By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
Being civil doesn’t mean being a pushover. Case in point, Constance Slaughter-Harvey, the first black woman to graduate from the University of Mississippi’s Law School.
If you think you’ve heard strong opinions about the whole Colonel Reb thing, you’d best not broach the subject with her.
“I prefer not to use the name ‘Ole Miss,’” she told me over the phone earlier this week, as she nibbled her supper after a long day of practicing her trade.
After graduating in 1970, Slaughter-Harvey found that having a degree didn’t mean everybody would respect her.
“One judge called me nigger. Another referred casually to the chimpanzees and monkeys that were overrunning his courtroom,” she said.
Slaughter-Harvey didn’t lose her cool when that happened. She didn’t raise her voice or curse. This from a woman who once went into the stands at an Ole Miss football game, trying to strangle a man who’d thrown a bottle at her as she cheered near the sideline.
“I’ve fought with a few white men in my day – physically,” she said, laughing.
As the Magnolia State slowly dug itself out of the snow and went back to work in the middle of this week, Slaughter-Harvey sounded pert and scrappy, flush with the joy of spending time with her infant grandson, Tre’.
She even waxed nostalgic.
In Forest, her parents had operated what today we’d call a convenience store. “We called it a ‘superette’ – a little supermarket,” she said.
The “Six-Cees” it was named, after her and her five sisters, all of whose names started with the letter “c.” She later bought the building and today practices law inside its familiar confines.
Slaughter-Harvey and I were introduced through a mutual friend, Embra Jackson, the new superintendent of the Starkville District of the United Methodist Church.
She’d represented Embra when, as a student at Tougaloo College, he and some friends were arrested on false pretenses and had their afros shaved off.
Today, when Embra tells the story he holds his hands out about a foot from either side of his head, demonstrating the circumference of his former coiffure.
Wednesday evening I sensed, even over the phone, that Slaughter-Harvey was feeling the same icy tug at her heart as me. The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday was approaching. The sun was sinking over the white landscape and it seemed to put her in a melancholy mood. She started telling me about meeting Medgar Evers just days before he was murdered.
“Aside from my father, I thought he was the most handsome man I’d ever seen,” she said, chewing and shifting the phone on her ear.
“He had a beautiful, powerful blackness about him. He was clean-cut, good-looking. He talked a lot about self-esteem, and when he opened his mouth to speak you couldn’t think about anything else.”
Slaughter-Harvey didn’t really want to talk about her years of service with the Secretary of State’s office, or being appointed to the Presidential Scholars Commission by President Jimmy Carter. The crunching sounds she made over the phone erased any inkling I might have had about false modesty.
Instead, she spoke about the strident tone of today’s public discourse and about how, from a black woman’s perspective, when it comes to the frenzied debate over immigration and health care reform, everything old – and terrible – seems new again.
“You know, I used to get angry with Dr. King when he turned the other cheek when people called him nigger,” she said, resurfacing from the depths of her reflections and nearing a stopping point.
“But I’ve come to understand that so much of who you are is determined by what comes out of your mouth,” she said.
“As concerns the law, I’ve never disrespected the institution, even though it’s sometimes disrespected – and disappointed – me.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org