Saturday, June 24, 2006

McComb, Mississippi in 1961 and 2006

Bearden I have been over in McComb, MIssissippi, for the last few days, attending the University of Mississippi's William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation's annual conference on teaching civil rights.  McComb was a center of much civil rights activism in the early 1960s, and the conference brought together superstar academics (like James Campbell of Brown University and John Dittmer of DePauw) with soliders from the civil rights movement.  It was a great conference and particularly good for getting college profs talking with elementary and secondary history teachers and both of those groups with activists.

One of the many highlights for me was a graduation ceremony on Thursday night for nine people from the class of 1962 at Burgland High School in McComb.  Outstanding article from the Clarion Ledger here. This is a story that should have received more coverage in the media than it did, in my opinion.  Why a graduation ceremony forty-four years late?  The answer takes up back to the fall of 1961 when sixteen year old Brenda Travis was arrested for attempting to integrate the Grayhound Bus station in McComb.  Travis spent 30 days in jail for that offense.  After she was released from jail, her classmates at Burgland High asked at a school meeting in the gymnasium if Travis would be let back into school.  When the principal, Mr. Higgins, called for the person who asked the question to come to his office, about 120 students walked out in solidarity with Travis.  They then marched to city hall, where they were arrested, along with Travis.  For the second offense, Ms. Travis spent six months in the state reform school at Oakley.

The school gave the students who had walked out a chance to come back to school, if they signed a letter renouncing their actions.  Many signed the letter, but more refused to.  Something like 80 people were permantly expelled.  Many left the state to complete high school elsewhere; some went on to college without a high school diploma.

The ceremony, which was held in the same gymnasium where the whole protest started, was moving, indeed.  (This school, which was once the black high school is now an integrated middle school and it has been renamed Higgins Middle School.)  What was most interesting to me about the evening was Ms. Travis' speech.  Her spirit is unbowed; she spoke about the need for continued vigilence to make sure that schools provide a good education and she criticized naming the school after Principal Higgins.  She thought he failed in his duty to protect the children.  It was not quite what I would describe as a moment of reconciliation; I think the emotions may yet be too raw for that. We're still on the road to reconciliation.  Instead, I think it was a moment of renewing the discussion of what had happened and trying to understand it.  Reconciliation is very, very difficult stuff.  In part because the people who made the decisions to arrest and expel are now gone (or at the very least retired and quite elderly).  And so it's hard to have a person with any culpability to make amends.  However, people who were injured are still very much with us and they still feel the injuries.  The passage of time, undoubtedly, will help some; this is made harder by the continued concerns in the community over the quality of education.  I don't sense that these issues are all in the past; they continue.  And then there's concern over the memory of the events.  It's likely that significant numbers of people in McComb have different ideas about Travis.  I suspect feelings about her run the gamet from
    (1) a radical who should have been put in jail, to
    (2) a well-intentioned though misguided person, to
    (3) a hero of the civil rights movement.
Moreover, probably a non-neglible number of people don't care about reconciliation.  Until the community reaches some kind of consensus on how to interpret her actions and those of the rest of the students who walked out, I think reconciliation will be hard.  There may be reconciliation without a common understanding of history; I think people who disagree can still appreciate the good intentions and honesty of people with whom they disagree.  But that's hard, indeed. The road to reconciliation is a very long one.  I think we're several steps closer to it because of the couragous work of the school board in McComb, as well as Ms. Travis, the men and women who came back for the graduation ceremony, and the William Winter Institute.  Thank you, Ole Miss.

Endnotes: out of an abundance of caution for copyright, I am not posting  pictures of Ms. Travis or the McComb Greyhound Bus depot.  But you can find them both at the Clarion Ledge story here.  The illustration is part of Romare Bearden's School Bell Time (1980) from the Paul R. Jones Collection at the University of Delaware.

Alfred L. Brophy
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A fascinating event indeed! I great book from that period is one by Charles Marsh, God's Long Summer, who argues that the civil rights movement was more about theology. Interestingly he juxtaposes the passive civil rights sufferer with the active KKK Grand Wizard (along with four others) all of whom saw their actions as being within the Kingdom of God. A similar commentary could be made here.

Posted by: Marc Roark | Jun 28, 2006 2:54:15 PM

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