A sentiment being expressed with all too great a frequency lately is one characterized by a growing bewilderment at the widening of the chasm in race relations in America. With each incident where a person of color is the ultimate recipient of action on the part of law enforcement our inability to communicate with each other and our differing interpretations of the same events become glaringly apparent.
Hidden beneath all of the earnest attempts to discern why the gap between the races appears to be growing may be found a fundamental and for the most part correctable explanation. I am referring to the significant and increasingly well documented absence of formal education pertaining to the long and often bitter Civil Rights movement. This omission is particularly acute in the southern states which, in essence, were “ground zero” for the most onerous of Jim Crow era laws. Consequently the most vicious and protracted battles in the effort to gain equality among the races were fought here. Indeed Mississippi often found itself at the center of the storm and furthermore that state persisted longer than surrounding states in pursuit of a second lost cause in defense of a mythical “southern way of life”. The entire scenario from the founding, to the Civil War, to the end of Jim Crow, to the present is littered with countless watershed events in the history of race relations.
Even with so much material available something has been missing. The Southern Poverty Law Center followed its groundbreaking study in 2010 with an updated version in 2014. The original study and the follow up reveal a virtual absence in most states of any detailed education on the history of race relations. Indeed, it is the events emanating from the 200 year struggle between blacks and whites to live in the same state that have quite literally established the identity of the state of Mississippi for all of the world to see. From Mississippi’s entry into the Union in 1817 until today the status of race relations has been the central formative influence in this state and similarly in our sister southern states. Yet, ironically, Mississippians in general and our public school students in particular have been largely deprived of knowledge of the events and the frequently racially charged environment that have brought Mississippi to this point.
Now whether the issue is the series of often shocking incidents involving law enforcement and African-Americans, the nature of new election laws such as Voter I.D. requirements, or the astounding data contrasting the numbers of convicted Caucasians and African-Americans, there are stark differences in viewpoints based on the history of human interaction. History is comprised of events and conditions that have already taken place – they are events that have been deposited in the bank of human experience. Like it or not the history of race relations, warts and all, is who we are as a state. Yet when we examine the history textbooks for middle school or high school there is scant or only passing mention of the struggles over race in which we have engaged for the entirety of our history.
Now we are reaping the harvest of the decades’ long effort to conceal knowledge of an often sordid past when we should have been learning from it. For example the recent 50th anniversary of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday”, the landmark event in the push for voting rights, served for many as a platform from which to renew the call of opposition to newly implemented election laws and voter I.D. requirements being imposed by a number of states. By the same token, many of the recent violent events between African-Americans and law enforcement remind many old timers of the days when racial segregation was enforced at the barrel of a gun and the toe of a boot.
Perhaps if the history of the “bad old days” of legal segregation and its enforcement were better understood then greater sensitivity to the perception of overly vigorous law enforcement would follow. There are those who still remember the days when inequality was indeed a matter of law and it was enforced in sometimes brutal fashion. In the same way those who were confined in the livestock pens at the state fairgrounds because the jails were full and those denied access to the ballot boxes because they had no poll tax card remember the multiple indignities they endured but these eyewitnesses to history are fast fading from the scene.
History is permanent and it cannot be changed but the story can be told – indeed given the current turn of events nationwide it must be told. Furthermore, the telling must not be just in passing but rather it must be told in detail. Lessons must be planned and test questions must be asked. As unthinkable as it would be to some of our fellow citizens to hide the exploits of the Confederacy in a war lasting 4 years, so it should be viewed as preposterous to downplay 200 years of volatile race relations that have had an impact on virtually every major aspect of Mississippi’s existence.
» Dr. Marty Wiseman is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Public Administration and Director Emeritus of the The Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. His email address is email@example.com.
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