Which way will Mississippi go?

As a young child growing up in Chicago I enjoyed the stories from my friends about their summer vacations in Mississippi. I wondered why my parents refused to let me visit there. Once I saw a story in the Chicago Defender with frightening photographs of a lynching in Mississippi. My desire to visit vanished. My first visit to Mississippi and the “New South” was in 1996.

My host, a Jackson State University English professor, lived in a beautiful ranch style home in an integrated community. We took a tour of the university, visited the downtown stores, went to a movie in a suburban mall and had dinner in a restaurant frequented by Senator Trent Lott. (A Confederate flag hung on the wall.) We also went on a historical civil rights tour to visit the home of slain NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the churches where civil rights activities took place, the site of the sit-ins and freedom rides, etc. It seemed as if Jackson, Miss., had been transformed

My second visit to Mississippi took place a few weeks ago, when I attended the AFL-CIO Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance. On the way from the airport I saw a Confederate flag flying from a small home visibly in need of repairs. I wondered what statement the owner was making. Jackson, the capital city with a population of 184,256, is now 70 percent African American and has just elected its first African American mayor. The African-American population of Mississippi is 36 percent, but at one time its Black-white ratio was 50:50. Mississippi now has more Black elected officials than any other state. Some psychologists believe that white residents still fear that Blacks will gain power and retaliate against them for centuries of slavery, Jim Crow and inhuman conditions. Blacks fear that whites will try to turn the clock back and take away the political, economic and social rights which they fought for and won during the last 40 years. There is no evidence to support the fears of whites but I certainly saw evidence that the fears of Blacks are realistic.

The hotel I stayed at had an integrated workforce except for maid service, which was all Black women. Workers seemed to get along well but all seemed overworked. Everyone I met was courteous regardless of race. On the elevators and in the hallways guests exhibited Southern Hospitality with cheerful greetings and eye contact, something I don’t remember in northern hotels. Some were curious about where I came from and my impressions of Jackson. But I soon noticed there seemed to be very few white union representatives from Mississippi at the observance. The only one I saw was the president of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, Robert Shaffer. He said the conference had given him a new perspective. The Black union members from the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, MASE/CWA, went out of their way to make all the out-of-towners feel welcomed.

Both the American flag and the Confederate flag fly over the Capitol in Jackson. At a demonstration there to demand the establishment of a Department of Labor, a union leader asked, “Which way will Mississippi go? Toward democracy (pointing to the American flag) or backwards toward oppression (pointing toward the Confederate flag)? Democratic Governor Ronnie Musgrove led an effort to get rid of the Confederate emblem from the upper left-hand corner of the state’s flag but a referendum on the issue lost when 64.5 percent of the voters voted against it. Musgrove favored raising teachers’ salaries and pushed the CHIP health insurance program for uninsured children. Haley Barbour, an advisor to President Bush, will be running against Musgrove in December.

The next day at a second demonstration in front of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, I heard a former employee tell how she was fired after filing a complaint against two white nurses who threatened her and used racial slurs. The tires on her car were slashed. A high ranking security guard was also fired when he filed complaints about white workers under his supervision. Other employees at the hospital described the racial discrimination against Black patients. At a town meeting a state representative told how Lieutenant Governor Amy Tuck ran as a Democrat to get the endorsement of labor and the Black voters and then switched to the Republican Party after she was elected. Mississippi Republicans are the descendents of the Dixiecrats. They use racism to divide white and Black workers in order to exploit them all. Without unity workers find it difficult to organize or belong to a union in this “right to work” state where salaries are often the lowest in the country. The median family income in 1999 was $31,000 often with two adults working full time. When will white workers wake up and vote in their best interest? Mississippi deserves a better future.

Rosita Johnson is a member of the Editorial Board of the People’s Weekly World. She can be reached at phillyrose1@earthlink.net