Hauntings from the Magnolia State
The Personal is Political series, Post 1
During the summer of 1963, six months before the assassination of President Kennedy, Medgar Evers, a Black Mississippian, was murdered in Jackson just days after he assisted several young Black activists with an attempt to attend the two biggest churches in Jackson, First Baptist and Galloway Methodist. The effort was met with resistance.
Evers had been a central force in disrupting the state’s systemic racism, especially around voting rights, and his murder indicated the racist fervor poisoning the dominant culture populated by White Christians. The Evers murder followed in a line of thousands of murders of Black men including Emmett Till, the 14-year-old lynched in 1955. Recorded lynchings (as opposed to unrecorded ones) over the decades from the 1800s to the 1950s exceeded five hundred within Mississippi alone. Tragically, the local authorities were not reliable defenders of anything but the horrid racist status quo.
In 1964, months after the Evers murder, what became known as Freedom Summer resulted in a flock of over seven hundred civil rights activists from the northern states joining local Black activists to assist with voter registration efforts and to teach the under-served youth of Mississippi in Freedom Schools on the cusp of long-awaited integration of the state’s public education systems.
Despite the orchestration for equality afoot, F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, who did not hide his disdain for the Civil Rights Movement, insisted that the federal government would not give protection to civil rights workers, but that protection would remain “in the hands of local authorities.”
That proclamation did not last long. The presence of the activist outsiders had not been welcomed by White locals, and soon violence answered it. With three civil rights workers missing, suddenly the entire country had its eyes on Mississippi.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” in employment practices and public accommodations and was signed into law on July 2, 1964. In Mississippi, the preceding weeks foreshadowed the impossibility of its implementation in the hot coals of the racist South. The nation’s gaze landed on Mississippi soil when concern mounted over the disappearance of the three civil rights workers, two from New York. Under pressure from President Johnson, Hoover, announced the opening of a field office in the last state to receive such a resource. The urgent effort to staff the office would hit close to home. Daddy delivered the news around the kitchen table. We were moving
again. Next stop, Jackson, Mississippi.
Daddy reported to his new assignment on August 4, 1964, the day an informant showed the authorities the earthen dam where the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwener had been buried. Decades later, Daddy still recalled that detail as a keyhole through which the subsequent years could be seen.
At the end of a long day of unpacking in our new house in north Jackson,
Daddy came into the bedroom where my younger sister and I were already tucked into our beds. Daddy was taller than most fathers, six feet six inches tall. To say I looked up to him was an understatement. He squatted near me, getting close to eye level, his fresh regulation haircut bringing an unfamiliar harshness to his profile. “Tomorrow we’re going to practice walking to school again.” he said. “You’re almost a first grader, Sharon.” He stated it as an accomplishment, so I smiled.
The school was so close we could almost see it through the pines in our
backyard, and opening day drew near. The way Daddy told it, Momma would watch from the window as I walked up the hill with the rest of the children from our street. I took his hand and my small fingers started fumbling with his massive palm. “But what if I can’t find my teacher?” I asked, revealing a fear that had been building ever since Momma and I picked out a red plaid satchel from the Sears catalog. My tummy gurgled, leaving a sour taste in my mouth.
“All the grown-ups will be there to help you, and you’re a smart girl.
I would be there if I could, but I can’t. My job is to make sure children in
another school are safe. We want them to be safe, don’t we?” He stood up,
suggesting my answer. “Don’t forget to say your prayers, girls.” He reached to the twin bed next to mine and gave Ellie a kiss on the forehead. “Nightie-
nite,” he said as he turned out the light.
I wanted to creep down the hall, sneak near enough to the living room
to hear the grown-up conversation between Daddy and Momma. Instead, I
slipped onto the floor as I had been taught and folded my hands under my
chin. “Please let me find my teacher,” I eeked out, “in Jesus name, amen.” And with that, I hopped back on the bed and pulled the covers over my head with one question burning in my mind: Why did other children need MY daddy to keep them safe?
What could Daddy, a 32-year-old born and raised of Scandinavian parents in Minnesota, have been thinking as he walked away from us that
night? His oldest child was to begin first grade the very year that Mississippi’s slow roll toward integration was set to begin — with six year olds. Had he calculated the meaning of the Confederate symbol emblazoned on the state flag? Was he concerned at the national ranking of a Mississippi education, near the bottom of the fifty states? Did he wonder how Mississippi would mold his girls? Did he imagine the power of prejudice?
Writer’s note: Here we are, sixty years later, still haunted by hate. Tyre Nichols and all the souls who have been slain in the name of evil, may you rest in power.
Learn more: National Museum of African American History and Culture, Mississippi Civil Rights Museum
Read more: Gwin, Minrose, Remembering Medgar Evers (2013); Jones, Robert P., White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity (2020)
View: Mississippi Burning (1988), PBS American Experience: Civil Rights, Episode One (Mississippi Justice)
This is the first entry in my new The Personal is Political series and appears as an uncustomary Sunday post. “Hauntings from the Magnolia State” is excerpted from Circling Toward Home (2021). Additional excerpts relating to my childhood in the context of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi will appear in future February posts. The Personal is Political series will join the other topical strands that have found a home in my column.