The Arc of the Moral Universe (Meridian High School – Pt 2)

In church recently our minister Mara recalled Martin Luther King’s famous words, The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.  She reminded us that the source of this quote was an 1853 sermon by Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker, and that the words express our basic faith as Unitarians.

As I listened to Mara that Sunday, I realized that, in returning to Mississippi, I needed to test that faith.  It’s been a tough decade for keeping faith in the arc. In fact I wonder how President Obama is feeling these days when he looks at   oval rug crop 360these very words, which are woven into his rug in the Oval Office.

This October, in Meridian, the question was always there for me: Are the lives of black and white (and, now, hispanic) people in Meridian better now than they were in 1964?  We were so sure then that “Freedom” was coming and that it would bring a better life for all.  How has it turned out?

The question, in all its complexity, was front and center this fall when I had the extraordinary opportunity of visiting Meridian High School with Mark Levy and Roscoe Jones.  The visit was made possible by Becky Glover, a whirlwind of passion and energy, who works  for Parents for Public Schools.

Meridian High School has been the city’s only public high school since all-black T.J. Harris closed by court order in 1970.  As we entered, it was immediately apparent that MHS, like Meridian, is now majority black.

For Those Who Are Interested in Statistics (If you aren’t, just skip below to Visiting 2011)

Between 1940 and 1960, Meridian’s population grew by 39 per cent. It was the second largest city in Mississippi. In 1964, about 49,000 people lived in Meridian.  Of these, 66% were white and 34% were non-white. Today, the city is smaller overall (41,148).  It has dropped to 6th largest city in Mississippi.

At the same time, there has been a dramatic reversal in the city’s racial balance.  Today Meridian is 35.7% white and 64 % non-white.

Meanwhile the population of surrounding Lauderdale County has grown steadily.  Demographic studies indicate that whites are not leaving the area, but rather are moving out of the city to the suburbs.

The racial balance at the public schools is more imbalanced than the overall population figures.  In Meridian’s public schools, 88% of the students are non-white; whereas, in the county schools, 30% of the students are non-white. In Meridian schools, 83% of all students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, compared with 51.4% of the county students. There are a number of private schools in Lauderdale County, and I assume that they account for the difference between the overall percentage of whites in the city population (35.7%) and the percentage of white public school students (12%).

Visiting 2011

We divided up to talk to individual classes.  Mark and Roscoe went to two AP history classes, which were about half black and half white.  I went to two classes that combined regular track and special ed students.  Both were 100% black.  If I hadn’t been told, I would not have recognized these as special ed students.  They were funny and quick-witted, curious and tuned-in as long as we were talking about their lives today. The teacher, Mrs. Hattye Jones, was enthusiastic and welcoming; she remembered her sister attending the Freedom School in 1964.

In each class we discussed what the students knew about Freedom Summer.  The answer was pretty much nothing, except that most were generally aware that some civil rights workers had been killed.  They didn’t remember hearing much of anything about the civil rights movement from their parents or grandparents, but most were clearly interested.  Their history curriculum includes Martin Luther King, but it doesn’t address the struggles for voting rights or desegregation of schools and public accommodations in their own hometown.

These students are rooted in the present, and, for them, the days of Jim Crow are ancient history. I told the students about my reaction when I saw saw a black teenager driving with a white girl in the passenger seat (See Arriving Again).  They all thought my reaction was really funny.  They seemed to think I was a visitor from another historical era (when I thought about it, I realized Freedom Summer was as far in the past for them as World War I was when I was in high school).

We talked about racial prejudice.  They have definitely experienced it: one girl described feeling unwelcome at a birthday party at the home of a white classmate; another told about harsh treatment by a bus driver.  But they didn’t seem to have any concept of the difference betwen personal prejudice and institutional racism.  The days of Jim Crow and segregation seemed  as far in the past to them as slavery.

Mrs. Jones asked her class how many of them had white friends.  Every single student raised his/her hand.  In the whole day, that was the most jaw-dropping moment for me.  Here they were funneled into low-track, all-black classes, yet every one of them has one or more white friends and doesn’t see anything unusual about that.  I doubt most northern students could say the same.

That doesn’t mean racism and its impacts don’t affect these students.  Just as most had no sense of history, most said they had no personal vision for the future. When asked about plans for college or what they might do aafter graduation, these students all scrunched over their desks, or just looked out of the window. They acknowledged they don’t study seriously in school, and most see no reason to do so.  They don’t see an economic future for themselves that studying would make possible.  They are coasting or sliding backwards. Meridian High School has a 19.7 per cent dropout rate, and the students in these classes are likely to be the ones who will be dropping out.

Back in 1964, Freedom Summer and the civil rights movement offered students stuck in segregation a new hope, a new vision, a reason to redefine themselves, a reason to believe they didn’t have to stay stuck in the same track all their lives.  A surprising number of Meridian Freedom School students changed personally along with the times: they grew up to become lawyers and teachers and artists and officers in the military.  They moved to California and New York and Atlanta, or left and came back to Mississippi and moved into positions of responsibility. Of course, the economy offered more opportunities then.  Affording an education was easier.

Still, I wonder. Could Roscoe Jones’ vision of rekindling the Freedom School spirit in today’s high school students make a difference to them? To be sure, their  discouragement and hopelessness accurately reflect their economic reality.  But the story of 1964 is about a movement that changed reality. Would knowing more about the history of change right here in Meridian make Mrs. Jones’ students feel they might change too?  Is that arc still bending toward justice?

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Comments

  • Mara Dowdall  On January 3, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful reflection, Gail!

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