My introduction to Mississippi took place during the summer of 2007. I was a student at Grinnell College and had travelled to Mississippi for an internship at the federal court in downtown Jackson. At the time, the federal courthouse was located on Capitol Street and was named after infamous segregationist Sen. James O. Eastland. His name was displayed prominently on the marble sign in front of the building.
My first assignment was to sit in for the trial of former Klansman James Ford Seale who, in 1964, had helped abduct, torture and drown two Black teenagers, Charles Moore and Henry Dee. My roommate, who was also an intern from Grinnell, and I sat right next to the bench, in view of everyone in the courtroom including the aged killer himself.
We listened to accounts of how Seale and his co-Klansmen picked up Dee and Moore as they were hitchhiking in Meadville, took them into the woods and beat them, and then tied their bodies to Jeep engine parts and dumped them into the Mississippi River—all because they suspected the young men of participating in planning uprisings against whites. No detail of the brutality was spared.
On June 14, 2007, a federal jury convicted Seale on one count of conspiracy to kidnap and two counts of kidnapping. He was sentenced to three life terms for his part in the murders, but died in prison four years later. No one else involved served any time for these crimes.
It had taken 40 years for any semblance of justice to be served.
I was deeply angered.
Any person of good conscience would find this story disturbing. But I was particularly affected for deep personal reasons. It had hit me hard why my ancestors left this place a half century before.
You see, I’m a Black woman who’s originally from Chicago, born and raised on the south side. And like many Black folk who experienced racial terrorism and second-class citizenship in the South, my family fled to Chicago for better jobs and overall quality of life.
Growing up, I had heard about Mississippi. I knew what happened to Emmitt Till. I had read about the Confederacy and Jim Crow. I had seen “Mississippi Burning.” I saw the Confederate battle emblem displayed above and inside the government buildings when I arrived here.
But I did not truly understand until the end of that trial.
In Chicago, my family never talked about living in the south. My paternal great-grandmother, Juliet Horton, who was born in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1899, lived with us in her latter years until she died at age 94, but she had declined mentally so I did not get to speak with her about it. There was no contact with anyone in Mississippi, no visits to relatives “down south” during the summer, no long-distance phone calls, nothing.
Fighting Back Tears of Rage
Fast forward to my 2014 return to Mississippi as a mom and lawyer. I was hired to serve as a law clerk in the federal court, a job that entailed performing legal research and drafting opinions in cases. It was then when I began to witness how the hatred had seeped into the younger generations.
I worked on a case involving a group of white teens, boys and girls, from Rankin County who had made a hobby of travelling to Jackson (or “Jafrica” as they derogatorily called it) solely to attack random Black people. In June 2011, on one of these trips to ” f*ck with some n*ggers,” they found an unsuspecting James Craig Anderson in the parking lot of a south Jackson hotel. They beat Anderson while yelling racial slurs, and then one of them ran over him in a Ford F-250 truck. They all fled the scene and left him to die.
About a year later, there was a moment when I had to fight back tears of rage as I listened to my son sobbing about an experience he had while playing with a white boy at a nearby park. The boy’s dad had seen the two together and called him over to tell him that he couldn’t play with Black kids. When my son tried to re-engage the boy, he told him what his father said. He was 7.
I was angrier than ever.
By this time, I had begun dealing with my anger through my broad-broad organizing with Working Together Jackson, the local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, which engages in the building of power through institutions. Having returned to the South, I had started to understand my work as an organizer as a reckoning of sorts.
Indeed, I was here working to deal with the same evils that drove my family away from here long ago, “evils” that now present in the form of disinvestment in poor Black communities, failing to adequately fund public schools, failing to expand Medicaid (“because … Obama”), and other issues that keep Mississippi in last place.
State Flag: ‘Hell Did Not Freeze Over’
For 126 years, that evil was embodied in the state flag. And while many try to claim otherwise, indisputably, the battle flag has racist origins. It was a constant reminder of the collective pain, trauma and the systematic subjugation of Black people, my people.
So for me, bringing down the flag marks a new season for Mississippi. And it gives me a renewed sense of hope for Mississippi, because if we can do this now, so much more is within our grasp. When the votes came in on Sunday, I exhaled both literally and spiritually. A weight was lifted from my consciousness that I had not realized was so heavy.
I also felt a tremendous amount of pride. As the senior organizer with Working Together Mississippi, our statewide organizing vehicle, I worked with clergy from various faith traditions across the state in the fight to remove the flag. We worked with Jews, Muslims and Christians from many different denominations, such as Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Mennonites, COGIC, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and Southern and Missionary Baptists. It was the honor of a lifetime, an ode to the ancestors and others who championed this cause long before me.
Admittedly, I have mixed emotions about what this moment means because I understand that changed hearts are not what got us to the finish line. Hell did not freeze over. The Confederate ethos is still very much alive in Mississippi. Instead, it was the political dynamic that changed. State leaders’ interests in the status quo were superseded by unprecedented pressure. Economic prospects were dimming, and real consequences were imminent.
Goodwill alone is not enough. It’s always about power, the ability to act and compel a reaction.
Ultimately, I could not prevent my son’s heartbreak at the park. But at least I could help stop that flag from waving to him as he walks into his school building. And I also can keep working with courageous, thoughtful Mississippians to create a better future for everyone.
In closing, I’m reminded of a recent comment from Working Together Mississippi leader Bishop Ronnie Crudup Sr.: “We can’t change evil hearts; it’s up to the good Lord to do that.”
But we can change the landscape that evil hearts create.
That’s the real reckoning. And like my hero Ella Baker said, that’s the slow, patient work of organizing.
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.