By Ronnie Agnew
Editor of the (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion Ledger
He still doesn’t like to talk about it, although nearly 50 years have passed. The hurt revisits him, and remembering reignites painful memories that are emotionally locked away in some deep, quiet place that he considers off limits to the rest of the world — even to those closest to him. So he fights an internal struggle to forget, a daily battle where he is not always the victor. To remember that evil period forces an elderly man who has witnessed too much hate to go back to a place where he prefers not to go. In his own home, he was the rock, the protector. Outside of it, he was a sharecropper working for pennies on the dollar, enriching others while his own family struggled to survive.
As a younger man, he knew his place and as long as he remembered the rules – never make eye contact with a white person, never speak to a white person unless spoken to – he had a better chance of remaining safe. There was a fear there that was passed on to my siblings, and to me.
In 1950s and 1960s Mississippi, we were taught never to break the code of segregation, to live a separate life because separatism offered the best chance of survival. My father didn’t know whether the occasional threats of violence were real, but he was unwilling to take the chance.
The tragic story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was killed and his body mutilated because he allegedly whistled at a white woman is the stuff of history books. But not to my father, my late mother and the scores of black people who viewed the boy’s 1955 murder as an intimidation ploy. It was the Ku Klux Klan’s way of showing superiority. Although the cowardly murder occurred in Money, Miss., its effect spread quickly throughout Mississippi. Black people were afraid for their lives, and many of them took off for the perceived safety of cities that dotted the northern interstates. They settled in St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Gary, Ind. – anywhere but Mississippi, their native land that had abandoned them, frightened them, left them feeling that to stay would mean certain death. They went in search of better jobs, but their desperation to leave was to escape the Jim Crow South.
My dad would have none of it. In some inexplicable sense, he enjoyed life on the farm, where outside of his sharecropping responsibilities, he raised hogs and chickens and cows that produced milk that was sold to area dairies. While my mother pleaded with him for a change, he fought to maintain the life that we had. While others fled, including all of his siblings, he chose to stay. He vowed never to leave Mississippi, a place that even today remains a contradiction. It is a place that is fighting hard to distance itself from its past, yet still is stained by it, and by the unsolved civil rights crimes of the 1960s that makes peace elusive to families who have found no closure.
My family was touched by tragedies in the Civil Rights Movement in ways most will never comprehend. In our three-room shack with the leaky tin roof, outhouses and water that had to be fetched from a well, each heinous murder was treated like a death in the immediate family. The slaying of Medgar Evers. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy. the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death at the Lorraine Motel. Bobby Kennedy’s death. The slaying of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in Neshoba County. The news of each tragedy traveled through the cotton fields occupied by the country folk by radio and word of mouth. Each death would elicit wails of sadness that pierced the stillness. President Kennedy's and Dr. King’s deaths would bring about the most emotion. The hope that the men represented died with them, and though most of the folks in that community had limited education, they recognized the historical importance of their loss.
The country folk, who lived on unpaved roads in shanty homes, could not afford newspapers or televisions. Even if they had been able to afford newspapers, they would have had to find the few brave enough to chronicle the atrocities of the civil rights movement. Sadly, the newspaper where I am now editor was not one of them. The Clarion-Ledger’s archives on the Civil Rights Movement are an embarrassment, all the way to the headlines that took a pro-segregationist point of view. The newspaper regularly killed news stories and printed racist propaganda at the request of the powerful and now defunct Mississippi Sovereignty Commission whose mission was to preserve segregation by spying on the activities of those involved in the movement. The Sovereignty Commission was dangerous. My newspaper, the one that today has found redemption in solving civil rights cold cases, had a reputation of working hand in hand with segregationists who inflicted pain on black citizens.
But there were those who, at great personal and professional loss, could not stand idle as wrongs were being committed. The Delta Democrat Times, led by Hodding Carter, and the Lexington Advertiser_,_ headed by Hazel Brannon Smith, were newspapers run by white editors who did what the Clarion-Ledger would not: Stand up against violence and segregation. If the Clarion-Ledger had been different in the 1950s and 1960s, Mississippi would have been forced to expedite racial reconciliation, rather than wallow for decades in shame in front of an entire nation. Today, I am proud to say, the Clarion-Ledger’s transformation into an advocate for change has been nothing short of remarkable. It is a newspaper that confronted its demons and prevailed as a publication that speaks loudly for the people. It is a newspaper that has single-handedly brought to justice violent men and their heinous acts that bigotry once shrugged away.
Equally as remarkable is my personal journey that brings me to this newspaper, to Mississippi, the land of my birth, and to its people, whom I admire for their ability to forgive.
Born in 1962, I was too young to understand the historic battles of the 1960s of which I write. The stories relayed to me by my father, my late mother and many older Mississippians have helped fill in my gaps. I, too, am a survivor. I was known as “the baby born in the fields.” On the day before my birth, my mother, slumped over by the repetition of labor pains, picked more than 200 pounds of cotton that was overdue for harvesting. The next day, she told my father she was too sick to help. I made my entrance into the world that day, not at the hands of a doctor, but at the hands of my Aunt Lucille, who, though never formally trained in any field of medicine, also helped my mother bring my eight brothers and sisters into the world.
There was a vision and wisdom in my mother that, to this day, I fail to fully understand. She had a dream for us that she lived to see fulfilled, the dream of watching eight of her nine children receive college degrees, with the hope of giving us the opportunity to get far away from those cotton fields that came to symbolize poverty. And then at 54, she died, the result of a heart that worked too hard. The nine natural childbirths, the grueling toil of the cotton fields had proved too much. She died not knowing the unthinkable, that her son would grow up to be editor of the Clarion-Ledger. She died not knowing that four of her children would be educators and that the others would use their skills to become nurses and computer programmers.
But she did die knowing that Evers, King, Kennedy and so many others helped her develop a vision that stretched beyond her circumstance. Like King, she did not make it to mountaintop at the same time as we did. But she made it just the same. At 82, my dad has now witnessed what he thought was once impossible. The smile on his face is permanent, and it does not reside there just because of the pride he has for his children. He’s just as proud of the new Mississippi and his choice to remain here. He is proud that hate has been replaced by love. He is proud that Mississippi has come farther than he could have possibly dreamed. He is proud that his state, once scorned and pitied, is far down a path to racial harmony. It is his home and he feels a sense of accomplishment, a sense of fulfillment, that change has come to a place that once had blood on its hands.