By Alan Bean
The convergence of three events is directing a lot of attention to the Magnolia State: “The Help” is #1 at the box office, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. is being unveiled on the Mall in Washington, and a televised hate crime has rekindled memories of the state’s brutal past.
A spate of connect-the-dots articles appeared over the weekend, and this lengthy piece in the Los Angeles Times is probably the best of the batch. How much has Jackson, Mississippi changed since the civil rights era? A whole lot, and not enough.
With the hit film revisiting the Mississippi capital’s civil rights struggles, white and black residents ponder its progress and what still needs to be done.
On a recent steamy Saturday evening, 11 members of Deborah Rae Wright’s book club — black, white, Indian and Jewish women — gathered in her meticulously restored Craftsman home on the rundown west side of the Mississippi capital. The topic was 1960s-era Jackson and “The Help,” the hit movie set here.
As cicadas chirped and wine flowed, sensitive personal stories of the segregationist era and more recent racial affronts poured forth, and anger and frustration bubbled up.
Lee Harper, a 51-year-old African American restaurant owner, recalled how her mother worked as a maid for white employers from sunup to sundown, six days a week, and hated every minute of it. “I cried a lot in the movie, mostly because I thought of her,” said Harper. “I remember wishing she could do something else.”
Kitty Cook-Ramsey, 45 and white, and Bria Griffith, 32 and black, recalled being warned by their elementary school teachers and their parents not to play with children of the other race. And Cook-Ramsey, whose family offered assistance to black witnesses of a racially motivated murder in the 1950s, said whites were often “frozen out economically” if they went against the status quo.
Dana Larkin, 56, who is white, recalled that when she decided to send her two daughters to Jackson’s predominantly black public schools, other parents accused her of “sacrificing her children in the name of her cause.”
Here in Jackson, and elsewhere in the country, the movie has prompted viewers to contemplate this Southern town’s place in the civil rights struggle and consider how relations between the races have progressed in the last 50 years.
Wright’s multi-racial book club is evidence of how far Jackson has come. And there are other obvious signs of change: The mayor is African American, as is the district attorney; the city, the majority of whose residents were white at the time in which “The Help” is set, is now mostly black. But the June killing of a 49-year-old African American by white teenagers in what authorities say was a racially motivated attack, was an ugly reminder that, even half a century after the fictional events of “The Help,” Jackson still has deep scars.
“Mississippi has not changed that much,” said book club member Dierdre Payne, 62, a retired Exxon employee who is black.
“People dress better. They drive more European cars and there are more black people living on streets that don’t have ditches. [But] do not think that Mississippi is just like everywhere else. We incubate racism here. We are still sitting shiva for Jefferson Davis to come back.”
“The Help,” the nation’s No. 1 film at the box office last weekend, is based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, who grew up in Jackson. It tells the story of a young, white college graduate, portrayed by Emma Stone, who gains the confidence of several black maids and persuades them to let her write a book about their true feelings toward the women who employ them.
Despite mostly favorable reviews, the film has been criticized for putting a white heroine at the center of a story of black oppression. Some of that has been blunted by early praise for the work of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play two of the maids in the movie.
In predominantly black West Jackson, dilapidated homes with peeling paint and overgrown grass line Robinson Road. Around the corner from a dollar store and an auto wholesaler stands a modest brick building that houses WMPR, a community radio station that broadcasts music, news and talk shows to its predominantly black audience.
Inside, station manager Charles Evers, 88, steers the ship from a massive leather recliner. Evers ran the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in Jackson with his brother, Medgar, who was assassinated in 1963 and whose death is a reference point in “The Help.”
The wood-paneled walls of his office are crammed with photographs — personal ones of Medgar, Charles Evers with Robert Kennedy, and posed photos with both President Bushes. Evers is a Republican who voted for President Obama, and he has much to say on how far Jackson has come.
“Things are 100% better,” Evers said. “Forty years ago we couldn’t drink out of a white water fountain. We couldn’t vote. We couldn’t stay in a hotel. One of the things my brother was killed for was trying to integrate Ole Miss, and now I have two granddaughters that graduated from the law school. It’s 100% changed but it’s not enough. We’ve got to go farther.”
Evers says he has no interest in seeing “The Help,” though. He simply doesn’t want to delve into the past. It’s the same reasoning that’s keeping him away from the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr.Memorial in Washington this weekend.
“I don’t want to look back,” he said. “I get angry. And I don’t want to get angry. That’s when you lose control.”
The villain of “The Help” is the president of the Jackson Junior League, a housewife (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) who spearheads a drive for white families to install separate toilets for their black servants to “contain the spread of disease.”
On a recent Friday night, Fran Weeks, current president of the Junior League of Jackson, and Jennifer Wellhausen, the group’s vice president of communication, were dining at Walker’s, an upscale eatery in the racially mixed neighborhood of Fondren.
The women say today’s League is a very different group than it was in the 1960s. The organization, which has 900 active members, is no longer a group of stay-at-home mothers who hold luncheons with Jell-O salad and organize bridge tournaments; more than 70% are women with careers. Less than 10% of the membership, they say, is black.
As one of the biggest fundraisers of any Junior League in the country, the Jackson chapter has raised millions of dollars for youth-related causes in the city.
Despite the League’s unfavorable depiction in the film, Weeks and Wellhausen — both white — liked the movie. “I found it to be a really compelling story,” Weeks said. “I think people here look at the film as a positive thing. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come.”
Both Junior League leaders believe the depiction of the white women’s relationships with their maids was not representative of the times. “In the movie, the women were very harsh to the help, and I don’t believe that’s how it was,” said Weeks, who lives outside Jackson, in the predominantly white suburb of Madison.
But Wellhausen said she didn’t think the League’s reputation will suffer from the film.
“We’re going to use it for the positive,” she said. “As good Southern women, you are not supposed to brag about what you do, but we have been coming up with ways to share more.”
In the early 1960s, Jackson’s King Edward Hotel was a home away from home for state legislators — white assemblymen who fancied its hidden speakeasy and luxurious accommodations. But when the first African American guest checked in, in 1966, the government officials moved out the next day in protest over the hotel’s compliance with the integration laws.
By 1967, the King Edward had shut its doors. It soon became a hovel for the homeless and a symbol of downtown Jackson’s decay.
Today, the hotel has been restored to its former glory, thanks to the efforts of a white attorney embarking on a second career as a real estate developer with a conscience. David Watkins Sr., 62, his son, David Jr., 41 — and their company’s African American vice president, Jason Goree, 33 — opened the doors to the historic hotel and residency in December 2009 and are committed to rehabilitating adjacent properties to further revitalize downtown.
“People had written off Jackson: Don’t throw your money at it, go to the suburbs. Jackson is dead,” the elder Watkins said. “But that was the Mississippi of the past. I’m interested in the Mississippi of the future.”
The recent killing of James C. Anderson, the 49-year-old African American who was beaten and run over with a truck, prompted yet another discussion about race relations in their hometown. But even though authorities labeled it a racial hate crime and charged two white 18-year-olds, David Watkins Jr. and Goree both see a difference between now and Mississippi of the 1960s.
“I hear this story in the news about this guy who comes in from Rankin County and beats and runs over this man here, and my reaction is I want to find the group that did this and fight,” Watkins Jr. said. “But there isn’t the group to go and fight. That’s the difference between then and now. Then there was an oppressive society, now there is not. It’s an individual acting out.”
Goree agreed: “When I heard about the hate crime, the first thing I said was, ‘Oh, no.’ I know the rest of the world does not know Mississippi, and this would just feed into the negative perception that goes along with our state,” he said. “I hope we can come together as a community to rally behind this to say that’s not who we are. It’s not Mississippi. It’s one guy.”
More than 500 people, white as well as black, gathered for a vigil for Anderson at Jackson’s New Horizon Church in mid-August. Pastors from Brandon, Miss., where the two alleged assailants lived, came to condemn the attack. They were joined by representatives of Jackson’s black churches and congregants and the rabbi from the city’s Beth Israel temple. Marchers lighted candles and sang “We Shall Overcome.”
Hours before the vigil, C.J. Rhodes, 29, the new preacher at Mount Helm Baptist Church, Jackson’s oldest black congregation, was having supper after services at the Fairview Inn, which was once the home of the head of the segregationist White Citizens’ Council — a group formed in 1954 as a response to the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision desegregating public schools.
Today, the Fairview, which hosted the cast and crew of “The Help” during filming, has a clientele that includes blacks and whites, often dining together. Rhodes and his girlfriend were eating with Jackson Free Press Editor Donna Ladd, who is white.
Piano music played. Elderly white women outfitted in pearls and suits dined with their families. At the table next to Ladd and Rhodes, a black couple ate lunch with a white one. Yet Rhodes was visibly uncomfortable.
Reflecting on the juxtaposition of recent events, he noted that while “we are much more cordial inter-racially now,” the politesse “blinds us to the deeper levels of racial tension.”
“The fact [is] that we are sitting in here together, in the place that was owned by Bill Simmons,” the White Citizens’ Council leader, he said. “That wouldn’t have happened in the ’60s. Or it could have happened, but the outcome would be different. We wouldn’t be sitting here eating. We would be dragged out, beaten.”
As for the killing of Anderson, he’s particularly frustrated that local media paid little attention to the case until CNN focused on it more than a month later. “What makes it infuriating, beyond the death of a man, which is sad and terrible, is that we still live in a culture where it’s kinda OK to kill a black folk.”
Rhodes saw “The Help” with his girlfriend at a local theater, and although they found it moving, he worries that such feel-good films tend to make people think society has already reached true racial reconciliation.
“The possible danger of ‘The Help’ or ‘The Blind Side’ is that it sanitizes the racial stuff,” he said. “It was a great movie; we wept together. The End.”