August 7, 2021

A LOVE LETTER TO MISSISSIPPI

Dear Mississippi,

You’ve always held a part of my heart—ever since we were first introduced.  That was when Tom and I moved to Starkville in the fall of 1964 to teach (History and German, respectively) at Mississippi State. For five years you were our home—where we bought our first house from our doctor and his family and where our baby daughter Heather was born. We were with you during some of the most tumultuous years of your history—arriving just a few months after the murders of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  There were over 10,000 Ku Klux Klan members in the state that year, and 20 African American churches were burned.  A Baptist minister was one of the Klan leaders.  You were the only state that had no central FBI office.  Always a deep undercurrent of much cruelty and terror—but already there were signs of hope.

Two years earlier, there were riots (resulting in two deaths, hundreds of injuries) protesting the enrolment of James Meredith as the first African American student at Oxford’s University of Mississippi.  The summer after we moved to Starkville, Richard Holmes became the first African American student at Mississippi State without any violent protests.  He later commented, “Professors in History were my biggest supporters.”  That would include Professors Snelgrove, Scott, Broussard, Hebert and Connelly!  

In 1967, I loved Willie Morris’ new memoir North Toward Home. He was from Yazoo City in the Mississippi Delta and after a successful career as editor of Harper’s Magazine eventually came back to settle in Oxford where he died in 1999.  He was a beloved teacher of writing at the university.  A new fbook avorite is W. Ralph Eubanks’ A Place Like Mississippi (which I bought at the Eudora Welty gift shop in Jackson). His detailed descriptions of your real and imagined literary landscape is fascinating—and has introduced me to many more of your literary giants.

When we moved away from you to go to the University of South Carolina, I didn’t see you again for over forty years. Then Patrick accepted a position as History Department Chairman at Mississippi College in Clinton.  The photo below is one I took of their family on my first visit to Clinton in 2016. Mississippi, you and I both had changed a great deal during the intervening years—and I was thrilled to see some positive transformations in you.

On my recent trip to Ocean Springs, Jackson, Laurel, Starkville and Oxford, I was struck anew by the beauty and distinctive variety in your different regions. On the coast, the bayous and beaches, the stately rows of live oaks draped in Spanish moss are lovely. Learning about the art of Walter Anderson, especially his exploration of Horn Island, emphasized the complex beauty of the coastal region. Driving up the state, we passed miles and miles of dense pine forests. Patrick and Julia have discovered some great hiking areas off the Natchez Trace near Clinton, such as the Cypress swamp boardwalk. Visits to Natchez and Vicksburg provide great vistas of the Mississippi River. From the coast to the Delta to the Piney Hills, you are a beautiful state.

A few of your transformations I am most pleased about include the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation in Jackson, the Ulysses Grant Presidential Library established at Mississippi State University in 2017 and the newly adopted state flag (minus the Confederate flag insert of the old one). Susan Neiman in Learning from the Germans; Race and the Memory of Evil, described her six -month visit to Mississippi positively. The Germans have a word that describes the necessary process of dealing with the evils of their past very well: Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung  (working out or processing the past).  Many more of your people are actively engaged in that difficult work. Black and white parents worked together in Clinton to develop an excellent and fully integrated public school system. Jackson is home to at least one multiethnic evangelical church, with an African American senior pastor  and other leaders. Brilliant young African American Mississippi writers like Natasha Trethewey and Jesmyn Ward not only write honestly about you but also return with their families. As Ward says, you’re a place “I love more than I loathe” and Trethewey calls you her “native land, this place they’ll bury me.”

May you increasingly be filled with peace and justice,

Sally

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