Let's Just Be Friends

Old Mississippi wouldn't have allowed them to be friends. Back in the 1960s, when Cornelius "C" Turner, a black man, was fighting for civil rights in the state, he could have been run out of town for playfully cavorting with a local white restaurateur. The White Citizens Council might have boycotted Malcolm White's business had it been around then and served the likes of Turner. Today, the two men eat, drink, laugh and try to continue healing racial wounds together.

With the mayor and the governor and journalist Bill Minor and a racially diverse mix of other folks looking on, the two men were honored at the 11th annual Friendship Ball, held every year at Hal & Mal's, White's restaurant and bar downtown that caters to people of all stripes. White is outspoken and unapologetic about his politics. He speaks out against the Confederate emblem embedded in our state flag, and he regularly tries to build bridges between races. His restaurant is, in many ways, a haven for progressives in the city; it's certainly where many of the plans for this magazine first came together, and various schemes before us.

When White was honored for the first time at the ball he hosts every year and on a stage he owns, he said it was a bit "like preaching to the choir to come to the Friendship Ball to talk about racial harmony." He then read a letter he'd written to his daughter, Mallory, who had turned 18 the week before after spending many of her formative years bouncing between the tables at Hal & Mal's. He wrote to her that she was lucky to have "a foundation that all people are created equal," adding: "I was not given this gift and had to learn it on my own." The letter was poignantly honest, admitting, "It's never easy to live in Mississippi and be colorblind" and "I will never see true civil rights achieved in my lifetime."

In Turner's lifetime, however, many civil rights have been achieved—and many due to courageous efforts of him and his friends, including Vernon Dahmer and Medgar Evers, both of whom were murdered by white supremacists for their efforts to bring equality to Mississippi blacks. In the early 1960s, he and Evers and other "movement" leaders decided that black Mississippians needed a new newspaper and an alternative to the Clarion Ledger and Jackson Advocate, which then often worked with the white status quo, rather than against it. They together started the Mississippi Free Press, the most daring news effort in the state to date (and the paper that this magazine's name respectfully honors).

Along with Pat Darian (now Hodding Carter III's wife) and others, Turner also started Head Start in Hinds County. Then in the 1970s, Turner joined with men like Russell Davis, Robert L. T. Smith, Bud Robinson, Donald Ludkin, Joe Dove and George Owens to start an organization to promote racial reconciliation—then called Jackson 100. Now it's Jackson 2000 and still building friendships.

When receiving his award, Turner addressed Minor: "When times were tough, you were here with us, and the Good Lord has kept us here to do some good."

Old Mississippi might not approve but, honestly, who gives a damn. Here's to friends.
— Donna Ladd


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