When Mississippi changed the nation

BY ERROL CASTENS
Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

OXFORD – Mississippi often has been seen as last and worst among the United States, but its struggles to create new racial realities have often put Mississippi at the head of national change.

That influence on American politics was the focus of a symposium Wednesday at the University of Mississippi's Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics. The event is one of dozens planned to tie in with Friday night's planned Presidential Debate.

Dr. Susan Glisson, executive director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss lauded the efforts both of homegrown civil rights workers and of white residents who rejected racism.

“As painful and oppressive and divided as it has been – and in some ways continues to be – it has been its own citizens É that have challenged its worst and made Mississippi better,” she said.

“Freedom Summer 1964” saw the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's demand for representation for black Mississippians at the Democratic presidential convention – a demand rejected by then-President Lyndon Johnson.

Rita Schwerner Bender, whose husband Mickey Schwerner was one of the three civil rights workers murdered in Neshoba County that year, said, “The country was unable to ignore the confrontation É and both Mississippi and the nation were changed by it.”

Charles Cobb had been riding by bus to a civil rights workshop in Texas when he met MFDP chairman Lawrence Guyot in Jackson.

“Lawrence said, Texas? What's the point of going to Texas for a civil rights workshop when you're standing in the middle of Mississippi?'” Cobb recalled. He stayed and became one of the organizers of Freedom Summer.

Noting the Mississippi bombings, lynchings and other race-based atrocities that captured the national attention, he said, “Mississippi did more to get the Voting Rights Act than any other state.”

Guyot said the change continues.

“Today É if you want something done in the Legislature and you're white, you need black votes,” he said. “If you want something done in the Legislature and you're black, you need white votes.”

Dr. John Dittmer, a white professor at predominantly black Tougaloo College during the civil rights movement, said the MFDP was a bellwether in many ways.

“They invited Malcolm X to come to Mississippi to address the FDP, they came out against the Vietnam War long before Martin Luther King did, and É they kept pushing for increases in poverty programs and Head Start,” he said.

Yet another political trend from the civil rights era that was most visible in Mississippi was the shift of white Southerners from the Democratic to the Republican Party.

Clarke Reed, longtime Mississippi Republican chairman, said conservative social and economic values made his party viable in the state, but he's disappointed with their appeal to black voters.

“My vision was that by this time at least 25 percent of the Republican Party would be African-American,” he said. “We are a conservative party in a two-party state. I'm very sorry that we're not a biracial party.”

Dr. Leslie McLemore, a Jackson State University professor and president of Jackson's City Council, said the state's two-party system means both blacks and whites have influence.

“It's really about power sharing,” he said. “We've been struggling with how do we reconcile our differences and how do we bring people into the mainstream.”

Former Gov. William Winter stays with his Democratic roots because of the issues on which the party focuses.

“No party has a corner on being right all the time, but I feel more comfortable with a progressive agenda,” he said.

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.

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