Thursday, June 13, 2013

In Kemper County, A Picture of America We Don't Want to See

I confess to subconsciously possessing wildly absurd ideas about what Mississippi would be like before I arrived here. Somehow I felt as if I was traveling into an exotic place, the belly of the beast, as it were, when it comes to American racism. It is as if I expected everything to be quaint and different and frozen in time. I don't think I actually expected that, but at some level I harbored those ideas. And perhaps there are places, such as in the Delta, that do feel that way. But mostly I have been treated to landscapes of strip malls and Walmart's and McDonald's, with nary a cotton field or confederate flag to enliven the scene.

Granted, I am in a college town, which surely makes a significant difference. And I suppose if I did pass cotton fields I probably wouldn't know it at this time of year anyway. But one does see the Mississippi state flag flying many places, which prominently features the stars and bars. That is an ongoing scandal.

It is weird, too, to pass through places that are so laden with history and now seem so mundane. I wish I could stay here longer and talk to local people and get a better sense of how people feel about the legacy of the civil rights movement. I would especially like to do that in Stennis's hometown of DeKalb, in Kemper County, but it is an hour and a half south of here and I'm not sure if I'll have the chance to take that trip before I leave.

Stennis worried about places like Kemper becoming "ghost counties." During his lifetime the population of Kemper County fell by more than half, and has since flat-lined for the past 40 years. It is a classic case of a very poor rural county left behind by the modern globalized economy. Like it was throughout Stennis's life, it remains majority-black. The increase in local black political power that Stennis tried so hard to prevent has done little to alleviate the grinding poverty in the area.

One of the most horrendous legacies of the civil rights movement in Kemper County, as in many other areas of the United States, is that the public school district is, essentially, for blacks, while private schools provide education for whites. Though whites constituted almost 40% of the population, as of 2011 only 2.3% of public school students were white while over 97% were black. Before desegregation came to Kemper County in the beginning of 1970, almost all white children attended the public schools.

As in many other districts across the country, this did not change gradually. It happened in an instant, the very semester the court-ordered desegregation plan was implemented. Over 40 years later, segregation is maintained in Kemper County, as it is in many other places, while conservatives pretend that their contempt for public schools has nothing to do with race.

For two decades stretching from the 1950s to the 1970s, various institutions of our government, from the Supreme Court to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights studied these issues and concluded that segregated schooling, regardless of the origin or method of such segregation, was inherently unequal and harmful to black children. As a government and as a people, we have definitely and unequivocally turned our backs on that idea.

It would almost be comforting if we claimed not to believe those findings anymore, or if the ideas of those years had been thoroughly debunked. Instead, we just pretend that they have no relevance. We hail Brown vs. Board of Education as a landmark, yet we don't even keep up a pretense of implementing it anymore. On this front, the civil rights movement was defeated, and most white Americans appear to be glad that it was.

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