By Robbie Ward
You may have seen recent articles about Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s comments suggesting that the 1960s weren’t a “big deal” related to school integration in his hometown of Yazoo City. While he may have been a teenager when schools integrated, a GOP political genius like Barbour knows better than to pass off this revisionism as truth.
Like the Mississippi governor and former Republican National Committee chairman, my parents and both sets of my grandparents are from Yazoo City. My father played softball with Barbour growing up in the small community.
Based on my experience in Yazoo City, the Mississippi Delta and the state in general, I have a hard time swallowing Barbour’s nonchalance about racial strife in his hometown during the 1960s. I grew up around men from that era living in Yazoo City who taught an altogether different history lesson.
My grandfather on my father’s side would proudly tell anyone who would listen during integration about his disdain for mixing whites and blacks together. He sent his school-age children to the newly opened private school.
“My kids might go to school barefoot, but I’ll be damned if they go to school with the niggers,” he said repeatedly through the years. While he and others tempered their vehement racial hatred as time passed, no one can honestly suggest that struggles to integrate Mississippi public schools weren’t a big deal. In many parts of the state even today, integration never took hold.
I grew up around the constant reminder of race in Mississippi, often from my own family. After my parents divorced, I attended public school in Yazoo City for a couple of years and then in Greenville, another Delta town about a hour from Yazoo City. Of the 115 classmates in my senior class, 110 were black, four were white and one was Vietnamese. Most whites in the Delta still avoid public school. Race is such a factor still in Mississippi that to this day, my parents don’t know that I took the valedictorian of my class, a black woman, to the prom.
Beyond Barbour’s comments, recent experiences serve as reminders of Mississippi’s reprehensible past. They also resurrect the Faulkner quote about the past never dying in the South. During a recent trip to Clarksdale, another Mississippi Delta city, someone I visited took me to lunch at the city’s country club. As we walked toward the door, he casually mentioned that the place was still whites-only. The country club in Yazoo County is still whites-only too.
As a native Mississippian with a desire to improve this place, I acknowledge the state has plenty of nightmares in its past. However, denying or sugarcoating a reprehensible history will not advance Mississippi. In fact, it only advances a farce of a narrative many whites from that time want to believe-that life for blacks in the South during that time wasn’t that bad after all. That same narrative suggests that all the blacks living in poverty in Mississippi could turn their lives around if they weren’t so lazy.
The Magnolia State has made many strides since Barbour’s years growing up in Yazoo City, when he listened to the girls instead of choosing to listen to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the fairgrounds.
Mississippi has made significant efforts to prosecute homegrown terrorists who sought to destroy the chance for the American dream for the part of the population who happened to be born with a different skin color. Mississippi has one of the largest number of black elected officials and graduates many future black physicians, engineers, teachers and attorneys each year. The nonprofit organization Mission Mississippi works with a number of communities throughout the state to help create dialogue between majority white churches and majority black churches. Many Mississippians born decades after public school integration no longer view life from the distorted lens of white and black, but the lens still exists.
With each generation, incremental change brings progress, sometimes more.
While Mississippi continues to change, the past remains bloody, hateful and painfully the same no matter how much some of us want to think of it as something else.
As community and civic minded people throughout Mississippi and the rest of the nation dream of a better place, we should work on changing the future, not the past. Looking at the state of things around us, the present seems like a good place to start.
A lifelong Mississippian, Robbie Ward has a master’s degree in public policy and administration from Mississippi State University and has worked as a journalist for several newspapers in the state, including the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. He lives in Starkville. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.