Eugene Dattel (left) and Otis Sanford talk about growing up in the Missisippi Delta.

OXFORD – Addressing the troubling history of race in America, two native Mississippi authors — a seasoned historian and a veteran journalist — dive into race relations in the North and South and how much hasn’t changed in today’s society.

“A Conversation About Race” is one of many conversations hosted at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the University of Mississippi in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in an effort to reflect on a time that changed the course of history.

Throughout the conversation, Eugene Dattel, cultural and economic historian and author, talked about a recurring theme of how white people in the North did not want to see African-Americans prosper economically, educationally or politically and wanted to keep them in the South.

He added that this attitude of white Northerners is an ignored part of history.

Eugene Dattel addressing crowd at Overby Center for the discussion on race

“We know that the abolitionists ended slavery, but we don’t know as much about their attitudes towards black people. Generally, they were anti-black,” said Dattel. “Their great fear was of a migration North of black people.”

He went on to mention how Connecticut disenfranchised its two percent black population in the 1800s, starting a colonization society to encourage African-Americans to move to Africa.

States including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Oregon had exclusion laws to keep black people out of their region, he said.

“They passed laws to give African Americans the rights in the South so they wouldn’t move North,” said Dattel. “Between 1865 and 1914, the black migration North did not exist. The black population in the North stayed under two percent.”

According to Dattel, white wealth accumulation increased 84 percent in the last 30 years, three times that of the black population. White home ownership is up 71 percent while black home ownership saw a 41 percent increase. Black Americans own only two percent of businesses with paid employees, and more than 56 percent of black high school students need remedial work, he said. 

“The difference between what happened in the 1960s and now is dramatic,” said Dattel.

So, what role did the media play then versus now?

In the 1880s and 1890s, Dattel said, journalism followed the Southern path in terms of attitudes towards black people.

He gave examples of how The  New York Times agreed with segregated school systems in the Midwest, approved of radical judges of the Supreme Court who neutered civil rights laws and wanted to start cotton production again by getting white ingenuity and black labor.

Otis Sanford, former managing editor of the Commercial Appeal says diversity is one of the casualties of today’s newspaper climate.

Otis Sanford, former managing editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis and professor at the University of Memphis, spoke to his experience as an African-American journalist and the emerging diversity of the newsroom in the early 1970s, which he noted has fallen by the wayside today.

“I came to this university in 1973, and I was not the only African-American in the journalism program. We had several, and a lot of us got jobs coming out of this department. I was the first African-American male hired at The Clarion-Ledger (in Jackson),” he said.

The Kerner Commission, also known as the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, released an extensive study on race in America that stated news organizations need to reflect the makeup of their community, Sanford said, and when looking at newsrooms, editors felt they needed more diversity.

The commission consisted of 11 members who were appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to find out the causes of urban race riots, and in turn, provide solutions in 1967.

This report noted that the nation was moving towards a separate and unequal nation with two societies, a black society and a white society. As a result, they wanted to increase help to black communities to “prevent further racial violence and polarization,” according to history.com.

With continuing progression, major newspapers started to aggressively hire African Americans during that time, but that is not the case today, said Sanford.

“Now with retrenchment when newspapers are downsizing and getting rid of staff, that has totally gone by the wayside,” said Sanford.

Despite being an African-American journalist, Sanford said, he was blessed to not be typecast as a journalist, or as an editor, who covers certain topics based on his race. He has covered politics, police and local government— to name a few.

“It goes beyond race. Race is one of the things that I like to talk about and that I like to research and study because it provides a fascinating insight to where we are, where we’ve been and I think where we’re headed,” he said.

In today’s world, racial inequality still exists along with resistance to being inclusive, whether it’s holding separate graduations for white, black and Hispanic students in the Northeast or unfairly judging someone for mentoring a student of a different race.

White students and black students don’t fully integrate until they meet on a college level whether in the classroom or social events, said Dattel.

“The classroom is the perfect place to hash out ideas and look at different perspectives,” said Dattel. “In that context I adhere to, and Otis as well, there are universal standards … those universal standards are civility and respect and listening and questioning and a knowledge base.”

Despite the ongoing tensions of race in America, the theme of universal standards brought Dattel and Sanford together, becoming friends, they said.

But in 30 years to come, an audience member asked, will there ever be harmony and a minority-majority, with whites being the latter, among Mississippians?

Sanford said its unlikely.

“As much as I love my home state, Mississippi has always struggled with conformity and so I still see a lot of tension there. A lot of it depends on politics and who’s politically in control, and what kind of mindset those folks will have 20, 30 years from now,” said Sanford.

“Its hard to say because I honestly believe that’s one of the great fears that drives our political discourse today is the fact that minority-majority, not just state, but majority-minority nation is what’s driving a lot of the tension and concern right now.”

In the future, will the conversation of race stop being brought to the forefront and stop being romanticized as it has been, asked another audience member.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to get away from the conversation about race … this country is not nearly ready to do that,” said Sanford.

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Aallyah Wright

Aallyah Wright

Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She is also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.