(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town. Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)
Remember the Daily Kos poll showing that 47% of southerners had doubts that President Barack Obama was born in Hawaii? What would the numbers look like if the question was posed to white southerners?
Fortunately, we aren’t left to idle speculation. Del Ali of Research 2000 crunched the numbers and concluded that, if the Daily Kos figures are accurate, “the proportion of white Southern voters with doubts about their president’s citizenship may be higher than 70 percent.”
The Daily Kos study applied the “Southern” label to twelve states: Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas. Some of these states went blue in 2008 and others were in the swing state category. So, if the 70% figure applies to white Southerners generally, what percentage of white voters in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama (where Obama took between 10 and 14% of the white vote) fear the President might be a closet foreigner?
Now, move to small-town Mississippi and ask the same question. Is it possible that upwards of 85% of the white adults in Winona, MS (to choose a town at random) question the citizenship of our president?
And if this figure is inaccurate, is it too high or not high enough?
A couple of Sundays ago, Methodist pastor L. Charles Stovall and I attended a small but vital Missionary Baptist church in Winona. According to the tradition of the black church, brother Stovall and I, as visiting pastors, were ushered to the front to sit at the right and left hand of the pastor and I was asked to lead the altar prayer. Fortunately, I have attended enough traditional black worship services to know I was supposed to wait until the congregation had gathered at the front, joined hands, and sung a call-and-response hymn. I didn’t start praying until the pastor gave me a gentle nudge.
I adapted my praying style to the black idiom as much as a white preacher can without sounding ridiculous. This means breaking things up into bite-sized pieces, a few syllables at a time and waiting for the congregation to respond. Toward the end of my prayer I prayed for “our president . . . and his wife . . . and his children.”
I might not have considered praying for the president but, the previous Sunday, I had worshipped with Priscilla Hutton (a Roman Catholic) at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis. Episcopalians always pray for the president using his Christian name, as in “. . . and for our president, Barack.” So, on the fly, I adapted this custom to my black Baptist prayer.
When I was done and everyone had returned to their seats, the pastor said, “thank you so much, Reverend Bean, for that prayer. You prayed for ‘our president’. And he is ‘our president’, just like George W. Bush was ‘our president’. I was so surprised to hear you use that phrase and I was really moved and touched that you did.”
Why should it be considered amazing when a white preacher prays for “our president”? Because in small town Mississippi, most white folks have a hard time embracing the idea that a black man, a black woman, and two black children are ensconced in the White House.
It is important that we not demonize Southern white folk. Taken as individuals, some of their views and attitudes can be troubling, and in some instances, alarming. But white people in Winona, Mississippi don’t have a lot of positive role models in the racial reconciliation department. Resentment for the civil rights movement is so widespread in this culture that any other attitude is counterintuitive. White residents of small Southern towns know it is wrong to discriminate, but the very mention of black leaders associated with the civil rights movement makes them bristle.
How do you reconcile a belief in racial equality with a deep-seated resentment for the movement that established, at least in a formal sense, that equality?
Reconciliation isn’t necessary because, as a practical matter, it is impossible. White people can’t work through their feelings on these sensitive issues without revisiting the humiliation of the 1960s when their cultural heritage was exposed and ridiculed every evening on the nightly news. White Southerners have adapted to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If the black folks want a little state money for a civil rights library here and there, prominent white politicians are willing to cooperate–within reason. But don’t ask these folks to celebrate Martin Luther King Day or to rejoice in the rich legacy of the civil rights movement. Deep wounds have yet to heal.
It is generally considered bad form to beat up on Southern whites. These people have been demeaned, stereotyped and condescended to for generations, the argument goes, so why not cut them some slack. When I question the objectivity or the racial sensitivity of people like Doug Evans (the prosecutor in the Curtis Flowers case) or State Senator Lydia Chassaniol it isn’t because I believe they are fire-breathing, old school racists. Doug and Lydia concern me because they are embedded in a deeply traumatized culture and it shows. Chassaniol admits that she belongs to the Council of Conservative Citizens (an organization with roots in the old White Citizens’ Councils) but doesn’t think that makes her racially insensitive. She isn’t being the least bit disengenuous. After attending all-white public schools during the Jim Crow era, Chassaniol went to college and returned to Winona to teach in the community’s all-white segregation academy. With all the best intentions in the world (and I firmly believe she is well-intentioned), she can’t extricate herself from her culture and it’s tortured history.
Having lived in a small, racially polarized Texas town, I know how hard it can be for folks on either side of the cultural divide to break ranks with the status quo. The journey toward racial reconciliation must be taken in the company of others–few can make this arduous pilgrimage on their own.
But where do we start and who takes the first step?
The jury system is the best system we have; but when that system collides with the racial history of the South because a low-status black man is accused of killing a high-status white woman, things fall apart. Investigators, prosecutors and potential jurors (on both sides of the color line) find it impossible to maintain the degree of objectivity our jury system demands.
The criminal justice is breaking down in cases of this nature all across the rural South, but I have never witnessed a more compelling demonstration of the phenomenon than I have encountered in Winona, Mississippi where a murder prosecution has dragged on for thirteen years, dividing a community along racial lines. How can we bring closure and resolution to this story? One thing is certain: It isn’t likely to happen in the courtroom.