Two panel discussions Thursday celebrated key moments of Mississippi’s contribution to the national civil rights movement coupled with admonitions of the work that remains to bring full equality for all.
“Where do we go from here — we haven’t answered that yet,” said historian Clayborne Carson, referencing the title of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 book.
“Getting civil rights (through laws passed by Congress in the 1960s) made us complacent about human rights,” Carson said.
He lamented that after what seemed to be the success of the 1960s civil rights movement he never imagined that his grandchildren today would continue to be faced with “the race problems that exist in our society now.”
Carson’s comments came in a conversation with Ole Miss visiting professor W. Ralph Eubanks during the second of two panels on the importance of Mississippi to the national civil rights movement. The discussions were held in the House chamber of the Old Capitol.
“Power was more important than success,” said Emilye Crosby, noting that plantation owners maintained control over the lives of tenant farmers, at times telling them what crops to plant and how to cultivate them.
Crosby, whose family allowed her stay in the public schools following integration and now teaches black studies at the State University of New York/Geneseo, argued that the way segregation and the civil rights movement is taught today leaves younger generations with an incomplete version of the basic issues confronting blacks, particularly in rural areas.
Black tenant farmers were left in a cycle of almost endless debt, noted Charles Cobb, an activist and author of several books, including “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get you Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible.”
Cobb noted that both World War I and II opened new avenues for blacks in education and their perspective on the world. And one other experience played a role, he said: Black soldiers “learned that they could shoot and kill white people.”
Cobb said that meant that once back home, those intending to do violence against blacks learned that “the people they were going to shoot were prepared to shoot back.” As a result violence against blacks became covert, Cobb said, noting the difference between public lynchings of black men in the early 20th century versus the hidden sniper attacks on activists such as Medger Evers and King.
Francoise Hamlin, who discusses the role of lesser known civil rights activists in her book “Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II” spoke about black women embracing their roles as mothers to help educate children about the need for civil rights.
“The idea of feminism, particularly to African American women, was a foreign concept” to women activists such as Vera Pigee of Clarksdale, Hamlin said. “She identified herself as a wife, and as a mother and as a caretaker … and used that role, that position to become involved.”
Several panelists noted that the impact of efforts like Freedom Summer resonated far beyond the state.
“Freedom Summer in Mississippi not only had an impact at that moment and in that time in the state” but also on those who came and then took those experiences back with them to college and their studies and to share with others who had not experienced it, Hamlin said.
Other initiatives also “helped bring to the nation’s consciousness what was going on in Mississippi and how it was everyone’s responsibility to address the issues of the civil rights movement,” said Tiyi Morris, associate professor of African American and African studies at Ohio State University.
Cobb, who stopped in Mississippi on a trip to Texas and stayed to work in the movement, said his experience was that in the cities “the violence was against you” but in the rural areas the violence was directed against “the communities you lived and worked in.”
Carson lauded the sit-ins at lunch counters and other locations as “the perfect tactic” and equated it with the current Black Lives Matter movement. In neither case are activists asking Congress to pass a law. Instead they are noting that a problem exists in the way people are treated and they take steps to bring the “normal” business to a halt, he said.
“The power you have is to get into the streets and make sure that normal business doesn’t go on,” Carson said.
But Carson said that the issues being focused on by King after the passage of the Civil Rights Act — slums, unemployment, income disparity — still have not been addressed in America.
His discussion concluded with some sobering observations that the passage of the civil rights legislation led to white voters leaving the Democratic Party. He argued that Republicans would have won all 13 presidential elections since 1964 except for the changing demographics of the nation through immigration.
And Carson said democracy is based on trust and “trust is easier to do when it is a homogeneous group.”
“The notion that you can have democracy and diversity is untested,” he said, noting it is only slightly more than 50 years since the civil rights acts were passed, a very short time in the scheme of history.
“We are working out that experiment and it is based on trust,” he said, but lack of trust drives many efforts toward voter restriction.
One way to build that trust is through better education, he said.
Noting the two museums that will be formally opening on Saturday, Carson said one way to help would be “for white Mississippians to go to the civil rights side and understand that is their history and for black Americans to go to the other side and understand that that is our history.”
The event was sponsored by the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University, the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Tougaloo College and the Mississippi Book Festival. Funding came in part from grants from the Mississippi Humanities Council, Visit Mississippi and a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.