Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros8.3The Contested Terrain of Historic...

The Contested Terrain of Historical Memory in Contemporary Mississippi

Nan Elizabeth WOODRUFF


Depuis quelque temps, des habitants du Mississippi, noirs et blancs, tentent d’affronter leur passé, et ce de diverses manières : en formant des coalitions interraciales dans des communautés qui ont été le cadre de crimes abominables ; en organisant des débats publics autour de symboles liés à l’esclavage, la guerre de Sécession et le mouvement des droits civiques ; en tentant de faire rouvrir des affaires de meurtres commis pendant le mouvement des droits civiques ; en oeuvrant pour modifier les programmes d’histoire dans les écoles publiques. Les conflits autour de l’histoire et de la mémoire du Mississippi reflètent des interprétations divergentes du passé, qui dépendent en grande partie de l’appartenance raciale. Dans le Mississippi, nombre des blancs qui souhaitent que soit reconnue l’histoire du mouvement des droits civiques ont encore du mal à établir le lien entre cette période et certaines interprétations de l’esclavage et de la guerre de Sécession. Il leur faut encore comprendre que la prise de conscience de l’histoire de la ségrégation et de la résistance blanche au mouvement des droits civiques appelle une lecture de l’esclavage et de la guerre de Sécession radicalement différente de celle qui prévaut encore.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

The author wishes to thank William Blair, Claire Parfait, Lori Ginzberg, Irene Silverblatt, and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful and careful comments of this essay.

  • 1  For a discussion of Mississippi prior to the civil rights movement, see Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, 20 (...)

1Mississippi has long represented the counter-narrative to the dominant history of American exceptionalism. Its history of racism, violence, and poverty has constituted an aberration from the larger national story that portrayed America as the most prosperous, enlightened, democratic society on earth. Mississippi symbolized the undemocratic side of American society. The state led the nation in the late 19th and much of the 20th century in the legal disfranchisement, lynching, and terrorizing of African Americans who labored under an oppressive plantation system—it was the American Congo. The state government supported and subsidized the strongest massive resistance to the post-WWII civil rights movement, encouraging the formation of white Citizens’ Councils who used extra-legal violence to challenge all federal civil rights legislation and Supreme Court decisions. The state legislature created its own surveillance agency, the Sovereignty Commission, which investigated and spied on 87,000 people associated with the civil rights struggle.  Each successive governor served as chairman of the commission and its agents belonged to both the Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan. State and local officials were complicit in some of the most dramatic acts of terror of the civil rights era including, among others, the murders of Emmett Till and Reverend George Lee in 1955, Herbert Lee in 1961, Medgar Evers in 1963, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1964, Charles Moore and Henry Dee in 1964, and Vernon Dahmer in 1966.1

2In the face of white supremacy and terror, however, African Americans in Mississippi forged a long tradition of collective and community organizing that constantly challenged the oppressive world they lived in.  For this reason, Mississippi became a major center for the post World War II civil rights movement. Returning World War II veterans like Medgar Evers organized chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to challenge segregation and disfranchisement. In the early 1960s, the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) entered the state and launched major grassroots organizing in communities. The struggle captured national and international attention in 1964 when hundreds of young people came to Mississippi to participate in Freedom Summer in an effort to register African Americans to vote. Also in 1964, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and others formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to openly challenge the all‑white Mississippi Democratic Party delegation to the national party convention.  Mrs. Hamer and others ran on the MFDP ticket for Congress and various elected positions (Payne; Dittmer).

  • 2  An expansive scholarship exists on memory, commemorations, and confrontations with difficult pasts (...)

3Recently, black and white Mississippians have sought to confront and redress this past by forming interracial coalitions in communities where horrendous crimes occurred; by holding public debates over historical symbols surrounding the Confederacy, slavery, and civil rights; by attempting to reopen old civil rights murder cases, and by working to change the history curriculum in the public and private schools. This confrontation is occurring on the contested terrain of memory and history. In many instances, grassroots interpretations of history have challenged the more public official representations. Much is at stake, for the interpretation of the past holds major implications for the future that Mississippians hope to create—the “moral obligations of the past” weigh heavily upon both the present and the future of Mississippi communities.2

  • 3  For a discussion of southern white memory and the Civil War, the Confederacy, and slavery, see Fit (...)

4The contemporary struggles over memory and history in Mississippi reflect conflicting black and white interpretations of the past. Many southern white people have an imagined history of slavery, the Confederacy, and the Civil War that is rooted in honor and sacrifice.3 For them, slavery remains in a distant past and they refuse to see or assume a direct personal responsibility for the institution or its consequences for contemporary society. Indeed, many are content to celebrate their Confederate heritage without any recognition of its relationship to slavery. The long memory of the distant past of the 19th century glosses over the ugly realities of slavery.  Many white Mississippians interested in acknowledging the more recent history of the civil rights movement have yet to link that history with interpretations of slavery and the Civil War that they hold so dear. They have yet to understand that an acknowledgement of the history of segregation and massive white resistance to the civil rights movement requires a different interpretation of slavery and the Civil War.  

5 Confronting the more recent legacy of segregation, however, is harder and more threatening, especially when victims and perpetrators, as well as bystanders, are still living. It remains part of a living memory for those black and white people who lived in the Jim Crow Era of segregation and disfranchisement that began in the late 19th century and lasted until the mid- 1960s. Active perpetrators of crimes or complicit bystanders may fear, at worst, criminal prosecution or at least, public shame. Still others may worry that some sort of reparations will be demanded as a result of revelations of past thefts of property or as a result of actual proof that systemic racism continues to shape the lives of all Mississippians.

6African Americans understand their history from the perspective of being descendants of slavery and of having lived during the era of segregation and disfranchisement. Many of them directly experienced the terror, violence, and humiliation that underwrote white supremacy. And they also have a strong sense of the role that they have played in the struggle for freedom, especially in the post World War II civil rights movement in Mississippi. These tensions between interpretations of the Confederacy and the Civil War and the history of the civil rights movement are reflected in public debates over memorabilia, public symbols, commemorations, and museums, among others.

National Apologies, Resolutions, Commissions

7The current struggle over representations and interpretations of Mississippi history has not occurred within a vacuum. Beginning in the 1990s, federal and state officials and politicians began addressing the nation’s history of slavery and segregation with a series of apologies, investigative commissions, and the reopening of old civil rights murder trials. In 2005, the United States Senate offered an apology for not having passed an anti-lynching bill in the twentieth century. In 2007, the Maryland state legislature expressed “profound regret” for its role in slavery.  The state legislatures of Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida followed Maryland’s example by passing a similar resolution, with North Carolina adding an apology for Jim Crow laws and segregation. Individual communities have acknowledged and apologized for past lynchings. In 2011, the Alabama state legislature issued an apology to 91-year old Recy Taylor who was raped in 1944 by seven white men who left her on the side of the road to die.  Two all-white male grand juries refused to indict the known rapists, despite efforts by the governor at that time to bring the men to justice. The state legislature admitted the failure of the Alabama justice system to convict the men. 4

8Some states have acknowledged the racial and political massacres that occurred during the years of white supremacist rule. State commissions were appointed to study and issue reports on the massacres in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898); Rosewood, Florida (1921); and Tulsa, Oklahoma (1923). The first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the USA was held in 2005 in Greensboro, North Carolina, centering on a 1979 Ku Klux Klan shooting of five demonstrators (Magarell; Brophy).

  • 5  Patricia Older, “FBI Re-opens Mack Charles Parker Lynching,” New Orleans Picayune Item, May 9, 200 (...)

9Although a number of the more famous civil rights era murder cases, such as the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four African American girls, have been retried and convictions finally secured, many cases remain to be tried. In 2008, the US Senate passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Crimes Act, creating a section in the US Department of Justice to prosecute old civil rights era murder cases. The bill was named for the fourteen year old teenager who was brutally murdered in 1955 in Money, Mississippi, for supposedly whistling at a white woman. At the time, a white jury failed to convict the two known murderers. The FBI announced that it would reopen one hundred unsolved murder cases—forty-three of them were in Mississippi, including the Till case.5

  • 6  The Commission published a little known report, One America in the Twenty First Century (New Haven (...)

10In 1996, President Bill Clinton sought to foster a national conversation on race in America by creating his Commission on Race Initiative, chaired by the distinguished historian John Hope Franklin and former Governor William A. Winter of Mississippi. This Clintonian project focused on public interracial dialogues in selected communities throughout the country; not surprisingly, it was void of any presidential or political mandate to redress the ongoing inequalities associated with the legacies of white supremacy.6  

11Contemporary struggles over history and memory in Mississippi must be understood within this larger regional and national framework that also includes international truth commissions and apologies. However, in Mississippi, efforts to create a truth project, or to change the history curriculum, or to commemorate the more contentious issues of the historical past are intertwined with several, often conflicting, issues: the political ambitions of its prominent Republican Governor, Haley Barbour; a business community that hopes to foster a stronger economic base; and grassroots efforts to promote a more accurate understanding of the past with the aim of achieving a more just future. In addition, the conflicting views of history that black and white Mississippians have must also be factored into all of these contending forces in Mississippi society.

Conflicting Views of Confederate, Civil War, and Civil Rights History

  • 7  The Independent, April 18, 2001

12Public displays of Confederate and Civil War history remain among the most contested sites of memory in Mississippi.  As in other southern states, major controversy has centered around the Mississippi state flag which contains an image of the Confederate flag embedded in the larger flag, something African Americans and many white people have long found offensive. In 2001, sixty-five percent of Mississippians actually voted to retain the Confederate flag on their state flag where it remains to this day. 7

13Struggles over both Confederate and civil rights history have played out in Oxford on the campus of the state’s premier university. One could argue that the entire campus of the University of Mississippi constitutes a site of contested memory. The university was associated with one of the most violent events of the civil rights movement when federal troops were sent to Oxford in 1962 to protect James Meredith as he attempted to register as the first African American student to attend the university. In the process, two people were killed, including a French journalist, and hundreds of others were wounded (Eagles).

  • 8  Alex McDaniel, “In the Face of Adversity: The Chant and the Chancellor,” DMonline (Daily Mississip (...)

14In 2003, the Chancellor of the University declared that the school would no longer have as its mascot the beloved Colonel Rebel—a replica of the Old South plantation slave owner, with long flowing white hair and beard. His figure is plastered all over the campus, the town of Oxford, and the rest of the state. Seven years later, the alumni, students, faculty, and staff voted to replace Colonel Reb with Rebel Black Bear as the new mascot—named for a cherished state creature featured in William Faulkner’s work. Finally, in 2009, the Associated Student Body Senate passed a resolution demanding that the Rebel band no longer play “From Dixie With Love” at the football games after each touchdown, at which point the crowd yelled “The South Will Rise Again.” After much debate among students and alumni, the newly appointed Chancellor of the university endorsed the resolution. Still, a state legislator introduced a measure in January 2011 to reinstate Colonel Rebel and Dixie. 8

15The names of buildings on the Ole Miss campus reflect the ironies and contradictions of the state’s history and its progress. For example, the African American Studies Department is located in Longstreet Hall, named for a famous Confederate General, while the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation is housed across the sidewalk in Vardaman Hall, named for a rabidly racist US Senator of the early twentieth century, known as the “Great White Chief.” In light of this history, it is all the more ironic that the first presidential debate of the 2008 election, which included the first African American presidential nominee of a major political party, should have been held on the Ole Miss campus.

Haley Barbour’s Interpretations of History

  • 9  Howell Raines, “Age Issue is Focus of Mississippi Race," New York Times, October 20, 1982.

16Haley Barbour comes from five generations of lawyers and politicians who lived in Yazoo City, Mississippi. He achieved national prominence when he ran unsuccessfully in 1982 for the US Senate seat of the venerable John C. Stennis. Barbour gained notoriety during the campaign when an aide noted that “coons”—a derogatory term for African Americans—would be present when the candidate arrived on a campaign stop at the state fairgrounds. Embarrassed that a New York Times reporter had overheard the joke, Haley told the aide that if he was not careful, “he would be reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks.”9  

17After losing the Senate race, Barbour worked in Ronald Reagan’s White House, going on to become the powerful chairman of the Republican Party. He then became a wealthy lobbyist whose clients included the tobacco industry. Barbour was a key player in the Republican Party’s southern strategy that rebuilt the party by attracting the disaffected white people who broke with the Democratic Party over civil rights. In 2004, he was elected governor of Mississippi and served for one year as the Chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He was considered a leading contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. However, he withdrew his candidacy in April 2011, after realizing that he did not have the support needed to run a credible national campaign. Some of the reasons for his lack of viability as a presidential candidate centered on his own racist past, his misrepresentations and interpretations of that past, and his history as a lobbyist in Washington, DC.  

  • 10  Eric Stringfellow, “Barbour Links Himself to CCC By Not Acting,” Clarion Ledger (Jackson (Ms.), Oc (...)

18Barbour has been criticized for his refusal to disassociate from racist organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), the descendant of the Citizens’ Councils that served as a major force of massive resistance to civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. The CCC’s website is decidedly anti-Semitic, nativistic, and racist, supporting a South African style apartheid system for African Americans, who are referred to as “Congoids.” Barbour once spoke at a CCC barbeque and his photograph appeared at one time on the organization’s website. When asked why he refused to disassociate himself from the CCC, Barbour replied: “Once you start down the slippery slope of saying, ‘That person can’t be for me,’ then where do you stop?”10 Barbour clearly wants to have his cake and eat it too, by denouncing the anti-Semitism of the organization while permitting his photograph to remain on its website.

  • 11  Jonathan Darman, “The Anti-Obama,” Newsweek, January 2, 2010.
  • 12  Jeffrey Goldberg, “Why Do African Americans Forgive So Easily?,” Atlantic Monthly, October, 5, 201 (...)

19Nor does he distance himself from his Confederate heritage. A large portrait of the University Greys, the Confederate rifle company that suffered 100 percent casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg, hangs in his governor’s office near a Confederate Flag signed by Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.11Barbour drew fire recently for his refusal to criticize the Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for issuing a proclamation to commemorate Confederate Heritage Month without mentioning slavery. Barbour said in an interview on CNN that critics of McDonnell were making “a big deal out of something that doesn’t amount to diddly.” He then noted that his own state celebrates the birthday of General Robert E. Lee and that of Martin Luther King, Jr., both on the same day.12

  • 13  Sam Fullwood III, “Race and Beyond: Whistling Dixie,” Center for American Progress, September 14, (...)

20Barbour has become more visible of late, as he has engaged in public remembrances of his own experiences during the age of segregation, and as he has sought to establish some control over representations and commemorations of the civil rights movement.  In those efforts, Barbour has engaged in a bit of mythmaking of his own.  He recently astonished most knowledgeable people by announcing on national TV that he had supported the civil rights movement. He recalled that, while a student at Ole Miss, he had “never thought twice” about a federal court order that had desegregated his university. Indeed, he claimed he had even befriended the first African American woman to attend Ole Miss. When asked to respond to Barbour’s comment, the student, Verna Bailey, said that she barely remembered him.  Her own recollection of the southern white boys at Ole Miss was decidedly less friendly than Barbour’s. While she was dancing with another girl on the Oxford Square, male students threw coins and beer at them. “I just saw this mass of anger, anger and hostility. I thought my life was going to end.” 13

  • 14  Andrew Ferguson, Weekly Standard, December 27, 2010.

21Barbour continued his fond remembrances of the past. In a January 2011 interview with Andrew Ferguson of the conservative Weekly Standard, Barbour recalled that in his hometown of Yazoo, Mississippi, the public schools had integrated peacefully, because the business community would not tolerate violence. “You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up North they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders.  In Yazoo City,” he continued, “they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town.”  Barbour insisted that “if you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”14

22In 1955, the Yazoo City Citizens’ Council claimed 1,500 members. Barbour distorted the history by reversing the role of the Klan with that of African Americans. The Citizens’ Councils targeted civil rights activists—those who belonged to the NAACP had their names published in the newspapers. As a result, banks foreclosed on their loans, employers fired them, and others shot guns into their homes or engaged in other forms of intimidation and terror. Indeed, the Citizens’ Councils were often referred to as the “Uptown Klan” because their roots were among the elite rather than the stereotypical white working class Klan member (McMillen 211).

  • 15  “Remarks of Governor Haley Barbour at the Inaugural Meeting of the Governor’s Commission to Establ (...)
  • 16  Jerry Mitchell, “Mississippi Governor Pushes Civil Rights Museum,” Clarion Ledger (Jackson, Ms.), (...)

23Barbour quickly followed the public uproar over his comments regarding the Citizens’ Councils by re-affirming his earlier call for the creation of a National Civil Rights Museum in the state capitol of Jackson. In 2006, he had appointed as co-chairs of the museum’s planning commission Judge Reuben Anderson, the first African American to serve on the state Supreme Court, and a conservative Federal Judge, Charles Pickering, Sr., whose nomination was held up in the US Senate because of his racist views.15 Barbour insisted that the state build a “world class” museum that would interpret the national civil rights story and attract tourists from all over the world.  In his January 2011 State of the Union address, Barbour urged lawmakers to “move this museum forward as an appropriate way to do justice to the civil rights movement and to stand as a monument of remembrance and reconciliation.”16  

  • 17  The Picayune Item (Ms.), January 19, 2011.

24Barbour has also announced that he will host a national commemoration on the 50th anniversary of the famous Freedom Rides of 1961, when over 400 black and white people rode public buses across the South in an effort to desegregate bus terminals. The Freedom Riders were brutally beaten when they arrived in Jackson, where many were imprisoned in the state’s notoriously harsh Parchman Penitentiary (Arsenault). In a 2011 speech on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Barbour observed that “A lot of reprehensible things took place between the advent of the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and finally integration in the bulk of the state’s public schools.” He continued by saying that “Deplorable actions including the murder of innocent people, young men in service to a cause that was right, will always be a stain on our history.” However, Barbour insisted that “the 100-plus Freedom Riders participating in the 2011 celebration will find Mississippi an enormously changed state as to race relations.” Anticipating criticism, Barbour said that “Some may be surprised that a conservative Republican governor would play a leading role in celebrating this epic event in the civil rights movement, but the fundamental founding principle of the Republican Party was freedom.” Noting that people working on the event “may have different views of which government policies and programs—or absence thereof—best serve freedom. But no believer in freedom can defend segregation as acceptable to those who believe our Creator endowed us with certain inalienable rights that include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”17 The governor intends to honor the Freedom Riders with a reception at the Governor’s Mansion.

  • 18  “Statement Regarding Mississippi 50th Anniversary Event: Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr., Dianne Nas (...)

25Some of the leading Freedom Riders responded negatively to Barbour’s initial announcement of the anniversary. Reverend James Lawson, Jr., who in the late 1950s and early 1960s had trained Diane Nash and other students at Fisk University in the philosophy of nonviolence, issued a statement with Nash, Ralph Fertig, and Reverend C. T. Vivian. They accused Barbour of using their names without their permission, and insisted that Barbour did not have the authority to announce such a commemoration. Any celebration, they said, should be decided by the Freedom Riders, and not by someone who has pursued policies that have harmed African Americans. The signatories accused Mississippi “white racists” of attempting to steal the legacy of the civil rights movement because they had “discovered the millions of dollars that can be derived from tourism pertaining to the legacy of the civil rights movement.” In their view, the persistence of racism and inequality in Mississippi signaled the problems that should be Barbour’s priorities: black infant mortality was more than double that of white people; 11 percent of Mississippi white people and 35.7 percent of black people fell below the federal poverty line in 2007; African Americans constitute 36 percent of the population and make up 75 percent of those imprisoned; and the per capita income of black Mississippians is 51 percent of that of their white counterparts. The signatories concluded that the “best way the Mississippi governor could ‘honor and celebrate’ the Freedom Riders would be to bring the quality of life of Mississippi blacks approximately equal to that of Mississippi whites.”18

  • 19  Shelia Byrd, “Freedom Ride Anniversary to be Mississippi Tourist Draw,” Associated Press, Yahoo Ne (...)
  • 20  Hank Thomas, Jr., “Speech Before the Mississippi Economic Council,” January 6, 2011, Website of th (...)

26Other Freedom Riders and black officials in Mississippi support the commemoration. Judge Reuben Anderson, an African American State Supreme Court Justice, told a 1,000 member gathering of the Mississippi Economic Council meeting that the Freedom Rides were “part of Mississippi’s heritage and part of tourism” and that the commemoration would be the “largest event in Mississippi history.” Further, the event’s chairman is U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson, the African American congressman from the Mississippi Delta.19 One of the fourteen original Freedom Riders who rode the first bus through the South, Hank Thomas, Jr., who serves as the chairman of the reunion committee, also supports the Governor’s attempt to honor the Freedom Riders. In a speech before the Mississippi Economic Council, he called upon all Mississippians to “show the world the new face of Mississippi,” and to work for “religious and racial reconciliation.” We have,” he said, “an opportunity to show the world that Mississippi has changed.”20  

27Barbour’s remembrances of the past matter and they affect his efforts to establish some control over the official representations of Mississippi’s civil rights history. Economic concerns have played a role. Barbour, like many other southern economic and political leaders, is conscious of the need to foster a better view of his state in order to attract business, especially tourism. Mississippi, like other southern states, has tried to develop new sources of tourism. Historically, state tourism has been associated with plantation house tours that romanticize the “Old South,” without any acknowledgement of slavery; it had also been associated with famous Civil War battlefield sites, where contemporary Civil War re-enactors wear Confederate uniforms and women dress up in antebellum attire to perform a sanitized version of a brutal war that took over 625,000 lives. Political and economic leaders have now learned the importance of the more recent history that includes the Mississippi Delta Blues and civil rights. The problem centers on the insistence of people like Barbour in portraying the civil rights history without challenging the dominant white view of slavery and the Civil War, as if the two were not connected. Barbour sees no contradiction in his support for civil rights tourism and the Confederate memorabilia displayed in his governor’s office. Nor does he see any relationship between the policies he has pursued as governor and the civil rights history that he proposes to honor. Barbour’s refusal to fund a pre-school program for children and his indifference to the stark racial inequities in his state, challenge his public commemorations of a struggle that he never participated in or bothered to mention until he planned to run for president.

Local Communities Confront Their Past: The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation

28Barbour has also employed the rhetoric of racial reconciliation in some of his speeches, especially after he tried to backtrack from the Weekly Standard interview. This may in part be explained as a response to the recent grassroots actions of local communities to confront injustices that occurred in post-World War II Mississippi. Local communities have begun to address the numerous crimes that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s. This effort has been facilitated by the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, located at the University of Mississippi. The Winter Institute, named for former Democratic Governor William A. Winter, grew out of a community dialogue that President Clinton’s Initiative on Race held in Oxford in 1998. The Institute is supported by largely white, mostly liberal, alumni of the University of Mississippi who seek to forge a stronger image of the state in terms of race relations.

  • 21  William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation Position Statement on Reconciliation, (www.wint (...)

29The Institute serves as a facilitator for communities seeking to confront a history of racial violence and injustice. Its strategy is based on the belief that black and white people must come together in a “safe” space to share their stories of the past, a history that is usually centered on a specific horrendous racial crime that occurred during the post-World War II era of segregation and disfranchisement. Through a process of “truth telling,” the Institute encourages communities to develop their own strategies for confronting and redressing their history, including an acknowledgment that racism is “both systemic and institutionalized, with far-reaching effects on both political engagement and economic opportunities for minorities.” The Institute insists that justice “is the essential component of the conciliatory process—justice that is best termed as restorative rather than retributive”—a form of reconciliation that does not aim to simply “forgive and forget.” The goal of the truth telling process is to forge a “collective memory” that will promote a ‘healthy model of communal healing.’”21

  • 22  The best account of these murders remains Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, We Are Not Afraid (2006).
  • 23  Rita Schwerner Bender to Governor Haley Barbour, June 27, 2005, (

30The Winter Institute has been invited into several communities where horrendous racial crimes have occurred. In 2004, it helped to form an interracial coalition in Philadelphia that brought to trial and led to the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen who had planned the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. These murders occurred during the famous Freedom Summer when young people from all over the US came to Mississippi to participate in voter registration campaigns. The case became the subject of a popular, if misleading, film, “Mississippi Burning.” 22 Barbour quickly declared that the conviction had closed the book on this difficult chapter in Mississippi’s history, allowing the state to move on to better things. Rita Schwerner Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner, saw it differently. In a public letter to Barbour, she noted the state’s involvement in murder and terror via the Sovereignty Commission and the collaboration of local law officials with murderers and terrorist organizations. She also noted Barbour’s own checkered past, his association with the Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor of the Citizens’ Councils, his wearing of a Confederate flag lapel pin, and the refusal of Mississippi’s US Senators—Thad Cochran and Trent Lott—to join 92 others in signing an apology for the Senate’s refusal to pass anti-lynching legislation in the 20th century. And there were far too many acts of murder and other crimes that were never acknowledged. “So, please do not assume that the book is closed” she insisted. “There is yet much work to be done.”23

  • 24  “Timeline of the Mississippi Truth Project” (

31One consequence of Bender’s letter was the formation of the Mississippi Coalition for Racial Justice to “explore what Mississippi might look like if it were a social justice state.”24 Out of this grew an effort, led by the Winter Institute and community groups, to create a statewide, community-based truth project as a step toward establishing a Truth Commission to address the state’s difficult past. The truth project’s goal is to provide a forum for individuals to discuss the past of racism, terror, and segregation, and to acknowledge its legacies as a means for developing a more just future. Significantly, this truth process differs from more formal truth commissions held in other parts of the world in that it is not state sanctioned and is driven by grassroots organizations whose aim is to forge a more equitable society. Where this effort will lead remains to be seen, but over 500 people attended a 2009 meeting and signed a declaration of intent to pursue a truth process.

32Bender’s letter illustrates one of the basic challenges involved in white Mississippians’ confrontation with their past. Many insist on confining the embarrassing part of history to the civil rights atrocities of the 1950s and 1960s—the more famous murders and terrorizing of civil rights activists, the pistol toting, pot-bellied county sheriffs, the “red-neck Klansmen,” and the politics of massive white resistance. According to this version, racism and inequality ended with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This limited admission of past crimes creates a major obstacle to bringing communities together. There is no attempt to confront the longer history of slavery, the Civil War, and segregation, or the horrors these institutions inflicted upon black, and some white, people. Nor is there an attempt to address the legacies of institutional racism, for this might imply major social and economic changes.

Tallahatchie County and the Till Commission

  • 25  Tallahatchie County, Mississippi Quick Facts from the US Census Bureau,(http://quickfacts.census.g (...)

33Tallahatchie County provides a site for understanding the complexities of confronting and commemorating the past, of how race and class shape historical memory, forgetting, and the legacies of terror. The county is divided by the Tallahatchie River which made it necessary in the early days of the region’s settlement to have two separate county courthouses, each with its own sheriff and constables. Tallahatchie County is also complicated by its divergent economies and terrains. The west side of the county is located in the low lying and rich alluvial soil of the Mississippi Delta and was defined until the 1960s by large-scale plantations worked by African American sharecroppers and day laborers. It remains an economy based on large-scale farming controlled by a small percentage of white farmers. The population is overwhelmingly African American. The county seat on the west side is located in Sumner. The east side of the county is part delta and part hill country. Its county seat is Charleston, which was in the early 20th century the site of one of the largest lumber companies in the world. African Americans constituted less than 40 percent of the population.  Overall, Tallahatchie remains a poor county, with a median household income of $27,493, and with 28.9 percent of the people who live below the poverty level.25  

34Tallahatchie County became famous in 1955 when two local men murdered a teenager from Chicago, Emmett Till, who was visiting his cousins near Money, Mississippi. After a white woman accused him of flirting with her at a grocery store, her husband and another man captured Till and tortured and brutally murdered him. They then tied a cotton gin fan around his neck, and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. The men were tried in the Sumner courthouse and exonerated by a local jury. They then sold their stories to Look magazine, acknowledging they had committed the murder. Till’s mother, in her own determination to shape how the world remembered this crime, allowed Jet magazine to publish a photo of her son’s mangled body that revealed the torture that he had endured. She also held an open casket funeral in Chicago where thousands of people saw his tortured body. Emmett Till’s murder raised African American political consciousness all over the country (Mobley; Whitfield). The small villages of Money and Sumner achieved world recognition, as places like Selma, Alabama, and Philadelphia, Mississippi, would in the following decade. After the trial, however, all of the journalists, the radio broadcasters, and the TV cameras left Sumner, leaving African Americans to live with the legacy of the murder and the trial.

  • 26  I have conducted numerous interviews with black and white people in Tallahatchie County, 2007-2011

35By all accounts, Tallahatchie County remained a violent and repressive place for African Americans to live and work in. It is still known as the most corrupt county in the state. Interviews reveal the terror and fear that people lived under. According to several people, eight other men were murdered prior to Till’s death. Others tell stories of disappearances, whippings, rapes, and land theft, often by the local police. In all these instances, no one was held accountable.26   

  • 27  Emmett Till Memorial Commission Home Page, (

36In 2008, the two African Americans on the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors persuaded the other elected members to create the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. The commission’s statement of purpose reveals the dual aims of reconciliation and tourism. It was created “for the purpose of fostering racial harmony and reconciliation” and to “seek federal, state, and private funds and grants” to restore the County Courthouse in Sumner.” The Commission also intends to “explore the restoration of other buildings and sites of historical value” and to “promote educational tours of the courthouse and other sites” in the county.27

  • 28  See Emmett Till Memorial Commission.

37The commission consists of an interracial coalition with board members who are appointed by the Board of Supervisors and include African-American mayors from surrounding villages, ministers, some of the largest white landowners, and others. The group invited the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to its meetings to serve as a facilitator and because of its work with the Philadelphia Coalition that had been instrumental in bringing to trial Edgar Ray Killen. Members of the commission spent the early meetings sharing their memories and experiences of the Till murder and trial and discussing various interpretations of where the murder had occurred and where the body was discovered. The commission agreed to offer an apology to the Till family, to create a brochure on the murder with a map to the various relevant sites, to place a marker in front of the courthouse telling the history of the case and trial, to name part of a county highway after Till, and to find funding to restore the still operating courthouse and place a museum in one of the rooms.28  

  • 29  Video, Till Apology Ceremony.

38A formal ceremony was held at the courthouse, the committee wrote an apology,  the white county sheriff then read it to the Till family who graciously accepted it.29 While four hundred people attended the ceremony, it is not clear how widely known the event was in the county. Both sides of the county share one weekly newspaper, perhaps contributing to fewer participants. However, some white people knew enough to deface the historical marker commemorating Till’s murder site soon after it was erected.

39The Till Commission represents some of the obstacles to achieving a genuine confrontation with the historical past in Mississippi. It illustrates the limitations of community attempts to address a difficult past without also confronting the legacies of a history rooted in racism, violence, terror, and inequality.  The stated goals, publications, commemorations, and projects of the commission are as significant for what they ignore, as for what they have chosen to include.  

40The Till Commission is composed of several African American elected officials. Once it became clear that federal funding might exist for the creation of a museum around the Till murder, the mayor of an adjoining town insisted on funding for a museum in his community, insisting that one of the murderers had lived there—next door to the gin where the fan that was wrapped around Till’s neck was found. However, the African Americans on the Board of Supervisors agreed with the white landowners that the only official museum would be the one located in the Sumner courthouse. The Till Commission also agreed that the museum would focus only on the trial, not the larger historical context of the murder which might include a discussion of the plantation economy that was underwritten by the exploitation and terror of black people. As a consequence, two museums are being built—one in the Sumner courthouse that is funded in part by a line item allocation in the federal budget that was secured by U.S. Senator Thad Cochran—a personal friend of one of the landowners—and another that received funding from the office of the African-American Congressman, Benny Thompson.

41Another issue centers on the brochure that was created for the driving tour, and also includes brief biographies of leading African Americans who serve on the commission or who live in villages surrounding Sumner. It features photographs and biographies of the black politicians without any mention of the civil rights movement that occurred in Tallahatchie County, with the exception of two people—Naomie Wiggins and Solomon Gort. In other words, the brochure presents the history of the 1955 murder and trial; it then jumps ahead to the present as if nothing had occurred in between those years. Yet, Tallahatchie County had a civil rights movement that was based largely on African-American farm owners who hosted organizers from SNCC when they came in the early 1960s to help with voter registration. SNCC workers and the black farmers endured tremendous intimidation and violence from many of the plantation owners and their managers. None of these brave people are mentioned in the brochure, nor will they be featured in the museums.

42This limited approach to historical memory and representation may be explained in several ways. On some level, the civil rights movement has simply been erased from public memory, in part for lack of public recognition. On another level, black politicians in the county have continued to participate in the plantation school of politics—they work directly with the power structure and never actually challenge it. They continue to work within the paternalistic relations of dependence that grew out of the plantation economy and society. Whatever successes they enjoy, such as securing funds for public housing, or better roads, occurs because they work within the power structure.  Most of them were not participants in the civil rights movement, though they clearly benefited from those who struggled and risked their lives so that black people could hold office.  

43Finally, white landowners viewed African Americans who were involved in the civil rights movement as radicals. Further, the majority of the activists were landowners themselves and beyond the direct control of the plantation owners. In short, based simply on the brochure of the Commission, it would appear that no interest existed among the members to resurrect, much less commemorate, the activities of the civil rights movement in the surrounding communities.

44One must also address the issue of silences when discussing the interracial commission and its work. By limiting its focus to commemorations of the Till murder and trial, it ignored the larger issues associated with the violence, terror, and oppression that created the context for Till’s murder and trial. And by confining its discussions, it has limited the reach of the commission to the west side of the county, even though some of the witnesses to the Till murder were secretly confined in the county jail in Charleston during the trial. In other words, a full confrontation with the Till case and its legacies must entail a broader discussion with the citizens of the entire county.

45Further, interviews with African Americans on both sides of the Tallahatchie River reveal the long history of violence, terror, intimidation, sexual assault, property theft, and humiliation that African Americans have endured—much of it inflicted by elected officials, especially those in law enforcement. The acknowledgement of the Till murder and the injustices of the trial, while significant, can by no means represent an adequate or accurate enough confrontation with the tragic history of Tallahatchie County. Real “truth and story-telling” must encompass a recognition and discussion of this horrendous past and its living legacies.

46Efforts to form interracial coalitions in communities where these atrocities have occurred must challenge the willful historical ignorance of white citizens who have chosen to ignore the horrendous crimes that occurred within their communities.  Perpetrators and their descendants must acknowledge the still open wounds of African Americans who have lived side by side with the murderers—and for forty or fifty years. Citizens must confront the vastly conflicting interpretations of life in their communities. Efforts like those of the Till commission cannot confine their discussions to one single event, avoiding any discussion of the deeper history of white supremacy—of the abuses of the plantation system of sharecropping, of debt peonage, of educational inequities, of the mistreatment and dishonoring of black war veterans, to use only a few examples.  For African Americans know better, and they bring a different set of questions to the table.  They know who stole their land, or who murdered or raped a family member, or who beat up another. And they also know that no crime was committed in the white supremacist South without the knowledge of powerful white people. They know that had those important people sought justice, they could have secured convictions of the perpetrators. In short, there can be no “harmony” or “reconciliation” until communities fully acknowledge their tragic history


47What are we to make of these public demonstrations of commemoration, apologies, and of the revisiting of former crimes? First of all, people engaged in these activities are driven by different motives. For politicians like Barbour, some atonement is necessary if the state is to attract global capital, and in his case, if he were to run for the Republican nomination in 2012.  And some of the local interracial coalitions are also driven in part by a desire to find some way of attracting industries and tourism to communities desperate for jobs. In the case of Tallahatchie County, many saw the Till Commission as a way to save a decaying courthouse and as a means for preventing the loss of the county seat. Sumner is a very small village, but the courthouse does employ people, including lawyers who represent the interests of the west side of the county.  

  • 30  Carmen K. Sisson, “Mississippi Mandates Civil Rights in Classes in Schools,” August 12, 2005, Chri (...)

48But these confrontation efforts can over time go in different directions. They can lead to civil rights tourism where a map directs people to the sites of memory centered around horrendous acts, or in some cases, successful protests. Or they can lead to a deeper understanding of that past, allowing Mississippians to address the real legacies of systemic racism in the state—a direction that could lead to better education, better housing and health care, and better life chances for all of the state’s citizens. This latter approach has fueled the Mississippi Truth Project and much of the interracial coalition building.  And in part, it has led to the recent passage by the state legislature of a law introducing the teaching of the civil rights movement to the curriculum of the public schools.  A commission was established to supervise the creation of a curriculum that incorporates the civil rights movement, focusing on local communities and leaders.30 However, no mandate to adopt the curriculum was included in the legislation. Questions remain as to how successful this endeavor will be. It is significant, however, that the legislature responded to pressure from grassroots activists who insisted that educating the next generation in an accurate accounting of the past held out the possibility of securing a more just future for all Mississippi citizens.  

  • 31  Czeslaw Milosz, “Nobel Prize Laureate Speech,” December 8, 1980 (

49Changing the curriculum will hopefully lead white and black teachers in a joint and meaningful discussion of what that past has meant in their individual communities—one that will force a painful acknowledgement of the relationship between memory and history in a most fundamental and profound way.  For it will pose the question of how a community confronts the legacy of state sanctioned terror and violence, when many of the perpetrators are still living and working in the community; where some of the perpetrators may have been relatives of the white teachers, while some of the victims may have been relatives of the black teachers. Black and white teachers will be asked to bridge the vastly different understandings of history that are held within the African American and white communities. They will have to confront a history as taught and spoken by white people as it brushes up against the lived history of African Americans. They will see how their respective communities have chosen to remember and to forget the daily acts of disrespect, violence, terror, and theft that underwrote the world of white supremacy. This localized setting offersthe potential for a genuine confrontation with the past. And if people are honest, they may fulfill the poet Ceslaw Milosz’s charge that: “Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were, and by wresting the past from fictions and legends.”31

Haut de page


ARSENAULT, Ray. Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

BROPHY, Alfred. Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921, Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

BRUNDAGE, Fitzhugh, ed. Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

CAGIN, Seth and Phillip DRAY. We are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi. New York: Nation Books, 2006.

DITTMER, John. Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. University of Illinois Press: Urbana, 1994.

EAGLES, Charles. The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

HUYSSEN, Andreas. Twilight Memories: Marking Time in the Culture of Amnesia. New York and London: Routledge, 1995.

JUDT, Tony. Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. New York: Penguin, 2008.

MAGARELL, Lisa, and Joya WESLEY. Learning from Greensboro. Truth and Reconciliation in the United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

MAIER, Charles. “A Surfeit of Memory: Reflections on History, Melancholy, and Denial,” History and Memory (1993): 136-52.

MCMILLEN, Neill. The Citizens’ Councils. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

MOBLEY, Mamie Till, Death of Innocence: The Story of a Hate Crime that Changed America. New York: Random House, 2003.

NORA, Pierre, ed. Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996-1998.

PAYNE, Charles. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

WHITFIELD, Stephen A. A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till. New York: Free Press, 1988.

WOODRUFF, Nan Elizabeth, American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta. Cambridge,Harvard University Press, 2003.

YOUNG, James. Texture of Meaning: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Haut de page


1  For a discussion of Mississippi prior to the civil rights movement, see Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, 2003. A vast scholarship exists on the Mississippi Freedom Struggle and white massive resistance. An introduction to this literature begins with Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom (1995), and John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994).

2  An expansive scholarship exists on memory, commemorations, and confrontations with difficult pasts. Much of the work has focused on the Holocaust. For the purposes of this paper, I have been most influenced by Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory (1996-98), Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008), Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories (1995), Charles Maier, “A Surfeit of Memory: Reflections on History, Melancholy, and Denial(1993), and James Young, Texture of Meaning (1993).

3  For a discussion of southern white memory and the Civil War, the Confederacy, and slavery, see Fitzhugh Brundage, Where these Memories Grow (2000).

4  Virginia Joint Resolution 728, The U.S. Constitution Online (retrieved from; Dahlia Grossman-Heinze, “Newsflash: Alabama Apologizes to Recy Taylor 67 Years After Rape,” MS Magazine Blog, April 22, 2011.

5  Patricia Older, “FBI Re-opens Mack Charles Parker Lynching,” New Orleans Picayune Item, May 9, 2009.

6  The Commission published a little known report, One America in the Twenty First Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

7  The Independent, April 18, 2001

8  Alex McDaniel, “In the Face of Adversity: The Chant and the Chancellor,” DMonline (Daily Mississippian On Line), April 7, 2010; J.B. Clark, “Ole Miss Band Faces Loss of ‘From Dixie With Love if Controversial Chant Continues,” DMonline, November 2, 2009; Alex McDaniel, “Undoing All The Progress in My State: Not in My State,” DMonline, January 25, 2011.

9  Howell Raines, “Age Issue is Focus of Mississippi Race," New York Times, October 20, 1982.

10  Eric Stringfellow, “Barbour Links Himself to CCC By Not Acting,” Clarion Ledger (Jackson (Ms.), October 21, 2003.

11  Jonathan Darman, “The Anti-Obama,” Newsweek, January 2, 2010.

12  Jeffrey Goldberg, “Why Do African Americans Forgive So Easily?,” Atlantic Monthly, October, 5, 2010. Web.

13  Sam Fullwood III, “Race and Beyond: Whistling Dixie,” Center for American Progress, September 14, 2010; Jon Mosby, “Haley Barbour’s Delightful View of History,” Daily Mississippian (via UWIRE), September 13, 2010.

14  Andrew Ferguson, Weekly Standard, December 27, 2010.

15  “Remarks of Governor Haley Barbour at the Inaugural Meeting of the Governor’s Commission to Establish a National Civil Rights Museum in Mississippi,” September 21, 2006, (

16  Jerry Mitchell, “Mississippi Governor Pushes Civil Rights Museum,” Clarion Ledger (Jackson, Ms.), January 12, 2011.

17  The Picayune Item (Ms.), January 19, 2011.

18  “Statement Regarding Mississippi 50th Anniversary Event: Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr., Dianne Nash, Reverend C. T. Vivian, Ralph Fertig. May 21, 2010, Civil Rights Veterans Movement Website. (

19  Shelia Byrd, “Freedom Ride Anniversary to be Mississippi Tourist Draw,” Associated Press, Yahoo News,

 April 16, 2010. (

20  Hank Thomas, Jr., “Speech Before the Mississippi Economic Council,” January 6, 2011, Website of the Mississippi Economic Council Website (

21  William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation Position Statement on Reconciliation, (

22  The best account of these murders remains Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, We Are Not Afraid (2006).

23  Rita Schwerner Bender to Governor Haley Barbour, June 27, 2005, (

24  “Timeline of the Mississippi Truth Project” (

25  Tallahatchie County, Mississippi Quick Facts from the US Census Bureau,(

26  I have conducted numerous interviews with black and white people in Tallahatchie County, 2007-2011.

27  Emmett Till Memorial Commission Home Page, (

28  See Emmett Till Memorial Commission.

29  Video, Till Apology Ceremony.

30  Carmen K. Sisson, “Mississippi Mandates Civil Rights in Classes in Schools,” August 12, 2005, Christian Science Monitor (; “Mississippi To Teach Civil Rights History in All Grades,” (Associated Press release), December 28, 2010; Ward Schaefer, “Civil Rights Added to Schools’ Curriculum,” August 14, 2009, Jackson (MS.) Free Press.

31  Czeslaw Milosz, “Nobel Prize Laureate Speech,” December 8, 1980 (

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Nan Elizabeth WOODRUFF, « The Contested Terrain of Historical Memory in Contemporary Mississippi »E-rea [En ligne], 8.3 | 2011, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2011, consulté le 17 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Nan Elizabeth WOODRUFF

Professor of Modern US History at Pennsylvania State University (United States)
Nan Elizabeth Woodruff is the author of American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta (Harvard University Press, 2003). She is writing a book on “The Legacy of Terror in Grenada and Tallahatchie County, Mississippi.”

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Haut de page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search