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Ole Miss Prof: Time to Reclaim Mississippi

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On Nov. 6, a growing crowd of young white people gathered in the Circle at Ole Miss to protest the re-election of the nation's first black president. Evidence of their anger, captured on grainy cell-phone footage and broadcast via social media, quickly circulated across the country. And once again, with lightning quickness, the nation began to distance itself from Mississippi, to think of banishing again this "other," this place that could not possibly be like the rest of the country.

It is convenient timing. The vitriolic presidential campaign of the last year saw this president's very citizenship questioned, saw mock lynchings of his effigy and heard spoken coded racial slurs--"the food stamp president" among the more polite ones. It stands to reason in the racially charged climate that such reactions would occur following the election. But it must be noted that these reactions did not occur only in Mississippi.

It might be tempting now for many to fall back on back on old remedies, to tell ourselves that Mississippi is not us, that we do not all harbor these fears of those we deem the "other," that we have not all inherited this tortured history, that we do not all need rigorous self-reflection and honest appraisals of our attitudes and policies that reinforce the cycle of white supremacy, is to tell ourselves a lie.

We are all Mississippians.

Fifty years ago, angry crowds gathered on the University of Mississippi campus, exploiting fear, bigotry and hatred to attempt to prevent one black student from enrolling in school there.

Historian James Silver called Mississippi "the closed society," and it was. The rest of the nation and the world agreed and, through subsequent actions, deemed Mississippi a country apart from the United States, because it was far easier to banish Mississippi than to acknowledge that we are all Mississippians in one way or another. It was easy for the nation to offer Mississippi and the rest of the South as the sacrificial lamb--the scapegoat--to bear its sins of bigotry. It could declare to the rest of the world, "See? It is not us; it's them." With this sacrifice, reinforced over the last 50 years, the rest of the country was quick to highlight continuing transgressions of bigotry and hatred in Mississippi. It was easier than acknowledging its own fears and bigotry.

It is painful to face one's flaws. But along side this catalog of discrimination is an American story of hope, redemption and freedom. It is the story of Mississippi. It has lines from Neshoba County, of Florence Mars and Rev. Clay Lee, whites who refused to acquiesce to the Klan and who condemned the 1964 murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. It has chapters in Ruleville and Jackson, in the spirit and work of Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers, who fought the system of segregation under which they lived but refused to hate white people.

Paragraphs of this story are being written in the lives of young Mississippians, black, white, Latino and Asian, nearly 700 of whom stood Nov. 7 on the campus of the University of Mississippi to affirm that love is greater than hate, justice is stronger than injustice, and who would not allow the fears of a few to return us to a past of inequality and hatred.

We are all Mississippians.

We are choosing to reclaim and redeem "Mississippi." We are choosing, like poet Elizabeth Sewell, to "honor the gift outright," given to us by James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman; James Meredith and Unita Blackwell; Duncan Gray and Will Campbell; Marge Baroni and Victoria Gray Adams,
all of whom believed Mississippi can mean, must mean love and freedom and equality and hope. For if Mississippi doesn't mean that, then our history tells us that "America" doesn't mean those things either; that America remains an unfulfilled promise.

As the writer Charles P. Pierce noted last week in his blog, "[U]ltimately, (our history) is a history of an ongoing demand to be included in the creative project of self-government. That was all the civil-rights movement ever was. That was what all the bloodshed and horror and death and glory were all about. It was a demand to be included in the great project simply because, if some Americans were not included in the project, it never was so great in the first place."

We cannot continue to proclaim ourselves "the greatest country on Earth" if we do not acknowledge our flaws and work to correct them.

We are all Mississippians. Help us now make that word mean something different, something better. We can do it alone but it will grow stronger, last longer, as more of you join us as we take on the difficult task of being honest with ourselves, of rooting out disadvantage and privilege, of uplifting equity and justice, compassion and love. We are all Mississippians. We are one Mississippi, now. We are one America, now. And those who declare otherwise just need our support in recognizing this truth.

Susan M. Glisson is executive director of the William Winter Institute For Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi and an assistant professor of southern studies.

Comments

minms 10 years ago

I agree whole-heartedly. Thanks for saying it out loud. I love voices of hope and change.

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scott62 9 years, 11 months ago

I'm not sure it's even possible to change the distorted image the rest of the country holds towards Mississippi anymore. It's entirely possible that we have wasted a tremendous amount of time and energy trying to change this unfair image without ever stopping to ask ourselves if that same image is really as distorted as we think it is and we must change from within before it becomes apparent to the outside world.

Mississippians live in an impossible society caught in the crossfire of an embarassing past and a humiliating present that finds us ranked last in every major category used to judge the various states by. For five decades we've been fighting an unwinnable war with each other. On one side there exists a group of people who demand justice for past atrocities and the longer these crimes go unpunished, the more vindictive the memory. On the other side exists a group who feels unfairly blamed for crimes committed by those who came before them. The big problem with this scenerio, unfortunately, would be that both sides have a right to feel as they do. The living cannot judge the dead and the frustration of knowing they escaped judgement in life is eternal. It's human nature to want balance, to see good rewarded and bad punished and when there exists a kink in the system in the form of BS justice, someone has to pay. The kink is our past and something that we cannot change but still demands closure. As long as we continue to live at the bottom of all things economic and view ourselves as an embarassment to the rest of the country these feelings will persist.

IMO there is only one hope for our state and it would be in the form of a young leader who would have to be just this side of a messiah. They would have to be a man/woman of extreme intelligence, honor, and a love for this state. And they would have to govern over citizens who were willing to give them our total faith and support in something as intangible as a plan. This person would also have to be black because it must be someone who can address statistics and realities that a white leader would spend all of their time trying to avoid charges of racism. Every solution to the problems of this state is going to ruffle some feathers on both sides and we'd just have to quit crying, get off our soapboxes, and give support to that person and believe in the results. At this point I am more than willing to do that very thing for the sake of my children and the state I want them to inherit.

There are many young men and women out there who possess these qualities and have yet to be corrupted by the lacking ethics and back room political dealings that have turned many a good intentioned politician into an apathetic criminal in Mississippi. It's time for them to step forward and be heard. I long for the day that I can look at Donna Ladd's picture and see an attractive civic minded woman instead of throwing a pencil at my computer screen because we are so far apart on issues.

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donnaladd 9 years, 11 months ago

Wait. What?! You want to throw things at me because Mississippi has a bad race reputation?! Talk about attacking the messenger, dude.

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