When I and 11 fellow Harvard students drove into Money, Miss., last week searching for the site of Emmett Till’s murder, we were expecting to find something to mark the event credited with igniting the Civil Rights Movement. Instead there was nothing. Only the Tallahatchie River where Till’s body was found and the dilapidated remains of the convenience store — where he was childish and bold enough to have talked to a white woman — remain as testimony to the tragedy that happened in this small town.
Here, as in other parts of the South, the wounds of slavery and discrimination are deep and still raw. But in the stories of the civil rights struggle, there are inspiring moments of triumph and discovery that ushered in dramatic social change.
For eight days, we traveled throughout the state as a part of the Phillips Brooks House Association’s (PBHA) Alternative Spring Break Program in search of the true stories and lessons of the Civil Rights Movement. We met with former organizers and civil rights activists who were our age or close to it when they first became involved with the movement, and we volunteered with community-based youth education programs in rural and urban parts of the state.
The trip was about acknowledging the challenge and responsibility of democracy. It was about discovering what humanity and inhumanity really look like. We wanted to find out firsthand how to apply the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement to the persisting challenges of education, enfranchisement, and poverty in the state.
The young, idealistic organizers who constituted the Civil Rights Movement sought to accomplish, almost exclusively, a single concrete goal: securing for African Americans the right to vote.
The vote meant everything. It meant the promise of an equal education; it meant that in time African Americans could elect public officials to statewide office; and it meant access to equal public accommodations.
Decades later, surrounded by poverty on the west side of Jackson, Miss., I questioned what the ballot had truly won. For much of the week, our group volunteered with Stewpot Community Service’s afterschool program for children age 4-18. It was a melting pot of both the brightest and the most challenged of students. Nearly all of them came from poor, troubled households and all of them came from Jackson Public Schools that were, after years of “white flight,” comprised of students who were nearly all African American and poor. For much of the trip I caught myself falling into despondency about the potential for change. Had we taken two steps forward and one step back with regard to basic rights — like equal education — in Mississippi?
Our stated goal on this trip was to apply the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement to present day challenges of social justice. By the time we arrived in Sunflower, Miss., on our last day in the state, I was still looking for that crucial connection between the victories of the past and the possibilities for the present.
We spent the morning of our last day in Mississippi with a group of children from The Sunflower County Freedom Project, a small leadership development afterschool program in the Delta. The program was modeled after the “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi in 1964, when hundreds of organizers from across the country flocked to the state to teach and to register African Americans to vote.
I don’t think I really knew what that meant at first — after all, these children can now attend school and are free to vote without intimidation, while their grandparents may not have been able to do so. But it was obvious after spending less than 10 minutes with these kids that they were ready to push for social justice in the 21st century with the same single-minded determination of their grandparents.
The Freedom Project is an incubator for young people who take the work of the Civil Rights Movement to a higher level. Blacks in Mississippi have the right to vote, but the shortcomings of a still-segregated education system stymie the development of effective leadership from within their own communities. This is a contemporary civil rights issue not only in Mississippi but in many locations across the country.
These children knew that. They knew about the importance of being the agents of their own change and they knew that their education was integral to their future success.
We spent a lot of time on this trip talking to African-American veterans of the Civil Rights Movement who know all about how difficult it is to work against the wrongs of the past. People like Hollis Watkins, who was jailed and put on death row for registering voters; Constance Slaughter-Harvey, who overcame discrimination to become the first black female graduate of the University of Mississippi Law School; and Charles McLaurin, who ventured to the Mississippi Delta to recruit organizers and succeeded in galvanizing a woman who would become a legend: Fannie Lou Hamer.
At the same time, there is another crucial component of Mississippi’s story told by white Mississippians — like former Mississippi Governor William Winter — who recognize that the challenge for them has been perhaps more subtle but no less crucial to progress for the state. “White flight” has created white public academies and underresourced black public schools that have allowed racial disparities to persist into the present.
The former governor told me that the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation would often travel around the state to facilitate conversations between blacks and whites in small communities where anger, fear, hatred, and apathy still fester. It was hard for me to imagine how such strong feelings could persist after so much time had passed. But the truth is that they do — as much here in Mississippi as they do anywhere in the world where the wrongs of the past are left unanswered.
Mississippi is a case in point of why being a bystander can never mean innocence. Standing idly by while wrong is being done is not an option, not for any of us. We can never forget that the fate of the future lies in the combined effect of a struggle against injustice and a struggle to do good.