Understanding Southern Justice on a Civil Rights Journey in Mississippi

One thing that came as a complete surprise to me when I took the Grand Circle Travel trip Let Freedom Ring: A Civil Rights Journey, was the role Jackson State University took in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the fight for justice, and how the struggle thee continues today. In fact, everything about Mississippi was fascinating to me as we dug into the roots of the Civil Rights movement of the day. I also learned that on a trip like this, a traveler has to assume the role of someone playing chess or backgammon; for only in looking at whole board and the larger picture, does the end game reveal itself.

We visited the home of Medgar Evers where he was gunned down for being one of the first to help Black Americans get registered to vote. They could not even get an ambulance to come in time, since ambulances were segregated as were hospitals, so even emergency medical attention was based on race. It was so ironic that he served in the US Army, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was qualified for burial in Arlington, but getting medical assistance after being shot was a racial issue. When they held his funeral, the procession passed by the NAACP headquarters which we saw later that day, and which is really part of a Masonic Temple. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the NAACP headquarters as the funeral procession passed by.

If you have seen the movie The Help, the neighborhood where Evers lived looked like how they portrayed Black families living then in Jackson. We saw the rifle used to kill him in the Civil Rights Museum, an enormously important and powerful Jackson Museum, with the sound of slaves being whipped in the background; a sound that can be heard in several exhibits. This museum is worth at least a half day for any traveler who wants to explore the history of civil rights in Mississippi. There are two museums in one:  the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, and the Mississippi History Museum. Combined, they tell a powerful story or “southern justice.” They reveal the legacy of the south and are inextricably combined.

We were on the campus of Jackson State University to meet with a professor of history to learn more about the Freedom Riders and the community organizing that had taken place in the very room where we met. It was not part of Jackson State University back n the 60s, but over time the land was acquired and now it’s just down the street from the main campus. Organizations like SNCC (Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee) and the SDLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) were born or grew further there. Mississippi was still under Jim Crow laws and the youth wanted to help the citizens register to vote and be able to ride busses like everyone else and without harassment. It was all a grassroots effort that is part of the struggle that still goes on today. A community organizer named Bob Moses led the way in this effort that today is named COFO (Council of Federated Organizations.)

One man at COFO who spoke to us had been a Freedom Rider at the age of 13, and was put in jail and on death row without any due process just for going to the Jackson bus station. He was simply trying to get on a bus to help get Black citizens registered to vote. He was released after five days of horrible treatment because he said then Attorney General Robert Kennedy made phone calls and wanted to make sure no Freedom Riders were harmed. He said he went on to get arrested another 108 times as a Freedom Rider. It was a movement around the country, but punishment was especially harsh in Mississippi due to the Jim Crow laws. Robert Kennedy did in fact make a phone call on behalf of Freedom Riders who in 39 states were being incarcerated and requested that they be unharmed and released.

When we had the discussion about the role of COFO in the Civil Rights movement, I asked very specifically about Jackson State, since I knew two students were shot down there in 1970 around the time of the Kent State shootings. I had started to wonder if the killing of the students was more racially motivated then reported, since it had widely been reported as being part of an anti-Vietnam protest. Apparently there had indeed been peaceful anti-war and anti-racism, protests (against the Jim Crow laws) going on that day. However, that night, at the time of the shooting, there were no protests going on at all, and at midnight in front of the women’s dorm certainly nothing about Vietnam. Later that night is when the police came out and killed the students who were just passers-by near the women’s dorm. 

The hard truth all over our country is that bigotry takes many forms. I have always been aware of the obvious ones, like overt racism and struggles for equality. One thing I have discovered is how little people really understand about civil rights or the lack thereof. Although we were doing a deep dive on civil rights in the South, when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Fair Housing Act in 1968, it changed more lives than people know. I remember the signs that said,” No Jews, Blacks, or Dogs.” And I remember our family not being able to move until 1968 when real estate agents could no longer discriminate or make unwelcoming comments to families who might be interested in living in a particular neighborhood.  When we finally did move, I remember being told that it was easier for us to move because “they changed the laws.”  But back then, Jewish families lived where they did because they were ” allowed to.” When my father sold our house to a Black man who purchased it with all cash, it was most likely because that man could not get a loan due to discrimination. And I leaned on this trip that what we referred to as ” white flight,” was really part of the Great Migration. Black families were moving from the South in different waves to escape the Jim Crow laws (that were still part of southern culture even after they were illegal). Los Angeles and other major Western and Eastern cities were recipients of this influx. White families in turn sold their homes to them and moved to all white neighborhoods.

But over the years I have been in conversations with Jewish friends, and we discussed the neighborhoods where we ” could live in back then.” So many people I learned had no idea about this, and how the Civil Rights Act changed so much for so many. Women too! If any woman had a professional career, they have the Civil Rights act to thank. And for a professional educational career, women can thank Title IX, which was an amendment to the Civil Rights Act that accidentally precluded opportunities in education. We did not discuss any of this on our trip, but I think understanding the totality on the Civil Rights Act is extremely important to a fuller understanding of civil rights in general. In our current times, we are confronted with White Nationalism and White Supremacy: simply a new name, face, and mission statement for the Klu Klux Klan. The former freedom rider who spoke to us at COFO made that clear to us.

When I was a high school student in the late 60s, watching all this violence on the news with my family each night, I wanted to learn more about it.  I found a book in the school library that I never forgot, simply and ironically titled Southern Justice. Our family had only recently been allowed to move so I could attend that high school. I had a vague adolescent understanding that my life was intertwined with aspects of the Civil Rights movement. But a trip like this one brought it all home and did not cut any corners when it came to the concept of “southern justice” and lynching in the south.  Former President Barak Obama summed it up well when he said, “Justice grows out of recognition of ourselves in each other — that my liberty depends on you being free too.”

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