Wednesday, September 29, 2004
Sometimes the light comes from unexpected places. Last week, I sat down in front of my monitor and my e-mail blooped in. There was one from Jill Conner Browne, the Sweet Potato Queen author. I figured it was about her brand-new funny book, out next week. It wasn't.
"I read with shock, appall and dismay the crap in the Ledger today about the plans those @#$%^&*s have for their booth at the Fair—and the 'card' they hope to garner signatures for—in SUPPORT of the Philadelphia murders," Jill wrote.
I swallowed. This was the first I'd heard of Richard Barrett's latest publicity stunt. I clicked over to Jerry Mitchell's story in the Ledger.
Barrett, it seemed, was going to bring Preacher Killen, who was accused of orchestrating the murders in my hometown back in 1964, to the fair and treat him like a hero. He was going to actually take the photographs of those three courageous young men—J.E. Chaney, Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, their families called them—and put big Xs through "the communists," as if he was marking items off a grocery list.
I shuddered at the grossness of it all, but truth be known, I wasn't that surprised. I've interviewed various hate-mongers over the years and, if there's one thing I've figured out, it's that they love media attention. This stunt was gross, but it's tragically predictable that people who dwell in hate will go to tragic lengths to make their point. History teaches that.
Besides, I thought, the state has let those men go free for 40 years. Fair booths are dotted with rebel flags, as are the rodeos held down there near the livestock pens where Jackson police caged young black teenage protesters back in the 1960s in 100-degree heat. The state voted two-to-one three years ago to keep that confounded, hateful Confederate symbol in our state flag, waving over public schools that have nearly completely re-segregated after people fought so hard, and even died, to end segregation back then.
Why would this trick matter?
For a few minutes, I honestly thought that, save amazing folks like Jill, this wouldn't register with Mississippians all that much, either. I was wrong. It was one of those moments—rare these days for me—when I sold my own people short.
I started to realize that later the same day when the owner of a restaurant we love to frequent for lunch stomped up to me with disgust. "What are we going to do?" she demanded to know, tears in her eyes, her face flushed with anger.
Back at the office, the phone started ringing. The e-mails starting piling in. New members joined the JFP blog just to talk about this issue. And most of the comments were coming from my fellow white Mississippians—many of whom I had never even heard raise a peep about race relations in the state. Or the three cases when we covered the anniversary this summer. Hell, I'd even argued with some of them about why we need to keep talking about race and prosecute old race murders.
They were urgent: "Are we going to protest? Are we going to petition? How are we going to stop this? How can we be heard?" "Do we make t-shirts? Bumper stickers?" "What do we do?"
After 40 years of virtual silence on this issue from way too many Mississippians, it seems that Mr. Barrett has touched a nerve. His plan to celebrate the murders of those three men in such an audacious, unfeeling, cruel, even tacky, way is functioning like a bucket of ice-cold water for many people. This is going too far. You don't celebrate murders, even as you've not done a substantive thing to call for their prosecutions.
I relish this response, even as it's long overdue. Ignoring this is not an option. Not to be disrespectful, but the citizens of the state of Mississippi, as a group, have ignored, and thus enabled, this crap for too long. We have sent the message that we think race issues are all over and done with. Here in this law-and-order-fry-the-bastards state, we somehow don't need to prosecute outstanding race murders. Oh, those guys are old anyway. Huh? Try losing your son, or your brother, or your daddy, and see how you feel about it in 40 years. You won't give a flying jackass how old the murderers are, I promise.
As we go to press, this issue is revving up people left and right (literally and politically). Some—including Councilman Kenneth Stokes, a bunch of Jackson State students and an angry cotillion of Northeast Jackson mamas who have e-mailed me—plan to boycott the Fair altogether. Others are furious that the state is allowing Barrett to stink up the Fair in such a way.
I, on the other hand, believe strongly three things about it: I'm glad Barrett did something to stir our collective consciences and shock our senses into finally facing this case squarely; second, we have to speak up; the state has been silent for too long; and third, Barrett has the First Amendment right to be as stupid and obnoxious as he wants to be. It's the American way—we must defend the right to express the most idiotic expression we can imagine if we believe in the U.S. Constitution, and I do.
Oh, but that is the beginning of the story, not the end. Speech does not only flow one direction. The best way to counter disgusting, hate-filled, moronic speech is to talk louder—with actions, words, petitions ("collect a gabillion signatures," as Jill suggested), positive actions and, in this case, love and compassion toward the families of the victims of this horrendous crime.
Mississippians are facing a moment in time when we can, together, call for the end of race-baiting, the disgusting southern strategy (that means you, too, Mr. Barbour) and, yes, we can call for the prosecution of the conspirators in this case with all deliberate speed. Thanks to Mr. Barrett, we can face the past, and learn from it, and use it to teach our children well. We can ensure that it never, ever happens again.
Together, we can face this light—and then let the proverbial truth set us free.
Add your name to the petition calling for the prosecution of the conspirators.
What she said! Thanks Donna for articulating so well what so many of us have felt, and for educating us about the murders. I for one did NOT learn this in a classroom!
I always say with pride that I am a Mississippian whenever I travel far from my southern home. But sadly, many people outside my state will hear of this and make a judgement on our character. This sickens me and I am glad to see so many Mississippians come forward to dispute these plans. Thank you for speaking out against an injustice!
I hear you, DG. That's why we can't ignore stuff like this any longer as some suggest we keep doing, even if it's so obviously a publicity stunt. We need to take the publicity stunts and use them for our own brand of publicityóto show that white supremacists no longer have a stranglehold on Mississippi. The irony, I believe, is that guys like Barrett also get what they want when we ignore their stunts -- that is, for the world to believe that Mississippi is a haven for racists who don't care about racism. I say we make lemonade out of lemons everytime something like this happens. The folks who say to ignore it are simply enabling the enduring myths of Mississippi as a racist state. Then it becomes a self-fulfillling prophecy as people are attracted to Mississippi who want to live in a closed society and those who don't leave, giving the backward goobers a victory. I say we stand up every chance we get, and make up for a lot of lost time in the process. I promise that if we do this enough, those people you talk about outside the state will start saying stuff like, "Wow, we hear something really great is happening in Mississippi." Actually, we're already hearing it outside of here, and it's very exciting. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what they think of us, but what we think of ourselves--but, unfortunately, the outside world's opinion of us affects our collective self-esteem. So, as I always argue, our view of ourselves, and our confidence as a state to reach out and attract (and keep) the best and brightest here, and create high-paying jobs, and build strong communities and lessen crime and improve quality of life, depends on taking care of old business. I truly believeóno, knowóthat open-minded, loving, compassionate, non-racist Mississippians far outnumber the bigots and the demagogues, but we have to prove it to ourselves and others by getting together and getting loud together. That's partly what happened the other night at the voter rally, and it really made an impression on a lot of people. Let's keep it upótogether. It's not dwelling on the past; it's facing it and then moving forward. And this state needs to do that in the worst kind of way. A vital fringe benefit of us getting together is that the Barbours of the world will no longer be able to play the southern strategy. Just the fact that he thought he had to show up at the memorial service for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in Philadelphia this summer spoke volumes to me: the southern strategy is crumbling. Now that it's cracking, let's take a sledgehammer to it like they did the Berlin Wall and relegate those nasty ways to the history books.
Great story, Donna!!! But remember that plenty of people were probably disgusted years ago....certainly as early as 20 years ago. It's just that they didn't have appropriate outlets back then to voice their views. Once again, you have shown that the JFP in general, and especially the interactive blog, is absolutely critical in giving those with non-traditional opinions an outlet to voice their views.
People were definitely disgusted 20 years ago, even 40 years ago. And you're right: They didn't have outlets, and the White Citizens Council targeted anyone who spoke out. People lost jobs; they were threatened. Does that excuse not speaking up against heinous racism? Of course not. However, the point is very good that there has never really been an atmosphere in this state conducive to disagreeing with the demagoguery, even though many heroes have anyway. But now we are facing a time when we can really come together to speak out. And thanks Philip for your comments about the JFP. You've been a wonderful supporter, although we don't always agree. It was great to have met you here!