A half-century ago, the little tableau I saw unfold last week simply would not have happened.
Mississippi State University hosted the 2013 Mississippi American Legion Boys State program last week, and I watched as Gov. Phil Bryant posed for several photographs with the newly elected governor of Boys State.
Bryant shook hands with his counterpart and engaged him in friendly banter, then put his arm around him in a congratulatory hug as the photographers took care of their business. The young man, Horn Lake High School product Malik Pridgeon, seemly equally happy for his face time with Mississippi’s governor.
Bryant’s white. Boys State Gov. Malik Pridgeon is African-American. Bryant was elected governor in a state with a solid white majority. Pridgeon also was elected by a constituency that was majority white. The point is that Pridgeon’s election as governor of Mississippi Boys State was a non-event from a racial standpoint.
In 2013, race was not a component of the scene. Mississippi’s governor congratulated Mississippi’s Boys State governor. Period. It was as things should be.
No matter how traumatic it was for the people of this state, the racial progress enjoyed today in Mississippi is a directly product of the racial atrocities that took place in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s. Without the blood sacrifices of civil rights martyrs like Mack Charles Parker, Emmitt Till, Medgar Evers, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Vernon Dahmer and so many others, Malik Pridgeon’s opportunities today might well be as limited as were those of Evers before him.
The assassination of NAACP Field Director Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963, was particularly cowardly and particularly jarring to the sensibilities of white Mississippians. Evers was gunned down in the driveway of his Guynes Street home in Jackson.
The manner in which Evers died and his widow, Myrlie’s public stoicism in the wake of his death, was an event that fomented the seeds of real change in this state. Clearly, those seeds did not flourish overnight.
It took Mississippi 41 years to convict anyone on state charges in the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by the Ku Klux Klan in Neshoba County. It took Mississippi 31 years to convict Byron De La Beckwith on state charges in the assassination of Evers.
But change did come. That change came in the fact that Malik Pridgeon and other black young people in Mississippi can now enjoy a reasonable expectation of achieving great things based on their own drive and abilities.
Those who believe Evers’ death is not perhaps more meaningful today than it was a half-century ago in Mississippi haven’t watched – as I did last week – the next generation of Mississippi young people interact. They get it. They understand. And for the most part, they live it.
Who knows? One day in the not-so-distant future it may be Gov. Pridgeon encouraging the new young governor of Mississippi Boys State.
SID SALTER is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.