By Lynn Watkins Council School Manhattan (Jackson, Mississippi), Class of 1973
In order to remember, it was necessary to return. The high school annuals are in a bookcase behind a chair and I pulled out the one for my senior year, 1972-1973. And the flyleaf was an American flag crossed with the Bonnie Blue flag of the Confederacy; more than forty years later, Mississippi alone of the Deep South states still embraces the Confederate battle flag in its state pennant.
From the tenth grade forward, I attended and ultimately graduated from a white Citizens’ Council School; at one time, it was reportedly the largest private school system in the country. Later, as a journalist and later still as a lawyer, I learned the real lessons of history. That the Citizens’ Council – which turned every burger and hot dog joint in rural white Mississippi into a ‘private club’ requiring a membership card to enter – was also integral in operation of the state Sovereignty Commission, which collected information on those ‘subversives’ in Mississippi who supported integration of the races.
My task here, however, is to remember what it was like to attend a segregation academy, one of the legion of private schools that sprang up seemingly overnight throughout the 1960s and 1970s to avoid having white children attend school with black children. So my school, with Superintendent O.B. Pendergast, preached the system’s mission – preserve racial integrity and state’s rights. To my teenage ears, it was background noise, virtually meaningless.
So what do I remember the most?
My best friend. Music. Rod Stewart and Crosby, Stills, & Nash. Janice Joplin died when I was 15, and it was incomprehensible. Sleepovers and endless teenage telephone conversations each night. My gifted English teacher who sought to teach tolerance and understanding through literature. At 15, at 18, flags meant little to me. Racial integrity just meant you don’t go to school with nigras. It was a place to go to school in the chaos after Brown v. Board of Education, against which the state of Mississippi fought with every fiber of its being for decades. I remember my mother, angry at yet another edition of The Citizen in her mailbox, throwing into the garbage the monthly Citizens’ Council newsletter which regularly declared that Martin Luther King [dead some years past] was a sinister agent of the Communist party. I remember my mother wanting to flee Mississippi, to take us home to Tennessee and my father pleading to wait, to endure, to get through it, that it was just white trash talk.
One memory stands out in absolute clarity. My senior year and a classmate in Speech class did a parody of an elderly Citizen’s Council board member who acted occasionally as a substitute history teacher. In that moment came the realization with great horror that what these people – these people fueled by incredible hate– sought to do. While they cloaked themselves in the American flag, the Bible and fervent, evangelical patriotism, their mission was no less heinous than that of Hitler in destruction of Jews, Gypsies and anyone else who did not fit the white Aryan idea of human.
That realization likely defines the rest of my life.
My career choices of journalism and later, law, all came about as an evolving reaction to the white Citizens’ Council world which was and is morally wrong by any ethical code. The Citizens’ Council is now defunct; burger joints serve everyone (only with a shirt and shoes according to some) but public schools in many areas of Mississippi remain as segregated as in the 1960’s. As a lawyer, the poverty among the people of color I see on a daily basis is sometimes so overwhelming that I choke, as it is the poor I am graced to serve.
Lynn Watkins is a Hinds County Public Defender who graduated from Council Manhattan (Citizens Council School Number 7). She’s a Jackson, Mississippi native. She worked as a newspaper reporter for over a decade for the Clarion Ledger in Jackson and in Washington before becoming an attorney.