The year 1967 was not so long ago, 38 years, less than a lifetime. That’s the year busing began in the Gulfport School System. I was in the third grade in my neighborhood school and barely noticed the change.
Since first grade, we had attended classes with Mary Perry, a sweet African American child. We loved Mary, so these new young children were not so surprising, but we noticed a difference. We lived in a moderate neighborhood, no rich, snotty kids in the bunch, but it was obvious these new children had less. We coexisted peacefully. No one left the public school system. After all, on the Coast, you only went to private school if you were Catholic. And who wanted to wear one of those uniforms anyway?
As an adult, I have reminisced with friends about desegregation.
For most in Central Mississippi, the event came much later, in the early ‘70s, and was followed by a mass exodus from the public schools. Many private schools in existence today began during those years. The time was marked by strife and anxiety on both sides, and parental attitudes and tensions colored young schoolchildren’s vision.
The children of desegregation are the mid-life adults of today, and the effects of this time are still being felt. If you are black, you remember the anger, hurt and very real danger of those years. If you are white, you still feel the suspicion and anxiety that came with this cultural change.
As I sit in suburbia watching the political events in Jackson, I think of the pebble in the pond and wonder when the ripple effects will end. I’ve always had great hope for Jackson. It is our capitol, the largest city in Mississippi.
It is the lifeblood of the area. So goes Jackson, so goes the entire metro area. But lately, I’ve become despondent.
Jackson’s city government did not open its doors to real black representation until sometime in the mid- to late-70s. As I think of how few years it’s been since this change occurred, I have a greater understanding of Kenneth Stokes. His unwillingness to reach across color lines and the strength of his support in his ward make perfect sense, when I look at the time line.
Cutting both ways
When I see a clip on the news of an older black woman saying she is perfectly fine with all the white people leaving Jackson, I get it. When I watch Harvey Johnson’s political ad declaring that the rich and powerful have ruled Jackson for too long, I know what he’s talking about.
Prejudice cuts both ways. Here, in the metropolitan area, whites still struggle with suspicion and anxiety when it comes to dealing with black people, and blacks still struggle with the anger and hurt when it comes to dealing with white people. Will we have to live through another generation before change can truly occur?
Harvey Johnson may have spoken of new businesses locating in the city, but we all know better. With every passing week, we hear of another business closing shop and moving to the suburbs. The outgoing police chief may talk of the perception problem with crime, but the reality is that the streets of Jackson are unsafe. Neighborhoods are crumbling, businesses are boarding up, and people of all colors, who can afford to, are leaving.
On my worst days, I confess, I think of moving to Arizona and becoming one of the sea of white faces. Wouldn’t it be easier just to leave the problems behind? Then, I have a better day, when I am convinced I should leave suburbia and head back to the Capital City. In between, I figure I’m just where I need to be, trying to bridge the gap. Even though I don’t live within the city limits of Jackson, I am a citizen of the metropolitan area, and I need for Jackson to succeed.
Is change possible?
I grew up in the colorful South. I really don’t want to live in a pasty, white, homogenous place. I desire a rich, full, COLORful life, but I can’t get there on my own. As the new mayor takes office, I wonder if change is possible.
Oh, Jackson, can you lay down the burden of all those years? Can you beg forgiveness for what you have done, and can you forgive what has been done to you? Can you look past your own desires and work for the greater good? Mr. Melton, will you reach out to the surrounding areas and begin the healing process? Or will we all continue to hold onto those childhood memories as we sink into the great abyss?
Nancy Lottridge Anderson, CFA, is president of New Perspectives Inc. in Clinton. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and she’s online at www.newper.com. Her column appears monthly in the Mississippi Business Journal.