Racial Reconciliation in Mississippi

This May is the 50th anniversary of the “Freedom Rides” that broke down the segregation of transportation in the Southern states. The burning of one of the buses in Anniston, Alabama, the brutal beatings of riders in Montgomery, Jackson and elsewhere, and the imprisonment of hundreds in Mississippi riveted the attention of the nation and led to Federal intervention to guarantee this right to equality in interstate commerce.

We went to Jackson, Mississippi, to participate in this year’s gathering of JustPeace, the United Methodist movement for conflict transformation and mediation. Our gathering lifted up these and other memories of the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties to explore the work of healing and reconciliation that is going on as people remember these horrific events, the sacrifices of those who gave their lives, their time, and their treasure to overcome the curse of racial injustice.

We met at the Galloway United Methodist Church, across the street from the Capitol. Sunday evening we went to a packed auditorium to see a new play by UNC-Chapel Hill, playwright Mike Wiley entitled “The Parchman Hour.”

Freedom Riders who were arrested in Mississippi were sent to Parchman Penitentiary and subjected to beatings, harassment, and brutal prison conditions for up to 45 days. While at the prison they kept their spirits up by composing variety shows of skits, songs, stories, and sketches typical of a radio variety show. Think Gulag Garrison Keillor.

Presented by an energetic cast of students, most of them from the University of North Carolina, it mesmerized us for over two hours. Within minutes my eyes were moist with memory as I thought back to my own experiences in Little Rock in the summer of 1964, when James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Philadelphia, MS, for their civil rights work.

In attendance were three of the original riders as well as dozens of people from that era. It was a rare experience of catharsis and renewal of energy in the face of our amnesia and apathy. If you have a chance to see it, don’t miss it.

On Monday we had an hour of discussion with former Governor William Winter, probably the most progressive of Mississippi’s governors since World War II. Vigorous in his late eighties, his own commitment to racial justice and reconciliation was clearly evident, even though it was also clear that he has had to make many compromises to gain the office he held, including a “hard on crime” stance that has put legions of young Black men in prison.

Indeed, as one of our members pointed out to us later, there are as many Black men in jails and prisons now as were enslaved in the old South. In honor of his own work for racial justice, the University of Mississippi, scene of much of the brutality around integration, has created a Winter Center for Racial Reconciliation, which has fostered local efforts around the state.

After a brief time to talk with the actors, who charmed us with their passion, intelligence, and commitment, we visited the home of Medgar Evers, the leader of the Mississippi NAACP who was assassinated in front of his home in 1963.

The home is now maintained by Tougaloo College and has become a much-visited venue for educating people about the work of Evers and the Civil Rights movement. It was thirty years before his killer was finally convicted. The simple one-story home was used in a film, “The Ghost of Mississippi,” about these events and is meticulously re-decorated for that era.

Our next stop was Tougaloo College, founded immediately after the Civil War as part of the massive effort to provide education and new life skills for those who had been emancipated into the fearsome desperation of a society in ruins.

We were given a tour of the buildings by two students (“Ambassadors”) who showed us both the brand new modernistic dorms and academic buildings and also some buildings in considerable delapidation – still a work in progress.

We then visited their legacy structure – the old original chapel – built in the plain New England preaching hall style of the mid nineteenth century. The inside is completed lined with wainscoting from floor to gable. Magnificent beams, erected by the students of the day, support the roof. It has heard the voices of Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and many others. Tougaloo was a major center of refugee within a state as repressive as the East Germany of old.

Indeed, as Jerry Mitchell, a reporter from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, pointed out to us in a talk on the campus, every move of any possible dissident was reported and recorded by the State Supremacy Commission, which echoed the Stasi of East Germany down to the sanctions visited on the wayward and the extensive files that have only recently been opened to the public.

That such an attack on civil liberties could have existed in America’s recent past is shocking. That its work has been so little exposed should give us pause. Jerry Mitchell, with many a Mississippi-style story, led us through his often painful, sometimes poignantly humorous, efforts to  expose the murderers and bring them to trial in the decades after their crimes. He is preparing a book of these stories, “Race Against Time,” that he hopes to publish in the near future. Because of his efforts and those of others, four of the murderers are now serving prison terms.

After Mitchell’s talk, Leroi Clemons told us about his work with the Philadelphia Coalition, which was formed in 1989 to honor the sacrifices of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman by promoting the work of healing and reconciliation in their region.

Through many arduous meetings in circle to break the silence and get to know their fellow citizens, they have made Philadelphia a place of hope for overcoming the legacy of oppression that the city had come to signify.

For me, his talk was a real moment of healing as the town that had burst into my consciousness as a place of evil in 1964 began to become a place of reconciliation and hope.

We closed our time together the next day with a simple worship led by Mississippi’s Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, who has been one of the most active leaders in the JustPeace movement. On the table was Sylvia’s Katrina Cross, which went from our table to yet another meeting where it continued to symbolize the work of bringing beauty out of destruction.

We then set out for home across the pines and rolling hills of the deep South upcountry accompanied by the news of people’s sacrifices in Libya to find their freedom from tyranny. In the last few days, with memories of Katrina in our minds, we are anguished by the destruction of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Press on with your journeys of renewal!