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Beyond racism: lessons from the South on racial discrimination and prejudice

Seven lessons from the deep South on racism, racial discrimination, and prejudice.

By Staff writer, photos by Melanie Stetson FreemanStaff photographer / September 18, 2010

Lessons on racism, racial prejudice and discrimination have been forged in the deep South in places like Philadelphia, Miss. The high school band – practicing here on game day – is an 80-member, multiracial team in a school district just released from court oversight for integration. Not a single white student in the 2009-10 school year decided to transfer out of the majority-black district.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Philadelphia, Miss.

How does a black man win the highest political office in this majority-white town, infamous for one of the vilest acts of racial violence in modern American history?

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James Young knows precisely. The chatty, barrel-chested Pentecostal pastor and former town ambulance worker became the city's first black mayor last year, mainly by promising he wouldn't fix anybody's traffic tickets. But despite his well-known face and pro-business outlook, Mr. Young admits he still bears the burden of his race in the eyes of many townspeople.

So how did he overcome the racial odds? "My philosophy is that I refuse to stop the truck and get out to fight you," he says. "I'm going to keep moving forward."

IN PICTURES: Race in America

Young's slim, 47-vote victory in this town of 8,000 is hardly proof that racial prejudice is dead in the South, never mind here, where a gang of white supremacists led by a preacher killed three civil rights workers in 1964, inspiring the iconic movie "Mississippi Burning." But as the rest of America – under its first black president, Barack Obama – still finds itself clashing regularly over the use of the N-word or hurling accusations of racism in politics and the workplace, Philadelphia is seen as an example of racial redemption. It's the outcome of what historian Joseph Crespino at Emory University in Atlanta calls "a unique laboratory of racial interaction that is specific to the South."

By virtue of paradox and complexity, the South is an evasive teacher, often too genteel and judicious to ballyhoo its advances. But the old Confederacy's wrenching emergence from separate water fountains to an international melting pot reveals a region comfortable with its contradictions and even its past, a place where common interests trump overt prejudice, and where many people see race as an undeniable fact of life not to be subverted, but appreciated.

"I think the one thing the South could teach the country about race is that it's a deeper problem than anybody realizes; it touches more nerves than anyone wants to acknowledge, but at the same time that racism and the racist heritage of America can be overcome," says Massachusetts-born historian Jason Sokol, author of "There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975."

"Every day, in every way, you can see that the South can teach the country about what it's been able to do in our very lifetime," adds Pat Caddell, a Democratic pollster who was part of President Jimmy Carter's inner circle.

Lesson 1: Recognize how far we've come

In the 1960s, Birmingham, Ala., gave America images of white police siccing German shepherds on black youths, shocking photos that galvanized the nation. The clashes were followed by federal laws guaranteeing civil rights and voting rights, and the eventual flight of many whites out of Birmingham and into the suburbs.

Today, many of the same children who faced water cannons grew up to take over key city positions, including at various times the mayor's office.

The black middle class mingles easily with whites at restaurants in the upscale Five Points area, and transitional neighborhoods like Roebuck are gradually integrating. There is a sense of racial peace that comes, local blacks say, from a recognition of the past and a view toward a mutual, but not necessarily integrated, future.

Hard, brutal ground was covered for Birmingham to emerge as a destination on a Southern civil rights tourist trail. Now, in Kelly Park, locals like Barbara Anderson, whose parents rallied there to protest Martin Luther King's imprisonment, can walk through a cast-iron sculpture of attack dogs gnashing in perpetuity at passersby.

To Ms. Anderson, the dog sculpture is visceral and deeply symbolic of the South's transformation: "Things have gotten a lot better [between the races]. The first time I walked through it, I was afraid. But I got used to it."

Juan Perkins, one of the Birmingham "foot soldiers" who faced the water cannons in the 1960s, remembers as a boy seeing a black man hanging from a tree and, as a teenager, watching helplessly as white joy riders raped his childhood sweetheart in the back seat of a car. Today, Mr. Perkins says he sees a Southern society that has simply laid down its arms and gotten past very basic racial injustice.

"What it comes down to in the South is we're not mad at each other anymore," he says. "I think a lot of people got the civil rights movement wrong. Black people didn't necessarily want to be with whites; they just wanted to be able to go where whites went."

Yes, race still chafes at Southern society. It's still difficult for many blacks to resolve the slave heritage that turned into Jim Crow, and there are lingering concerns that the social and economic advancements blacks have achieved could still be lost. Yet the old scars, many blacks say, simply don't hurt anymore. Experts attribute the subsiding anger to a common culture and destiny that Southern whites and blacks have shared, for better and for worse, across many generations of connections.

"There's a common culture in the South that's really there, and in the North they don't have it nearly as much," says Thomas Pettigrew, a Southern-born sociologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Perkins sees it another way: Whites and blacks in the South are "enemies who live in harmony."

Lesson 2: Talk about race like a Southerner

Perkins's quote is a blunt assessment from a region known better for courtesy, restraint, and propriety in public conversation. Yet race is never an abstract in the South. "It's in every room," says Susan Glisson, director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

In the United States, few things are as uncomfortable as talking about race in mixed-race company. Witness this summer, full of racial backbiting: The release of a Journolist online exchange where a liberal journalist mused about marginalizing conservative figures by labeling them racists. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the "tea party" movement trading barbs, with the NAACP even creating teapartytracker.org to ferret out evidence of racism. Public figures like actor Mel Gibson and Dr. Laura Schlessinger roiling racial debate by using the word "nigger." Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck calling Mr. Obama a "racist," and a video clip of a new Black Panther Party leader proclaiming, "You want freedom? You're gonna have to kill some crackers."

The most explosive incident of the summer involved Shirley Sherrod, a black US Department of Agriculture official who was forced to resign for an apparently racist viewpoint given at an NAACP awards dinner. The uproar placed in stark relief the conversational divide between North and South.

Ms. Sherrod's story was a typical Southern redemption tale, infused with Baptist proverb. Born in rural Georgia and affected deeply when authorities failed to indict anyone for the murder of her father, Sherrod admitted questioning the integrity of a "white farmer" in the 1980s – and withholding the "full force" of her farm office to help him.

"I thought [her] speech was very Southern," says Mr. Pettigrew, the sociologist. "She was telling about her rebirth, her rethinking about race, and what she had in common with that white fellow."

Contrast the quick national judgment of Sherrod (who was eventually offered reinstatement, but declined) with a recent experience David Hooker, a black community-builder, had visiting Oxford, Miss., another iconic civil rights town steeped in Confederate history. Mr. Hooker, who lives in Atlanta and teaches at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., stepped into the Ajax bar to order some food. A white Mississippian sitting at the bar said to no one in particular, but within Hooker's earshot, "I remember when they didn't let niggers in here."

Recounting the episode, Hooker says he replied, "That was crazy, wasn't it? I remember that, too."

Hooker adds: "He kind of looked at me, like, 'What do you mean? You're not going to be offended?' "

The two ended up having a 45-minute chat that spanned the election of Obama, the Ole Miss football team, and hopes for their kids. "He was asking to have a conversation about race – he just didn't quite know how," says Hooker. "The reason I could hear that as an invitation is because I constantly remind myself that hurt people hurt people – they're exposing you to a place of their own pain."

To be sure, public atonements like the Senate's 2005 apology for failing to pass antilynching laws, and even the Obama "beer summit" in 2009 between Harvard University historian Henry Louis Gates and the white Cambridge, Mass., police sergeant who arrested Mr. Gates at his own home, can be effective, "but they can't be surrogates for local conversation" like those that often happen among black and white Southerners, says Ms. Glisson.

"When we try to have national conversations about race we tend to throw everything into the mix from the Middle Passage to Jim Crow to Don Imus," she says. "There are so many complexities and nuances that you lose any real focus that can get you somewhere."

Still, the troubled race conversation – even though fueled these days by partisans on both sides, black and white, trying to score political points for a key midterm election – may not ultimately be a sign of a devolution of race relations, but examples of a country stumbling toward understanding.

"It's like muscle memory, where it takes time to practice and train your muscles to do the work they have to do," Glisson says. "We have to do the same thing with racial dialogue. When we first start it, we might offend somebody or get offended, but we can't leave the table. And so, in that way, I see a sign of maturity in these conversations in the South and even in some of these national conversations."

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