The Amazing Institutional Church of God in Christ is on West Capitol Street in Jackson. In 1952, when it was Parkway Baptist Church and had an all-white congregation, I was there as a kindergarten child.
In 2006, I wanted to experience worship in a black church, and because the location was familiar, I picked it. I went early and sat near the back. After a few minutes, an elderly woman who was sitting on the front row came all the way back, bent down, patted my arm and said, "I want you to know you are welcome here anytime."
I was invited to move down and sit with others. As I talked with those on my pew, I told them that I was working on a documentary about race relations in Mississippi. I was quite shocked when a young woman left the choir loft during the service, came over to me and asked if I would like to address the congregation. I went up to the mic and said, "Brothers and sisters..." and was immediately greeted with plenty of "Amens" and "All rights."
It is unfathomable to think that a young, white man would be welcomed into a Bible study and prayer time at a black church and, an hour later, would murder nine beloved church members, allowing one to escape to tell the story. My heart grieves with our brothers and sisters of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
I grew up in Jackson, but after graduating from the Mississippi University for Women (then MSCW), I moved to Canada, where I worked as a student summer missionary. Then, after 30-plus years of teaching, some Vancouver-area students challenged my good memories of Mississippi. Their teacher had shown them the film, "Mississippi Burning." I was there as a guest speaker, but the students were incapable of believing that this older, white woman was not a racist. That event was the impetus for the five-year journey that became the documentary, "Mississippi ReMixed."
While I worked on the film—at first wanting to prove those students wrong—I began to interview people that I would not have otherwise encountered, Jackson Free Press editor Donna Ladd among them. I honestly had never heard anyone talk so knowledgeably about Mississippi's history and the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws. It was challenging, to say the least, to have to listen to someone whose views and understandings were so different from mine.
At the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, I learned that, in 1865, Mississippi and South Carolina enacted the first black codes that became the basis for Jim Crow laws in the Deep South. I listened to recordings of 1963 phone calls from irate Mississippians who used caustic language to express their disgust that Medgar Evers got to explain his objectives for the Jackson Movement on local TV.
As I listened to the stories of black Mississippians, I realized that as a young person, I had only superficial, yet cordial conversations with either black women who worked for our family or with the wonderful cooks at Camp Wahi, where Annie's rolls were legendary and her last name was unknown. I listened to Dolphus Weary, then of Mission Mississippi, tell me that when he was 14, five acres of their land was stolen by a white neighbor who moved the boundary lines. I interviewed him at the Mississippi Public Broadcasting studios and have a photo taken with him afterward. My red eyes belie the smile on my face.
I read "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," by Michelle Alexander recently. I'm sure I would not have read that book without my involvement in the film. I found new information that was both paradigm-busting and truly compelling.
As our culture fractures, there is a growing tendency to limit our intake of news reports and opinion pieces to those that will reinforce our own point of view—in increasingly vitriolic tones. The real challenge today is to understand a point of view different from our own. Yes, we need a conversation about race, but we also need to prepare our hearts and minds for the encounter.
As Dr. Weary says in the film: "We are trying to change Mississippi one relationship at a time. Not the kind of relationship where I tell you what I think you want to hear, but the kind of relationship where I tell you what I think you need to hear. I need somebody like that in my life, and other people need somebody like that in their lives."
We all do.
Visit mississippiremixed.com to learn more about Myra Ottewell's documentary.