By Catherine Gray
Jackson was still thawing when former Gov. William Winter took the stage for our state’s bicentennial celebration and the opening of the country’s first state-funded and state-sponsored civil rights museum.
The day before brought the biggest snowfall we had received in 35 years, but on December 9, two Mississippi museums opened as our state made a stand for teaching and honoring unveiled truth.
In opening of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, we said: This is our history, and we’re going to stop hiding it. This is the darkness, and as bright as the light may be, we won’t stare into it so long we let it blind us to the surrounding darkness that still needs illumination.
“Supporting the education of Mississippi children has been the work of my lifetime,” Winter, a couple months shy of his 95th birthday, says to a crowd of schoolchildren, civil rights veterans, and partners in truth.
My 18-month-old son drifts away from our seats in the audience and gravitates to the landscaping along the sidewalk, where he picks up a handful of persistent, crunchy snow that had refused to melt in today’s bright sun. Yesterday, he learned to throw a snowball, but today he keeps his hand open and watches the snow disappear in his palm, white melting slowly into clear.
“(The children) are the future of our state, and if we send (children) into this world without a strong understanding of where (they’ve) come from, then we have let (them) down,” Gov. Winter says.
Before we left our home that morning, we bundled our toddler up to face the cold. A shirt, a sweater, and a jacket — that’s three layers on top. Two layers of pants on bottom. Mittens and a hat. Tall, fleece-lined boots. Mississippi is not used to this type of cold, and today we would spend four hours in its continuous, snow-capped glare.
But, in the end, our son tells us he doesn’t mind the cold on this bright day. He throws off his hat and pulls off his mittens so his hands can get to work. The only thing he doesn’t want to do is stay still. Move. Move. Keep moving. Follow me. I’ll lead the way. I know where to go. Are you coming? Our children keep us moving.
This place had to freeze over before it could soften into the mud we stomp through today. My son’s horse-faced boots stain brown where the fur was white.
This place had to wow us with its beauty before we could walk through these museums and face the ugly truth of what has happened on this land. Someone has poured salt on the sidewalk to melt the ice. My son grinds the salt under the heel of his boot.
“Mississippi once was blind, but now we see,” says current Gov. Phil Bryant. “We once were lost, but now are found.” As if on cue, our son sticks out his tongue and starts blowing raspberries, making bubbly fart noises through his mouth. The reporters near us, scribbling away on pocket-sized pads, can’t hold back their laughter. I’m a proud mother.
I want to shout: Hey, Mr. Governor! Stop that! Stop pretending all has been redeemed. We won’t truly “see” until our lawmakers fully fund public education and health care. We won’t see until we stop protecting a state flag that symbolizes the stolen humanity of half of our people. We won’t be “found” until all the people of our state are empowered to claim their voting power. We won’t be found until our leaders understand why it’s inappropriate for a president who has the support of the KKK and who won’t speak out against white supremacists to stand on our sacred ground and address the civil rights veterans who have given their lives for their fellow man’s freedom and equality.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil-rights leader Medgar Evers, takes the stage, and her voice resounds. Her voice lifts us up, carries us out of our seats. Her voice grows roots into the cold ground below our feet. Our hands clap like exclamation points on her sentences, and my son claps his hands, too, but delayed. He claps in the in-between. He claps on the words where the idea is growing, the energy is building, the point is connecting. He claps at what is being built but not yet finished. He claps in the space between where her truth leaves her mouth and meets the truth of our hearts.
All of a sudden, he makes a run for it, away from the stage, and I follow. Just as quickly, he stops running and holds his arms out instead for me to pick him up.
This is not a day for running. This is a day for stopping in our tracks and holding our arms up in surrender. No, not defeat, but the type of humble surrender that comes before the turnaround, before the resurrection moment. This is a day for asking each other for help. This is a day for being brave enough to change our course for one towards truth, justice, and meaningful connection.
“My challenge is for those of you in the audience,” Evers-Williams says. “Make use of these jewels that we have here. Walk through the halls and be able to put your fingers in the bullet holes…”
My son touches his finger to my eye. He’s been learning to name parts of the face and wants me to speak the words. “Eye.” Yes, son, I see. I see the bullet holes. I see the names of those who died. I see how much we’ve hurt.
“Walk through these halls and hear the sounds of the gospels, of the cries and the tears…”
He touches his finger to my ear. “Ear.” Yes, son, I hear. I hear the cries and the tears. I hear all that we’ve lost. I hear the voices of people who will never live again.
“But [hear] the beliefs and the hopes that Mississippi will one day be solid, strong, lead the way not only for us here but throughout America.”
He touches his finger to my mouth. “Mouth.” Yes, son, I will speak. I will speak the truth of my heart and the truth of this state. I will speak from the center of my light. I will learn, and I will speak.
As I take my seat again and pass off my son to my husband, I remember the decisions we made that led us here. My husband and I had left the state for grad school five years earlier, and then we came back. Mississippi pulled us back. Still, we were uncertain of our future here.
“Can we raise our son in Mississippi?” we asked before he was born. “No, really. Can we? Can we raise him here and feel good about what we’re doing? Is this where we want him to grow? Are these the unsteady seasons we want him to experience? Are these the sights we want him to see every day? Is this life that we want for him? Is this the life we want for ourselves? Will we make our lives about this fight?”
Soon after he was born, I wrote:
“If he's going to be from Mississippi, he's going to know this place. He cannot incidentally be from Mississippi. He will know the Delta, the Coast, Hill Country, The Golden Triangle, and everything in between. The woods, the swamps, the River, the Natchez Trace, the Yazoo clay, the creeks, and the kudzu. The grits and barbecue and catfish and sweet tea and turnip greens. If he’s like his daddy and his pop, he will forever be in pursuit of good turnip greens. He will know ‘bless your heart’ and ‘fixin’ to’ and just what won’t amount to ‘a hill of beans’ and how slow molasses is in January. He will know the writers, the blues, and the visual artists. He will know the truth tellers, the justice warriors, and the people who look under the rug and see all the mess that’s gathered there, shaking it outside the front door until all the fur and dust particles float electric in the golden afternoon light.”
And when he’s old enough, he will know the war we fought to keep black people as property, the hateful flag we cling to as today’s pride rather than history, the martyrs who gave their lives to help others realize their full humanity. He will know that Southern trees bore strange fruit — bleeding, dying fruit that fed white people for centuries. He will know that when he was born, our schools were still largely segregated. He will know that for years, enslaved black people built the wealth of white people and raised generations of white kids, and even after freedom was won, there was still no regard for their humanity. He will know that white people kept black people forcibly uneducated while white kids got the books that taught convenient lies rather than the hard truths. He will know that separate was never equal. He will know that while he didn’t choose to be born white, he must work to mitigate some of his inherited power. He will know that he raises his voice with his vote, with his dollars, with his time, with his relationships, with his work, with his every choice.
Today, at the edge of the crowd at the bicentennial celebration, a reporter asks me, “Can I get your perspective as a mom who made the effort to bring her kid out here today?”
Sure. As a once-journalist, I give her a quote that makes me proud: “We made a conscious choice to raise our son in Mississippi,” I say. “He’s here today because we want him to be a part of the new Mississippi that’s emerging, a Mississippi of racial reconciliation and facing the truth of our past. We want him to be a part of moving our state forward toward racial equity because the work isn’t finished. He needs to know these stories.”
When I meet up with my husband again, I tell him I was interviewed and share the question that I answered. “Did you tell her you brought him out here because you couldn’t find a babysitter?” he asked, half joking.
“Oh, that, too!” I remember with a laugh. I remember how just that morning I was moping in my pajamas, saying, “I wish I could go,” as my husband got dressed and put on his fancy “Donor” badge. One of us would have to stay behind. I didn’t think our son would tolerate four cold hours of waiting and speeches.
Then in a flurry more of acting than thinking, we bundled him up, packed a cooler of Cheerios, bananas, and cheese, and headed out the door as a family. We had no idea what we were walking into or what type of special misery of toddlerhood we might face. Where would we park? How far would we walk? Could we fit a stroller through the crowds? Would our son hate it and wail and keep us from hearing or enjoying any of the experience? Would we get trapped in the crowd and not be able to leave if we needed to? Where would we change a poopy diaper?
“I’m out here today because I didn’t want to get left behind,” I might have said. “I didn’t want to get left at home.”
“I’m out here today because tired moms and runny-nosed children need to be a part of these moments, too,” I might have said. “I’m out here today because children learn even when they’re just tagging along. They notice what meetings they’re being dragged to and where they’re being forced to wait around. They absorb the surroundings of their lives. They see what’s important to their parents. They learn what the values of the family are not by what is said but by what is lived, what is seen, what is felt.”
He will know. What I can’t teach him, he will learn from these museums. The questions we can’t answer, we will come here to explore. I hope these exhibits will become familiar spaces but never comfortable spaces. I hope they keep getting under his skin. I hope the questions keep prickling his legs like the Mississippi thicket at the edge of the cotton field. I hope the bravery he sees in his predecessors makes him believe he was built for brave choices, too.
I will tell him that on this day we left the warmth of our home to sit in the winter of Mississippi. How on this day the sun shone, and we unzipped our coats and shed layers. How we left wind-blown, red-cheeked, and with numb toes. How we left grounded in truth, lifted by hope, and committed to courage.
He touches his finger to my mouth. Yes, son, I will speak. I will speak the truth of my heart and the truth of this state. I will learn, and I will speak. Will you speak, too?