by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
"I saw them in the deep South. People who were considered backward, unable to do anything became the creators of a new possibility for the whole nation. When I think about Tienanmen Square and Prague, I realize that those folks in Mississippi and Alabama who were considered useless, were able to speak to the world."
— Vincent Harding, theologian and civil rights activist
Ordinary heroes of the civil rights movement who emerged out of Mississippi — people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, and James Meredith — risked their lives to break the back of racial injustice. Their inspiring stories are the stuff of history books. These were regular people who accomplished extraordinary things in extraordinary times.
What’s less known are the stories of ordinary white Mississippians who tried to preserve segregation. Segregationists weren’t limited to the stereotyped “fat potbellied sheriff who kind of walks around with a gun, and chews tobacco, and throws the N-word around everywhere he goes,” explains Mississippi historian Robby Luckett in American RadioWorks' latest documentary, "State of Siege: Mississippi Whites and the Civil Rights Movement."
Pro-segregation organizing was entrenched and complex. Government agencies and civic groups formed to thwart integration. Those who resisted risked retribution in different forms, from job loss to social ostracism to physical violence.
Segregationists, says Robby Luckett “came in all shapes and and forms, and were quite savvy. And when you understand that those are the people that the civil rights movement was up against, you understand the kind of challenge they had.”
"State of Siege" untangles the knots of this untold history. It’s useful history to revisit in this moment when citizens are pressuring entrenched regimes to change in the Middle East. Mississippi is arguably the state where segregation was hardest to break. And yet as "State of Siege" concludes, "It is sometimes said that civil-rights activists accomplished more in Mississippi than in any other southern state, because white resistance there was so incredibly fierce, and the road to freedom so very long."
About the image: University of Mississippi students protest against integration on October 1, 1962. (photo: Flip Schulke/Corbis)Comments
Krista Tippett, Host
I spent three fascinating, moving days in Oxford, Mississippi at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in August — the site of the first scheduled presidential debate. I was honored with an invitation to speak to the remarkable Honors College of Ole Miss by its dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales. Oxford was the home of William Faulkner, and it is one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited — marked by a loveliness of people as well as place. Even then, in mid-August, the Secret Service and other affiliated debate authorities had begun to tear up and rearrange that beautiful campus — building elaborate security perimeters and state of the art communications facilities for thousands of journalists. The august building in which I was to speak, the appointed site of the debate, had already been locked down and quarantined. I couldn’t help but think of all these practicalities — at public expense — as I heard John McCain’s announcement of his wish to postpone the debate yesterday. I imagine many hearts sank in Oxford.
And it’s been a wild ride for them all along. The first debate was originally planned to focus on issues of domestic policy and the economy. The Ole Miss faculty and administration created an interdisciplinary semester curriculum around these issues. They lined up an astonishing array of visiting lectures and extracurricular seminars. Then just as school began, the McCain and Obama campaigns agreed to shift the Ole Miss debate focus to foreign policy. Right now it looks like the original plan was more prescient. The university took the change in stride, moving forward with its own well-laid plans, though with some understandable frustration. I joked — but not all in jest — that by November the students at Ole Miss will be the best-informed, most well-rounded thinkers in the nation.
But there are deeper issues at play around this debate, in particular, a convergence of more fundamental national dynamics that could easily be missed in all the politicking around this ultra-politicized event. In 1962, the nation’s eyes focused on Oxford and Ole Miss, as race riots accompanied the integration of the university by a determined African-American student named James Meredith. In just a few days there, I learned that for people who live in and love Oxford even in 2008, history’s subdivisions and ephiphanies still fall on either side of this living memory: time is divided into “before Meredith” and “after Meredith.”
I remember especially one woman who stood with me at the monument to James Meredith at the center of the campus — a wonderful dean at the honors college from an old Oxford family. Her grandparents were close friends of William Faulkner and his wife, icons of a paradoxical past — at once immensely gracious and essentially cruel. She spoke of how after the riots hearts and minds changed individually and ultimately collectively. She suggested, softly, that Oxford has become something of a model for how people and communities can evolve. This is not a story so often told. She said, “We had to realize that we had been wrong — and wrong about a way of life we loved.” I was humbled to be in her presence. I have not spent much time in the Deep South in my life, though I grew up in Oklahoma, where issues of race and bigotry have not often enough met with profound public reflection. In Oxford, I saw people wrestling carefully, searchingly, self-critically, and gracefully with the unresolved American encounter with race. I was impressed.
And so hosting this historic 2008 civil debate between a white candidate for president and an African-American candidate for president means more to the people of Oxford than most of us can imagine. The current chancellor of the university was himself a student “during Meredith.” History is present at Ole Miss, and it is history that we have scarcely found ways in our common life to name and discuss even in the midst of Barack Obama’s historic candidacy. I for one will be watching the people of Oxford tomorrow, not just the candidates. I hope very much that the debate happens.