By Michael Farris Smith
I was sitting on my back porch on election night, and when it was clear that Donald Trump was going to win the presidency, I said to my wife, “The rest of the country is about to find out what we’ve always had to deal with in Mississippi.”
White supremacy groups raising their voices across the country. Check. A room full of men deciding what a woman can and cannot do with her body. Check. Weaker gun laws and plenty of social media “prayer” after another senseless shooting. Check. Healthcare and Planned Parenthood and mental health services under attack. Got it. A tolerance, and therefore promotion, of prejudice from the highest political office that gives hate and inequality a steady heartbeat, that leads to what we all saw in Charlottesville.
Welcome to Mississippi. We have long been the butt of the joke. The rest of the states poke fun at us. Judge us from afar. Rattle off stereotypes when they talk about us. But as of right now, if you are reading this anywhere in America, Mississippi should not be so funny to you anymore, because politically, you’re in it.
We live in a state where the governor poses for photographs with a gun. Lying on top of the Bible. We live in a state where since 2012, tax cuts for corporations have totaled $577 million, and my seventh-grade daughter had to write an essay in her first week of class, making her case for being able to sit in one of the seats in the classroom because there aren’t enough. This same plan will deliver another $415 million in cuts over the next twelve years, while Republican state Rep. Sam Mims stood in front of the legislature in March and proposed millions of dollars in cuts to human services, mental health, and rehabilitation services, because there is no money.
And yet somehow Gov. Phil Bryant found the time last year to create HB-1523, a bill that allowed for legal discrimination against the LGBTQ community based on “religious” rights. And not surprisingly, our legislature passed it without a hiccup. When the Jackson Free Press published my response, “Another Crooked Letter for Us All,” I expected my email to be flooded with supporters of HB-1523. I expected to be called names. I even wondered a little bit about my children, wondering if I should have held my tongue, worried that maybe a loud and thoughtless voice or two may find its way toward them. But the opposite happened. The outcry over HB-1523 was widespread, and I received emails from all over Mississippi, and all over the country, not in support of the proposed legislation, but in support of killing it.
We have our problems, and they come from the top down. We have one of the most diverse states in the nation, but our state flag bears the symbol of the Confederacy. When our universities took it down, the State House voted to withhold tax cuts from these universities, three of which are historically black. When the leaders won’t lead, what do you do?
You have to have guts. Perseverance. Kindness. Humanity. And we have that. I live in a different place than my parents lived. And the vast majority of Mississippians are helping to create a place that will be better for our children and our grandchildren. Because we have had so much to overcome, historically and traditionally, we have had to work harder.
So quit laughing at us, because it is all around you. Keep making the calls. Keep marching. Stand up straight and make your voice heard. Now, you know what if feels like. And now, we all have to work like Mississippians.
Michael Farris Smith is the award-winning author of “Desperation Road,” a summer 2017 Bitter Southerner pick, along with “Rivers” and “The Hands of Strangers.” “Desperation Road” is an Amazon Best Book, Indie Next List selection, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers choice. “Rivers” was named in numerous “Best of the Year” lists and garnered the Mississippi Author Award for Fiction. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, Catfish Alley, Writer’s Bone, and more. “The Fighter” is forthcoming in March 2018. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife and daughters.