Mississippi – a place where some of the nation’s poorest people live on some of the world’s richest soil, a place with the nation’s highest illiteracy rate and some of the world’s greatest writers.
-- Investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell, in his book Race Against Time
Audemus jura nostra defendere. [We dare defend our rights.]-- The official state motto of Alabama, as depicted on its coat of arms
The civil rights era in Mississippi and Alabama is now honored in magnificent memorials.
In Jackson Mississippi the Civil Rights Museum opened in 2017 with state and philanthropic support is strikingly beautiful, given the history it records. Montgomery, Alabama, has a Legacy Museum portaying “enslavement to mass incarceration” and a park where stanchions represent thousands of Black men and women lynched in the decades of Jim Crow – an exceptionally powerful double encounter. Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative raised money privately from across the U.S. for Montgomery’s installations.
Jackson’s airport is named after Medgar Evers, the NAACP leader who was murdered in his driveway in June 1963. Evers’s home is now open to the public and managed by the National Park Service. You can still see the bullet hole shot through the window and into the kitchen.
Birmingham, Alabama, has a civil rights park downtown, across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where in September 1963 four young girls were killed by explosives set off by the Ku Klux Klan. Later in May there will be a re-creation in the park of the Children’s Crusade for civil rights, started in that time, around a statue in tribute to the dead girls.
The University of Mississippi – Ole Miss in Oxford – is now almost 25 percent minority students. It was zero in 1962, when federal marshals and troops accompanied James Meredith in his effort to enroll as the university’s first Black student.
Nearby Courthouse Square is anchored by Square Books, founded in 1979 by Richard and Lisa Howorth, one of the country’s leading independent booksellers. Dining and shopping are all fashionably upscale. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner’s home, known as Rowan Oak, has been preserved intact and is open to visitors.
The University of Alabama – the vaunted Crimson Tide in sports – has about 20 percent minority students. The number-one pick in this year’s National Football League draft was Alabama’s Black quarterback Bryce Young, the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner.
A group from the Pike Road Middle School in Montgomery County, a public school outside the city limits with almost 55 percent African American students, was touring the Legacy Museum when I was there last month. “Honestly,” a teacher told me, “the kids barely know what color is.”
In Marion, Alabama a small city where Jimmie Lee Jackson was severely beaten and shot to death by a state trooper for participating in a civil rights protest in 1965, there is now a K-9 charter school, adding a grade each year. The student body is multiracial, a teacher told me. The head of the school came to Marion as a Teach for America fellow and stayed. There are four charter schools in the state, she said.
There are so many symbols of the civil rights movements with more to come – Martin Luther King Jr. thoroughfares are standard everywhere – that the deep complexities of matters of race and class are underestimated. The longstanding conflict between restrictive states’ rights and federal laws continues in many more states than Mississippi and Alabama, as it has since the nation’s founding. The struggle for full equality, justice, and freedom continues and must still overcome the many obstacles of status and bias that human nature presents.
Selma, Alabama, is an iconic symbol of civil rights activity. Here is where the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the confrontation with local police and state troopers known as “Bloody Sunday” in 1965. Every year dignitaries, presidents and luminaries galore descend to Selma to show solidarity with the past. And yet downtown Selma is so decrepit, so devoid of people and commerce, that the bridge walk is a metaphor for continuing contradictions.
In the Mississippi Delta, where so much civil rights activity took place in towns like Yazoo City, Greenville, and Indianola, poverty is pervasive, with population declines reflecting the loss of opportunity and, by now, hope. Passing Yazoo City, I looked up the statistics for its local schools. They are effectively 100 percent African American. The white students are less than 1 percent. All the students are eligible for free lunch and the performance rating is near the bottom of all state schools.
Indianola has a rollicking tribute museum to the great blues performer B.B. King (definitely worth a stop). The wall of donors is topped by Jim and Donna Barksdale. He was a former CEO of Netscape, and his family’s philanthropy includes a more than $100 million program to provide teachers with the skills to teach children to read. It is considered a great success. The Barksdale impact is elsewhere, including at Mississippi Today, the non-profit news organization that is a major part of the state’s media culture. Mississippi Today is the recepient of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting about the diverting of millions of state welfare dollars from the poor to benefit among others former NFL quarterback Brett Favre.
It is in politics and other measures of social and economic progress where the divide in Mississippi, in particular, remains wide.
Jackson is now a majority Black city with a Black mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba. It has steadily lost population as the white and Black middle class have moved to the suburbs. The crime rate is high and there is a crisis of water quality.
Here are the opening paragraphs of a New York Times story from April summarizing what has happened:
For weeks, Mississippi’s overwhelmingly white and Republican Legislature has had an often-heated debate over the relationship with its overwhelmingly Black and Democratic capital city, one that reflects the national differences over race and politics writ large…
On the final day of March, the Legislature sent Gov. Tate Reeves new legislation imposing a state-controlled police force and a second court system within the boundaries of Jackson…..
There already is a area around the capitol building and state offices that is in, in effect, a “Green Zone” of security.
Major portions of the city seem to be rundown or abandoned. The Medgar Evers home in a remaining middle-class neighborhood of Black residents is now twenty minutes from the nearest supermarket.
A young Black man working in a hotel was one of many people who answered the same question from me, How’s it going?
“Fifty-fifty,” he said, “We’re having this conversation and that’s big.” I saw Black diners, customers, and students from Jackson’s colleges, including the historically Black Tougaloo College, wherever people would gather in any urban setting with a recognizably comfortable vibe.
But he – and others – expressed frustration with Jackson’s political leadership, whom everyone described as disappointing, and with the state officials’ determination to limit access to Medicaid, abortion, voting, and funding for essential services. A Black man in his seventies said he thought the economy was better in the 1960s, the kind of comment that, if not true in every respect, represents a view that seems to be common.
There will be a gubernatorial election in the fall, and Governor Reeves is polling poorly. Democrats are impressed with Brandon Presley (a second cousin of Elvis!), who is one of three elected members of the state Public Service Commission. His agenda would deal with the myriad policies that primarily effect the Blacks and the poor.
The segregationist Mississippi I first visited in 1962 as a college student is long gone. There are many ways in which Mississippi and Alabama are reckoning with their pasts. It is the present in which these states – and the entire U.S. – confront immense social, economic, and political problems not yet ready for memorials.
Good, smart tour of two states that have come a long way up from the oppressive, humiliating and third-world-level economic conditions of Jim Crow, 1962. I'm no expert on what life was like for blacks in 1962 Mississippi/Georgia/Alabama, but I do know that the old Jim Crow South of 1948 was much worse. The details were first told to readers of the white North by a Pittsburgh star newspaperman who spent the month of May in the Deep South disguised as a black man. What Ray Sprigle wrote in his pioneering first-person, angry 21-part series shook up the entire country. Here's more info about this forgotten undercover journalism mission and a link to his original series, which is still timely and powerful today. https://clips.substack.com/p/undercover-in-the-land-of-jim-crow-676