Doing It Our Way | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Doing It Our Way

My favorite James Meredith story involved the über contrarian sot Christopher Hitchens. Todd and I were asked to "entertain" Hitch during his visit to Millsaps College a few years back; after he arrived from the airport, we met him at Que Sera Sera and, essentially, watched him drink all afternoon and pontificate his passionate-but-weak reasons for supporting the Iraq War. We held our own, considering.

At one point, Mr. Meredith's name came up. "Have you ever met him?" I asked.

"No," he answered, his blurry eyes suddenly wide with wonder. "Could I?"

I realized Hitch could be impressed by something after all. I smiled.

"Well, sure, he lives a few blocks from here. I'll call him."

When Hitch and I arrived at Mr. Meredith's front door, the legend opened it, looking a bit befuddled about who the eager British writer was, but happy to see us anyway. He started talking to me about the Free Press; he picks the paper up when he works out at The Courthouse, and often writes me letters.

Then came the moment. Mr. Meredith was wearing cotton slippers—the kind that look like slip-on Keds—and each shoe displayed a rendering of Colonel Reb. A grin shot into my cheeks as I winked at Hitchens.

He'd noticed, too, and beamed as he shook the hand of the mercurial James Meredith who likes to do things his own way.

As I sat in Mr. Meredith's living room while the two contrarians tried to find a common topic of interest—and later with Mr. Meredith on the front row at Hitchens' rather boozy political speech at Millsaps—I listened and felt content to watch as another outsider struggled to "get" Mississippi and our history, characters and contradictions.

We take pride in our complexities in these parts, and no one brings that home better than the man who decided to singlehandedly take on white supremacy in the South back in the 1960s. The same man who later took on the Civil Rights Movement and black identity politics. The same man who tells you in one breath that Ole Miss ignored his history there for 35 years, and in the next says it's a college now way ahead of most on the race question.

Mr. Meredith is someone who dares to reject dogma and a simple placement on the black-vs.-white paradigm, and he openly defies the whitewashed history of race relations in Mississippi and America that always manages to be about the "other."

It's too easy to call him crazy, which many people do once they've heard he worked for Sen. Jesse Helms or that he says blacks are worse off now than they used to be.

In a way, it all reminds me of the common impressions of Malcolm X—he was violent, anti-white, a troublemaker. Funny, the Malcolm X that I finally studied was no more pro-violence than most of today's NRA members; yes, he believed blacks should be able to arm themselves to protect themselves and their families. And he believed that it took more than non-violence and the courting of white people's "good side" to end apartheid of black America. It took self-empowerment.

After reading his speeches and comparing them to the simplistic and flawed coverage of him in national media for a graduate project, I wished I had been able to meet Malcolm-the-man, to sit down and talk without filters.

With Mr. Meredith I've been able to do that, and judge him for myself. I don't agree with everything out of his mouth, or easily buy that blacks are worse off now than during slavery and Jim Crow. But I see his point that the Civil Rights Movement did not deliver us all from evil. It did not bring equality to the races, or level the playing field, or do away with prejudices that poor whites such as my people had been taught all their lives in order to keep them from joining blacks to boot the status quo that controlled them all.

I'm so with him there.

After I crashed an African American studies program at Columbia University, I finally learned the American—not "black," by the way—history I didn't know about men like Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Marcus Garvey and even the rest of the Martin Luther King Jr. story. Only then could I really see and consider Mr. Meredith's point that our history shouldn't be divided into dual tracks: one for whites, and the other for blacks.

I feel the tragedy of identity education when I quote Mississippi writers Willie Morris and Richard Wright to my students and realize that, with the occasional exception, white students have read the former, black students the latter, and seldom shall the twains integrate.

Everyone loses.

Forty-some-odd years after the Civil Rights Movement, and Mr. Meredith getting shot on his March Against Fear, race still divides us—in our schools, our politics and our knowledge, even if we don't want it to. We Americans (not just southerners, media) walk around in separate-but-unequal circles thinking that we've defeated white supremacy, thank God; meantime, re-segregated schools cover the nation, and campaigns still try to cast a black candidate as "uppity" because, you know, it's a code word "we" (whites) all get.

Just as confounding, white people who want true integration fear being ridiculed because they, too, are kinda interested in "black" studies of racist institutions their granddaddy helped build. I learned this lesson as I listened to a civil-rights veteran preach angrily to a mixed crowd in my home county of Neshoba a couple years back about how the Civil Rights Movement "belonged" to black people.

I believe Mr. Meredith would tell us that attitude hurts us all. And we stay divided.

Meanwhile, many of us reject a sterilized version of our history, seeking the real one we all collectively own, and need to know intimately. Some would think my friendship with Mr. Meredith doesn't make sense; doesn't he reject the values of an editor who likes to introduce Movement heroes to young readers?

No. Mr. Meredith and I know we're fighting the same battle. We both reject easy answers and labels. We both believe that all we Mississippians—black, white and other—have to work hard to be the best, and to reject the stereotypes that the state's powers-that-be invite with their choices and coded messages.

Mr. Meredith and I both know that as goes Mississippi, so goes the nation. We're not a simple state, and the work here is not done.

We know we can't let nobody turn us around. Nobody.

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