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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about race lately. Many others have, too, in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal – but I’ve also heard plenty of people saying it’s “not about race,” suggesting that the death of Trayvon Martin, and Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict, comes down to guns, laws, confusing jury instructions, prosecution not making their case, and so on.
But let’s be honest – it’s a lot about race.
I am a white woman, born in 1964 in Jackson, MS. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, attended private schools for most of my education, and worshipped at the local synagogue where, at that time, all the members were white.
I didn’t question my insular upbringing or privilege; my parents owned a restaurant, and worked long, hard hours to provide for us. But lately, I have considered this: if I had been born into an African American family, same year, same city - what would my childhood have been like? And framed by those experiences, what would my adult life look like now?
How can I possibly know? Do I even live in the same United States as Charles M. Blow, a columnist and parent of black sons, who wrote in the New York Times recently: “As a parent… I am left with the question ‘Now, what do I tell my boys?’ We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly. So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?”
Reading that, I think I don’t live in the same United States. I get to live in a society where I don’t have to tell my kids how to walk home safely, because of how they look to others. I don’t have to fear immediate judgments being made about me, or my children, based on the color of our skin. Because I am white. Yes, I am in the minority because I am Jewish, but unless I’m wearing a Star of David, no one sees my Jewishness when I walk down the street. So how can I relate?
I recalled a movie I had seen some twenty-odd years ago. I couldn’t recall the title at first, but then I found it, and the lines I was trying to remember (thank you, Google). The movie’s title is Soul Man. It came out in 1986, with C. Thomas Howell in the role of Mark, a white student who poses as an African American to receive a full scholarship to Harvard. James Earl Jones played the role of Mark’s professor and when the deception finally was revealed, Mark and Professor Banks engaged in the following dialogue:
Professor Banks: You’ve learned something I can’t teach them. You’ve learned what it feels like to be black.
Mark: No sir.
Professor Banks: Beg your pardon?
Mark: I don’t really know what it feels like sir. If I didn’t like it, I could always get out. It’s not the same sir.
Professor Banks: You’ve learned a great deal more than I thought.
That awareness is key: it’s not the same.
We need to acknowledge this, and we all need to learn more. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued the following statement after the Zimmerman verdict: “There are serious, unresolved issues of race in our country, and this trial underscored the need to explore these issues more fully. Hopefully, the debate concerning the justice of the verdict in the Zimmerman case will inspire a continued much-needed discussion about the lingering impact of racism in society.”
There is hope – now, and in decades past. In a glimmer of light this week, NPR featured this story of photographer Joseph Crachiola and a photograph he took 40 years ago in Detroit, of two white children and three black children, clearly friends, in a neighborhood known then (and now) as “racially divided.” The photo I’m sharing again here, in this blog. A photo of friendship. A reminder that we can find connections, and bridge the divide. We are not born divided.
But none of us can do it alone. We need to talk to each other.
Jackson 2000 is an organization here in Mississippi dedicated to bringing the community together in the Jackson metropolitan area by promoting racial harmony through dialogue and understanding, facilitates “Dialogue Circles”– groups of people who commit to a 6 week series of facilitated meetings to meaningfully engage on issues related to race and community. No one is naïve enough to think that 6 weeks of conversation will solve all the problems/issues/inequities that exist, but these conversations, and just as importantly, these connections, help us all move forward, together.
And maybe someday, we will all live in the same country, where all of our children are safe.
“a journey to a place associated with someone or something well known or respected”
(The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English)
Over the summer, every ISJL Education Fellow visits each of “our communities” – the 6-7 congregations we each serve, throughout the region. The summer visits are brief, and may take the form of an evening program, or just an hour to meet with the religious school director or synagogue president. Though the meetings are short, they’re often far away – and that means we are in the car quite a bit.
On those long drives, it’s important to take a break now and then. As a history buff, I try to make sure that those breaks include visits to historical sites. On a recent trip, my companions and I (we often travel in groups for summer visits) decided to eat lunch in Selma, Alabama. I didn’t know it then, but the brief stop would turn into my own unexpected, unplanned pilgrimage.
Entering Selma, we drove over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I knew the bridge was famous, so we pulled over to take a picture. I remembered that it had something to do with a march during the Civil Rights Movement, but I wasn’t clear on the specifics. Reading the signs, I learned that the bridge was the scene of the Selma to Montgomery march and “Bloody Sunday.” It dawned on me that Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Abraham Joshua Heschel had all marched over this bridge in their attempt to create a just and free society in America. It was this bridge Heschel spoke of when he described acts of social justice as “praying with our feet.” I thought about it a little bit, but feeling touristy, I just walked over the bridge, took some photos and moved on.
Over lunch I had the idea to investigate the Selma synagogue. I knew it was there, and, after looking it up, realized it was less than a mile from where we were eating.
After a bit of searching, we spied a circular window with a large Jewish star smack dab in the middle. We parked in the grassy driveway and got out to look around. Once again, we took some pictures, walked around, and got back in the car and left.
Mulling it over later, I realized that visiting these two very different locations made up an unofficial, unplanned pilgrimage. Together, the two sites reflect the spirit of humanity, the power of dedicated people to come together and accomplish big things.
Sure, the synagogue is a beautiful old building constructed in 1899. But it symbolizes something bigger: the power of Jewish community to sustain itself and thrive anywhere. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for a European Jewish immigrant to arrive and settle in Selma in the 1890s – but I am confident that it must not have been an easy transition. It took courage, chutzpah, dedication, and community, to build and sustain a synagogue like this, especially in the Deep South, far away from much of the Jewish world.
Likewise, it took courage, chutzpah, dedication, and community, for those civil rights activists and ordinary people in the 1960s to march across the bridge, facing armed Alabama lawmen determined to stop them from creating change. Their efforts helped to develop the society we live in today.
Pilgrimages are supposed to inspire us, to help us become better people and to give us goals to strive for. My unexpected pilgrimage did just that. I hope that, perhaps, in my next two years as an ISJL Education Fellow, I can emulate the courage, chutzpah, and dedication of these amazing individuals as I help to maintain and support our Southern Jewish community.