‘Forgetting would be a terrible mistake’

Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, speaks at the ground-breaking of a new civil rights museum in Jackson, Miss. (Photo by Jackie Mader)
Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, speaks at ground-breaking of civil rights museum in Jackson, Miss. (Photo by Jackie Mader)

The largely poor and rural state of Mississippi suffers from the highest rate of childhood poverty in the country, along with some of the lowest scores on standardized tests. A legacy of racism and segregation are among the roadblocks that keep the children of Mississippi from reaching their full potential. The Hechinger Report, an independently funded unit of Teachers College at Columbia University,  is examining why the children of Mississippi start behind — and stay behind. Hechinger Report editor Liz Willen filed this piece from the groundbreaking of a new civil rights museum in Jackson. This appeared on the report’s website.

By Liz Willen

JACKSON, Miss. — In a sun-dappled square at the top of a bluff, an unlikely group of politicians, civil rights veterans and educators just gathered to commemorate some of the darkest moments in the Magnolia State’s history.

The occasion? A ground-breaking ceremony for the nation’s first civil rights museum, a permanent tribute to horrific events like the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers — markers to a legacy of racism and oppression many would rather forget.

Forgetting would be a terrible mistake.

If private fundraising continues, the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum will become a major complex in downtown Jackson, the ghost-like city where a gilded, eight-foot eagle sits atop the dome of the Beaux-Arts capital, facing away from Washington, D.C.

Change has been a long time coming in Mississippi. There are just a few scattered memorials to the civil rights movement: a new statue of Evers in Jackson, and the eternal flame on the grave of James Cheney outside Meridian.

That’s why it was so gratifying last week to see four sitting governors listening to the voice of Myrlie Evers-Williams,  the 80-year-old widow of the slain civil rights activist, who has spent decades seeking justice for his 1963 murder.

“I thank Medgar Evers every day for believing, not only in his country, but in the state of Mississippi,” Evers-Williams said, as the stars and bars of the Confederate flag fluttered in front of her.

The irony was not lost on former Gov. William F. Winter, an unrelenting advocate for improving education in Mississippi.

“Myrlie Evers has every right to be the bitterest woman in America,” said  Winter, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday.  “She is far from that. She understands that hatred and bitterness never educated a child, never lifted a school.”

Evers-Williams helped organize demonstrations and voter registration guides with her husband when he was field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and assisted his fight to desegregate the University of Mississippi some 50 years ago.

Mississippi “was built openly and without reservation or ambiguity—some might even say with pride—on the principle of absolute white supremacy,’’ Harry N. MacLean wrote in The Past is Never Dead.

I had picked up the book on the trial of Klu Klux Klansman James Ford Seale while browsing the cavernous Square Books in Oxford a day earlier.

As MacLean notes, this was a belief that “the black man was inferior to the white man … it was against the law to teach black and white kids in the same classroom, or for blacks and whites to have sex.”

None of this was so very long ago. It’s one reason I value the agents for change I’ve met since The Hechinger Report began our Mississippi Learning project some 18 months ago.

People like Susan Glisson of the William Winter Institute for Racial Conciliation, who headed passage of the nation’s first state law that requires the teaching of civil rights and human rights history in Mississippi public schools.

People like former Secretary of State Richard Molpus, whose heartfelt speech in 1989 proclaiming that Mississippi owes an apology to the world for the slaying of three civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner  still resonates.

People like Jennifer Stollman, who has been leading helpful discussions on sexual orientation, race and discrimination at the University of Mississippi, following the disruption of a theater department production of The Laramie Project, with heckling and anti-gay slurs.

Former Gov. William Winter hopes the Magnolia State will get a new start and help educate the next generation once a new civil rights museum opens in Jackson. (Photo: Jackie Mader)

People like Leroy Clemons, president of the Neshoba County branch of the NAACP, who led me on an eye-opening tour of “Freedom Summer” sites this summer.

Clemons doesn’t display bitterness about the triple murders of young civil rights workers he barely learned about as a child, but has instead devoted himself to the belief that education can prevent the past from repeating itself.

Myrlie Evers-Williams has lived her life fighting these beliefs, yet the legacy of racism permeates every aspect of the way children are educated in Mississippi.

Medgar Evers believed Mississippi  “will be the best place to live in the United States, once we put our problems, our hatred and our racism behind us,’’ his widow said this week.

It’s one of many reasons why a state-funded memorial is so urgently needed, and why I hope private funding will help draw generations of school children and visitors to learn what happened here.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | October 29, 2013