James W. Loewen (1942-2021)

We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague and remain committed to the work he began.

Ten Little Mississippi Stories

Banquet Address, Mississippi Historical Society

February, 2007

In February, 2007, the Mississippi Historical Society invited me to be their annual banquet speaker. To me this was significant, because the society had played no role in 1974, when the State Textbook Board had rejected our book, Mississippi: Conflict and Change. As a result, for an entire adoption period – 1974 to 1980 – students in all high schools in the state had to use John K. Bettersworth’s Your Mississippi. In the words of the booklet “Two History Texts: A Study in Contrasts,” [hyperlink the foregoing to the place on my website that publishes this booklet] published in 1974, this terrible book “overtly and covertly reinforces white chauvinism and racism through omission, distortion, and falsification of reality.” So in a sense, the invitation showed considerable change from earlier days, when the society had lionized Prof. Bettersworth 1The society still names an important award for Bettersworth. See Loewen, “How Two Historians Responded to Racism in Mississippi”, History News Network, 12/7/2014..

I responded with the above-titled address, which I hoped would be both amusing in part and hard-hitting in other parts. As usual at such events, I do not read my talks but give them. What follows here, then, is a summary.

1. I come to Mississippi.

In 1963 I first came to Mississippi as a student for one quarter at Mississippi State University. I chose Mississippi State because at the time it was the largest segregated all-white institution of higher learning in the United States2State’s “white” student body included dark-skinned students from southern India and Chinese Americans from the Mississippi Delta.. During my time there, I made friends, audited courses, and visited other places in Mississippi. Vividly I remember my best friend at the time, a white supremacist who opposed any participation by Mississippi State in athletic contests that might include nonwhites. State’s basketball team won the S.E.C. while I was there, so they got invited to the NCAA national tournament. My friend derided what he called the “NCAA-P,” a play on the NAACP, of course. I attended a pep meeting to support the team’s decision to participate and found the atmosphere electric: everyone knew that we were supporting a historic change.

The coach and athletic director drove to Tennessee while the president could not be found. Therefore, a court order forbidding State from participating could not be served. The sheriff went out to Starkville’s tiny airport, but only the team was there, and they were not mentioned in the court order, so he let them fly out. The plane then landed in Tennessee, picked up the A.D. and Coach Babe McCarthy, and continued to the tournament.

Ironically, in the opening game, they came up against Chicago Loyola, one of the blackest teams ever assembled to that time, and also one of the tallest. Mississippi State played valiantly but lost; Loyola went on to win the championship.

When our team arrived back home, newscasters asked, breathlessly, “How was it??!” referring to playing “Negroes.”

“They were perfect gentlemen,” McCarthy replied. “I’d like to play them on a home and home basis.” That was his moment to make a statement. May he be remembered for making the most of it.

2. My introduction to Tougaloo College.

I enjoyed my months at Mississippi State and learned a lot, but it was very different from Carleton College, my home school. One difference related to books, or, rather, their absence. My impression was, students at Mississippi State didn’t read books.

I was a (budding) sociologist. We count things. So, to test my impression, I counted all the books owned by all the students in my dormitory wing. There were twelve double rooms, so I counted the books owned by 23 students. (I did not include myself.) I counted everything — pulp novels, even comic books — but not textbooks. I was interested in books bought voluntarily.

The 23 students owned 51 books. One owned 42. He was an intellectual. Another owned maybe 5. A couple of others owned one or two. That was it. Most of my dorm-mates had no books in their rooms and may have never owned one, other than those required for class.

Sociologists at Mississippi State told me I must not leave Mississippi without meeting Ernst Borinski at Tougaloo College, the only famous sociologist in the state. So I wrote to him and wound up going to Tougaloo as a student for four days. Although more than 90% of its students had graduated from black public schools in Mississippi, which the white power structure deliberately kept separate and unequal, Tougaloo had a thriving intellectual subculture. Again, I counted books — all the books owned by my four roommates, excluding textbooks. (One roommate was away on exchange at Oberlin College, but his stuff was still there, so I could count his books.) The four owned 48 books among them, about a dozen each. A mode (or median) of twelve is infinitely more than a mode of zero, both in math and in culture.

3. I meet Medgar Evers.

During my three months at MS State, I made a trip to the Mississippi Delta with Prof. Gerald Globetti, who was doing research on alcohol use and alcohol education. Among other things, I went to Aaron Henry’s 4th St. Pharmacy, met him, and he invited me to dinner the next night at his house. He was the head of the NAACP statewide.

As he fed me a shrimp dinner on a tray on my lap in his living room – the first time I had ever tasted shrimp – he noted that a small dynamite bomb had blown through the plate glass window next to me, earlier that month. I also met Medgar Evers the next day, who was visiting the farm owned by Elder Jones; white terrorists had shot at his house, owing to his political activism, which consisted solely of registering and voting. I was terribly impressed with the quiet courage of both Jones and Evers. Henry was more outgoing, but he also impressed me.

After returning to Carleton that spring, I found myself in Chicago in June, walking between train stations making my way home to Decatur, Illinois. My route took me past the storefront of the Chicago Defender, the most important black newspaper in the nation. I saw that there was nothing in the plate glass window except black crepe paper. In the center was an artist’s easel, also shrouded in black, with today’s front page. The entire page was a photo of Medgar Evers, who, I learned on that sidewalk, had been shot. That was the first time I had known anyone who was murdered. They shot the “right guy,” too – honest, courageous, thoughtful, eloquent, trusted by all.

3. Learning vocabulary in the cafeteria.

In 1965, I spent the summer at Tougaloo running the Social Science Lab and Social Science forum. Many things happened that summer, but I just want to report one to you: I became friends with a graduate student from Brown U., working in Tougaloo’s “Pre-Freshman Program.” I enjoyed him, but he was the kind of guy you can never tell anything to, because he already knows everything, whether he does or not. On his first morning at Tougaloo, going through the cafeteria line, the work-study students asked him, “hominy grits?”

Immediately, he replied, “Two, please!”

Laid ‘em out for five minutes!

And I have to tell you, now that you have laughed, I have learned through bitter experience never to tell that story north of, say, Virginia. The audience sits, silently… (At this point, my Mississippi audience laughed uproariously.) 

4. My “aha” experience in the archives (in Vicksburg).

I spent most of 1967 in Mississippi, doing research for my dissertation, The MS Chinese: Between Black and White. I just want to share with you historians my “aha” experience while reading Vicksburg newspapers published during Reconstruction. At first, the editor of a Democratic newspaper is furious at the fact that blacks are now voting. Then he grows despondent because Republicans are not only getting black votes but also winning considerable white support, so the Democrat cause seems hopeless. Then, maybe in 1871 or so, he suggests that since African Americans will be voting from then on, whites might as well become Republicans, so they can influence black votes. Then, a couple of years later, he becomes a Democrat again, because he realizes that blacks folks might NOT be able to vote forever, at least freely. The KKK murders of Republican officials and party leaders are taking their toll and he thinks Democrats can win violently what they cannot win peacefully. This experience informs my thinking about Reconstruction to this day. It did not come to an end because it was failing. On the contrary: it was forced to end because it was succeeding.

5. In January, 1969, I had an “Oh, no!” experience at Tougaloo College

In the fall of 1968, I became a full-time faculty member at Tougaloo. In January, 1969 I had an “oh no” incident while teaching a section of the “Freshman Social Science Seminar. On the first day of the spring semester in January 1969, I asked them, “What was Reconstruction? What images come to your mind about that era?” 

Sixteen of my seventeen students told me, “Reconstruction was that time, right after the Civil War, when African Americans took over the governing of the Southern states, including Mississippi, but they were too soon out of slavery, so they messed up, and reigned corruptly, and whites had to take back control.”

I sat stunned. Four lies had just come from my students’ mouths. In reality, African Americans never took over the Southern states. All Southern states had white governors and all but one had white legislative majorities throughout the period. Moreover, the Reconstruction governments did not “mess up.” Mississippi in particular enjoyed better government during Reconstruction than at any later point in the century. Across the South, governments during Reconstruction passed the best state constitutions the Southern states have ever had, including the ones they labor under today.

Unfortunately, my Tougaloo students were good students. They had learned what they had been taught, in all-black high schools with all-black teaching staffs who blindly taught what was in the textbook.

What must it do to my students, I wondered on that January afternoon, to believe that they were “too soon out of slavery?” That the only time their group stood center-stage in the American past, they “messed up?” It couldn’t be good for them, and it wasn’t true.

That “oh no” experience led to the book that eventually prompted you to invite me here: Mississippi: Conflict and Change. Allow me to point out: you still give out a Bettersworth award! Surely it’s time you retired it and found a historian to honor who did not sell out historical truth for the price of a publishing contract with Steck-Vaughn of Texas.

6. Loewen et al. v. Turnipseed et al.

Tell of the moment of truth in court. Lynching image. See Teaching What Really Happened, second edition, pages 2-7 for this story.

7. Transformation in Jackson.

After massive school desegregation in Mississippi, including Jackson, in January, 1970, my wife and kids and I moved into the city. Until that moment, whites had called Tougaloo “cancer college” and considered its teachers pariahs. I recall the long-time head of the Bolivar County public schools saying to me, about his black campuses, “We had fine colored teachers, from over here to Itta Bena (a reference to what was then Mississippi Vocational College, now Valley State University), over at Jackson College, even a couple from Tuskegee.” 

“And Tougaloo?” I asked. “What about Tougaloo?

“No, we tried to keep them out,” Ramsey replied. “They had too many ideas. They gave people ideas.” Similar thinking made it hard for Tougaloo undergraduates to land practice-teaching opportunities in the Jackson Public Schools or to get employed there after graduation.

Now, suddenly, everyone liked Tougaloo. Now the Jackson Public Schools wanted our practice teachers.

Similarly, now long-time residents in what were now called “changing neighborhoods” welcomed white Tougaloo professors as homebuyers, because at least we were not black, so we might stabilize the neighborhood. It’s nice to be wanted!

8. I go to jail.

During the 1971 election, when Charles Evers, Medgar’s brother, famously ran for governor, I got thrown in jail for coordinating poll workers for the “wrong side,” the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, in Madison County. I did about two hours, long enugh to write a very bad blues song. However, we lost Madison County, owing to fraudulent election practices.

9. I join the MS Hist. Society 

Probably at the 1972 meeting of the Mississippi Historical Society, my paper on the Mississippi Chinese was first ever allowed by a person from a black school. Seconds later, at the same session, Robert Walker from Vicksburg became the first ever black speaker.

About two years later, with other members of the “Mississippi History Project,” the group of students and faculty at Tougaloo and Millsaps that I had assembled to write Mississippi: Conflict and Change attended the MHS meeting on the Gulf Coast. Eddie Khayat was the banquet speaker, talking about being an ambassador on behalf of Mississippi economic opportunities. In his address, he used the phrase “They [Northerners] thought Mississippi had nothin’ but niggers, mosquitoes, and alligators.” Somehow I thought he’d said, “nothin’ but niggers, Jews, and alligators” and was so astonished by the mention of Jews I was momentarily immobilized. An African American student I had brought, sitting next to me at the table, muttered, “I’ve had just about enough of that man,” but I still did nothing. At another session, a speaker from East Central Jr. College slid from “Negro” to “Nigra” to “nigger,” and afterward I did confront him. He denied it. I asked the chair, who backed me up — but had done nothing at the time.

10. Lack of sundown towns in Mississippi.

I wanted to end on a positive note: All-white towns are so rare in Mississippi, that those that did keep out African Americans became notorious for it. Southeast of Jackson was an area, Sullivan’s Hollow, that was all white. Mize was the “capital” of the area, and the Clarion-Ledger produced a story about it in the 1940s or ‘50s titled “No Nigger Mize.” Belmont, probably Burnsville, d’Iberville and Pearl briefly, and a handful of tiny communities are the only sundown towns in Mississippi. That compares to about 505 sundown towns in my home state of Illinois. Today, Mississippi is fairly well desegregated residentially.

Then I challenged my audience to “Tell Your Mississippi story.”

I suggested some work that needed to be done:

  • Where are the black folks tonight? MHS needs outreach! — and structural changes – to desegregate more than just on a token level.
  • Only 20% of HS seniors in Jackson know who Medgar Evers was. You’re not getting history across to the next generation.
  • The U of Southern MS renamed a building Kennard/Washington Hall. Surely MS can (and should) rename Ross Barnett Reservoir. 
  • White folks need to create a fund drive for black colleges, particularly for Tougaloo and Rust. 
  • Re-establish Jackson Public Schools as a place for all races and social classes to get a fine education. 
  • Stop voting for politicians with a pre-1970 mentality. Political change, so that Mississippi, which is becoming fairly well integrated, can start voting as it lives.