SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage 2012

During spring break 2012, students, faculty and staff are taking a nine-day bus ride through the American South to visit civil rights landmarks and leaders in the movement. Political Science Professor Dennis Simon leads the pilgrimage with SMU’s Chaplain’s Office.

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Wrestling with history

An update from Kim, a Master of Liberal Studies student:

Curtis Wilkie spoke with the Pilgrims.

Southern writer and journalist Curtis Wilkie once described Willie Morris’ book North Toward Home as a seminal book for anyone who ever “wrestled with Mississippi.”

In a very real sense, that’s what SMU’s civil rights pilgrims have been doing – and it’s not just a matter of wrestling with Mississippi, but with the large, uncomfortable legacy of the struggle for equal rights in the American South in the ’50s and ’60s.  By Thursday, the pilgrims had arrived on the hilly, green campus of the University of Mississippi to share dinner and a few stories with Wilkie, who knows a thing or two about this wrestling business:

“I am a product of a segregated society,” Wilkie said, by way of introduction. He was raised in a family that disapproved of Jim Crow, he said, but was not vocal about it. ”There was no sense of inevitability in Mississippi that segregation would fall.”

Wilkie was a holdover senior at Ole Miss, retaking one important course needed for graduation, when the campus rioted in 1962 over the registration of James Meredith, its first black student. ”It got very foolish, and very tragic,” Wilkie recalled.

It took federal troops ordered in by President John Kennedy to quell the violence, but the photos and television images of rampaging whites and burning cars lingered long after the smell of tear gas.  The people who went out of their way to intimidate and humiliate Meredith during his time there were in the minority, Wilkie said, though 90 percent of the student body was opposed to him being there.

“That’s our ugly story.”

Wilkie went on to work as a journalist in the Mississippi Delta during some of the most important years of the civil rights movement before settling in for a long, distinguished career at the Boston Globe. One of the figures he came to know in that early job in the Delta was Meredith, and while Wilkie was not a part of the rioting mob back in 1962, he felt compelled to apologize to him.

“I was not a profile in courage,” Wilkie told Meredith.  “I could have at least taken you for a cup of coffee.

“It’s something I didn’t do then, and something I’m sorry for to this day.”

Wilkie came home – all the way home – when he retired from the Globe, and is now chair of the journalism department at the university that tried to bar Meredith 50 years ago.  Those early years as a journalist in his home state left a very bad taste in his mouth, but he learned over the course of his career that as horribly as racial terrorism had played out in his own back yard, racism was not unique to the American South.

Many Southern newspapers chose not to cover the civil rights movement, but the Clarksdale Daily Register, the small daily that Wilkie went to work for right out of college did, giving him access to the most important leaders of the era – including Martin Luther King. Wilkie’s last conversation with him was in March 1968, as King was trying to organize support for his Poor People’s Campaign.

“He was beginning to fade a little bit,” Wilkie recalls.  Younger activists had lost patience with King’s commitment to nonviolent protest and were pushing for  more aggressive tactics. “The movement was really beginning to shatter.”

King was speaking to a black congregation in a small church in Mississippi, Wilkie said, when a white man came barreling through the back door of the church, heading straight for King. As Wilkie was wondering whether he should behave as a journalist or try to stop the man, the intruder reached for his back pocket.

He pulled a hundred dollar bill out of that pocket, which he pressed on King as a donation.  It was not the way Wilkie had expected the scene to play out, as King was at that time probably one of the most threatened men in America.

“Were you frightened?” Wilkie later asked King.

“No, I can’t afford to be,” King replied.  “If I was frightened, I’d be immobilized.  Besides, the climate of violence in the South is diminishing.”

Of course, Wilkie remembers every word of that conversation in the context of what then happened at the hands of a sniper at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Two weeks later, King was dead.

“I left here angry with Mississippi in 1969 and said I wouldn’t be back,” Wilkie said.  ”I’m back, and things are infinitely better.”

The increase in black enrollment at the University of Mississippi has been exponential, he said, adding that many black students on campus today are the children of alumni.  The student body recently elected a black woman as student body president, he said, and he is visibly excited about his role in planning a 50th anniversary celebration to honor Meredith’s admission in September.

But ever the journalist, Wilkie shares both sides of the story. “I won’t sugarcoat it,” he pledged, explaining that uncomfortable symbols and attitudes remain:  The university finally deep-sixed its “Colonel Reb” mascot a few years back, but there are students who continue to boo the “Rebel Black Bear” that replaced the old Southern plantation owner.   The Colonel Reb Foundation exists only to bring back the cartoonish old plantation owner mascot.

Administrators have tried to compromise.  Rather than banning outright the playing of  “Dixie” at athletic events, school officials allowed the band to pair “Dixie” with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” – until students insisted on replacing the last line of the hymn with the shouted refrain, “The South will rise again!”  And Wilkie points to perhaps the biggest symbol of all:  The school’s nickname – Ole Miss – was a slang nickname for a slave owner’s wife.

“It’s ugly, and it’s still going on,” Wilkie said, sighing.

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