On Friday night, I made the road trip to my aunt and uncle's Flowood home to finally see "Mississippi ReMixed," a documentary by Jackson native Myra Ottewell who examines her personal beliefs about relationships between blacks and whites in Mississippi. Ottewell, who is a teacher in British Columbia, had set out to show how far the state has come in race relations since the 1960s. Her quest, however, revealed aspects of history of which she was unaware.
On the way home, I was overwhelmed with emotion as I thought about my own lack of civil-rights education and the narrow perspective I once viewed the state with.
While I didn't grow up in Mississippi, my roots are here. I spent summers in Starkville and was oblivious to the rich stories and heart-breaking history that was at the tip of my fingers. I don't remember discussions about the Civil Rights Movement in my family. The first time I became aware of the inequalities that blacks faced was in grade school when I noticed that my sister's friend, London, who was black, used a yellow crayon to draw herself and her family because she wanted to be white. "She's ashamed," my mother replied without going into further details when I asked her why.
When I first interviewed to work at the Jackson Free Press, Managing Editor Ronni Mott asked me a question I'll never forget: How familiar are you with civil-rights history? I looked up at the Emmett Till poster behind her, embarrassed that I didn't know who he was. "I don't have as much knowledge as I'd like to have," I said. "But I am interested in learning more."
My understanding of the civil-rights era then went something like this: Rosa Parks got tired of sitting in the back of the bus, switched her seat and got arrested; more blacks began to challenge Jim Crow laws; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against injustices and led marches, and then segregation was no more.
While that is a simplified version of my personal history, it misses not only several milestones and struggles, it also demonstrates my ignorance.
Now, a year and a half later, I feel like I have embarked on a journey of not only civil-rights history but also a journey of ongoing self-discovery.
The lens in which I view the world has dramatically changed since I learned about the Freedom Riders, the 1964 murders of three civil-rights activists--James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner--and heard the personal stories of Jackson residents who were arrested for challenging Jim Crow laws and leading protests.
On a trip to the Delta last October with the Mississippi Center for Justice, I experienced what it was like to be a Freedom Rider through Hank Thomas' personal narrative.
Thomas gave a detailed account of how the Ku Klux Klan had tried to kill him during the ride from Washington, D.C., to Jackson. He stood up on our tour bus and talked about the fear he felt as a young boy in Wadley, Ga., after he accidentally touched a white woman in a grocery store. I bit down on my bottom lip and tried to blink away the pool of tears forming in my eyes.
"To you, it's just an academic narrative," he said, referring to Emmett Till's murder as the bus left Money, Miss. "But to me, I just relived it."
When people say that rehashing civil-rights stories is irrelevant because we have moved past that time period, it's hard not to get angry and frustrated.
Last year, I had the opportunity to interview Jackson civil-right activist Dr. Gene Young who had been arrested countless times since the age of 12 for standing up for his beliefs. He wore a T-shirt with a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King on one side and President Barack Obama on the other. He was still in disbelief that a black man had become president.
Last week, Jackson resident A.M.E. Logan, who gave Freedom Riders a safe place to stay and even cooked in her west Jackson home for Dr. Martin Luther King, passed away at age 96.
I found out about her death on The Clarion-Ledger's website--my heart aching when I discovered I would never get the chance to personally meet her and hear her stories.
At the end of the article, two comments belittled Logan and her life's work. For each step of progress our state makes, there are always a few ignorant people who get up on an anonymous podium to spew hatred. The civil-rights era is over, but the struggle is ongoing. I hope that each time someone tells their story, they have an opportunity to help end ignorance and deepen another person's understanding.
As the Freedom Riders' 50th anniversary nears, it's encouraging to see plans and funding for the long-awaited civil-rights museum gain momentum. Next year, the state will also require social-studies teachers to teach the history of civil rights in Mississippi. The curriculum is meant to go beyond the basics and include the institutional and structural nature of racism.
The Mississippi Development Authority is in the beginning stages of forming a commission to oversee a state civil-rights trail--like the existing blues trail--that marks significant civil-rights events with markers and historical context, drawing tourist and school trips.
When interviewed for "Mississippi ReMixed," JFP Editor in Chief Donna Ladd eloquently described why it is important to acknowledge civil-rights history and understand our past:
"In order to move forward we've got to look backward. To me that's the Mississippi riddle. That's what I call it. ... People always want you to pick. They always want you to say, 'Well, you know, we need to look forward, not backward. All you want to do is look backward.' ... I mean, our young people need pride in how far we've come. ... If you don't understand how bad it was--you don't know how far we've come."
I'm grateful for the opportunities that have given me a front-row seat to civil-rights history, but I know that not everyone is exposed to the same narrative. I hope that more people, young and old, will take the time to look beyond their own preconceived ideas and challenge themselves to seek the truth.
Often I hear young whites in situations clearly involving the competing interests of whites and blacks tell me to choose the young or younger whites, as they're not as effected, affected and driven by the ways of the past. I then ask them how can you tell me this if you don't know what they have been taught or exposed to. Unless and until I know that the horizons have been expanded by interaction, truth-telling and a commitment to fairness and change, I don't expect anything different than the past even from young people, because I know well how strong the teachings of denial and resistance are down south.
Great column and I commend the author for being open to learning, growing and talking about it.
I forgot to add, I'm not accusing this author of being in denial or resisting the truth. I'm speaking generally.
"Unless and until I know that the horizons have been expanded by interaction, truth-telling and a commitment to fairness and change, I don't expect anything different than the past even from young people, because I know well how strong the teachings of denial and resistance are down south."
That's a good point Walt - with the keyword being "interaction"
For the last couple of weeks, the big talk has been the census numbers for the metro area. When you look at the demographics, it clearly shows that interaction is the last thing on some peoples minds.
- Duan C.