PERFECTLY IMPERFECT: Does Mississippi deserve all of the harsh criticism?

By ELIJAH JONES,

Mississippi. Our state has a most unenviable place in the mind of America. 

Mississippi runs neck-and-neck with our next-door neighbor, Alabama, suffering a reputation as the most "racist" state in the country. 

When a TV comic wants to make fun of a state for being backward in race relations, the "joke" will most likely begin with mentioning Mississippi or Alabama, as we wait for the not-so-funny punchline. 

Our state's ugly racist history makes us an easy target. But how fair is it?

I lived in Los Angeles for 12 years before returning to my hometown, Hattiesburg. I'll never forget having a goodbye dinner with my former coworker and friend, Marilyn. 

After stuffing ourselves with thousands of calories at the Beverly Hills Cheesecake Factory, what better way to end the meal than with, what else, a big hunk of cheesecake?

The two of us had been sitting, eating, and having the most delightful conversation, reminiscing about life in Los Angeles and the fun we had all those years working together.

I also shared how excited I was about moving home, to be near my mother and closer to my family. Unbeknownst to Marilyn and me, a couple sitting next to us overheard enough of our conversation to politely interrupt.

They were an older Jewish couple, older being what my own age is today, and the man wanted to ask me a question. 

"Excuse me, sir, I don't mean to be rude," he began, "and I'm sorry for interrupting. But my wife and I heard a bit about your plans and we just had to ask. Why would a black man want to move BACK to Mississippi?"

I suppose I shouldn't have been taken aback by the gentleman's query. 

He'd posed his question in earnest, with genuine curiosity. Still, I was a bit frustrated. And there I found myself, once again, having to defend Mississippi for the racist imagery that seems to forever dog our state. 

And sadly, yes, we have earned much of it.

In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till, from Chicago, visiting his family in Mississippi, reportedly had the temerity to flirt with a pretty young white woman at a store in the tiny town of Money. 

When the girl's father was told a terribly embellished and tainted version of the story, young Till paid the ultimate price. 

He was later gruesomely tortured, then shot in the head, his body placed in a cotton sack and tossed into the Tallahatchie River.

Then there were the infamous murders that took place in our state during the Freedom Summer of 1964. 

Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were in Mississippi on behalf of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). 

For their volunteer efforts, working to ensure the civil rights of Mississippi's African-Americans, the three men were murdered, their bodies buried in an earthen dam in Neshoba County. 

Closer to home, Vernon Dahmer, of Hattiesburg's Kelly Settlement community, worked tirelessly, getting African-Americans registered to vote. 

Those efforts made him a target of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. His family awakened early one morning to the sound of gunshots and the firebombing of their home. 

Mr. Dahmer stood in the doorway of his home, firing back at his attackers, giving his family members time to escape. 

Vernon Dahmer gave his life, defending the lives of his family and for his worthy efforts, of making sure his fellow African-Americans were registered and had the right to vote.

I guess that kind of history is enough to make a man in Southern California ask a black man why he would ever want to move back to Mississippi. 

And if those kinds of stories weren't enough, consider the way Mississippi is often portrayed by Hollywood in the movies and popular culture. 

There's a bit of tragic irony at work in the mix here, though. Kind of like Hollywood getting into the act of calling the kettle, well, "black." 

1994 was the year I moved back to Mississippi from Los Angeles. But just two years earlier, in 1992, the memories of the riots that threatened to burn Los Angeles to the ground were still fresh in my mind. 

Most will remember how those riots started.

A small band of white Los Angeles police officers was found innocent in the shameless beating of a black motorist, Rodney King, in 1991. 

The verdict from their trial, a year later, angered thousands of black residents and led to horrific rioting throughout the city. Many Los Angeles neighborhoods suffered wholesale looting and vandalism. The resultant and countless fires caused millions of dollars in damage. 

The rioting also led to 63 deaths. 

I was living in Los Angeles at the time of those riots. They were as frightening to me as any of the earthquakes I'd experienced while living in southern California. 

From my home in the Hollywood hills, I had a panoramic view of this massive city. 

On a clear day, I could see all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Not on this day. 

Just before nightfall at the apex of the rioting, I stood on my front porch. An otherwise beautiful sunset was marred by plumes of smoke rising from several locations across the city's landscape. Ashes from the fires actually floated over my yard. 

This was real. In that moment, I could imagine what it must feel like to live in some war-torn city in the Middle East. 

Days after the rioting began, the streets of Los Angeles were filled with heavy-duty military equipment, loaded with National Guardsmen on patrol, weapons at the ready.

This was happening in America, in a city billed as one of the most progressive in the country: Los Angeles. Hey, not so fast pointing those accusatory fingers of bad race relations at my home state. 

Yes, Mississippi has a horrid past and we still deal with our demons, as does all of America. But the riots in Los Angeles pulled the scab off the charade that race relations are so much better in other parts of the country than they are in Mississippi. 

Besides the riots of 1992, while living in that otherwise great American city, I saw with my own eyes how Los Angeles is one of the most segregated cities in America. Chicago, New York City, are they any better? 

The short answer is "No."

I had a dear friend visit me from Manhattan a few years ago. While we were out to dinner one night in downtown Hattiesburg, with no prompting from me, as we talked, she made the observation, "Elijah, I think black people and white people get along better here than they do in New York." I smiled when she said that.

I smiled because it's an observation I often make on my own to those who question me about what life is like between the races, in particular, blacks and whites, here in Mississippi.    

Absolutely, we have a ways to go. But black folk and white folk here in Mississippi have been there, done that. Yes, again, we're still working on that whole racial reconciliation thing, together. 

The bigger challenge though, for all of the country, is acknowledging the fact that in the next 20 years or so, there will be no 50 plus 1 percent majority of any race in America. 

For the good of our country, to paraphrase that line from Rodney King, stated in an effort to help quell the rioting in Los Angeles, we'd better learn to get along.

Any good news? 

Maybe, for my home state, anyway. 

In spite of the ugly stereotypes we're forced to live with, I'd say Mississippi has a head start with race relations over much of this country.

Elijah Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of the Hattiesburg Public School System and the University of Southern Mississippi. Drop him an email: edjhubtown@aol.com.

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