Last Tuesday, at the invitation of Mississippi Governor Ray Mabus, I addressed the Southern Governors' Conference on preparing today's youth for tomorrow's work. The governors met in Natchez, Miss., a river town on the banks of the Mississippi, across the bridge from Vidalia, La.
The last time I was in Natchez was 1962, when Medgar Evers, the martyred NAACP leader, took me there for an NAACP voter registration drive and membership campaign. In 1962 Natchez was segregated, mean, hostile and scary. Today, Natchez is open, warm, hospitable and desegregated.
Medgar and I slept at the home of NAACP volunteers. Last week I slept in the Quitman Room at the Monmouth Plantation, once the property of Gen. John A. Quitman, a slave owner, war hero, secessionist and former governor of Mississippi. Monmouth is one of many antebellum houses in Natchez now operated as bed-and-breakfast establishments, with integrated staff and exquisite southern breakfast cuisine. At Gov. Mabus's cocktail party last Sunday nobody asked me for a mint julep or to bring luggage to the car. However, after a 10-minute conversation with one of the governors, he introduced me to his wife as the governor of Virginia. Some things have changed, some have not.
Visiting Natchez again was a moving, memorable experience, just like the first time. It was also different. Medgar was not there, snatched from us by a sniper's bullet, but many of his visions and dreams were: a young governor, progressive and caring, elected by the black vote; black Mississippi state troopers, handsome and proud in their blue uniforms; black deputy sheriffs from Adams County; blacks and whites on the governor's staff working hard together to make the meeting a success; black saleswomen at the J. C. Penny store; Harry Bowie, a veteran civil rights worker in Mississippi, sitting in the city auditorium for the first time since being taken from there to Parchman Penitentiary for protesting; and a new breed of southern governors, one of them black, listening to a former NAACP field secretary, struggling and searching to make the South a better place for all of its people.
Medgar's blood was not shed in vain.
The writer, a Washington attorney, was president of the National Urban League.