Breaking the Silence | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Breaking the Silence

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JFP Editor Donna Ladd

When James Ford Seale finally went on trial for his role in the 1964 kidnapping and deaths of Henry Dee and Charles Moore in Meadville, our reporting staff was blown away by the jury-selection process.

The voir dire process, as it's called, turned out to be like a mini truth and reconciliation commission, as federal attorneys asked one after another potential juror from the southern half of Mississippi to talk about their racial attitudes and memories.

It was as if the floodgates opened on decades of bottled-up shame and pain as one juror after another, first a white one, then a black one, burst into tears as they had to sit in a courtroom in front of a federal judge, who happened to be black, to talk about horrible actions by or toward their own relatives.

Judge Henry Wingate's staff went through a lot of tissues during those handful of days as people couldn't hold the tears in.

What struck me then was the evidence of what I've always believed: Packing away our state's race history, which is so personal for so many of us and our relatives, is dangerous and divisive. Maybe it seems easier at the moment to not talk about, say, your black grandmother being locked inside the nasty livestock pens at the state fairgrounds as a teenager because she marched for freedom. Or maybe it was your white grandfather who guarded her, making her keep her hands raised above her, not allowing her to have a drink of water in a 100-degree facility.

Either way, these actions during my own lifetime, not to mention those that came before, have bruised and bloodied our entire state. Not only has the effort to lock them away forever made it harder for many of us to look "the other" in the eye, but they have created awful situations that all of us must deal with every day.

The dissolution of the black family during slavery, Jim Crow and current drug war tactics? Kids who commit crime due to desperation, boredom and hopelessness.

Neighborhoods left to rot when the people with access to wealth fled to the suburbs, taking their tax dollars with them? Expensive cycles of poverty and, thus, crime.

Public schools that fell out of favor with the majority of the state's whites when the Supreme Court demanded integration? Less will to fund good public education, resegregation, and political battles over even the need for public schools (and a 98-percent black Jackson Public Schools).

White children attending private schools with only those of similar socioeconomic status? Minimal understanding of how it all happened in the first place and a willingness to blame people of color for the problems white supremacy created.

Schools and media and institutions designed for one race or the other? "Two Nations, Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal," as political scientist Andrew Hacker entitled his 1992 book.

That divided scenario means that people of different races too often point fingers rather than come together to squarely face what our damned past has done to our present, and will do to our future if we don't started talking about it more.

I learned this lesson when I was 14. Even though the Ku Klux Klan ambushed and killed freedom fighters James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in my hometown when I was 3--the most-publicized civil-rights murders in our history (because two of them were white)--I did not know about it until I was 14. After the media and the FBI and the attorneys cleared out, the town clammed up. The horrible memory was locked away.

But, suddenly, a TV movie brought it to my teenaged attention. I was flummoxed; how could I not know such a thing happened, and that perpetrators were friends of my family? It felt like I was living a lie, and my state was conspiring to keep me ignorant and, because I was white, part of the silent conspiracy to downplay the horribleness of the murders and the fact that neither local nor state authorities (who were white back then) would even try to prosecute the murderers of these men. It was as if a wall of shame crashed down upon me, brought down by the attempts to hide our past.

As I grew older, I became more determined to sniff out the facts that had been hidden from me, including in schools that tried to tell me the Civil War wasn't about slavery (read the dang Mississippi Declaration of Secession) and to factcheck all the awful lies about black people I heard growing up.

Like many of you, I did not want to be lied to, especially in defense of such awfulness. Most vitally, I prayed that I could somehow use the truth to help keep these things from happening again. And because I was white, I believed (and still believe) that I bear a piece of 
that responsibility to reverse the legacy.

As I grew older and learned more, I realized how much more there was to it. Even though I grew up poor and often lived in trailer parks, I could see that I was offered chances that equally intelligent black friends were not. I was rough around the edges, but I was also white, and as a result, enjoyed invisible bootstraps that made it much easier to get out of the tough cycle I grew up in.

Along the way, somehow, I realized that I had grown up swimming in a dirty fishbowl, and that it was up to me to learn what I didn't know and what others didn't want me to know. I also made what some consider a controversial decision: The history of black America and Mississippi is also my history--precisely because white people oppressed people of color on my behalf. I am a white woman, and more than one old Klansman has told me that they were convinced to do awful things in order to "protect" white girls from what they believed to be the dangers of African Americans. I need to know our nation's and state's entire history so that I can play my role in its future.

History teaches, of course, that the ultimate irony is that white supremacy created the poverty, the family dissolution and, ultimately, the crime (often by example) that so many African Americans battle against today. My compassion and faith tell me that I must help, whether I am asked to or not, and I must do that by encouraging truth and dialogue, however uncomfortable for some. We heal our divisions with knowledge, never with ignorance. And the pride in how far we've come only can happen if we know just how violent and oppressive our race history was--and Mississippi was the worst. To me, that means we've come the farthest, although we're not done. That gives me hope.

As you go forward into this special issue on race dialogue, please have an open mind. Remember that the keepers of the dirty fishbowl want us to remain blind, deaf, angry and quick to blame "the other." And if race dialogue is new territory for you, allow me to dangle this carrot: There is simply remarkable love and forgiveness and hope waiting on the other side of the dirty water.

Please take a deep breath, say a little prayer for strength and dive in. I promise you won't regret it. But take some tissues.

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