman said, has shown other states that Mississippi is capable of racial reconciliation: "We can't celebrate how far we've come without taking note of how much we've yet to achieve."
Rev. Canon David H. Johnson, a leader in the Episcopal diocese Mississippi, began by saying, "Growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s and '60s, I have what C.S. Lewis called 'Memories that bless and burn.'"
Following Johnson was Carthage native George Williams, a retired teacher at Hinds Community College, who spoke of his teaching experiences in Mississippi. Williams contrasted the friendly atmosphere at Tougaloo College where he began his education with the cold reception he received when he transferred to Ole Miss, where he was the only black in his classes. Referring to his time teaching at Coahoma Junior College in Clarksdale and Hinds Community College, he said, "Just having people in the same classroom doesn't mean reconciliation."
Williams, an original organizer of the Black Mississippians' Council on Higher Education, the community-based support group for the Ayers higher-education desegregation litigation, put his job on the line to speak out about the Ayers case.
Williams's experiences have made him more pessimistic about the current atmosphere in Mississippi and the direction the state is going. "I'm not as optimistic now as I was when I was leaving college. In the '80s, things changed. I've been discriminated against in business and been harassed by the police," Williams said.
The final panelist was Isaiah Madison, attorney and assistant professor of political science at Jackson State University. Madison, the original lead attorney for the Ayers case, began by emphasizing the importance of recognizing our mistakes and having a repentant attitude. "In unity, there is strength and in division, there is weakness," Madison said.
The root of inequality, Madison emphasized, goes deeper than race, with the root of the problem being greed and socio-economic discrimination. Mississippi's mindset that some are meant to be lords, others peasants, is European in nature. Madison said we now have "a republic by the rich, for the rich, instead of the people. Follow the money, and you'll find the source of the problem. Money dictates our morality or lack of it."
Madison, who is also a Methodist minister, affirmed the previous panelist's pessimism, saying that Mississippi is just as eaten up with conflict now as in 1962.
The panelists' remarks sparked discussion in the audience. Discrimination is not merely racial; it can be based on where a person is from, audience members said. An African-American woman in the audience told of how she was heartily accepted by her white students while she was teaching in the northeast U.S. until they found out she was a Mississippian. "My students respected what I had to say, but they were so down on Southerners. When I told them I was from Mississippi, they wouldn't respond to me. They couldn't accept me as a Mississippian," she said.
The overarching theme of the discussion was that fighting discrimination is a "mission," but overcoming it will remain a "myth" until people are willing to recognize and take responsibility for their errors and embrace an attitude of repentance.