November 22, 2018
Dear Mississippi White People,
Both of my parents were born and reared in Mississippi. They were part of the Great Migration of African Americans north in the early 1950s. When I was a little girl, we would go south for funerals. For most of my life, I have never felt comfortable south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I was fine for about 48 hours, then something inside of me, something that felt like an old soul, the spirit of an enslaved ancestor, wanted desperately to head back home. Follow the North Star.
Even so, I have some good memories of my time in Mississippi. This is primarily due to my relatives, to aunts and uncles and cousins who made my time with them meaningful. One of the best memories of my life is getting up early one morning and having coffee with my Aunt Mary Anna on her front porch in Indianola. Her house was always full of people of all ages, and she would get up before everyone else and sit on her front porch. This morning, I was up with her, drinking coffee, listening to a rooster crow, enjoying her stories of reality and mystery. It was peace.
When I lived in Philadelphia, my Aunt Rosie would send me shelled pecans from her Indianola, Mississippi tree. I loved eating the pecans, and I loved her for loving me enough to take the time to shell them and to send them to me. God is Divine Love, and her love for me was a visitation of God in my life. Eating the pecans was a kind of communion.
A few years ago, I drove my father, who was then in his mid-eighties, down to Indianola for a funeral. The part of the cemetery where my cousin’s husband was buried was populated by the earthly remains of aunts who loved me and by cousins who I had enjoyed just being around and who had been my role models. Dad said that would be his final trip to Mississippi, and he was right.
One of my cousins invited me to come down when there was not a funeral and she would show me around. I wanted to visit the civil rights and the blues history of the Mississippi Delta. So, I finally did. My cousin was true to her word. We visited the Fannie Lou Hamer Museum and gravesite in Ruleville. She took me to the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, and she drove me to the various addresses in Greenville, where my mother’s family had lived. The last few times I have gone south, I have not felt the need to escape. I see my cousins living productive lives, making important contributions to their communities, and the south in general and Mississippi in particular no longer seem oppressive.
And then came the comments by Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith. Speaking about her regard for a supporter she said: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” What? Then she refused to apologize until a debate with her opponent Secretary Mike Espy, saying in part: “You know, for anyone that was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, non whatsoever in my statements. I have worked with all Mississippians. It didn’t matter their skin color type, their age or their income. That’s my record.” Then she proceeded to blame her opponent for turning her comments into a weapon. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/mississippi-sen-cindy-hyde-smith-apologizes-to-anyone-offended-by-comments-about-public-hanging-as-opponent-mike-espy-says-she-gave-the-state-a-black-eye/2018/11/20/6eeb3a14-ed0c-11e8-baac-2a674e91502b_story.html?utm_term=.c68bdc76a246)
Hyde-Smith has also been caught on mike joking, she says, about voter suppression. In 2014, she posted a picture of herself wearing a confederate soldier’s cap and holding a gun at the home and presidential library of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. She called the site “Mississippi history at its best.” Is this a celebration of the Civil War?
According to the website Mississippi History Now, “The American Civil War (1861-1865) left Mississippi in chaos with its social structures overturned, its economy in ruins, and its people shattered.” And, the reason for the devastation was the will to preserve slavery. The Mississippi declaration of secession says: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest in the world.”
It is important to remember that the Civil War was fought with conscript soldiers. The Confederacy confiscated crops and livestock from ordinary people to feed the army, a generation of men were killed or left wounded. The south has yet to recover from the economic devastation of the war. Yet, so many white people are still enamored with that war.
In her novel “Gone with the Wind”, Margaret Mitchell writes of her heroine Scarlett O’Hara who is in love with Ashley Wilkes. She thinks he loves her, but he does not. The love she imagines is a dream. It is not and never was real. Such is the case with white people who love the dream of the “Old South”, a fantasy where everyone was happy occupying their assigned place. It never was, is not now, and never will be.
When I read Hyde-Smith’s comments about attending a public hanging, I was working on an essay about African-American soldiers home from World War I who faced beatings and lynching. How could anyone knowing Mississippi history not be offended by Hyde-Smith’s joke? What positive connotation can there be in a history rife with the violence of lynching? The violence of lynching was an attempt to re-establish white supremacy after the Reconstruction period. The violence of voter suppression is also real in a state where Fannie Lou Hamer and others took a beating because they wanted to register to vote. Civil rights workers were killed in their efforts to register voters. How could she think that joking about voter suppression would be funny given this history? How could she think such a thing as she runs for the United State Senate?
Then suddenly, like a flash of lightning, it occurred to me that the expression about attending a public hanging was probably an expression that Hyde-Smith heard in her youth. She very likely grew up with it, and it was a way to express regard for someone. Whenever I see pictures of a lynching, my gaze goes to the body of the person being lynched. I think of their family and of the African-American community that would resist being terrorized by such savagery. However, there is also the crowd of white people who thought of such events as entertainment. I have never considered the crowd as a group of individuals, only as a human mass of barbaric hatred and evil.
The truth is that these crowds were composed of people who had children and grandchildren, who were aunts and uncles and cousins, who loved their kin the way my people love me. Hyde-Smith very likely heard this expression from a beloved relative in a context of joviality and good family fun.
Dear Mississippi White People, you have some serious introspection to do. What is the origin of such an expression? Were the people who nurtured you and loved you also the people who populated the crowds that participated in public hangings by their presence on the front row? To what lengths are you willing to go to preserve a dream that was never true? Are you willing to keep your state at the bottom of the list of states on almost every measure of achievement because you want to hold onto the deception of white supremacy?
To even know that she has said something vile, Senator Hyde-Smith needs to do the difficult work of introspection and to realize that the people who raised her, who loved her, were also willing to become a part of a murderous evil mob because people will act in a mob the way they would never act as individuals. You all need to do this work for the sake of bringing about real and lasting change in Mississippi. This is your work to do White People because you are the ones holding onto a deception.
The good news is that we live in a country that allows us to make a choice with every election. We can choose to stay stuck in a past that has not served us well, or we can move forward. Dear Mississippi White People, this is your choice on Tuesday in the special election. In his proclamation that established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called for repentance as an aspect of our prayers on this day.
He wrote: “And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
On this Thanksgiving Day, we all can be thankful that we live in the United States of America where we have both a responsibility and an opportunity to work for healing, to form a more perfect union, where we can work toward the goals of human equality and universal human rights.
Valerie Elverton Dixon
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”