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BILL CRAWFORD — Hard won change comes to reluctant Mississippi

BILL CRAWFORD

These are still “times that try men’s souls” Mr. Paine, but not as they did in your time.

When you penned these famous words in your pamphlet “The Crisis,” the passionate issue was freedom from English tyranny. “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered,” you wrote, as you belittled the “summer soldier” and “sunshine patriot” who “shrink from the service of their country.”

Not all agreed and heeded your words, but enough people did that independence was won and the United States born.

Today, the passionate issue is freedom from the tyranny of racism. Not all agree, but enough do that change, at long last, is spreading across America (and Mississippi). Racism, like tyranny and hell, is not easily conquered. And the enemy is not a wayward king on a distant island, but our own wayward brothers and sisters.

As American independence was not won quickly or easily, American unprejudicedness will not be either. The last 150 years have shown us this change will take much longer.

As in Thomas Paine’s time, winning takes the sacrifices and perseverance of many patriots. We have seen that since Reconstruction in oh-so-reluctant-to-change Mississippi from black martyrs of the civil rights movement like Medgar Evers, Rev. George Lee, Herbert Lee, Vernon Dahmer, and Wharlest Jackson; from thousands of black Americans shot and lynched, often for no more reason than the color of their skin; from whites standing up to racism being ostracized, run out of town, or their businesses boycotted; and from white politicians thrashed at the polls because they were perceived as soft on race.

Federal actions in the 1960s could force change quickly on Mississippi, but not in prevailing white attitudes. But change they have as leaders, black and white, persevered. By the late 1970s white politicians with “moderate” views on race could get elected, e.g., William Winter as governor in 1979, and conservative House Speaker Buddie Newman in 1977 could appoint Robert Clark, the House’s first African-American member elected in 1967, as the first black committee chairman. By 1985, Gov. Bill Allain could appoint Reuben Anderson, the first black Ole Miss law school graduate in 1967, as the first black justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court.

In the late 1990s more white leaders felt able to join William Winter as champions of “racial reconciliation,” e.g. former federal judge and conservative Republican leader Charles Pickering. Chancellor Robert Khayat could ban the rebel flag and Dixie at Ole Miss and establish the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

Still, racism in Mississippi persisted, though more in hearts and minds than the public arena, e.g. in 2001 64% of voters chose to retain the state flag bearing the divisive Confederate battle flag.

When House Speaker Philip Gunn, a conservative Republican, courageously pushed changing the flag to the forefront this year, you could see the issue still trying the souls of many white legislators. But most did not shrink and, so, struck a resounding blow against the tyranny of racism, a remarkable win for all those who sacrificed and persevered in reluctant Mississippi.

“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” – Matthew 5:16.

» BILL CRAWFORD is a syndicated columnist from Jackson.

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