Posted May 24th 2010 at 9:40 am by
in First Person Policy

A Letter from Mississippi

I am at the Marriott Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi. My partners arrive tomorrow.  We are working on a communications strategy for an effort to improve educational outcomes for black children.  The donors want more traction for the project in the community.

Tonight before dinner, I walked to the Mississippi state capitol building.  There in front of the white stone building sit three monuments to the perplexing trinity of white Southern identity.  First, a small replica of the Liberty Bell.  Next, just behind it, a marble tribute to the women of the Confederacy, a four-cornered statue, each face carved with a hymn of praise to white womanhood: our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our wives.  This monument scrupulously follows the laws of tribalism by which blood always comes first.  Off to the side and parallel to the U.S. flag stands the Confederate flag, which is Mississippi’s state flag.

I tried to take pictures with my iPhone, but couldn’t fit everything in one frame no matter where I stood.

Then I looked down to discover that, in my enthusiasm for documenting this scene, I trampled the daisies planted around the white women statue. I looked up again and, with a touch of dread, found that there was a state trooper’s car parked directly in front of the capitol, perfectly positioned to witness my accidental desecration. The police car door opened and a black officer, slightly balding and with a bit of a paunch, stepped out. I was instantly relieved. A barely conscious racial calculus let me assume two things: he wouldn’t care about the trampled flowerbed, and if any whites nearby did, he would come to my aid.

Trying to calm myself, I recalled that the whites I met earlier were genuinely friendly.  At the airport, I saw an airport employee, a white woman, pushing a black man in a wheel chair to his departure gate.  She spoke animatedly and touched his back kindly as she asked him which way to go.  Just fifteen years ago, when I worked in the Mississippi Delta as a voting rights lawyer, the social distance between whites and blacks would never have allowed a scene like that.  Now, the airport itself is named after slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

A small exhibit space in the airport chronicles Evers’s life and celebrates prominent black political leaders, business people and educators. Most of the photos date back to the 70’s. In a state that has been majority black for over one hundred years, this handful of success stories seems a paltry basis for self-congratulation. Unlike the Medgar Evers story, the stories of the successful blacks say nothing about commitment, struggle, values or sacrifice. They speak only of positioning and prominence. We don’t know if this federal education secretary who served under Reagan advised his president to cut funding for school lunches or fought like hell to improve childhood nutrition in schools. We cannot tell if the first black appointed judge ruled wisely in a case where the crime was poverty, not venal intent. There is no clue as to whether the first black airport commissioner sought to make up for years of underinvestment by developing black neighborhoods around the airport.

When I left the airport by taxicab, my black driver shook his head when I told him that coming back to the Delta after ten years, I was reminded how much I loved and missed it.  “I love it too,” he said, “but the Delta is hard-time Mississippi.  There is a lot of history and a lot of memories here.”

. . . . . . . . .

Tomorrow I will meet with my friend, the president of the state chapter of the NAACP.  We will continue our conversation about the NAACP’s successful effort, after fifty years, to win political control of sixteen counties that have been majority black since before Reconstruction.   We will talk about how MIT’s bright and motivated planning students can help him support local leaders’ efforts to leverage political control for more public resources and more enterprise development for black constituents.

And the next day, I will travel to the Delta.  I will see towns where no white children enter the public schools and black children are never expected to succeed, where the textbooks still promise a day when humans will go to the moon, where a kindergartner’s temper tantrum can land her in jail, and where the school truancy officer is the local prosecutor, providing a seamless pipeline from the schoolhouse to the jail.

On Tuesday night, seated comfortably on the plane back to Boston, I will reflect on my own twenty-five years of civil rights and social justice work and consider that though these have been the most personally fulfilling years of my life, my efforts have been of far too little value.

I’ll think of my cousin, David, born one month before me, and raised with me like a brother, whose mother married a postman.  The postman died of a heart attack when my cousin was nine, forcing his family to move to public housing in the Bronx. It did not help that my aunt was quietly mentally ill.  Meanwhile, my mother married a medical student who became a successful doctor and moved us to the suburbs.  My sister and I got a great education in suburban public schools and went on to the best colleges. My cousin and his sister, the smartest of my grandmother’s grandchildren, doomed by their father’s death, their mother’s incapacity, and terrible urban public schools, dropped out of high school and into the crack epidemic that crippled black communities in the late 90’s.  His sister graduated to a life-long heroin addiction.  He died last year, also of a heart attack.  It was not clear if he had finally become sober.  None of my fervent advocacy ever reached the conditions in which he lived.

Once, in a meeting of professional civil rights advocates, I asked that each person tell of the person in their lives who, though not physically present, was in the room with them.   Wrenching stories of the ravages of exclusion emerged.  A woman spoke of her brother, promising and bright, but now strung out on crack, leaving his kids to be raised by her mother. A powerful labor leader spoke of the eulogy he gave at his own mother’s funeral.  She had been the family matriarch.  So many cousins came furloughed from prison, he said, that as he began to speak, the clinking of leg cuffs rang throughout the church.  From the podium, he gazed down into a sea of deeply dispirited faces, people who had loved and relied on his mother.  He realized the task of celebrating his mother was not so much about remembering her life, as about lifting up the lives of the loved ones who were barely surviving, standing there before him.  I told the story of my cousin.

I think about my cousin a lot.  To my mind, the lesson of his short life is not that social justice efforts are in vain.  I am still an optimist; I believe that we must continue to struggle and that the universe is a helpful place. To me, the lesson is about the limits of professionalism as a substitute for movement building – which is precisely and disastrously the shortcut taken by the civil rights movement after the death of martyrs like Evers and King.   It is my personal reminder that racial pride and solidarity, while useful, are thin and uncritical salve that rarely reach the deepest historic exclusion.  And this means that regardless of how personally fulfilled I am by the work that I do, I can never forget that the task is not done.

Essay, photos, and audio by Dayna Cunningham.

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