You have to watch closely, or you might not pay any mind to earth-shattering statements heard these days in Mississippi. For instance: "Mississippi will not take a back seat to anyone. We've made progress, and we're going to show it to the world."
Sounds innocuous, eh? Well, until you consider that a white Republican—Rep. John Reeves—said those words while pushing for a $50 million civil-rights museum in Jackson. And his statement didn't cause a tempest with angry whites refusing to vote for a man who would support spending public money on such a thing. It would have, not so long ago.
Such open support of a civil-rights museum (even Haley "Don't offend the CofCC" Barbour supports it, he says) augurs a political sea change. Outsiders might say, "Big deal, even Alabama has civil-rights museums."
Exactly. We don't, primarily because Mississippi politicians historically have (a) been too racist to stand for such a thing, or (b) been too afraid of the racist vote to stand for such a thing. So they have employed the "southern strategy" of playing the race card in ways that make racists think other people don't realize what they're doing—whether in their campaign ads or by pandering to white supremacists at political rallies. Or by pretending that welfare and Medicaid benefit mostly black people (actually, white rural women). Or by making quips about Headstart kids growing up in whorehouses in the Delta.
Of course, this race game is the biggest open secret—and ugliest joke—in politics. It taints the South and helps keep Mississippi on the bottom of the barrel. It's hell on economic development when companies don't want their employees of color living in a state where politicians regularly insult their citizens (or their workers) in such blatant ways.
But because more Mississippians are wising up and calling the southern strategy out for what it is (racist), the scheme has suffered some major cracks in recent years. I was blown away when by-then-Gov. Haley Barbour actually showed up and spoke at the 40th commemoration to Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in Neshoba County in 2004. Not because of anything he said; Barbour was wholly unimpressive, red-faced, uncomfortable and in unfamiliar territory. He was only the warm-up act for an amazing speech by former Secretary of State Dick Molpus.
I was pinching myself because Barbour felt compelled to do such a thing. That is, a white Republican who helped devise the southern strategy in his Nixon and Reagan days in the first place, and who has used it to near-perfection over the years, actually felt like he should—or had to, politically—show up at an event honoring the three murdered civil-rights workers. Folks, this wasn't like him.
Nor has it been typical of our other well-known GOP leaders. No Republican member of our congressional delegation would vote for a mere resolution honoring the three men back on the 25th anniversary of the murders. And as recently as 2005, neither Sens. Lott nor Thad Cochran would sign onto a resolution apologizing for lynching, and the fact that Congress didn't take it seriously enough to do more to stop it over the years. (And that refusal came from two men who represent the state that had the most lynchings—with our "leaders" looking the other way.)
But suddenly Mississippi politicians are getting a different memo—racism is not en vogue anymore. This has left some politicians scrambling, as was evident last session when several legislators first steadfastly refused to support memorials to civil-rights martyrs in the state—until citizens started reacting. Then many changed their minds, and now we have highways dedicated to heroes like Emmett Till and the Philadelphia victims—something politically unthinkable just an election ago. (Or believed to be by the conventional "wisdom" that has shaped our politics of late).
This changing political reality means a flurry of activity on the part of people who have been downright hostile on race issues over the years. The JFP even got a e-mail from a Lott staffer after Adam Lynch's compilation of interviews with the senator in November, complaining that we should have covered "Senator Lott's efforts to support passage of cold case legislation that enables the FBI to establish arms to investigate cold cases, i.e. crimes from the civil rights era. Also absent was Senator Lott's effort to honor Mississippi's first black U.S. Senator to serve a full-term, Senator Blanche Bruce, with a postage stamp."
So Lott's behind a black man on a postage stamp. Does this mean these lawmakers' "hearts" have changed? I don't care. I've always said that it doesn't matter so much what's in the heart; it's the (in)actions that count. And few people are less worthy of respect (or votes) than those who would sell out their own people as racist in order to get a few votes—regardless of what's in their hard little hearts.
I'm thrilled that the ground is shifting under these antiquated southern strategists, forcing them to at least change their words. The real test will be how the governor and the Legislature deal with issues vital to reversing the legacy, and the poverty and resulting crime, that our white supremacists left for so many of our citizens (and, thus, all of us).
Will they consistently fund Adequate Education in order to equalize historical discrimination against poor, and often largely black districts? (Election year or not.) Will they raise the damn tobacco tax—Haley, it's time to choose your state over your tobacco cronies—and use the money to fund health care? Will they quit pretending that Medicaid is an entitlement for poor blacks and admit that it's a vital program for a poor state? Will they stop dissing the resources-sapped capital city because we are majority-black and help shore up the central hub of a state that will continue to rot if its core is ignored? Will they ensure that the deplorable conditions at the state's training schools are solved once and for all? Will they abandon attempts to keep Mississippians from exercising their civic duty to vote?
Ladies and gentleman of the Legislature and the governor's mansion: For the good of this state that we all hold so dear, it is time to mothball the damned old southern strategy once and for all. Or, here's an idea. Put it in a museum somewhere so people can see how far we've really come. I hear there's a new one coming to Jackson sometime soon.
Amen and Amen.
- Ray Carter
Bring on the Civil Rights Museum, truth, honesty, love beyond race, and fairness and goodness for all of us despite past turbulence and chaos.
- Ray Carter
Right, Ray. And also bring on the voices that drown out attempts to appeal to the racist vote. The difference today for those guys is a whole lot of us know what they are doing and aren't afraid to call them out on it.
Viva la voices.
This is an interesting way of looking at the murky political doings in our state, especially in what you say about those happening recently, Donna. I'm not sure that I buy into to it totally (those sands can shift the other way all too quickly), but I hope you are right - that something tangible will come of all the posturing. As you say, at least the posturing is something new for Mississippi, and does show some shift. The question is - where will the shift end up?
It's up to us, all of us of good will, to stand against any backward tide and keep sweeping those grains of sand in the right direction. And that's where I have come to appreciate the JFP (and you) so much.
I'm not convinced that Jackson is the right place for the museum, but won't fuss about it, considering the path to here has been so long and full of pitfalls.