To change the nation, you must first change the South. To change the South, you must first change Mississippi.
Welcome to Mississippi. The name Mississippi is Ojibwe and means Great River. The name of the state, like many of the counties and towns in it, are Native American in origin and it reminds us that we stand on occupied territory. The Choctaw People originally inhabited this particular land.
Most of the Choctaws were relocated to Oklahoma after the 1831 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, but some still remain as part of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in Neshoba County in Central Mississippi.
Mississippi, also known as the Magnolia State, is considered to be the birthplace of America’s Music and home of the Blues. American music traditions of gospel, country, jazz, and rock and roll were all invented, or heavily developed by Mississippi musicians, many of them African American, and most came from the Mississippi Delta.
Before Elvis Presley, there was Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Son House, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Lead Belly.
Other notable Mississippians include Leontyne Price, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, James Earl Jones, Jim Henson, Oprah Winfrey, Faith Hill, Beah Richards, Tavis Smiley, Robin Roberts, John Grisham, US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, and next generation writers Kiese Laymon and Jesmyn Ward.
Mississippi. Just the utterance of the word conjures black and white images of state-sponsored violence, extreme poverty, and a race to the bottom of national education and health statistics. But for many native Mississippians and transplants alike, the word means home. This has been the home of my family for eight generations.
Up until the 1930s African Americans were the majority population in Mississippi. But the effects of the Great Migration, which lasted from 1910-1970, saw six million blacks leave the rural South and move to the Northeast, Midwest, and West. But even after that great exodus, Mississippi still retains the highest per capita population of African Americans in the country.
Fifty years ago Jackson, Mississippi was ground zero in the fight for Civil Rights. Thousands came to Mississippi to work with the faith community to aid in the struggle for basic human dignity for all of its citizens.
1964’s Freedom Summer brought busloads of students to Mississippi to register African Americans to vote, because although we had the highest percentage of African Americans, we also had the lowest percentage of African American registered voters.
It was also in that summer a little more than fifty years ago, that Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Robert Moses, through the auspices of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, started the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. They traveled to New Jersey in 1964 and challenged the legitimacy of the all-white Democratic Party delegation.
Fifty years later, Mississippi has the highest number of African American elected officials. But despite the increased participation of African Americans in the political arena, Mississippi still upholds some of the most conservative state politics in the nation. Good ol’ boy values that serve private interests at the detriment of the people.
Welcome to the Bible belt.
Growing up and out in Mississippi I have learned that hard work and talent are not enough to thrive in our work. There are still issues of access, which by and large are issues deeply connected to white privilege and systems of oppression.
Access determines what stories get told, who gets to tell them, and where they are being told, which also determines who will get to hear them. All of this affects public perception and ultimately determines public policy. This is why cultural equity is so critically important. This is why our work is so important. Through our work we create the environment for positive social change to take root in the most important place: in each person.
Our work in the arts sector is on the frontline of the imagination. We possess the power to dream and manifest change through our work as tradition bearers and culture shapers. Let’s take this moment as a challenge to live a better history.
Welcome to Mississippi.