The Greatest Lie

It was press night, and all sorts of people were lining up to ask me stuff so we could put this issue to bed. But I had to leave for a couple hours, to go to Millsaps to hear one of my favorite professors initiate the Medgar Evers Lecture Series. This wasn't one of my Mississippi State profs. This was Dr. Manning Marable, the man who a thousand miles away at Columbia University taught me more about the Southern Civil Rights Movement—or what he calls the Black Freedom Movement—than I ever learned on the home soil. Most importantly, Marable affirmed my belief—the only white woman in his "Black Intellectualism" graduate-school class—that it's right, no, necessary for white people to embrace and understand African-American history. In fact, blacks and whites in this country—not to mention Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and others—have a shared history that cannot be understood if part of it is left out.

"I argue tonight that an American cannot truly understand his or her own country unless he or she is truly grounded in the black American experience. … The greatest lie in the arsenal of discrimination is that black history is inferior to, or at odds with the real history of America."

That was his message last night in the Campbell Center at Millsaps to a truly diverse audience. Former Gov. William Winter first challenged the roomful of Jacksonians—from satirist/filmmaker Ken Stiggers to poet Jolivette Anderson to civil-rights attorney Rob McDuff to lawyer Isaac Byrd to Mayor Harvey Johnson to Stamps Burgers owner Kim Stamps and her two kids—to not allow our history, or Medgar Evers' legacy, to be buried. "How important it is for all of us, especially young people, to have a sense of history," he said, adding that we must use the past to improve the future.

"Medgar had every reason to leave Mississippi, never to return … but he never gave up on his home state or the people who lived here," Winter said. He then introduced Medgar Evers' wife, Myrlie Evers-Williams, who had action on her brain. To effect change, she advised, one must be focused, dedicated to a mission, be willing to persevere, have a tough skin, withstand criticism and do work that's worthwhile for yourself and others. (Millsaps students scribbled away as she spoke. So did I.) She said she and others started the lecture series, in conjunction with the Medgar Evers Institute, "because it's something that needs to be done: to make people think, care, to challenge us."

Evers-Williams then introduced Manning Marable, an Ohio native who as a 17-year-old writer for a black newspaper drove to Atlanta to cover the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. He was first in line.

Marable, a historian and director of Columbia's Institute for Research in African American Studies, said fighters like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. (whom he calls "Martin"), "helped change the racial climate of this state and this nation."

In an unflinching way that I grew accustomed to in class, Marable called racism both in the North and the South as it is, but doesn't allow one to excuse the other. At Millsaps, he detailed the history of Jim Crow segregation in the South, which started here in Mississippi when Reconstruction ended and the state purged more then 120,000 blacks from the voting rolls. He called Jim Crow "American apartheid," explaining that it infected every level of life: political, legal, economic and social. Due to the separate-and-unequal education allowed by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, white children enjoyed up to 12 times more educational resources than blacks.

Marable, a progressive thinker on women's issues, said Jim Crow was cruelest against black women, who facilitated "every aspect of cotton production" in the South, and performed menial domestic services in the North, and were often raped by employers in both regions. "They consistently fought to defend themselves," he said. He gave credit to women of the Civil Rights Movement, including Joanne Robinson who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and Rosa Parks, who was an NAACP activist before she got tired that fateful day.

Marable drew on black intellectuals such as "Martin and Malcolm" and W.E.B. duBois and Bayard Rustin and poets such as Langston Hughes ("our greatest poet") to challenge listeners to work for social justice. "History is made by what ordinary people decide to do," he said. Don't put King on a pedestal, he said—King was human, too. "He knew greatness was found in the ability to transcend doubts and fears and create history anew," Marable said of King.

Afterward, I enjoyed a hug from my former professor and whispered to him that great things are happening in Jackson. I left with a light heart, knowing that a message I had to go so far to learn was shared that night on my home turf.


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