Here I sit in Mississippi, only 200 or so miles away from Memphis, TN, where Rev. King was murdered. Only about 20 miles from the driveway where Medgar Evers was killed in Jackson, MS. I’m right beside the state where the Selma March took place, and only about 25 miles from Tougaloo College, the center of the fight for racial equality during Freedom Summer in 1964 in Mississippi, the year I graduated from high school in Jackson.
I’m only about 100 miles from Neshoba County where three martyrs were killed in 1964.
Philadelphia, MS, where the Mt. Zion Church was located, is also about 100 miles away from where I live.
But, believe it or not, these places could just as well have been thousands of miles away from me in 1964, because I was living a privileged life right outside the city of Jackson, and I was going to one of the best high schools in the country, let alone state. During that summer my parents would not let me drive at night alone, their one concession to the acts of violence that were taking place all around us.
So many times, I have asked myself how I could have been so uninformed, so naive, so sheltered, so stupid. And, worst of all, no matter how I have tried to throw off my guilt by saying I am open-minded, declaring my color-blindness, preaching tolerance, I still know in my heart that the years of living in a place so full of hatred, being surrounded by people who thought they were correct in assuming that one race is superior to another, has taken its toll.
I understood a bit more about myself as a person when I read Roxane Gay’s review of the movie The Help, written by a woman from a well-known Jackson family, Kathryn Stockett. Gay said:
“The way the book blithely addresses the complex racial climate of Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s, where the novel is set, is so infuriating as to completely overshadow what few merits it possesses.”
“Worst of all, there’s an ignorance of the severity of Jim Crow laws and how those laws would have prevented a great deal of the novel from actually taking place. And then there’s also the idea that a young white girl just out of college would be the one to help “the help” find their voices and articulate their lives. The book ends up being insulting to everyone.”
So often I wish there was something I could do or say to receive some sort of atonement, but, like Kathryn, I can never get far enough away from those times to see what kind of person I really am. Saying that I am not a racist makes me think of Shakespeare’s words:
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
I like to think I got a few points for going to Millsaps College, a liberal arts school, and for living in another country for three years, Spain. But really, most of the time I feel guilty.
However, Sincere Kirabo, a social justice coordinator writing for The Humanist, says something that makes me feel a little better:
“If you’re carrying guilt for being privileged, quit wasting your time. Devote your mental energy towards something worthwhile, like transmitting heightened awareness within your sphere of influence (however marginal) and seeking to destabilize the inequitable power structure that allows and excuses the bias and cruelty involved with cases like Eric Harris (the Tulsa, OK man murdered while pleading for his breath). Focus less on your guilt and more on being a catalyst for change.”
I think I can do that! And I think Dr. King would like this thought, too.