This blog is written by Sam Gardner, who just finished his summer internship in the ISJL’s history department.
The Neshoba County Fair is not your typical county fair. Yes, it does have the rides, game booths, and fried delicacies, but this is where the ordinary ends and extraordinary begins at Neshoba.
Starting in 1889, the Neshoba County Fair is a long-standing Mississippi tradition, with two unique features: the cabins and the political speeches. Some of the cabins have been owned by the same families for generations. Although most owners reside in their cabin for the one week of the fair and the cabin is vacant the rest of the year, cabins can sell for as much as the most expensive house in the county. It’s prime real estate, hard to acquire.
Then, there are the speeches, traditionally made by state government officials, but also university presidents and even presidential nominee Ronald Reagan during his 1980 campaign. The two main speakers on the day I joined some other ISJL staff for a fair field trip were Mississippi’s Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn, and Governor Phil Bryant. The Phils are known for their strong conservative views, and in the weeks leading up to the fair, my fellow interns and I, all liberal-minded northerners, were excited to experience what some have described as “Woodstock for Mississippi Republicans.”
When we arrived at the fair, we saw colorful cabins with family names posted on the front, eccentric decorations, an unsettling number of confederate flags, and lots of white people. We walked over to Founder’s Square, the center of the fairgrounds, and made our way to the Pavilion, a large, open-air wooden structure with rows of benches and a podium at the front for the speakers.
Phillip Gunn spoke about new education requirements and charter school laws, intended to help children in failing school districts. His most memorable quote was on the topic of guns: “When it’s three in the morning and someone’s coming through my door, and I don’t know how many there are, I need to have more bullets and bigger guns than they have.” Like Gunn on guns, Governor Phil Bryant (pictured at left) was obviously in his element at Neshoba and delivered a free-wheeling and impassioned speech. When discussing a controversial new open carry gun law, he promised to veto any effort to overturn it “faster than a shot out of a Winchester.” His defense of gun rights and school prayer elicited loud cheers from the audience; I definitely felt out of place. Clearly, I was not in New York City anymore.
If conservative politics makes up one pillar of the fair, the other is southern hospitality. We were invited to eat lunch at the cabin of Dick Molpus, former Secretary of State and a longtime leader of the Democratic Party in Mississippi. Recently, Dick received attention on the Daily Show, including an on-air apology from Jon Stewart, who had made incorrect assumptions about him as a white office holder in Mississippi. In fact, Molpus, a native of Neshoba County, has been an outspoken advocate of racial justice and public education in Mississippi. He welcomed our group and served us a delicious southern (and kosher-style) lunch.
Before we left, Gabe and Lex, two co-workers, visited the Williams cabin on the advice of ESPN writer Wright Thompson. Gabe had tweeted Wright, a Mississippi native, the day before to ask his recommendations for the fair, and he told Gabe to go to the yellow cabin and ask for Snooky and Mary Lou. They were welcomed at the house and offered food and whiskey, and invited to join the hosts for a football tailgate at “The Grove” at Ole Miss in the fall. Southern hospitality at its finest.
After leaving the fair, we drove into Philadelphia, MS, site of the infamous murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman. We visited Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church where there is a gravestone memorial for the three civil rights workers. After laying three stones on the marker, we headed back to Jackson.
My experience at the Neshoba County Fair was a microcosm of my time in Mississippi. I enjoyed my visit to the fair as people sat on their front porches schmoozing (though they might not use that word) and welcoming others into their cabins. The fun atmosphere of the fair is definitely palpable, and it is no wonder that people return year after year. However, being a New York Jew myself, having grown up literally three blocks away from where Andrew Goodman grew up, and having heard his brother talk at my high school a few years ago, I could not help but think about Philadelphia’s ugly history, which includes the murder of someone from such a similar background as myself.
I have definitely enjoyed my summer living in the South. I can now testify that in many ways, Mississippi is no less progressive than New York. However, I also cannot reconcile the fact that the Confederate flag, a symbol of oppression for so many Mississippians, continues to occupy a section of the state flag. This past weekend, I watched Wright Thompson’s documentary “Ghosts of Ole Miss,” which focuses on the Ole Miss 1962 football season and its relationship to the violent resistance to the school’s integration that same year. It accurately captures the questions and dilemmas that still puzzle me after spending the summer in Mississippi.
What is the appropriate way to deal with Mississippi’s history? How much can today’s problems be blamed on the past and how can we remember while also moving forward? Ghosts from Mississippi’s past still linger today, yet there has been so much positive change. I feel like I came to understand Mississippi’s ghosts – and its generosity- a little better at Neshoba. After my summer in Jackson meeting people from an assortment of backgrounds dedicated to making this state a better place, as I head home to New York, I am hopeful for Mississippi.
This week marks the 21st anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots. When these riots took place in 1991, I was ten years old, and living in the predominately African American and Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Now, sitting in my office in Jackson, Mississippi, another community historically rocked by racial tensions, I feel the same loss and fear that I did that summer long ago.
I feel the loss of Gavin Cato, the 7 year old son of Guyanese immigrants who died when a Jewish car-driver ran him over, and Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Yeshiva student who was targeted and killed because of his Jewish identity. I also remember the fear each of the two communities had for the other. The fear that comes along with the lack of experience with and knowledge of another group of people. The fear that sat on the minds of community members for years before the riots broke out and that ultimately led to mistrust and violence.
But while remembering this fear, I also remember a very hopeful message.
A few years ago, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, I was asked to reflect on Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement. I wrote something not only about how it was then, but how it should be now. Jewish communities have played a critical role to play in the ongoing pursuit of racial justice – and must continue to do so.
The piece I wrote also followed a visit by two Freedom Riders, Hank Thomas and Lewis Zuchman. They came to the ISJL’s office to discuss how the Jewish community can be involved in this important commemoration of the anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Early on in the conversation, it became clear that the scope of their request was not limited to the particular event or to the city of Jackson. Hank Thomas delivered a message delicately framed as an expression of hope.
His message, “Reengage,” was rooted in his desire for Jewish participation as he educates others about the roles that Jews played in the Civil Rights Movement and aims to proactively counter anti-Semitism. More pertinently, it is based on a vision of global communities where Jewish communities and African American communities, in particular, are not isolated from each other. Instead, a strong foundation of meaningful and personal friendships and community relationships are present in all aspects of our daily life.
The 21st Anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots calls on us to reengage. We can pursue a racial reality that moves beyond structured programs such as interfaith dialogues. These programs often present information about groups of people and what “they” believe and “they” experience.
To reengage is to develop strong personal and communal relationships based on strengths, capabilities, knowledge, experience, compassion and interest. Re-engagement is an exchange of personal stories, concerns, losses, struggles, triumphs and priorities that collectively represent the unique “I”s and “you”s that sustain our communities. Generalizations disappear when we are not afraid to come out from behind the shields of “we” and personalize our discussions.
In 1961, the Freedom Riders were on a clear mission: Civil Rights for all. The risks included death and there were many Jewish men and women who courageously participated. In 2012, as we mark the 21st anniversary of the riots, let’s work to build relationships—they are certainly not life-threatening and are, in fact, life-enhancing. It is our privilege to have a history of participation in the Freedom Rides. It is fear that pitted neighbors against each other during the riots.
The work of re-engagement, and civil rights, and all of this history, is complicated. But just because something is difficult does not mean we should avoid it. We must continue in this important work, always seeking not only to make our world better, but also to work more effectively and meaningfully with our neighbors as we collectively engage in the work. That is what will ultimately help eliminate such schisms that lead to painful events like the riots in Crown Heights.
Let us therefore carry on the mission of the Civil Rights movement and the appreciation of all people for who they are–and not the color of their skin, their economic status and all other barriers that keep people apart.
It is my hope that the message of Hank Thomas carries the weight of a directive that travels far beyond the walls of our office here in the Deep South, and Jewish organizations everywhere: Reengage!
In the South and beyond, there is important work to be done to repair our world. What are ways that you are engaging and re-engaging in bettering your community?