I tend to believe that because we are not hanging from trees regularly or picking cotton that some Mississippians choose to embrace the idea that we are free from racism in this state. I don't just mean white people, either. Whether they are the type to admit it or not, white people know that racism is still very alive. It has shifted its core and changed its face, but it lives and breathes. One could argue that it's as bad today than it has ever been. In Mississippi, it is thriving.
The idea is so rampant in this state that it can be called by its proper name, Mississippi Racism. It breathes a different air than other racist places. Mississippi is like the Michael Jordan of racist states in the union. It's so normal that it has become expected and accepted all over the state. Those who don't accept it elect to make signs and march through the streets. Don't get me wrong, protests have a place. But I haven't seen them accomplish much for black people in this state, yet.
Mississippi Racism flows through our government like a raging river. Black people who work in government are being continuously oppressed. The idea of hand-picking the least combative and most unthreatening black person to calm the flow of racism does not mean there is diversity or that the black community is being represented. A person who lives in the suburbs, sends children to private school and shops in the outskirts of town—even if black—has little exposure to inner-city struggles. Poverty, mental enslavement and other remnants of being inferior to the powerful are all lost on that person.
Someone without this understanding, regardless of race, simply does not represent the body of black Mississippians. If they are treading the path without using their position to create a real change, they are therefore an ally to the oppression of the community.
One mission is currently swaying through these Mississippi streets, and that mission is to keep black people controllable and needy. Keep black people poor and destitute so they have to accept the discrimination on their jobs. Many are too mentally broken to believe that they can do better or even work for themselves and prosper. Keep black people angry. So angry that they don't unify and make plans that will correct the dependent mentality that haunts the black community.
An angry people becomes emotional. Emotions steer us away from owning our own businesses so that we don't have to give our money back to the oppressors. Being angry keeps us from planning so that we can buy land together and own property. Angry people have no way to get out their aggression but to turn on each other or to dive into substance abuse, which destroys our minds.
Angry people don't strategize effectively. They pray. Left with nothing else but hope and faith over hundreds of years, black folk prayed. Our children are taught to just—pray.
I pray. Understand though, prayer has to be accompanied by action to spark change. While we are praying, oppressors are making laws. They are teaching their children to hunt. Today, they hunt game. Tomorrow, they may be cops hunting black children in the streets.
They are being promoted, at a highly alarming rate, into decision-making positions in governmental offices and in other areas that affect the lives of all Mississippians. They are running for offices that actually decide what our rights are.
Now, how can we expect that lawmakers who have been raised by oppressors will actually give a damn about a black life just because they take office? They will simply bring their racist views to that position and lawfully act against our betterment.
This doesn't excuse the need to vote, though. In this state voting the right person into office suits no one if they are silenced once they get there. This is commonplace—from the head of this state down to your supervisor who refuses to allow you to advance in a company you probably built for him.
Some lawmakers today are the grandchildren of men/women who slashed the backs of slaves who tried to learn to read. They are the children of men who hanged black folk for fighting for freedom. They are the living legacy of people who refused water and food to those who worked their land and raised their children.
It's not emotional; it's systematic. It is a well-thought-out plan that has been working since the "Colored" sign came down off the bathrooms.
Mississippi Racism hasn't evolved or died. It has adjusted.
Funmi "Queen" Franklin is a word lover, poet and advocate for sisterhood. She has a weakness for reality shows.
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There is the South. Then, there is Mississippi.
Why It’s Time to Bring the Flag Down
Alabama’s gotten me so upset;
Tennessee made me lose my rest;
And, everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam — Nina Simone
I love Mississippi. It shows through the thickness of my Southern drawl, the rhythm when I shake up chicken pieces in some flour to drop in hot Crisco, and the sweet sounds of Mel Waiters’ “Hole in the Wall” playing in the background.
There is the Southerner. Then, there is the Mississippian.
But part of being a Mississippian means — surely, it must mean — recognizing that there are darker parts of the state’s identity. That it is not just wrapped in its sweet accents, cooking that makes you want to shout Hallelujah, or dancing at the juke joint until 7 in the morning. Mississippi’s identity is also locked in and suffocated by its history of racism, violence, and terrorism. When people think of Mississippi, they think of the murders of Emmett Till in 1955, Medgar Evers in 1963, the three civil rights workers of 1964, Vernon Dahmer in 1966, and thousands of others whose names we will never know. They think of the mob that ensued on the campus of Ole’ Miss in 1962 when James Meredith tried to uplift himself and his family by pursuing higher education. They think of white Mississippians lynching 539 African-Americans between 1892 and 1968, the largest number of lynchings in the nation.
And, though people may think of all of this as though it’s in the past, they could also think of 49-year old James Craig Anderson who was robbed, beaten, and run over by a group of white teens in 2011. Or they could consider that, during National Black History Month of 2016, the governor announced that April will be Confederate Heritage month. Or of how, after South Carolina took down the Confederate flag on its Capitol grounds following the terrorist attack on nine worshippers at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, Mississippi continues to take pride in being the last state to have the emblem in its official state flag.
There is the South. Then, there is Mississippi.
On March 1, 2016, Mississippi attorney Carlos Moore filed a lawsuit against Governor Phil Bryant in federal court seeking to do away with Mississippi’s current flag, placing the debate back on Mississippi’s and America’s doorsteps. The last time the issue was taken up by the state was in 2009 with a referendum that was voted on by the people of Mississippi. It was a vote that was overwhelmingly divided by race. Not surprisingly, the Governor is dismissing the lawsuit as “frivolous.” And, although there are mixed reactions to the lawsuit among legal experts and civil rights groups on the ground, this is a flag that masks symbols of hate and violence with heritage, and it is time for it to come down.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time at my Great Grandma Shug’s house in Bond, Mississippi. Grandma Shug was born in 1925; her mother was a maid born in 1909, and her great grandmother was 12 when she was freed from slavery. Grandma Shug experienced a lot in her lifetime, and she always shared stories with my sister, cousins, and me. She told us about how the Ku Klux Klan used to walk through the neighborhood at night, and of family members who had to jump on moving trains headed to Chicago in the middle of the night to escape mobs, and of instances of Easter shopping interrupted by the Ku Klux Klan stopping cars to ask for donations. Each time, she recalled that flag that represented racism, violence, and hate.
The back of Grandma’s Shug’s house faced Highway 49, which runs from Jackson to the Gulf of Mexico. And I remember every summer when the Ku Klux Klan held their annual march carrying the Confederate flag. When they passed Grandma Shug’s house, I had tons of questions, as any young person would, but what shocked me the most was that she didn’t. This was normal for her. It was a way of life. And I was struck, as any young person would be, or at least should be, that this symbol of hate masked in heritage could be okay.
In the third grade, I called my friend Sarah’s house to ask her to be my valentine. Sarah was white. My maternal grandmother, Grandma Tootie, asked me to whom I was talking when I got off the phone. When I told her, she yelled at me and spanked me saying, “Don’t ever call a white girl’s house because her daddy will get on the phone and call you a nigga’ for calling his daughter.” It changed the way I thought of myself, and for a very long time, I believed white people were better. Mississippi’s identity showed me better than it could tell me.
I no longer live in Mississippi, but I am still a Mississippian. And I still care deeply about the future of my home state, and, at this historical moment, we can change this identity for generations to come. For more than 200 years, the state of Mississippi has used violence and law to impose its will on the African-American community. Mississippi developed, both during slavery and afterward, a comprehensive web of laws, regulations, customs and practices, enforced by official and private violence. The fabric that this complex political, economic, educational and cultural system represents is the essence of racism and what the Confederate flag represents for many Mississippians.
The state of Mississippi continues to be divided by racism. Where the African-American community appears to have made significant gains, the state conspires to turn back the clock to undo the gains made. Because the so-called heritage that this flag purportedly protects is about, simply, racism.
Racism is principally about domination and control. Hate and fear are used as tools to create an emotional justification for separation and exclusion. In the home, schools, and churches, White children from earliest childhood are subjected to attitudes from White adults designed to instill a belief in the axiom of Dred Scottthat African Americans are inherently inferior to whites and have no rights which whites are bound to respect. Racism means training White children from an early age, at school and at home, that white skin privileges a way of life.
If that notion seems too strong, consider this: Mississippi continues to maintain a dually segregated school system, one public and one private. And, in Mississippi, 11 A.M. on a Sunday continues to be the most segregated hour in the state. Racism means teaching children that an attitude of white racial unity is an essential pre-condition to acceptance in the white social, cultural, political, and economic world. Racism means maintaining policies and practices that seek to mark African-Americans with the stamp of inferiority. The Confederate flag remains the most prominent symbol of the requirement that to be a legitimate member of the White community in white Mississippi, you will have to learn to be racist. It’s like when I asked my great-aunt, a 61-year-old born the year before Emmett Till was murdered, what is the first thing that comes to her mind when she sees a white person driving a pick-up truck with a confederate flag sticker? She makes the assumption that the person is racist. Likewise, when racist white people in Mississippi witness other whites denounce the confederate flag, it symbolizes that the denouncers are not one of them. So, we must understand that the billowing Confederate flag is also a signal to the racist white community that there remains a commitment by the state to impede or stop the extraordinary struggles of African-Americans to get from where Mississippi is to where Mississippi needs and ought to be.
Although the right of access to local, county, state, and federal government was won fifty years ago — the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement — the white community continues to resist the effective participation by African-Americans in the life of the community at all levels. Majority White boards of supervisors and city councils continue to refuse to adopt redistricting plans, which would afford the African American community a reasonable opportunity to elect representatives of its own choice. And, in 2016, with Mississippi having a super majority of conservative, tea-party elected state legislators, the Mississippi Civil Rights Act, which would explicitly protect individuals from discrimination in housing, employment, and or the use public accommodations, died in committee.
Although the economic statistics for African Americans in Mississippi have improved over the last 30 years, the gap between the White community and the African American community has increased dramatically. A 2015 study shows that Mississippi remains the poorest state in the United States. In 63 of the 82 counties, more than 20 percent of people are living below the poverty line. 246,000 Mississippi children live in poverty, and nearly 50 percent of those children are African American (compared to 15 percent of White children). In Mississippi, 92 percent of the families that receive childcare assistance from the state are African American. And, the unemployment rate of African Americans in Mississippi is 14.3 percent, more than two and a half times that of Whites. This has a direct bearing on the ability of African American families to have access to effective health care, to a quality, competitive educational opportunity, or to decent, affordable housing.
Mississippi ranks lowest in the nation in terms of the health of its people. There are very few African American medical professional in Mississippi, especially the Delta, where the African American population is in the majority. That means that in many counties there are no African American doctors, surgeons, dentists, eye doctors, or other specialists at all. Transportation costs to see a doctor can be prohibitive for those without means. Consequently, people frequently do not seek needed medical or dental attention in order to avoid the cost of getting there.
When we do not care about how the Confederate flag’s symbol of racism invades every aspect of Mississippi causing these difficult numbers, everything positive about Mississippi is nonetheless implicated. For Mississippi to prosper, we must heal ourselves of our racist past, beginning by bringing down that flag. No other generation of children should grow up thinking they are inferior to another race. No other generation should grow up and travel the world and hear, when they speak of their beloved state, responses filled with the remnants of Mississippi’s dark history.
I love Mississippi, and I love being a Mississippian. Mississippi runs through my blood. What I know for sure is that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Mississippi cannot fully conquer its dark history until we care that when people look at the flag that represents their state, it causes hurt and pain. The symbol of the Confederate flag bleeds every drop that places us last on every list in the United States. Mississippi’s survival is tied to the survival of all of its citizens — not just its White citizens. Our good chicken frying, the birth of the blues, the sweet southern drawl has to join hands with compassion, justice, and humanity. I know that at the core of all Mississippians, we can share that. I know that at the core of all Mississippians, we can bring that flag down. And when we meet that glorious day when that symbol is removed, we will have fulfilled a dream that forever beckoned for so many and begin to rise to the top where Mississippi belongs.
Deon Jones is a native of Mississippi and TEDxAmericanU Resident Changemaker. He is also a 2013 Truman Scholar, 2014 Harry S. Truman — Madeleine Albright Fellow, a former White House intern, and a graduate of American University in Washington, DC.
Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @deontjones.