You Can't Rewrite History: But there’s also no point in minimizing the truth of what really happened here

By DAVID GUSTAFSON,

Rose Kennedy knew a thing or two about pain. By the time she died in 1995 at the age of 104, the matriarch of the Kennedy family had lived long enough to bury five of her nine children – including President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, both of whom were gunned down by assassins’ bullets.

Despite her courage to carry on, Kennedy never mixed words about the pain she endured in her lifetime.

“It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.”

The same is often said by those who lived through the Mississippi Civil Rights era – especially those who spent ‘Freedom Summer’ in this state (and in this community) working to get black residents registered to vote.

Fifty-five years later, the pain remains, and rightfully so.

By all accounts, it was a dark chapter in our state’s history and one that we may rightfully never live down. But that doesn’t mean we should give up trying.

And it doesn’t mean we have the right to try to re-write history to minimize the truth of what happened.

Unfortunately, such was the case in a 2011 interview with Bobby Chain, the successful Hattiesburg entrepreneur who faithfully served as mayor of the Hub City from 1980 to 1986.

In the interview conducted by The Hattiesburg American’s Tim Doherty, Chain offered details about an unofficial group he helped form during the summer of 1961 whose purpose, he said, was to “keep Hattiesburg out of the spotlight” during Mississippi’s budding Civil Rights Movement.

Doherty wrote, “After years of silence, Chain decided the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides was the time to share the tale.”

According to Chain, he joined forces with a virtual “Who’s Who” of the Hattiesburg establishment that included, among others, Mississippi Southern College President William D. McCain; University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Director Reed Green, Hattiesburg lawyer M.M. Roberts; and District Attorney Jimmy Finch.

Of course, McCain was widely known for his segregationist views.  Roberts was a staunch believer in “white supremacy.” And Finch was a known racist who framed Clyde Kennard, the first black student who attempted to enroll at Southern Miss.

The group Chain spoke of may have indeed existed and they may have indeed attempted to help ease racial tensions through their influence, but Chain’s portrayal of Hattiesburg as an idealistic community void of the violence that plagued the rest of the state is simply incorrect, and it served no purpose other than to help himself – and others – feel better about his legacy.

Other than a singular incident in the summer of 1964 when an out-of-state (and unarmed) rabbi was beaten with a lead pipe, Chain was quoted as saying that “anybody who went back home and told people that they had been (abused) in Hattiesburg, they were lying. We just were not going to let that happen here.”

But that wasn’t true.

There are dozens and dozens of documented acts of violence against civil rights workers in Hattiesburg – many of whom were white.

Unfortunately, not many of them were reported by Hattiesburg’s daily newspaper.

Like many of the state’s newspapers at the time, The American was selective in what it reported about the Civil Rights Movement.

Many fine newspapers across the state did the same thing, and it’s an unfortunate sin that our industry must endure. However, just because we helped rewrite and whitewash history during the 1960’s doesn’t mean we should do it 50+ years after the fact, too.

Let me be clear.

Chain’s legacy in this community has nothing to do with his erroneous memories about the Civil Rights era in Hattiesburg.

His dedication to the state’s education system led to a 12-year appointment to Mississippi’s Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning and he would eventually play a pivotal role in working with U.S. Sen. James Eastland and President Richard Nixon to further resolve racial segregation in Mississippi’s universities and colleges.

This column should not be construed as an attempt in any way to discredit his influence on our city.

He deserves many accolades for many things.

However, it’s important to set the record straight on behalf of all of the men and women, black and white, native Mississippians and otherwise, who came to Hattiesburg to help give our fellow Americans the right to vote.

They deserve better than that.

And so does this community.

Gustafson is the not-so mild-mannered editor and publisher of The PineBelt NEWS.

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