The Constitution and my hometown

This column by Bob Herbert cites a recent survey of high school students about constitutionally protected freedoms. The mention of Hodding Carter, III caught my eye. He now heads the Knight Foundation. I am familiar with Hodding Carter, II. Here is another page on him. He wrote the book So the Heffners Left McComb about civil rights incidents in my hometown, McComb. In fact, my first trip home from the hospital landed me in the same neighborhood where the Heffners had lived ten years earlier. The Heffners had some people, civil rights workers, from their church over for dinner. Subsequently, the man’s business evaporated, and the family was stalked and harrassed. Somebody killed their dog. They moved away. The younger daughter wrote this article recounting the incident for The Telegraph. As an aside, that silver train in her story was the City of New Orleans. The Heffners were run out of town over their dinner guests.

Hodding Carter, II was a prominent journalist and newspaper publisher in Greenville, Mississippi. Hodding Carter, III ran the Delta Democrat-Times after his father. I do not understand precisely how Hodding Carter, II came to write So the Heffners Left McComb, but journalism links the two towns. Both towns’ papers criticized the demagogues and racial injustices. The two papers are owned by the same company today, but they were not then. A Confederacy of Silence also mentions the links.

One of my favorite discoveries in So the Heffners Left McComb was the role my favorite teacher at McComb High School played. He turns up in a surprising number of stories. Rebecca, a friend here, was visiting family friends in New Orleans, and she recognized him as my teacher when they told a story about him from their graduate school days. He visited the Heffners even when the heat was on and the local no-goods would circle around their house. When his family began fearing for him, he came and went through their back door. One of his most touching stories was about his church during this era. They wanted to know what to do if a black person tried to attend, so they voted. They voted on it. He came back to McComb to teach when the schools finally integrated, and I am lucky to know him.

Googling led me to a Joe Martin’s oral history at this site at USM featuring a collection of Mississippi civil rights history. I do not remember him from home. He knew the Heffners. He also mentions Aylene Quin who must have been a tough lady judging from his story and the Telegraph one linked above.

The struggle was far past too ugly at home. 16, maybe 20, houses and churches were burned or exploded in a community that probably had fewer than 30,000 people counting city and county. 650 residents, many or all white, signed a statement of principles published in the Enterprise-Journal that condemned violence. The New York Times picked up the story. I have not tracked down the text yet. I tried asking at the local library without getting far. I found November 17, 1964 as its publication date. The letter stood for its time out because locally prominent people condemned the crumbling of civilization happening around them instead of permitting and passively condoning, if not actively encouraging, poor whites to do dirty work. This transcript of an oral history reports that the Enterprise-Journal published an article “McComb Leads Nation in Racial Solutions” on June 28, 1967. Before the turn, McComb was possibly the most violent town of the time.

I grew up unaware even though I started first grade only a little more than a decade after the schools integrated. I read So the Heffners Left McComb late in high school or in college. Although it is out of print, libraries are good sources for it. One has to understand that Jim Crow poisoned their minds and they could not think right. An article in the Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi’s newspaper of record, covers events honoring activists for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The schools plan to introduce lessons on the era. The schools did not integrate completely until 1970, I think, at home. When I started first grade, there may have been high school students who experienced integration, yet I had no idea about the particulars of the Movement in my hometown until I was quite old. While it is a shame to forget, it is heartening, too.

There were church burnings again when I was in college. If I recall correctly, three men, two my age, burned two local black country churches one night. I did not know them, but friends of mine did. Unlike thirty years earlier, they quickly were found and brought to justice. Local volunteers rebuilt the two churches. We are not there yet, but sometimes progress is real.

2 Comments »

Michael M. on February 9th 2005 in General

2 Responses to “The Constitution and my hometown”

  1. brad responded on 10 Feb 2005 at 3:34 pm #

    I went to the Civil Rights museum in Memphis a few years ago, and I was struck by how far removed I felt from the events of the civil rights movement. The places were familiar, but the people seemed light years in the past. You’re right; we’re not there yet, but I’m amazed at how far we’ve come in such a relatively short amount time. My grandmother is still very racist and very vocal; she has no reservations regarding her prejudice, and she offers no apology or attempt at reconciliation. On one hand, I’m deeply conflicted because, you know, she’s my grandmother, but on the other hand, her reasoning (or lack thereof) baffles me, and because I can’t even begin to understand her point of view, and because my mind and body react so violently against the things she says, I can regonize the wide gap that seperates the attitude of her generation from the attitude of mine, and it’s proof of just how much the civil rights movement accomplished.

  2. Lib responded on 11 Feb 2005 at 1:47 pm #

    I remember visiting my grandmother as a child, and while we were watching the news, she commented about the black newscaster, “That niggra’s done right well for himself.” I remember feeling ashamed – initially because she said it and I am related to her and then later because I didn’t say anything to her about it. Years later I realized that even had I said something, I would have accomplished nothing. Everyone is, at least in part, a product of his environment, and her making the statement was a testament to her early environment, just as my shame was to mine.

    I too find it encouraging that we have changed so much is so short a time, but I also realize how much more change is necessary.

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