MISSISSIPPI ROAD TRIP: The ancestors inside us and the precious right to vote

Published in Shore Magazine

Denise DeClue

“The past is never dead,” wrote Mississippi writer William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.”

I grew up in Missouri, digging up Civil War relics and arrowheads from the nearby woods and thought it was the Midwest until I came north and realized how southern my upbringing really was. Southern, yes, but I learned how ironies of the South reflect our ambiguity as Americans. We are a people, both violent and caring, earnest and lazy, righteous and mean, rich and poor. We totally believe we’re right, even when we’re wrong. Often there’s a huge gap between our manners and morals.

The South might be by turns peculiar, but it is certainly as American as anywhere else. Millions of people moved from the South to Chicago and Indiana during the Great Migrations of the 20th Century, bringing their southern-ness with them. Now when I read terrible stories about Mississippi, the most southern of the southern states, I always see connections to the poorest places up north and wonder why, why, why?

Why does Mississippi have such a large black population—and so many white elected officials? Why has it provided such poor education—and count as its own so many Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners? Why are Mississippians the most religious, church-going folks in the country—and continue to bear witness to institutionalized injustice? Why do the majority of its schools teach abstinence-only sex education—to students who have the highest rates of teen-age pregnancy, unwed motherhood, HIV/Aids, gonorrhea, infant mortality and divorce?

In October I went to Mississippi to try to figure some of this out. My friends Mary Shaw, Betsy Nore and I went on a road trip sponsored by the Mississippi Center for Justice. Along the way, many of my questions found answers involving racism, voter suppression, redistricting, huge changes in farming, the collapse of an untenable economy, and what another Mississippi author, Willie Morris, calls “the sad barbarism of intransigence.”

We also discovered that the people of Mississippi are far, far from giving up. They are proud, at once celebrating pieces of the past (which indeed, isn’t even past) and they’re working from “kin to cain’t” (sunrise to sunset) to figure out how to build a better future.

The people who designed our road trip (there were about 40 of us on a nice new bus) managed to create memories from the memories of others; to put us in places where the meaning of moments, past and future, surrounded us. They shared incidents recorded in books and on film, and those of legend and lore. People told stories. Bubbles intersected. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

We started out with the Mississippi Justice Center’s “Champions of Justice” dinner, where more than 600 guests listened to great speeches from people who had worked hard for civil rights. Click here to read the full article.