Returning to Jackson, Mississippi after fifty years to plan a conference of educators scheduled for the following year was a jarring experience. So much had changed – and too much hadn’t. The terror was gone. No more looking in the rear view mirror to see if the cops were coming up behind you. No fear of traveling in a “mixed” car or going to a movie or a restaurant in an integrated group. No anxiety about telling the clerk at the DMV that you lived in Tougaloo, the site of a historically Black college active in the Civil Rights Movement, which marked you as a n-lover. Without the terror, Jackson is a rather bland place, looking all too much like the rest of America, with its familiar fast food chains and its bizarrely out of place high-end shopping areas just off the interstate north of town.
What hadn’t changed was all that lay just under the surface. There may be a Black mayor, but around him the power dynamics and the economic inequities remained the same. Despite some admirable economic experiments initiated by the progressive Socialist mayor, structural systemic racism had hardly lifted its heavy hand off the necks of Black people. The White folks had ceded the city to an impressive array of Black leadership because there wasn’t much but the bleached bones to pick over. Downtown was a wasteland of empty lots, boarded businesses and residences. The same was true of the once vibrant streets that were at the heart of Black Jackson, including the street where my seedy office had been located, above the shop that sold pickled pig ears and housed what seemed like the loudest juke box in town. The schools, threatened with takeover by the state for low performance, were almost entirely Black and poor after the flight of whites to their segregated academies. Mississippi still felt like moral ground zero in America, with Whites retaining almost total control without the need to resort to the various forms of force and terror that had marked their post-Reconstructionist reign for more than a century.
So, what did this all mean for us as White people returning to the most significant battleground of our youth? We came out of a deep and at times self-righteous commitment to social justice largely ignorant of the Black world we were entering. We knew in the abstract the courage that many Black people were displaying in their willingness to put their lives on the line for the right to vote, but we knew little of the complex dynamics at work inside those Black communities – the internal prejudices of skin color and class, the “crabs in a bucket’ impulse to bring down those in your community who were faring better than you, the internalized self-hatred that crippled so many people of color, the incredible resilience in the face of internal and external obstacles. And we hadn’t looked inward to investigate the subtle racism in our own interactions across the racial divide – the resentment of White people in leadership positions that should be occupied by Blacks, all the various actions which demonstrated hidden attitudes toward Blacks that would now be labeled microaggressions.
Yet, we operated inside a bubble of privilege as we moved through the Black world that was our territory in those years. We had made a commitment to social justice, at least interrupting cashing in on the perks of whiteness that awaited us when we returned home, as we inevitably would. That bubble burst with the arrival of Black Power, which exposed with great clarity the deep layers of hostility and anger that Blacks felt toward people like us who had felt protected by the righteousness of our actions. The day I met Bob Moses, one of my Movement heroes, and reached out to shake hands with him only to have my gesture rejected, marked a turning point, a new realization that we had ventured into much more inscrutable territory than we had been prepared to cope with.
Fifty+ years later, so many things had changed in the racial landscapes – riots, mass incarceration of Black men and continued police violence against people of color. On the positive side, there was the emergence of generations of confident and fearless Black leadership liberated from the burdens of segregation and self-doubt. As part of raising awareness of the many inequities facing Black people, they skillfully pointed up all the perks of privilege that carved an easy path through the world for people like me. Yet, here we were back in Mississippi, a group of privileged, almost entirely White contingent of conference planners, whose privilege was marked first of all by the ability to put out the steep air fare to get us there and who thought deep down that just showing up in Mississippi marked us as different from other White folks. All those race issues lay hidden until the final hours of our planning meeting, when a local organizer laid into the group for demonstrating that we didn’t trust him, didn’t find him competent. He was telling us that he didn’t trust this group of White folks with the treasure of his deep connections to the Black community in Jackson, didn’t trust that we wouldn’t embarrass him when we all came together for the conference itself. There it was, never really far from the surface, that deep distrust whose origins are evident to all of us, but which bring on me a sense of weariness, a wondering of whether it will ever end. A dear Black colleague with whom I worked closely for a number of years and with whom I had had some of the most gut wrenchingly honest conversations about race I had ever experienced told me about six years in that she thought she trusted me now “maybe 80%.”
So, on this MLK Day, I waver between wonder at how far we’ve come and despair at the long road that remains to achieving what we naively thought was in reach when we first landed in Jackson.
Marv, you walked a really fine line so beautifully. I remember running into the exact same issues in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. Me naively thinking I was coming to help and my help was interpreted as more colonialism. Not any easy line to navigate.
Thanks, Aviva. Lots of parallels to Peace Corps experiences – domestic vs. international colonialism.
Thanks, Jay. Addressing issues of race publicly is frightening in the current atmosphere, a real minefield.