Jack F. Dunbar
In September 1962, then Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett said "Never" to James Meredith, an African American seeking admission to the University of Mississippi, who eventually was enrolled under a court order enforced by federal marshals.
On February 24, 2000, 38 years later, a 20-year-old African American named Nic Lott was elected president of the student body of that same university, whose enrollment today includes only 12 percent African Americans. Nic Lott defeated six white opponents.
In 1996, four years earlier, Reuben Anderson, an African American lawyer and former justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, defeated by secret ballot a worthy white opponent for the presidency of the Mississippi Bar Association. It is a mandatory bar that, at that time, included fewer than 8 percent African American lawyer members.
What has happened in Mississippi and the South since 1962? How did it come to be that in February 2000, the students of a predominately white institution in the Deep South elected a young black man as their leader; a person who could not have even enrolled in that same institution 39 years earlier because of his color? How was it that Reuban Anderson was selected by a predominantly white Mississippi Bar Association as its president in 1996?
The elections of Reuben Anderson and Nic Lott, I believe, mark pages in the final chapter of a long and painful journey for most white southerners, including myself. Those of us who were born and raised in the South in the ’40s and ’50s have been engaged in an often difficult and very personal journey—a journey of self-examination of individual and societal values, which we have not been able to ignore. The journey started from the time and teachings of the segregated society into which we were born. We were taught that blacks were inferior, had to be kept in "their place," and were not entitled to courtesy titles. We were taught by people we loved and respected, including parents, who passed these lessons on from the teachings of prior generations. Ross Barnett’s edict in 1962 reflected those teachings and the views of most white Mississippians at that time.
On this journey, we were guided by many people, some heroes, and many dramatic events. The moral imperatives kept returning even as some of us tried to turn our heads or close our minds and hearts. The 1950s drowning death of young Emmitt Till, found in the Tallahatchie River with gin weights tied to his body deeply disturbed us, even though the accused killers were found "innocent" by an all-white jury. We could not ignore the evil reflected in the murders of Medgar Evers and the three young Civil Rights workers who were found buried in a levee in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s gospel of non-violent resistance to the segregated society showed such dedication and courage that we eventually could not ignore the truth of his message. His murder shocked the conscience of white people in the South. We all knew, though few of us then admitted it publicly or to ourselves, that he was killed for teaching us what we had to learn: that a really free and moral society requires that all persons be treated with dignity and respect, and that they be provided equal opportunities.
So many persons come to mind who inspired and challenged me in my journey. Aaron Henry told me many stories in his struggle to overcome, as we both sought at least peace and nonviolence in the community where we both lived; I as a young lawyer. I recall he once remarked, when asked how he could support a white per-son for political office who had been an announced segregationist in earlier years, "There is not much point in sending our message if we do not permit those who hear to change." I was challenged by the courage of my friend, Curtis Wilkie, now a respected journalist for the Boston Globe, who as a young white reporter in the Mississippi Delta spoke out for civil rights when it was not the best way to keep your job or health; as well as by my friend Tom Royals, now a prominent criminal lawyer in Jackson, Mississippi, who was forced to carry a gun as a young legal aid attorney in response to threats from the Klan. And there were others.
But the real and meaningful change, reflected in part by the elections of Reuban Anderson and Nic Lott, has come, and is coming, from the all-too slow, painful, but certain understanding that our parents were simply wrong.
With that understanding, we can now begin to deal with the shame too many of us share for the injustices we saw but did nothing about; the shame for not speaking out when we should have; and the shame we carry for rejecting our young black friends, whom we grew up with, played with, even loved as brothers do, but then denied when they "came of age." All that is now a little easier to bear, and we have begun to heal and have come to like ourselves much better.
The beneficiaries of the understanding and healing are not just the Reuban Andersons and Nic Lotts to follow. Children of the whites in the South who have come to understand and embrace a diverse and inclusive society, with equal rights for all, as a basic moral requirement for any society—they also benefit.
Jack F. Dunbar is a partner with Holcomb Dunbar in Oxford, MS.