Quote of the Day:
“Mississippi has come a long way.” –cliche
TB watched the excellent ESPN 30 For 30 documentary tonight, Ghosts of Ole Miss, written and narrated by Wright Thompson of Clarksdale.
I started not to watch. I know the story. I’ve read about it, seen the news clips, heard the stories from people who were in school that year. But since this show was intertwined with football, I relented. The subject matter in case you don’t know was the integration of Ole Miss by James Merideth which coincided in time with the Rebels’ best ever football team. Maybe I learned a little bit, I don’t know. I still think I’ve seen most of it. Some of the interviews Thompson conducted with players on the ’62 Rebels were interesting, even more interesting were the interviews he was refused.
If you are not aware of what happened the night before James Merideth registered at Ole Miss, you should catch the show when it re-runs. If nothing else, it will help southerners understand why African-Americans hate the Confederate battle flag so much. It will show other Americans, I hope, that not everyone in the South is/was filled with the hate they think we are. It reinforces to everyone how far Mississippi has come.
But how far have we come? That is the question I, as a Mississippian and as an old history major, am contemplating tonight.
I was born in 1970, eight years after the events of the film took place. In first grade I sat behind a black kid named Anthony. I played basketball with black kids bussed in from Carver Village–the projects–and it seemed perfectly normal. By the time I was marginally politically aware, the state legislature was well integrated, the football teams at Ole Miss and State were majority black, and I had no idea what lynching even meant. All white rule, white boy sports and organized racially motivated murder were not only matters left in the past, they were parts of history I knew nothing about until my second decade.
When I finally began to learn about the painful parts of Mississippi history–a glossed over version of it, at that–I took comfort in the already popular refrain repeated by not only thoughtful Mississippians like William Winter and Willie Morris, but by national personalities like Dan Rather: “Mississippi is not like that any more. It has come a long way.” It was reassuring. Still is. I’ve been hearing that tonic at the end of civil rights era stories now for thirty years. Nobody wants their homeland to be history’s villain.
When you compare race relations, racial attitudes, hate and violence as they exist today in Mississippi (or anywhere in the US) with 1962, it is a no-brainer. We are light years beyond those times by most measures–not all. Most people ignore the fact we self-destructed a large majority of our small towns and schools in the interest of fleeing the neighborhood when a black person moved in. The economic and social fallout from my state’s reactionary predecessors and their disciples in my own generation will be a fact of my entire life. Still, things are indisputably better. But 1962 was pre-me.
How far have we come since, say, 1980?
I am not sure about that. On the one hand I think there have been continued, demonstrable improvements in standards of living, numbers of professionals, legal protections, and day to day civility and respect between people of all races. On the other hand it is my sense that now more than ever, in my time, and by no means limited to Mississippi, the smoldering, oppressive, inexorable spread of hate is accelerating just beneath the surface of American life. Irrational. Ignorant. Self defeating.