Look away, Dixie Land, part 2

Published 7:09 pm Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Last week I wrote about things old and things new in Mississippi, places like Gallery Four in the just-opened civil rights museum and the historic Forks in the Road slave market in Natchez. I hinted at their shared connection — tourism potential — and noted that not everyone in the state is thrilled by the pairing. Some folks question the push to rebrand past struggles as tourism products. You can count conservative radio talk show host Kim Wade of Jackson’s WYAB 103.9 FM among them. 

Wade, who is black, believes such a focus tends to profit some at the expense of others: “Civil rights is an industry here in Mississippi just like the blues industry or the catfish industry. There seems to be a concerted effort by some type of invisible hand to constantly revisit the physical harm and degradation of the Jim Crow and slavery eras. Not to discount it and say it didn’t happen, but dwelling on it keeps people angry and unable to move to the next level.”

Wade understands anger. During his 1979 graduation from Morehouse College, he fell captive to the words of the commencement speaker, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Wade says he spent his next years “dining at the banquet table of hate” before returning to the Christian faith of his family. He tells of watching the television miniseries Roots with his grandmother and her advice to focus on his opportunities, not anger. “That’s what needs to happen today. Our kids are angry in the face of all this opportunity, even though they haven’t picked one piece of cotton or had one whip put to their backs. The injustices of the past were injustices, but nobody should be held hostage for it forever. There should be an endgame here,” says Wade.

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Reaching an endgame in Mississippi’s civil rights saga may ultimately hinge on how it teaches its history. In 2011, the state became one of the first in the nation to institute civil rights education standards for its schools, but providing the means necessary to reach those standards has been sluggish. Research conducted by the Hechinger Report and Reveal shows that nearly all of the state’s 148 school districts rely on outdated social studies textbooks.

But books don’t have to be the only learning tools. In an innovative move, the McComb City School District in 2006 hired Vickie Malone as racial reconciliation coordinator. Malone has since come to teach at the Mississippi School for the Arts, but her work in McComb — the collection of oral narratives from locals who lived during the tumultuous 1960s — gained national attention. For McComb, it was a new kind of publicity. TIME magazine once called the city “the toughest anti-civil rights community in the toughest anti-civil rights area in the toughest anti-civil rights state in the Union.”

As part of her course, Malone focused on a 1961 walkout orchestrated by students at McComb’s all-black Burglund High School. The event protested the expulsion of Brenda Travis, a teenager arrested for her involvement in a Greyhound bus station sit-in.  Malone says it was the only such walkout in the country: “Many of those involved are still living in McComb. What we discovered in the classroom was kids didn’t know their grandparents were heroes.”

Malone also remembers an instance when a student had a different kind of revelation: “We were in a home, and she was leaning into an interview when the subject got very wound up talking about the Klan. Sarah asked her why people back then didn’t just call the police. The lady looked at her and said, ‘Honey, we couldn’t call the police. The police were just as much a part of the problem as everybody else’.”

According to Malone, the blood drained from the student’s face: “Her grandfather was McComb’s chief of police during the ’60s. She was changed by that experience.”

Evolving attitudes are evident on a large scale as well. Jackson has renamed its airport in memory of assassinated activist Medger Evers. Mississippi elects more black officials than any other state. And then there is the new civil rights museum The Washington Post calls “a game changer.” Is it enough to finally quell the state’s racial tensions?

Kim Wade says that’s not the right question. He believes the key to resolving lingering issues is to determine whether the parties involved are sincere: “We all have sin in our hearts, and Scripture admonishes us about holding grudges and failing to forgive. Injustices of the past never give blacks or anyone else a pass on this Biblical command.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.