Tomorrow, in honor of the last day of class for my intro students, and to wrap up the section on civil rights, it’s movie day: specifically, volume 5 of Eyes on the Prize, entitled “Mississippi: Is this America?”
William Faulkner famously wrote that ”[t]he past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” And certainly there have always been those who refused to let the past die, the titular single-term governor of Mississippi, whose name—probably forever—stains the reservoir from which Jackson (70% black) gets its drinking water, chief among them. The poisonous atmosphere fed by Barnett and his ilk led to the riots at the University of Mississippi over the admission of James Meredith to its law school and the murders of the “Philadelphia Three” civil rights workers. He certainly wasn’t the first or the last to contribute to this atmosphere—senators Bilbo, Stennis, Eastland, and (arguably) Lott did their fair share as well—but he has the singular distinction of being front-and-center during the worst of it all.
The political scientist’s question has to be “what was the point of it all?” In retrospect, the end of segregation seems inevitable, and perhaps those caught up in the moment might not have been able to see it, but 1960 wasn’t 1860—secession, not to put to fine a point on it, lacked viability, and several decades of at least limited desegregation outside the South, and in institutions like the armed forces, had enabled African-Americans to prove beyond a doubt that they were the equals of whites. Maybe these messages didn’t filter down to whites in the South, but they clearly did to blacks, who finally had substantial political support outside the region for desegregation for the first time since Reconstruction. Did southern elites just hope that it would all blow over? Were they that out of touch with reality?
The more personal question—to be asked by someone who, for better or worse, considers himself an adoptive Mississippian and is a native Southerner (despite the accent, or lack thereof)—relates to how much we (the South) lost because of that intransigence. Yes, the short-sighted calculus of “how can we elites hold on to power for a few more years?” explains a lot of their behavior—but at what cost? Our parents’ and grandparents’ willingness to put up with the grandstanding behavior of a bunch of pathetic political hacks who were afraid that blacks would turf them out of their privileged positions of power cost us—black and white—years of continued economic stagnation and undereducation, and forever tarred us, our state, and our region.
And, tomorrow, I have to continue doing that. I hope that my students will realize that what happened then isn’t what’s happening now, that Mississippi has truly turned the corner. But many of them will walk out just knowing a piece of the story—that some of us decided, long before I was born, that maintaining their place in the hierarchy was more important than anything else, and anyone who stood in the way of that would have hell to pay. So, Ross, thanks for the memories.