Friday, June 06, 2014

Closed Seminar Opened the Door On 'Mississippi: The Closed Society'

Yesterday, NPR commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Summer Project, perhaps prompted in part by the new exhibit at the Mississippi state archives where violent history is being acknowledged rather than swept under a carpet of calculated ignorance. 1964 was the summer when some 900 mostly white college students swept into Mississippi to register black voters. It was a summer of violence and conflict, the summer when three Freedom Summer volunteers were murdered by Klansmen.
I quote from NPR:
"This archives exhibit includes photographs, excerpts from journals and film clips documenting the Freedom Summer experience.  These materials are part of a growing collection the state is amassing for a civic rights museum now under construction.
"'Fifty years ago, this exhibit would not have been within this space,' says Jacqueline Dace, the museum's project manager.  'So for the state of Mississippi to say, OK, yeah, we need to reconcile this - it's totally necessary. After decades of confrontation over how to handle the rich but chilling history here, official Mississippi is no longer an obstacle. The state is now actively promoting its place as ground zero in the civil rights struggle.'"
And from Mississippi's tourism director Malcolm White, "I think Mississippi is finally getting it right. We talk about telling the Mississippi story - a huge part of that story is civil rights, African-American struggle, slavery…Mississippi has long touted its blues and literary heritage…Now it's time to tell the rest of the story."
Listening to NPR, I was reminded of my mother's 1968 summer school experience in Innsbruck Austria, where she and other American history teachers took a course taught by the University of Mississippi's James W. Silver. Silver authored 'Mississippi: The Closed Society,' first published in 1963, the year before the infamous Freedom Summer. His enlarged 1966 edition was, I assume, an integral part of the summer's course materials.  I have Mom's autographed copy: "For Doris Thompson, in memory of the closed seminar at Innsbruck - with the highest regards. Jim Silver, Summer 1968."
In the pages preceding chapter one, Silver describes the night when Ole Miss students fought with fury against the U.S. marshals, Mississippi National Guardsman and American soldiers sent to ensure the court-ordered admission of Negro James Meredith to the university. He writes, "Like many observers, I was alternately enraged and heartsick that my fellow Mississippians, particularly the students, felt called upon to engage in a a mad insurrection against their own government…It has been suggested to me by well-meaning people that we ought to forget the recent nightmare, to put it in the past where bad dreams belong…The point is that when people are told from every public rostrum in the state on every day of their lives - and such is the case with the undergraduates who assaulted the marshals - that no authority on earth can legally or morally require any change in the traditional terms of Mississippi social life, this very process generates conditions that will explode into riot and insurrection."
My point in transcribing Silver's words for this post? Because so much of what is happening right now in Mississippi echoes what was happening fifty years ago. Fear still seems to run dark and deep. Folks are are still directing fierce venom toward their national government, stockpiling guns and ammunition, fussing about the Second Amendment and outside regulation.
On June 4, the NYT's Gail Collins wrote blistering commentary about Mississippi's primary for U.S. senator. Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel, who who ran against incumbent Thad Cochran is confident that "Some cuts to spending have to take place, and Mississippi is a good place to lead that charge because we are still the most conservative state in the Republic." Collins notes that federal spending in Mississippi accounts for 46 percent of all the state's revenue and it's been long-time Senator Thad Cochran who's brought home the bacon.
Of course, this Tea Party candidate wants to cap this wasteful spending by Washington. Why should Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation, accept federal dollars? McDaniel opened his campaign by announcing: "For too long we've been addicted to federal monies."
I see parallels between 1964 and 2014. A lot of folks in Mississippi didn't like the federal government imposing federal law at Old Miss in 1964. And apparently, voters for McDaniel believe that taking federal dollars in 2014 is another affront to their independence. The federal government is the outsider, prescribing, regulating, interfering. And the President of these United States is black, a Negro. It is intolerable.
There is more. In April, Mississippi's governor signed the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act  into law. Supporters say the law will assure unfettered practice of religion without - again -government interference. Opponents of the law worry it could lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians because businesses could refuse service based on the business owners religious convictions. So it goes. On and on.
Governor Bryant also signed a bill that will outlaw abortions at or after 20 weeks. The new law has been criticized by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, "With the women and families of their state facing extreme poverty, unacceptable rates of maternal mortality, and skyrocketing teen pregnancy, Mississippi's elected officials have more than enough real work to do to bolster women's well being in their state."
Again and again, this deep dark fear grabs folks who then hold the federal government and outsiders responsible for unwanted changed. They've found new targets and they seek to stop social justice in its tracks.
Fifty years ago in Mississippi, it was the Negro who had to be stopped. Commendably, after fifty years, the state itself feels a responsibility for recounting its part in the violent history of civil rights. I applaud their efforts.
But the immense fear that once fueled the violence toward integration hasn't gone away. The federal government is still the enemy, especially during the administration of this particular president.  And the deep dark fear has now glommed onto women, gays and lesbians. Social justice is a fearsome thing, especially when it appears to be coming from the 'outside.'
I wonder what James Silver would have to say about Mississippi in 2014.  If he were to teach a class today, I wonder what Mom would take away to incorporate into her teaching of American history. I suspect that after her summer in Innsbruck, Austria, that her students at Lago's Seroe Colorado School became well acquainted with the knowledge she acquired. I hope they all passed the test. I hope they still remember what she taught them.

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