A mayor and a prophet lock horns in a Southern town

Diane Nash addresses crowd as Mayor Cheri Barry looks on

By Alan Bean

On Saturday, June 18th, Friends of Justice joined dozens of civil rights veterans in honoring the memory of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.  For those who worked in Mississippi during the 1960s, the cruel and cowardly murder of three civil rights workers epitomizes a painful period.

The Mississippi phase of the civil rights movement doesn’t get nearly as much attention as corresponding events in nearby Alabama.  There was plenty of terror in Alabama as well; but it was offset by triumph.  Apart from the freedom rides of 1961, Mississippi didn’t produce a lot of victories.  Passionate support for segregation was almost universal among white folks.  In many counties, not a single black voter was registered when the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965.  In Mississippi, two armies, one dedicated to “state’s rights” (full-blown Jim Crow segregation), the other dedicated to Civil Rights (racial equality reinforced by racial justice) fought to a bitter standstill. 

On June 18, we didn’t just gather to remember Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner; each participant was handed a cross or a star of David bearing the name of an innocent person murdered in Mississippi for being black or for speaking out for racial justice.  There were over 100 people in the crowd and there were more crosses and stars than participants.

The event began at the Lauderdale County Courthouse in Meridian, Mississippi and the first person to speak was Meridian Mayor, the Honorable Cheri Barry.  The mayor flashed a nervous grin as she bustled to the microphone.  She began by thanking the police officers responsible for escorting us to the Neshoba County line.  “I may be here,” she seemed to say, “but I still stand for law and order.”

But there was more.

“I stand for bringing people together, bringing the walls of division down, working very closely as one under God’s eyes; we all have the same blood,” she continued.  “I made three campaign promises when I started this election. One was to build a new police station, on which we’ve broken ground on.”  The third project, she informed us with obvious pride, was “to have a Freedom Park or Freedom Plaza right in the heart of historical downtown Meridian . . . Hopefully by your next visit we will have a reflection pond, we will have a building, we will have a beautiful gated area that you can pay your respects to Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.”

The mayor finished her remarks and stood to one side as a long line of civil rights luminaries made the most of their brief turn at the microphone.  Then it was time for Diane Nash to speak.  Instead of standing with the other dignitaries, Ms. Nash stood in the crowd until they called her name.

Diane Nash visiting with fellow activists in Cleveland MS, circa 1963, (Margaret Block's photo)

I first encountered Diane Nash in the pages of David Halberstram’s The Children and in Taylor Branch’s MLK trilogy.  Recently, she was featured in an excellent American Experience Documentary on the Freedom Rides in which her pivotal role in keeping the project alive was honored.

But Diane wasn’t just thinking about the past as she walked slowly to the podium.  For her, the civil rights struggle never ended.

“Good morning fellow freedom fighters,” she said softly.  “Most all of us have a commitment to keep the demand for justice alive for the people who gave their lives for the struggle; people whose names you are holding now on crosses and stars of David.”

Then Diane Nash turned her attention to Mayor Cheri Barry.

“I think that the goals of building a new police station and building a park are very good,” she said.  “But I’d like to appeal to you to set some human goals. One of those goals would be that the median income of black people who are citizens of Meridian, achieve the median income of white citizens. And I’d like to include among those goals that the education level of black children in Meridian reach the education level of white children in Meridian. Although African-Americans constitute 35% of the state, they make up 75% of the prisoners.  Whatever the social problems that make that true, I wish it would become a goal to solve those social problems.”

As Diane Nash returned to her place in the crowd, Mayor Barry scurried back to the microphone.  She wasn’t about to let this challenge pass without comment.

Those of you know that know me well know that the most important thing, upon taking office, was to bring the walls and the lines of racial discrimination down.  I love the people of this community, all of my people, despite their race. When I talked about the buildings, that was simply to tell you the direction that Meridian is going, because it’s so important to me to give honor to those that lost their lives through a civil rights memorial.  I will hopefully not only go down in history as the first woman mayor, but also as the people’s mayor, and that is the most important thing to me. But so is my Freedom Park.

Meridian's monument to the Confederacy

Significantly, the major refused to interact with Nash’s specific concerns.  You can build civil rights monuments in Mississippi as long as leave the Civil War memorial at the courthouse intact.  That’s the way these things are settled in the South: three cheers for the civil rights martyrs; three cheers for the Confederacy!

The mayor’s indignation was understandable.  How many public officials in the majority-white sections of Mississippi would be willing to give the civil rights movement a public thumbs-up?  Wasn’t it enough to talk about racial understanding and equality in the eyes of God?  You can’t fix what happened 47 years ago.  Isn’t it enough to celebrate the fact that black people sit on Meridian’s town council and that the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan no longer don their sheets in public?

But Diane Nash wasn’t talking about what happened 47 years ago.  The terror of those times will live with her forever, but her eyes are solidly fixed on the social realities of 2011.  She didn’t put her life on the line as a young woman so black people could sit in the board rooms of corporate American while the nation’s prisons overflow with poor black males.  The meteoric rise of Barack and Oprah show how far we’ve come; the faceless black men sweating on the Parchman Plantation show how much ground we have surrendered.

As we drove through the Mississippi Delta a few days later, I acknowledged to our interns that Mississippi has made great strides in recent years.  But as some conditions improve, others deteriorate.  “The risk of incarceration has exploded in the last thirty years,” I said.  “The chances of a black man going to prison at some time in his life is ten times as great in 2011 as it was when Emmett Till was murdered in 1955.”

Mississippi vies with Texas and Louisiana for the highest incarceration rate in the nation.  But when it comes to the disproportionate imprisonment of black males, the Magnolia State has fifth BEST record in the nation.  As Diane Nash suggests, it is troubling that black males are incarcerated in Mississippi at three times the rate of white males.  But compared to northern states like Iowa (14-1), Wisconsin (11-1) and Minnesota (9-1), Mississippi looks pretty good.

Tragically, the states rights spirituality of Mississippi has been exported to the rest of the Union.  Mass incarceration only makes sense against the painful backdrop of American history: 1968-2000.  Harry Truman said it well: “The only thing that’s new is the history you haven’t learned yet.”

It’s time to learn our own history and the lesson begins in Mississippi.



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