A Day in Mississippi

Every time I travel to Mississippi from Georgia I’m confronted with a flood of memories. Friends occasionally remind me that Mississippi is no different than any other state in the “deep” south and, on the whole, I know that’s true. Yet, for me, Mississippi invariably rises to the top as the epitome of racial injustice, intolerance, bigotry, economic exploitation and, in spite of all, contradictions. Perhaps this is because its history of oppression is so conspicuous. Mississippi folks concerned about oppression have always challenged it, however. They simply never give up.

After September 11, 2001, George Bush said he was going after terrorists. I thought, “Great, maybe, he’ll go after some of the real terrorists of American citizens, like the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups in Mississippi and throughout the country.” This was a pipe dream, I know.

Mississippi’s bleak contemporary and historical record is legendary and graphically described in books and film. Witness, for example, the founding of the notorious White Citizens Council in 1954 by the Mississippi Delta white elite, partly to counter civil rights achievements, such as the Supreme Court’s Brown v Topeka, Kansas Board of Education decision in 1954 to integrate public schools. As Martin Luther King said in his book “Stride Toward Freedom”:

Then there are the white citizens councils. Since they occasionally recruit members from a higher social and economic level then the Klan, a halo of partial respectability hovers over them. But like the Klan they are determined to preserve segregation despite the law. Their weapons of threat, intimidation, and boycott are directed both against Negroes and any whites who stand for justice. They demand absolute conformity from whites and abject submission from Negroes.

In 1955, there was the horror of the tragic torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers. Till’s death is considered one of the catalysts for the launching of the modern civil rights movement, such as the Montgomery bus boycott in December 1955. In 1963, Mississippi NAACP field director Medgar Evers was assassinated by Byron de la Beckwith who was a founding member of the White Citizens Council. In 1994, after 3 trials, Beckwith was finally convicted of this murder. Then there were the riots at the University of Mississippi when, in 1962, aspiring black student James Meredith attempted to integrate the school. Meredith did attend the university, however, and he did graduate without incident. In 1964 three young civil rights workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner – were murdered by the Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi which was depicted in the film “Mississippi Burning”. There were some minor convictions for these murders, but the case is on-going.

In 1987, I organized the Africa Peace Tour that was sponsored by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, Quakers, Unitarians, United Church of Christ, Oxfam, and others. Mississippi was preeminent in our planning and we started in Biloxi, Mississippi at the Methodist retreat center. With thirty speakers from the U.S. and Africa, our mission was to expose communities in seven states in the South to U.S. policies in Africa, particularly in southern Africa. We focused largely on the struggles of those in Angola and Mozambique whose revolutionary governments had successfully wrenched themselves from Portuguese colonialism in 1975. Subsequently, these countries were being accosted by brutal guerilla factions such as UNITA and Renamo, with the support and encouragement of the U.S. right wing and U.S. religious fundamentalists. As in Mississippi, the U.S. right wing was not going to allow those of African origin claim their independence without a violent response. The U.S. support, under Ronald Reagan, of the South African apartheid government and against the freedom efforts was also a major focus of our discussion. Overall, the parallels of the struggles for justice in the U.S. to that of other countries are always striking.

After Biloxi, we headed to Holmes County in the Mississippi Delta where the black community group we visited assisted rural blacks in accessing some of the government programs available to them through, for example, the federally funded Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO). These included programs such as Head Start for children and other educational and leadership development opportunities. This work was dangerous in the Delta. The windows of their trailer office had been shot out on numerous occasions and harassment by local whites was commonplace. Some of these brave organizers felt compelled to arm themselves for protection.

Toward the end of our tour in Mississippi, the black South African director of the African National Congress’ photography division and I (a white activist) spoke to a group just outside Jackson, Mississippi. Following this we were to meet the rest of the tour group in Jackson, but we got lost and were an hour late. This was in the evening. Other members of the tour were nervous wrecks by the time we arrived. People in Mississippi have been known to go missing without a trace and a multi-racial couple is still not always appreciated in some rural communities in the South.

In Jackson, in my recent visit in Mississippi, I opened the USA Today to read that Emmett Till’s body was being exhumed in Chicago at the behest of the Justice Department to assess how he was killed and then to perhaps explore if there were others involved in that tragic murder. Then, on my way out of Jackson, I decided to head for the Natchez Trace Parkway, which is my refuge in Mississippi. It is a protected park, a “non-commercial” trail from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee that was once used by the Natchez, Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians. There are clusters of ancient Indian mounds along the route that are thousands of years old.

From the Trace, I saw an older black man fishing by the reservoir. I stopped to talk with him briefly as I had questions about the area and hoped he could help. We talked for a while. He had left Mississippi for California in 1955. “Emmett Till”, I said immediately. “Yes, that was 1955” he concurred. “But California wasn’t much different, really,” he said. “Racism is everywhere in America.” He came back to Mississippi in 1998 after his retirement. “It was time to come home,” he said. “My father was a cotton farmer in the Delta and he had left earlier than ’55. I was the last one on the family to leave Mississippi. Mississippi’s changed a lot since 1955 but I came back also to get away from the crime in California. There’s too much of it in Jackson, though. Too many drug problems here.” His wife was from Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Then, on my way back to Atlanta, I continued up the Natchez Trace to State Highway 15 toward Philadelphia, Mississippi in Neshoba County. Klan member, Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killens, is about to go on trial in Philadelphia for involvement in the murder of the three civil rights workers in 1964 and I wanted to get the feel of the city in spite of my limited time. I walked through the clean and spacious courthouse but was not able to go into any of the courtrooms as they were in session.

Then, I walked across the street for lunch at The Coffee Bean. I talked with the young “white” server (probably in his mid-20’s) about the upcoming Killens trial. ” Will it take place in the courthouse across the street?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. Then I asked if he knew the direction of the dam where the young civil rights workers were buried. I know this is sensitive and probably not something people want to talk about, but I thought I’d try. He said, with a brush of his hand, “I don’t have any idea.” He probably did know, though, and he didn’t appreciate me asking as I had expected. I asked him if he was from Philadelphia. He said, “Yes, just a couple of blocks away from here. I was born in Jackson, though, but was raised here in Philadelphia.”

Southern rural whites are inclined to close ranks and are almost always suspicious of outsiders. It takes some time before they’ll trust you ­ if ever. Most closed societies are like this, but in the southern U.S., in particular, white supremacy adds another impenetrable barrier to sharing ideas and opinions.

Thinking about Mississippi reminds me of W.J. Cash and his seminal 1939 book “The Mind of the South”. He describes the “savage ideal” in the South as the use of violence for the maintenance of white supremacy and intimidation generally, by the white elite, to maintain order. Cash explains further, in detail, how the white elite has always used the white working class as pawns and also used religion to control the region and preserve the racial status quo. Some southerners will also say that even today the Klan will not act if it does not have the approval of white business and religious leaders.

Ronald Reagan obviously understood these southern politics when he launched his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Alabama civil rights attorney J.L. Chestnut heard the speech. Below are his comments:

“One sunny afternoon in late 1978 or early 1979, driving back from a Court Martial trial at a Mississippi Air Force Base I heard on the car radio that Reagan would kick off his presidential bid in Philadelphia, Mississippi later that afternoon. That infamous little redneck town is where three young civil rights workers were brutally murdered by law enforcement people and Klu Kluxers during the 1960s. I had not one scintilla of a doubt why Reagan had chosen this little racist symbol of a town, but wanted to hear the actor-politician lie about why he didn’t begin his presidential effort in his native state, Illinois, or in his adopted state, California. I was about 100 miles from the town and decided to head for Philadelphia.

I was more than aware that, Reagan as Governor of California, and District Attorney Ed Meese, (later Reagan’s Attorney General) had treated civil rights demonstrators in California almost as badly as Bull Connor and Jim Clark had treated us in Alabama. I also knew that Reagan had stolen almost all of George Wallace’s coded and demagogic speech about law and order, limited government and states rights. Like Wallace, Reagan never mentioned the word race. They didn’t have to say the word. The message was clear. After Reagan’s speech in Philadelphia, I drove away both sad and angry.

The Reagan rally took place in the town square on the unkempt Main Street, and I would guess that every racist nut in the town was crowded into the square. This writer and only one other black person were present, and he was pushing a gray haired old white man in a wheelchair who appeared already dead. Reagan delivered the most racist speech I had heard since Wallace’s “segregation today, tomorrow and forever “foolishness. Hiding behind the Reagan smile, he proclaimed that without a doubt the South will rise again and this time remain master of everybody and everything within its dominion.” The square came to life, the Klu Kluxers were shouting, jeering and in obvious ecstasy. God bless America.”

Reagan won all of the deep South states in 1980 with the exception of Georgia, that supported its native son Jimmy Carter. His Mississippi speech was noted as pivotal in both his presidential election and Republican victory in the South. Reagan helped to solidify the reunion of whites in America that has been on-going since the Compromise of 1877 when the federal government ended reconstruction in the South. This gave the southern elite the green light for implementation the oppressive Jim Crow policies that destabilized the freedom movement in the South for half a century. The Republican party sold its soul to racist sentiments in the South to take the region officially into the Republican fold.

Without doubt, the present Bush presidency is a direct beneficiary of Reagan’s racist Philadelphia speech. As ever, Mississippi is in the heart of it all…it’s controversy continues.

Many in the South say ‘some things have changed and some remain the same.’ So true.

For 14 years HEATHER GRAY has produced “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news In 1985-86 she directed the nonviolent program at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. She lives in Atlanta and can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.

Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net.