Humanities Council grants address racial tension, healing

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CLARKSDALE – A few weeks ago, vandals defaced a sign along the Mississippi Freedom trail that documents the kidnapping and lynching of Emmett Till.

In May, vandals also scratched out the inscription on the Till marker, located in Money near Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, where the 14-year-old allegedly flirted with a white woman, leading to his murder.

Before that, state Rep.  Karl Oliver, R-Winona, wrote a Facebook post stating that those backing the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans should be lynched. Oliver, whose district includes Money, later apologized.

Incidents like these show that racial tension is still prevalent in the state. The existence of such tension is one reason the Mississippi Humanities Council is funding projects that not only look at the state’s racial history, but also help communities engage in dialogue about those issues.

The Racial Equity Grant program is a two-year humanities-based initiative — led by the Mississippi Humanities Council — which was established with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Since its launch in 2016, the Humanities Council has funded 26 projects through the program.

Applicants can apply for the regular grant, which is between $2,001 and $7,500, or the mini-grant, which is up to $2,000. The next deadline for regular grants is Sept. 15; mini-grants have no deadlines.

Mississippi Humanities Council

Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council

Timothy E. Lampkin, outreach coordinator for the Mississippi Humanities Council, and Stuart Rockoff, executive director for the humanities council, point to several projects as evidence of how well the program is working.

For example, Fannie Lou Hamer’s America is a documentary film that looks at the life of the civil-rights activist through her own voice using interviews, speeches and song.

Fannie Lou Hamer was a prominent figure during the Civil Rights Movement who helped African-Americans register to vote. Hamer also worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

The $7,500 the project received will assist with pre-production of the documentary produced by Monica Land, an award-winning journalist and Hamer’s niece.

Also working on the film and spearheading the educational curriculum are Fannie Lou Hamer scholars and authors Dr. Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis Houck. Keith Beauchamp, an award-winning producer, is executive producer of the film and Joe Davenport is directing and editing the film. Click here to see the teaser for the documentary.

“It is not one of your typical talking heads talking about Fannie Lou Hamer,” Rockoff said. He said the film is using her own words and her own voice to make connections between her struggles in the 1960s and today.

Mississippi Today

Peace Poets pictured with the R.O.O.T.S. of Sunflower County after a writing workshop. 

Another project the council funded was the R.O.O.T.S of Sunflower County: Reclaiming Our Origins through Story. This project stemmed from the Sunflower County Systems Change Project in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, the Mississippi Center for Justice, Sunflower County Consolidated School District and the Sunflower Consolidated School District P-16 Council last summer.

The project addresses issues such as the school-to-prison pipeline and negative perceptions of young men and boys of color. In turn, the project gave young men and boys of color from Sunflower Country an avenue to share their stories about growing up in the Mississippi Delta through public speaking and oral history.

Aisha Carson, advocacy coordinator for Sunflower County Systems Change Project, said the project started as a need to connect youth’s voice and experiences and changing the narrative to a more positive one.

Aisha Carson

“It’s what I call the hearts-and-mind first of policy change. That’s basically working with the guys who are partners of the project to uplift their voice,” Carson said. “We know that the more the community can interact with them in a positive way, the more the narrative will change and then the policy will change as a result of that.”

With funding from the humanities council, Carson said the ACLU of Mississippi was able to host museum exhibits on a bigger scale and production costs of items that go along in the exhibits. The funding also helped offset travel expenses for the boys to attend the exhibits.

Lampkin said he feels the Sunflower County project is one of the best the council has funded thus far.

Tim Lampkin

Timothy E. Lampkin

“That project has went on to do numerous exhibits showcasing across the state,” said Lampkin.

The total amount awarded for the 26 projects was $97,227.

Other funded projects include a series of panel discussions called the 2017 African American Read-In: A Discussion on the Value and Oppression of Black Lives at Jackson State University, which received $1,750. It will explore the Black Lives Matter movement by using the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.

The humanities council also funded a project at the University of Southern Mississippi called Can We Achieve This Togetherness in Our Time?: A Clyde Kennard Lecture Series, which received $1,970. This three part lecture series talked about the life and legacy of Kennard, who tried to integrate the university in the late 1950s.

To check out other projects the humanities council have funded, click here. The humanities council received $250,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, a portion of which was to award grants to community groups, Lampkin said.

“Our argument to them (Kellogg Foundation) is that the humanities has a big role to play,” Rockoff said. “It can’t solve things on its own obviously, but helping support programs that explore the history and look at the continuing impact of racism and white supremacy on our state that this will help to move the state forward.”

Communities have to do a better job of having civil dialogue regarding  racial tensions in our communities that still exist, Lampkin said. He said he knows these conversations are possible and some people aren’t ready to engage in them, but in order to move forward, addressing the past is a part of the healing process.