“I need ammunition, not a ride.”
A new world hero, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, emerged in Ukraine’s fight for survival and to keep its people off a former KGB agent’s “hit list” of activists, journalists, ethnic and racial minorities and LGTBQ people that we now know Putin wants to exterminate. We learned about the horrific “hit list” from U.S. intelligence last week through reports from The New York Times to FOX News. Remember that Hitler targeted all of these groups in addition to his holocaust against Jewish people simply for living and breathing.
Like many of you, I spent a lot of weekend time respect-scrolling Zelenskyy’s words that are capturing a world in need of fearless leadership in our collaborative fight to preserve democracy, just as we have to work together to end a global pandemic. What struck me was that nation’s fierce devotion to protecting one’s home from fascist control person by person. It says a lot about what individuals can do when we ignore the complacency of believing positive change is not possible, which can be epidemic here in Mississippi. Too often, we settle for being on the bottom—or we just leave our state. And we all know that too many Mississippi leaders have historically pandered to bad actors.
I was, thus, relieved to hear an elected official from Mississippi, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, actually speak uncensored truth about Putin last week as all should, calling him a “modern-day Adolf Hitler” acting out of “the Nazi madman’s notebook.”
But the rest of us have a vital role in preserving democracy, which will always be a struggle as so many great leaders have warned repeatedly, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. There will always be a power-hungry despot trying to destroy democracy.
Put bluntly: We will lose our democracy if we’re not all vigilant about it, including for those we don’t agree with—the hard part, I know. And we must recognize the warning signs that it could die from the slippery slope of local, state or national government book-banning to trying to replace real history with fairy tales, as Russia likes to do. In my lifetime, I’ve watched both major parties take an ax to freedom and democracy right here in Mississippi.
People who love the U.S. must work together to preserve (and improve) democracy just as the people of Ukraine are coming together to stay off Putin’s kill list and preserve their democratic nation.
Fight for Freedom Always Local
Right here in Mississippi, many politicians won’t do a five-minute interview with a journalist who asks real questions; in Ukraine, Zelenskyy is in camouflage ready to stare down tanks and, yes, die to uphold democracy. The fight for real freedom for all is always local. It is always about you and me holding leaders accountable long before they send in the tanks or develop a kill (or censor) list for those who disagree with them, have a different skin tone or love someone in a way wannabe despots disapprove.
Here’s the rub: You can’t just take a stand in places surrounded by people who agree with you.
I don’t begrudge anyone who left Mississippi due to efforts to harm you and your rights, or belittlement of who you are or because you can’t stand the racism and hatred of people who want you to leave. Frankly, I fled the day after I graduated from Mississippi State in 1983 and was gone for 18 years before returning.
What I discovered beyond the state line, even in places I love like New York City, is that our nation is not yet democratic toward all our people anywhere. A hierarchy of Americans still disproportionately enjoy freedom, which shrinks as it goes down the hierarchy of human value, as systemic inequities keep that unequal structure in place.
When I was close to 40, I had a realization: Freedom begins at home. Democracy is protected at home. If it’s not available to all Mississippians in my home state, we are not actually a democratic, or an exceptional nation. If our past and our history and the causes of today’s embedded inequities are not dealt with, and are allowed to stay nailed into place exactly where they are, neither Mississippi nor America is truly a free or, frankly, exceptional place.
The Struggle Makes Up Exceptional
The struggle for freedom and democracy is what makes the U.S. exceptional. Those picking it apart to serve only their own interests and viewpoints, allowing democracy to crumble, are stooping to the level of ambitious despots across the world.
This realization 20 years ago about what American exceptionalism really means—the continual struggle for democracy against any odds—freed me, so to speak. I suddenly knew where I had to take my stand: right here on my postage stamp of the world. That happens to be in the middle of Mississippi where my people are buried in the red clay and where inherited hatefulness caused me so much pain as a young person.
I watch a defiant Volodymyr Zelinskyy in camouflage standing up to the man Roger Wicker sees for what he is as Russian soldiers and artillery close in on him, and I think of my home state. Too few here still believe Mississippi belongs only to them to do with as they please as they let our towns, roads and bridges crumble from neglect and greed, and watch so many slamming the screen door on their way out.
Mississippians cannot be lied to any longer; we must take our stand for truth, democracy and real freedom like brave fighters across the world staring down those who’d prefer to destroy us for not falling in line and settling for less than we should.
I don’t wear camouflage. My path to spreading freedom and democracy is through truth-telling through high-level journalism. It is the same for our team. We are staying and investing our talents and energy here because we want Mississippi to finally be everything she can be for all her people, and we know we won’t get there without fearless, truth-to-power, look-you-straight-in-the-eye journalism that could give a whit about whether truth is regarded as “red” or “blue.”
We are here for our state and freedom and democracy everywhere, and we do not shy away from that fact. This fight must ultimately transcend partisanship; if it doesn’t those who pander to despots like Putin and various wannabes in this country will fall hard as well, leaving a shambles of democracy for their children and grandchildren to maybe be able to put back together.
I’m for saving and strengthening our historically imperfect democracy right now, and I know you are, too. Thank you for what you do and all the support.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.