Recently I had occasion to make a trip to Mississippi after an absence of 40 years, and needless to say there have been many changes. And some things have not changed at all.
I came in by way of Memphis and then went south on US 61 to Clarksdale and Cleveland and the small town of Shaw, then east and south across the state to Philadelphia, and then back to Memphis, a trip of almost 500 miles.
One of my most interesting discoveries was the high quality of the state's highways. I don't think I hit a pothole once, even on some the smaller county roads, and a surprising number of the roads were recently paved. Indeed, there were a number of four-lane divided state highways that were clearly very new and very expensive.
When I was here last, some of these same roads were dirt, and the paved roads were narrow, rude affairs, pock-marked with potholes and practically shoulderless.
The casino signs around Tunica are new, of course, but I was struck by the ones that urged us to "See the other Tunica," presumably referring by inference to the one that still has open sewers along the streets.
Similarly, the slums in Cleveland and Shaw, where I worked in 1964 as a Freedom School Coordinator as part of "Freedom Summer," remain.
Downtown Shaw was declining back then; today, with it's rubble-filled lots and empty buildings, it looks like the set of a bombed-out village from "Saving Private Ryan," another casualty of "technological progress" that has brought about the destruction of rural life in America.
I stopped for a while in Shaw to find and visit with a man who had been only a five-year old child the summer I lived with him and his grandmother. He didn't remember me, of course, but he thanked me twice for "remembering us." As if I could ever forget the courage of people who risked their lives to take us in, feed us, and protect us that summer.
This man understood empirically what has changed and what has not changed since he was a child. That is not the case with some of the state's politicians whose high level of studied obtuseness appears impervious.
Gov. Haley Barbour, for instance, was a last-minute addition to the program at the Neshoba County Coliseum ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the murders of James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andy Goodman. In his speech, Barbour favorably compared the work done by the civil rights workers, with "the work securing freedom being done by American troops in Iraq," stunning the audience in the coliseum into incredulity.
Forty years ago, at the first memorial service for the three civil rights workers, held just a few days after the Gulf of Tonkin incident that marked the beginning of the Vietnam War, Bob Moses, the head of the summer project, said simply, "The same kind of racism that killed these three young men is going to kill thousands of Vietnamese."
Later in his remarks, Barbour said, and then repeated more than once, "America is the greatest country on earth," as if nearly four centuries of slavery, subjugation, and segregation of African Americans, plus a series of genocidal wars against Native Americans did not happen and that the continuing poverty of African and Native Americans, which is the direct consequence of those centuries of institutionalized white supremacy, were only a figment of our collective imagination.
Governor Barbour said he would support re-opening the murder investigation of the three civil rights workers. He did not say he would use all the powers and resources of his office to see that the killers were brought to justice.
Later, at a second memorial service at the Mt. Zion Church, Dave Dennis, one of the leaders of Freedom Summer, said that it doesn't really matter now what happens to a bunch of old men even in the name of justice. What matters now is the injustice still being done to the black children of Mississippi: Governor Barbour recently asked for a cut of more than $200 million in state funds for public education. This in a state that already ranks at the bottom nationally in per pupil spending.
I was able to shave a couple of hours off my driving time thanks to the lavish investment in slick new roads by Barbour and his predecessors, but that savings comes at the cost of the continuing intellectual enslavement of the state's black children.
Drive on, Mississippi, you're on a highway to nowhere.
Wallace Roberts works as a community organizer and independent journalist in East Calais, Vt.
Copyright © 2004, Wallace Roberts