By Neely Tucker. Starkville Academy, Class of 1982
In late October of 2018, I came back home to Mississippi, where my people have lived since the 1830s, to give a “distinguished alumni” speech to my old high school. It was at Starkville Academy, one of the historically segregated academies founded as part of the white South’s “massive resistance” to integration.
I arrived a few days early to visit with friends, and soon found myself walking along the old railroad tracks that run in front of my family’s house. Naturally, I was wondering what I was going to say, wondering how Mississippians might actually create a better future, shaking off the state’s well-deserved reputation as the nation’s racial heart of darkness.
I wasn’t thinking of the obvious platitudes, but of something that we can tell our children, about who and what we are, and who and what we might become.
I was, and am, very much inspired in this by Bryan Stevenson, who has done the real-life work of Atticus Finch in Alabama for decades, and whose book about that work, “Just Mercy,” is today more relevant than the fictional “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The film version is now playing in theaters.
Besides, as a writer of stories for the past three decades, both fact and fiction, I have drawn on the jaw-dropping achievements of our state’s authors, musicians, actors and artists for inspiration. Telling stories is what I do, and my birthplace influences the stories I tell.
So the day of the speech came. I stood on the gym floor, looking out at a crowd of a more than 100 teenagers, nearly all of them white, attending a school originally created to preserve the myth of white supremacy. It was a place where I had not only also attended, but had been elected by my peers as “Mr. Starkville Academy.” And I told them the simplest story any writer can tell.
Mississippi had been, I said cheerfully, a majority black state for more than a century, from about 1830 to about 1940, and had been the most predominantly black state in America for nearly 200 years, including this very moment. If we wanted to talk about our heritage as Mississippians, then we needed to understand that our history was more by and about African Americans, or influenced by African Americans, than any other state in America.
“Okay, so now I’m going to tell you guys a horror story,” I said, keeping the tone light. “This isn’t the kind of horror story in which the big reveal is that…you’re in it! Nah, see, this is the kind of horror story in which…. you are the monster.”
And then I politely told them how our ancestors — by which I meant white evangelical Christians, including my own — had created another country and then killed more American soldiers than Hitler in a failed attempt to keep black people like pets and barnyard animals. Later, when black people had tried to vote or participate in civic society, white Mississippians had stabbed them, shot them, hung them, nailed them to barns, disemboweled or beheaded them. They’d heard the term “mass incarceration”? White Mississippians created it after the Civil War, as a means of keeping black men under control and out of the ballot box.
Had I mentioned this was a horror story? There were lots of books on this, I said. I could show them pictures if they wanted.
Then I told them that for nearly a century after all that gore, Mississippi had been a minority-ruled terrorist regime in which white conservative Christians with serious haircuts and good jobs had fired, fined, raped, tortured and murdered political dissidents (black people) at will, and this continued until I was child. Lotsa more books and pictures.
“Don’t worry if nobody told you most of this stuff,” I said, looking up, “cuz nobody told my generation, either. All we were taught is that we were good Christians who worked hard and earned what we got. That we were the good people.”
And yet, later on in life, I said, when I had studied our actual history, when I was working as a foreign correspondent, when older white people in Germany and Poland told me of the fascism of their youths, and black people in Zimbabwe and South Africa told me of their apartheid childhoods, I recognized all of those stories as bearing some of the hallmarks of home.
I told them that the U.S. Supreme Court decision that “actually”ended segregation was not 1954’s Brown versus Board, out of Kansas, but 1969’s Alexander versus Holmes, out of Mississippi. That was the case that told states to stop delaying and integrate now. That was when all hell broke loose.
“I know that because I was born in the very same Holmes County named in that lawsuit, over on the edge of the Delta, which was the poorest, most predominantly black county in the poorest, most predominantly black state in America,” I said.
By the time I old enough to start school, my parents moved to Starkville, and my first day of first grade was the first day that the White Citizens’ Council, the white-collar Ku Klux Klan, opened all-white Christian academies to defy integration.
“Lest you think I’m just talking about history that doesn’t apply to you,” I said, “that first-grade classroom that I attended is about 200 feet from where I’m standing, because that’s the school you attend today.”
The room was pretty quiet.
I was being a real downer. I knew that. It was a Friday. There was a football pep-rally scheduled as soon as I shut up.
The good news, I said, brightening, might be that actual democracy in Mississippi is only about 50 years old. In such a young system, their generation could make dynamic changes.
“If you’re glad that you don’t live in the world I’ve described, and you think living in a democracy is a good thing, you should say ‘thank you’ to the memories of Mississippians like Ida B. Wells, Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer, all of whom were African Americans, all of whom dedicated their lives to make your world possible.”
I closed by encouraging them to pursue work with talented young people of color in any field, in any endeavor, because that was the only way to participate in national and global culture. It was also the only way to excel.
If, at the moment, they did not know black kids who were smarter and more accomplished than they were, then that was because they were living in a bubble, not because such people were rare.
For example, I said, this school, founded on the notion of white supremacy, was giving me, a writer, an award for being one of the best students they had ever produced. And yet there were at least three black female Mississippi writers my age or younger (Jesmyn Ward, Natasha Trethewey, Angie Thomas) who had won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize or had a Number 1 New York Times bestseller turned into a film – accomplishments that were far greater than my own.
Lastly, I said, the pursuit of excellence was not a partisan issue, so they didn’t have to worry about politics to get that done.
Got it? Yay! Go team!
I’m pretty sure I bombed.
But I still think it’s something to consider.
Faulkner be damned, the past can be relegated to the past. But to do that, we have to tell our children the truth about our horrifying history, not some moonlight-and-magnolias, gaslight nonsense, and we must demand of ourselves that we elect politicians who represent the better angels of our nature, not the dangling nooses of our past.
Neely Tucker, a journalist, novelist and author, graduated from Starkville Academy in 1982. He has reported from more than 60 countries or territories in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He spent 17 years as a reporter at The Washington Post. He is based in the D.C. area.