OAK GROVE, Miss.—Hundreds of Oak Grove High School students dashed down the football field in mid-August to complete the “senior run,” one of the traditional rites of passage for seniors beginning their final year at the suburban Lamar County school in South Mississippi. Some ran with flags, including the star-spangled banner; a black school spirit streamer with the gold letters, “OG”; and a black, blue and white “Blue Lives Matter” flag.
As the multiracial group of seniors rushed toward the goalposts, some heard an unmistakable cry. “White power!” a male classmate shouted.
The moment sent shockwaves through the school. Weeks later, the administration has neither identified nor punished the student responsible for the rogue rebel yell.
Already, though, school officials have disciplined dozens of students who walked out of class on the morning of Friday, Aug. 21 to protest what they call a “culture” of racism among both students and teachers and an apathetic response from administrators.
“Last week, there was a senior event. We were out there running, and people had Blue Lives Matter flags and Trump flags, and they were yelling, ‘White Lives Matter.’ They ignore that there are many racist incidents here,” Faith Jones, a Black senior whose resolve was as striking as the bright yellow, pink and blue braids that hung down to her waist, said on Aug. 21.
Jones was among the dozens of students who rose from their desks at 10 that morning and exited the school, many carrying protest signs. The tenacious teens marched back-and-forth in front of Oak Grove High, chanting, “No Justice, No Peace.” They directed united cries at the Oak Grove High entrance, calling on school officials to come out and talk to them. None did.
The bullying and bigoted comments do not only come from other kids, Jones told the Mississippi Free Press on Aug. 21.
“Teachers have made inappropriate statements referring to Asian people, and people of the Muslim religion, and they never punish the kids who use the n-word in class, but we are never allowed to use profanity of any kind,” Jones said.
“You’ve heard the n-word in class before?” this reporter asked.
“Multiple times,” she replied.
Oak Grove is an unincorporated community on the outskirts of Hattiesburg, the largest college town in South Mississippi. It is in Lamar County, whose namesake is Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, a drafter of Mississippi’s secession ordinance who served as the Confederate ambassador to Russia and, later, helped end Reconstruction and then roll back Black Mississippians’ civil rights advancements by helping write Jim Crow into state law. He openly expressed white-supremacist beliefs, saying in a speech in Aberdeen, Miss., that he believed in “the supremacy of the unconquered and unconquerable Saxon race.”
Principal Threatened ‘Consequences’
At the Oak Grove High walkout, Jones told the Mississippi Free Press that she and her classmates participated “to protest against the injustice, the inconsideration and the ignorance of this school.”
“I’ve been through many racist incidents since I’ve been at this school for the past four years. They don’t care. They tell us to talk to them and to let them know when things happen, but when we do, no one is ever punished. They want to punish us,” Jones said. “They threatened us with an email letting us know that we will be moved up on the discipline ladder, that we can face suspension or expulsion, or be put in detention.”
The Mississippi Free Press obtained a copy of the email Principal Helen Price sent on Aug. 16. In the email, addressed to “families/students,” she wrote that the school did not support the walkout at “a time while we are trying to limit students’ exposure to one another due to COVID-19.”
Almost all students at the outdoor protest wore masks, though, many with the words “Black Lives Matter” or the acronym “BLM” on them.
Members of Black Lives Matter Mississippi, including at least one relative of several Black Oak Grove students (who asked that their names not be used), also joined the students on Aug. 21 to support the walkout.
Price wrote in her email that there was “no ill intent” behind one student’s use of a “Thin Blue Line Police Support flag” and that they had “concluded that this incident was not related to the racial slur in any way.” Racial slurs, she added, “never will be acceptable or tolerated at our school.”
She warned students against walking out of class.
“According to our policy/handbook, leaving class without permission, leaving campus without permission, and causing a disruption on campus would result in Steps 3 through 6 on the Discipline Ladder,” Price wrote. “Reaching Step 5 or above on the Discipline Ladder causes students to lose the opportunity to be considered for senior awards, class officers, homecoming court, Mr./Mrs. Oak Grove, and Hall of Fame. … Also, any bullying, intimidation, harassment, or threatening of students or teachers/staff can go through Step 8/expulsion. We want families to know these consequences in advance.”
Despite that ominous email, dozens of students, including many seniors, left class anyway.
“Some people had the courage to walk out despite the threats and the fear,” Faith Jones said on Aug. 21. “And I’m just so fed up with this school treating us the way they do and then expecting us not to say anything about it for their image.”
After the walkout, one student told the Mississippi Free Press they and several others they knew received a disciplinary long form placing them on step four of the discipline ladder. The punishment included detention and a phone conference with parents or guardians, they said.
‘I Love Oak Grove, But Oak Grove Doesn’t Love Me’
Oak Grove’s community and schools saw a surge in growth after Hattiesburg’s public schools desegregated in the 1960s and white parents moved to the suburbs to keep their children in all or mostly white public schools.
In the years since, Oak Grove High has grown more diverse, but raw tensions around race and privilege have also flared up as students have grown more vocal about issues of discrimination in the school.
“I think the administration doesn’t understand that this is an issue that extends much further than the events of (last) Thursday,” said Hans Elasri, a junior with tousled brown hair who wore a black and gold shirt with the school’s mascot on it. “This is a societal issue inside of our own school, whether it’s the fact that Black students get a worse punishment than I would, whether it’s that they get dress-coded more, whether they have to deal with racist comments or ideas that teachers put on them, (or) that they’re supposed to be less than me because I’m white.
“It wasn’t the events of Thursday that caused us to come out here. It’s the culture. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Elasri, who later told the Mississippi Free Press that his parents are of Swiss and Moroccan heritage.
Students gathered around Elasri, many of them Black, nodding as he spoke.
“I’m sick of it,” he continued, his eyes growing more expressive as he shouted through his mask while a chorus of cheers erupted around him. “I’m sick of Black students being scared to be on campus because they have to hear someone chant, ‘white power,’ while they’re at a school event. That is why we are out here—because the school administration hasn’t done anything to stop it. They haven’t taken any action.”
Faith Jones concurred.
“We’re not OK. We deal with stuff. We report it. What do they do? Nothing,” she said. “It has to take an extreme event for them to react. They will put in place a temporary solution, and then after a week or two, it will fade away, and they expect us to be happy. We need to be persistent. We need to make sure they don’t give up on us the minute they think we’re going to be quiet.”
In late August, one Black teacher at an Oak Grove school told the Mississippi Free Press that she had repeatedly witnessed some white teachers punish Black students more harshly and more often than white students. The educator also said she had heard people make the remark that “Oak Grove is getting too dark.”
“My response was that just because our demographic is changing doesn’t mean our school is going to be a bad school. People of color have a right to get their kid educated at a good school,” the teacher said.
At other times, the African American teacher said, she would overhear “helicopter parents” at scheduling appointments trying to ensure their kids were placed in whiter classes.
“I remember one day saying, ‘I love Oak Grove, but Oak Grove doesn’t love me.’ Those students of color deserve a safe space, and they deserve to be heard,” the educator said. “It baffles me that the perpetrator yelling those racial epithets is walking around at the school right now being protected, and they’re more interested in making sure those kids who exercised their constitutional rights are punished.”
The teacher said she “had tears in her eyes” when she saw photos and videos of the protest, because she recognized students she had taught.
“If young people feel that convicted, what more do we need to be doing? I think this younger generation are gonna be the ones,” she said.
Superintendent Resigns: ‘I Have No Regrets’
The Mississippi Free Press called Oak Grove High to speak to its principal, Helen Price, but the school had the superintendent, Tess Smith, call back instead.
Smith told the Mississippi Free Press on Aug. 21 that, despite numerous students’ assertions, she was not aware of any reports of teachers engaging in discriminatory behavior.
She said she knew about the video of the student yelling “white power,” but that she and other administrators had not yet been able to identify the culprit. As far as they knew, she said, no student had run down the field with a Trump flag, though a student did bring one to a parent-sponsored class breakfast earlier that day.
“We’re asking for input from parents or students,” said Smith, who is white.
But Student Lives Matter, a group of Oak Grove parents who support the students’ efforts, sent the Mississippi Free Press a statement on Aug. 26, saying they had tried to schedule meetings with Principal Price.
“Unfortunately, neither have returned our calls or provided their secretaries with a date to meet with us. The students are ready to voice their concerns and parents are here to support them,” the group said.
That evening, Smith announced her resignation in an email to Lamar County School District staff and faculty.
“Leaders need to be fresh and effective. I fear my expiration date on both have passed,” Smith wrote on Aug. 26. “No person is at fault other than myself. I’ve let this job overtake my life and affect my health,” she continued. “It’s time that I step back and refocus on faith and family. Please know that I have no regrets.”
The school board appointed Steven Hampton, the white current director of research and accountability for Lamar County schools, as the new superintendent. Smith’s retirement will take effect in October, she said.
At the protest, students had little confidence that school officials would take their concerns seriously, though.
“When we complain, they don’t talk. When we try to help, they won’t do anything. And that’s why we literally have to walk out of school for them to listen to us,” Hans Elasri said on Aug. 21. “We had to leave campus for them to pay any attention to us. Before this, they couldn’t care at all. And they did nothing to stop racism and racist comments in our school.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 1, a student told the Mississippi Free Press that the administration still has not agreed to meet with the students.
‘Not Afraid to Get Into Good Trouble’
“We have teachers who have made inappropriate comments to us. Why aren’t they being punished at all?” Faith Jones said on Warrior Drive, outside the school, on Aug. 21.
“You said teachers made inappropriate comments?” asked Christopher Preston, a Black pastor in his early 50s with a salt-and-pepper beard. He was one of several adult community members who came out to show support for the students.
“Teachers,” Jones replied emphatically.
“Anybody else witnessed that?” asked Preston, who stood at the center of the crowd alongside Jones.
All around him and Jones, dozens of hands of every shade popped up, as classmates affirmed that they, too, had witnessed inappropriate behavior from teachers.
“Not all teachers, though. There are teachers who have expressed a desire to walk out with us and who have encouraged us,” said one sandy-haired white student through a black-and-white mask with the letters “BLM” across it.
Another white student vouched for that.
“My mom’s a teacher. An administrator sent out a message that they would be threatened with their jobs if they came out here. They had to stay silent,” said the student, whose name the Mississippi Free Press is not reporting to protect his mother’s identity.
The evening before the protest, a white employee at one of Oak Grove’s lower schools who spoke to the Mississippi Free Press on condition of anonymity described witnessing racism among fellow faculty.
“A teacher there once told me that they wouldn’t send their kids to Oak Grove any more because the school had ‘gotten too dark,’” the employee said.
Three decades ago, in 1990, white students made up 95% of Oak Grove High’s student body, and only 3.9% were Black. By 2019, though, white students made up just 49.9% of Oak Grove’s student body, and Black students’ share of the population has increased tenfold over the last 30 years, rising to 38%.
Other groups saw their share of the student population increase during that period as well. Asian students now represent 3.3% of the Oak Grove High students, up from 0.8% three decades ago, while Hispanic students grew their share of the student body from 0.3% to 5.5% over the same period.
Outside the high school on Aug. 21, Pastor Preston urged the students to keep speaking out.
“They think you’re just a bunch of radical young children who don’t know what you’re doing. Just a bunch of misguided teenagers,” he said. “Well, what they don’t know is y’all are the future. So they might as well get used to dealing with y’all, because this is what the new America will look like.”
One Black student told the Mississippi Free Press she has no regrets about participating in the protest.
“I’m not afraid to get in good trouble,” the student said.
“Good trouble” is a phrase popularized by John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and lifelong civil rights activist who died in July.
In January 1964, he traveled to Mississippi to help residents of Hattiesburg get in “good trouble” with a series of “Freedom Day” demonstrations and a voter-registration drive. More than 7,000 Black residents of the city were technically eligible to vote, but only 12 were registered. Forrest County Circuit Clerk Theron Lynd had refused to register Black voters.
As students at nearby Oak Grove High School would do more than 56 years later, around four dozen Black Hattiesburg teens also risked trouble at school on Freedom Day 1964, skipping school to join the picket line. Local officials pinned the blame on activist Lawrence Guyot and charged him with “contributing to delinquency of a minor” by encouraging students to skip school—a charge he denied. Still, a judge sentenced the 24-year-old Black activist to a month in jail and gave him a $500 fine.
Mississippi school students participated in other acts of civil disobedience during the civil rights era, too. In 1961, 115 Black students staged a walkout in McComb, Miss., around an hour-and-a-half west of Hattiesburg. The Burglund High students were protesting the expulsion of three classmates who had been arrested after staging a sit-in at the Greyhound station while protesting the police shooting death of Herbert Lee. White Mississippi State Rep. Eugene Hurst had shot and killed Lee, a Black farmer, in nearby Liberty, Miss., days earlier.
The work that young and older activists in Hattiesburg and across Mississippi did in the 1960s helped secure civil rights, voting rights and the end of state-sanctioned segregation in public schools. Those successes, though, triggered a white reaction that set the stage for the issues students at Oak Grove High now find themselves dealing with today.
Forrest and Lamar, the Counties and the Men
Hattiesburg is a city split in two, with the Forrest-Lamar county line and Interstate 59 marking the split between east and west—a division also borne of the fallout over racial integration.
Like Lamar County, Forrest County, which includes Hattiesburg’s east side, is also named for a prominent racist: Confederate Army General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who helped found the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War and served as its first grand wizard.
Hattiesburg proper is in Forrest County, including the old downtown and its art galleries, pubs and a local brewery. It is home to several universities and colleges, including the University of Southern Mississippi. Historical markers dot the streets on that side of town.
On Highway 98 on the opposite side of town in Lamar County, Oak Grove almost imperceptibly blends into west Hattiesburg along a stretch where suburban sprawl gives way to a series of shopping centers, large churches, box stores and chain restaurants.
Less than half a century ago, though, that stretch, and all of what is now west Hattiesburg, consisted mostly of pine trees, and Hattiesburg began only once travelers crossed Interstate 59, where Highway 98 turns into Hardy Street. (It is named for William Harris Hardy, a Confederate captain before he founded Hattiesburg several decades after the Civil War).
When Hattiesburg began integrating its schools in the mid-1960s, much of Oak Grove was farmland, devoid of the many middle-class subdivisions that populate it today.
“The Oak Grove and west part of Hattiesburg that we see now was completely non-existent until the early 1980s. If you were on Hardy Street and you crossed over I-59, it immediately turned into woods, and it was just a two-way highway. There was no industry,” said Christopher Preston, the Black minister who joined Oak Grove High students at the walkout on Aug. 21.
The preacher, who pastors New Mt. Zion Baptist Church in nearby Moselle, Miss., was a student at Hattiesburg High School in the mid-1980s. West Hattiesburg was growing, and Oak Grove’s population was booming, he said, thanks largely to the phenomenon known as “white flight.”
After Hattiesburg began integrating the city’s public schools in autumn 1964, white families who were unwilling to allow their kids to share classrooms with Black children began looking for alternatives. At first, many moved their children to white-only segregation academies, like the ones former Gov. Phil Bryant and U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith attended, which popped up in earnest after the U.S. Supreme Court forced all schools statewide to desegregate in late 1969.
From Seg Academies to Suburbs
As Hattiesburg public schools began integrating in 1964, the Forrest County Citizens Council, a segregationist group, created the Forrest County School Foundation Inc., to launch a local segregation academy. The local Citizens Council’s membership included M.M. Roberts, a local attorney who had defended Theron Lynd against the federal lawsuit over voting rights and who served as the president of the board that governs Mississippi’s universities and colleges.
When the foundation launched the private school in 1965, they named it after longtime Hattiesburg public-school teacher and principal J.A. Beeson, who served as the foundation’s superintendent.
Mordaunt W. Hamilton Sr., a founding member of the local Citizens Council and the Forrest County School Foundation, took care of securing land for the Beeson Academy’s construction.
A 1965 Hattiesburg American article claimed segregation was not the school’s “only aim” because “the school will have Bible reading and prayer” and “stress patriotism, American heritage, constitutional government and the free enterprise system.”
But 13 years later, Hamilton would tell the University of Southern Mississippi in an oral history that the Council’s aim “was to keep our schools from being integrated and keep from having forced social activities with people we didn’t want to.”
“The black race, in our opinion, hadn’t advanced to the point where they could contribute anything to the schools if they went in there, and they did better in their own schools, for themselves and the whites too. … And that’s the reason we set up this Beeson Academy,” Hamilton told USM in 1978.
The year the Beeson Academy opened its elementary and middle schools in 1966, a grand jury indicted Hamilton as a co-conspirator in the that summer’s Ku Klux Klan firebombing murder of Vernon Dahmer, a local NAACP leader and voting rights activist.
Forrest County dedicated a statue to Dahmer in January on the grounds of the courthouse where segregationist Theron Lynd once refused to register Black voters.
Hamilton denied participating in the killing and prosecutors dropped the charges against him and his alleged co-conspirators. In 1998, a federal court finally indicted KKK leader Sam Bowers for the murder—several years after Hamilton’s death.
The year Beeson Academy expanded and opened its high school, Hamilton made more headlines, with the Hattiesburg American reporting that police arrested him for assault and battery in July 1968, “specifically for attacking a negro with a baseball bat.” Two months later, police charged him for pulling a gun on a Black man for entering his store.
The Citizens Council set up the Beeson school to ensure poor white families could afford to send their children there. By 1978, though, Hamilton told USM, “the liberal element” had taken over and “got the price up so high until the ordinary person can’t go to the school.” That year, the Beeson School changed its name to Hattiesburg Preparatory School.
By the 1980s, Christopher Preston told the Mississippi Free Press, most of the white kids who went to Hattiesburg Prep were from white families who lived in “The Avenues,” then a wealthier residential neighborhood in Hattiesburg proper. Around half of students at his school, Hattiesburg High, were white and the other half were Black, back then the pastor said.
“You’ve got to understand, some were going to Hattiesburg Preparatory School, and the rest were left to deal with us. And that was one of the reasons poor whites had so much animosity against Black people,” Preston said.
By the 1980s, many white Hattiesburg families who wanted to put their children in whiter schools began looking away from the academies and to the suburbs.
‘It Takes White Supremacy to Fight White Supremacy’
The year Preston graduated from Hattiesburg High School, in 1986, Hattiesburg Prep shut its doors after years of declining enrollment. Mackie Davis, the former board chairman for Hattiesburg Prep, told the Hattiesburg American in 1986 that he did not “believe this younger generation is as concerned whether their kids go to school with blacks or not.”
The reality was more complicated. Starting in the 1970s, many white families had packed up and moved out of old Hattiesburg to outlying suburbs just outside the city. Some moved to Petal, a conservative town in east Forrest County, while others moved in the opposite direction, out just past the growing west Hattiesburg area in Lamar County. Many of the wealthiest families bought homes in Canebrake and Lake Serene—wealthier neighborhoods with benefits like clubhouses and man made waterfronts.
Middle-class white families who could not afford to live in those communities, though, opted instead to move to Oak Grove, between Hattiesburg to the east and the luxury neighborhoods out further west. The decline in white enrollment at Hattiesburg’s public schools accelerated quickly. In 1979, 55% of Hattiesburg public school students were white. By 1990, the once-majority white Hattiesburg High School was only 41% white.
Such white flight patterns emerged across the state, including in Jackson, where surrounding suburbs like Clinton, Brandon, Ridgeland and Madison boomed as white families fled the city to move to areas where home values were too prohibitive for most Black families.
By 2019, white students accounted for only 2.1% of all students at Hattiesburg High, which is now about 94% Black. The shift is even more stark when considering the fact that the Hattiesburg metropolitan area, which includes the outlying suburbs, is 68% white overall.
Preston told the Mississippi Free Press that he is impressed with the students, many of them white, who are now fighting the legacy of racism that white flight left in Oak Grove. In some cases, he said, students told him that their parents had threatened to punish them for joining the walkout; others said their parents initially balked at their decision to walk out of class on Aug. 21, but later changed their minds.
“It takes white supremacy to fight white supremacy,” Preston said. “These young kids are using their white privilege to influence their parents in a way that I could never influence them. My daughter could never have changed the minds of some of those parents. So those kids are using their position to do the most good.”
Historically, though, some Oak Grove residents have fought to preserve life as it was after white flight first took hold.
‘No More Need to Worry About Racial Minorities’
In 1987, the City of Hattiesburg attempted to annex Oak Grove, but members of the unincorporated community, including the Lamar County School District, fought back, saying they wanted to maintain their “rural lifestyle.” Soon after Hattiesburg filed for annexation, though, numerous Oak Grove organizations and businesses joined thousands of residents in a petition to have the community incorporated as “The City of Oak Grove.”
A local court denied their application, and the Oak Grove community appealed the decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
“The people living in the proposed annexation area did not want to be a part of Hattiesburg. They wanted to maintain their rural lifestyle. … Some feared that if the area were annexed, they would lose their sense of community and identity,” the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in its 1991 opinion in their favor, citing Oak Grove’s arguments against annexation to justify denying the community its bid to become a city.
Justice Prather Robertson, though, wrote a separate opinion, partly concurring and partly disagreeing with the majority’s reasoning.
“If you follow the average Oak Grovian around, day by day, you will find that he works, plays, (and) shops in Hattiesburg—everything but ‘sleeps and pays taxes,’ and you will wonder why Oak Grove is not politically a part of Hattiesburg,” he wrote, noting that 95% of Oak Grove residents worked in Hattiesburg at the time.
Robertson cast doubt on the court’s assumption that Oak Grove had opposed annexation because the community wanted to preserve their “rural lifestyle”—a claim that numerous businesses and organizations, like the Oak Grove Concerned Citizens Association, had made against Hattiesburg’s annexation.
He pointed to a similar case two years earlier, in which the City of Jackson, where white flight was already devastating the tax base, sought to annex 4.92 miles along its northern border in Madison County. Opponents claimed to favor a continuance of a rural lifestyle in that case, too, but Judge Robertson, who ruled for the majority in that case, noted that residents had already sought to incorporate—except as part of the City of Ridgeland, one of Jackson’s white-flight suburbs.
Arguments “that residents desire to continue pastoral lifes as county folk appear quite disingenuous,” Robertson wrote in that 1989 Ridgeland case.
He likewise, described Oak Grove’s “rural lifestyle” claim as a “smokescreen” in his 1991 opinion, and suggested Oak Grove’s motives were more self-serving than that—and likely driven by racial animus.
“The reason all of this has happened is that the overwhelming majority of Oak Grovians—today’s Objectors—are like most of the rest of us when the chips are down, and, having seen a way to enjoy the benefits of life in Hattiesburg without any of the costs, have opted out,” he wrote.
“No more city taxes. No more need to worry about racial minorities politically, educationally or otherwise.”
In the years that followed Hattiesburg’s failed annexation attempt, west Hattiesburg businesses continually grew toward Oak Grove.
Though lacking in east Hattiesburg proper’s often artful entrepreneurial spirit, Oak Grove does have some independent storefronts like Art’s Armory, a gun and ammo store about half a mile from the high school that currently features a painted 1894 Mississippi State Flag in its window.
That reflects the reality that many middle-class white Mississippians continue to cling to the old banner with its Confederate emblem even months after the Legislature voted to retire it.
Looming nearby is Temple Baptist Church, a 158,089-square-foot facility where thousands of mostly white parishioners worship weekly, eat lunch at a café or train in its gym. Some residents of Hattiesburg’s east side, where the church buildings are generally older and more traditional, often jokingly refer to the megachurch as Oak Grove’s “Mall of Christ” or “Six Flags Over Jesus.”
Oak Grove’s Warriors
On the morning of Aug. 21, the praying and preaching came across from Temple Baptist’s campus on Warrior Drive, which runs between the church’s south parking lot and Oak Grove High School’s front entrance.
“My white friends out here, if you see a Black person mistreated or something being said to them, don’t make it their responsibility to speak up,” Christopher Preston, the Black pastor from Moselle, told the student protesters. “Make it your responsibility to speak up, because your words will go farther with white people who look like you than mine ever will.”
Students claimed that, in addition to ignoring inappropriate comments about Black, Muslim and Asian students, administrators had repeatedly failed to punish students who used homophobic slurs and expressed bigoted sentiments against Native Americans.
Oak Grove High School’s mascot is the Warriors, which like the now-defunct Washington Redskins mascot, depicts a Native American chieftain, complete with feathers in his hair and white face paint.
Like many race-related issues in Oak Grove, though, there has been little serious discussion about changing the mascot at the suburban school where celebrity former NFL star Brett Favre, who lives about 15 minutes away, has helped coach football players in recent years.
“For some reason, many white people feel that not talking about race is the best way to address racial issues,” Preston told the Mississippi Free Press in late August.
The preacher said he rejects common aphorisms like “I don’t see color.”
“The greatest respect you can give to a person is to recognize them for who they are. As soon as they say they don’t see color, they go and make decisions with color in mind,” he said.
‘These White Kids Are Becoming Radicalized’
At Oak Grove, administrators and educators have long ignored race issues, Preston said. But the dramatic increase in diversity among Oak Grove’s student body, coupled with changes in the way white students approach racism, could force the school to finally deal with race in a more proactive way, he said.
“These white kids are becoming radicalized, because when you’re radical, you say, ‘Take away my college fund if you want.’ That’s more than just energized, they are becoming radicalized,” Preston said. “Who would have thought that racism would ever radicalize people against itself? Who would have thought that white people seeing racism would not just detest it, and not just speak against it—but commit themselves to pushing back against it with everything against them?
“So the very thing, racism, that was designed to divide and destroy and fracture these young people has actually galvanized and radicalized them in a way that has blown me away.”
When the Mississippi Free Press spoke to Lamar County Superintendent Tess Smith on Aug. 21, she said “administrators are willing to listen to students” about the issues they face.
“But we don’t allow anything political in the building,” she said, referring to students’ claims that they were barred from wearing Black Lives Matter clothing, even though a white student carried a Blue Lives Matter flag on the football field. “And that’s always been the policy. We try to leave politics at the door.”
Smith said the Blue Lives Matter flag would not have been allowed inside the building, but that she saw no problem with the student carrying it on the field, saying it honors police officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
“The Blue Lives Matter flag was, I think, (carried by) a young man whose father was a police officer. That wasn’t deemed political,” Smith told the Mississippi Free Press.
This reporter pointed out that some students wearing the Black Lives Matter message may similarly have parents who are Black.
“Right. I believe that all lives matter,” Smith said. “But when you Google ‘Black Lives Matter,’ it has to do with protesting, and that’s something we just try to stay away from, anything controversial. And the thin blue line was an American flag, one with a thin blue line. But again, it was not in the building.”
This reporter pointed out that the thin blue line flag is also used at protests.
“Right,” Smith responded. “If somebody had Black Lives Matter at the senior run, I don’t think that would’ve been restricted.”
But Preston told the Mississippi Free Press that he sees phrases like “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” as nothing more than “negative responses” to the rise of the “Black Lives Matter” rallying cry.
“The reason we say, ‘With liberty and justice for all’ is because it makes an offender out of anybody who comes out and challenges it, because if I come to you with a complaint, then they say, ‘What, liberty and justice for all isn’t good enough for you?’” the pastor said.
‘They’re Going to Fix It’
On Warrior Drive on Aug. 21, with dozens of Oak Grove High student protesters gathered around him, Preston explained the importance of the words, “Black lives matter.”
“Don’t let anybody make you feel bad about saying Black lives matter. Anybody who hears, ‘Only Black lives matter’ when you say Black Lives Matter is someone who really has an issue with the reality that black lives matter,” he said. “It’s not the phrase that bothers them. It’s the reality or the nerve you have to say it to (their) face: ‘Black Lives Matter.’
“Because all of their life, they’ve been trained that, if they see a Black man on the ground with the policeman’s knee on his neck, he must’ve done something wrong. … So you’ve got to understand that when you say Black Lives Matter, you cause angst because now you’re forcing people to see a group of people that they’ve been taught and culturally conditioned to never see and acknowledge.”
At the protest, the students did more than just air grievances. They gathered in a circle and, using a bullhorn, shared solutions.
One white male student told the Mississippi Free Press that the group of students, who are communicating with group chat apps and holding Zoom meetings, are planning to create two new committees to address the issues that they feel the administration has long ignored.
A “Shared Decisions” committee will bring students and parents together to discuss and work on solutions to the issues students face, he said.
“We will have a council of parents and students that make decisions for the school just like the student council does,” the white student said. “It will have more power, and it will have better representation. And The Voice Club is going to be a club in which students will share experiences and be represented and speak out.”
Faith Jones said the new committees will be different from the school’s existing, traditional council. “We have a student council. It’s a popularity contest. People who want to make a change can’t get in, because they’re not funny enough or cool enough, right? So in our committee, we would be able to make decisions that affect us and vote on them.”
Christopher Preston told the Mississippi Free Press that he believes the students will succeed in changing the culture at Oak Grove High School.
“These youngsters are not used to dealing with being tired the way you and I are used to dealing with being tired. They have no tolerance for being tired,” Preston said.
“If it’s wrong and it needs to be fixed, they’re going to fix it.”
Correction: Due to a typing error, this report incorrectly cited 1996 as the year the Beeson Academy opened. That segregation academy opened in 1966 and closed its doors in 1986, by which time it was called Hattiesburg Preparatory School. We apologize for this error.