Teach the Civil Rights Movement in Present Tense

Welcome to Mississippi signMy husband and I have spent the past several days at the 25th Annual Natchez (MS) Literary and Cinema Celebration (NLCC). I was actually sent to the event representing my school, Mississippi Delta Community College, as a William Winters Scholar—an annual award given to outstanding students and faculty members in the humanities.  The award, named for former Mississippi Governor William Winters who has directed the NLCC since 1990, is a special honor, considering Gov. Winters’ celebrated legacy as a champion of equity in public education at a time when it was politically—and physically—dangerous to do so. Is it any safer to fight for it now?

The NLCC theme this year is “60 Years and Counting: Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.”  It is one of many events in the nation and in Mississippi looking back at some high water marks of the fight for racial equality in U.S. This cultural event explored how Mississippi’s literature and cinema reflect and have been influenced by that struggle.  Like those things could never happen again. Could we survive it again?

Natchez, the host city, seeps with history. The oldest, continuous settlement on the Mississippi River, it was once the second-largest/busiest slave port in the United States, and home to the infamous Forks in the Road slave market. Natchez was also the scene of important and bloody battles between the forces of equality and segregation during the 50s and 60s. So much blood. So many lives. What were they fighting so hard to keep? To stop?

Two events especially capture the paradox of this Conference and of the countless memorials to the Civil Rights Movement.

First was a touching summary by Delta-born author, Clifton Taulbert of his latest book. He shares the story of his experiences with a widowed Southern plantation matriarch and how those experiences finally helped him, on a very personal level, step beyond the mental shackles formed during his upbringing under segregation. He ended by asking every person under the age of 32 to stand and charged them to be the “Generation of Promise.” Not just laws, but healings…so far to go; so much to do…still, hope.

Later, we sat in pained silence as a panel of Southern journalists (Stanley Nelson, Jerry Mitchell) and author Greg Iles shared from their work of exploring and exposing unpunished civil rights era murders by the Klan and other hate groups.  Near the end of the presentation, which included some incredible film footage and re-enactments, one white speaker asked, “Why aren’t there more Black people here to learn about this?” Several Blacks answered him with that wonderful Southern mixture of truth and grace, “…because we live it.”

…emmetttill…#medgarevers…#martinlutherkingjr…#trayvonmartin…#jordandavis….

My husband, raised in a sharecropper’s shotgun house on a Delta plantation, remembers his own activism in the 60s. An old friend told us my husband’s name is in the Sovereignty Commission files; Cle says he doesn’t even want to look at that now. He prefers remembering Fannie Lou Hamer, and regrets that he declined an invitation to dine at her home. As we sit on the steps of the Natchez African American Museum and watch black and white children enjoy one of the city’s pre-Mardi Gras parades, we ask ourselves: Why not now?