As I shook her hand last week, I told Myrlie Evers-Williams that I had come home to Mississippi because my niece and nephew don't know who her first husband was --a slight over-simplification, but essentially the honest truth. Until last summer, I'd been living outside the South since the day after graduating from Mississippi State in 1983. I'd written about social injustice everywhere but where it hurts me most. After all, growing up amid the defiant madness of bootlegging sheriffs and Klan rallies and nasty Citizen Councilors and forced integration and lynchings and segregated proms and Jim Crow and stubborn defense of the Lost Cause had made me an activist journalist in the first place. But, truth be told, I wasn't sure I was up to the "worthy scrap," as former Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus calls it, of staying in Mississippi and working methodically for positive change. Simply put, I was afraid to challenge those I know and love the best.
Until. I watched from New York City on April 17, 2001, as my home state voted nearly 2-to-1 to keep the Confederate battle emblem as part of its official flag. My reaction shocked me more than anyone: Within three weeks, my partner Todd and I were in Jackson signing a lease. I was back in the magical city of my childhood, where Medgar Evers was gunned down in front of his children on June 12, 1963, where integration had pushed the neon lights out beyond the city limits and left dark, crime-riddled shells in their places. For me, April 17 was not a denouement. It was a beacon, calling me home.
Last week, Evers-Williams was back to give her family's papers to the state of Mississippi, to a populace whose collective bigotry had killed her husband and whose taciturnity had protected his murderer for 31 years. Standing on the pulpit in the House chambers of the Old Capitol Building -- the room where Mississippi voted to secede on Jan. 9, 1861 -- Evers-Williams talked about home. "I want to see Mississippi raised up where it ought to be," she said, standing regally in a yellow-and-black suit several feet in front of a gold-fringed state flag twisted around its upright pole, the Southern Cross peeking out cautiously. Why this state of all places? "This is where they belong," she said.
Evers-Williams is not boycotting Mississippi and its progeny; she wants to introduce young people to her first husband. "I want to enlighten young people who don't know that history." Those humble 101 words caused raw emotion to creep up into my throat, as so often happens since I came home. The answer seems so simple and pure, yet is so damned snarled and elusive: We need to talk about the past. My niece and nephew need to know what the Confederate flag really stands for, that chunks of our heritage should not be celebrated, that the shame can be snuffed out with penitence and honesty.
I often repeat the words I heard former Gov. William Winter say about the flag vote last May at a Willie Morris birthday celebration in Yazoo City: "We didn't give Mississippians the chance to do the right thing." Winter wasn't rationalizing the lopsided vote, or paternalistically excusing the people of Mississippi for not excising the state's Swastika. He understands, I believe, that too many Mississippians simply do not know the state's complicated race history, or that about every layer of the state government and the local citizenry united to keep African Americans separate and unequal and to defend lynching, or that we were all complicit whether by choice or geography. Too many never heard the words "black codes," "Sovereignty Commission" or "Medgar Evers" in school or at home. I didn't know until I was 14 that Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were killed in my hometown when I was 3, and then only because of a TV movie. My mother had taught me not to be a bigot, but she was too ashamed to tell me what our neighbors had done. And she had no tools to convert that shame into a powerful lesson for her daughter. She didn't know how to break the unspoken code of silence, so she kept quiet.
Inside the state, it is habit to blame outside agitators or the New York media or carpetbaggers or liberals or communists. Abrogation is easier than facing the shame, asking for forgiveness, seizing a teachable moment and moving forward -- which is what the flag vote really should have been about, not luring SUV plants. It is imperative that Mississippians stop looking for other sins to negate our own --"but Northerners owned slaves, too" or whatever -- and face our own past unflinchingly. Let the damned Brown University trustees deal with their history; we have our own work to do. Only then can we move past the past that's not past, as William Faulkner called our frozen state. Mississippians are stuck in denial; collectively, we can't even applaud ourselves for how far we've come because we don't know where we really started.
All I can do is come back, pay taxes (inside the Jackson city limits), write stories, and talk to my niece and nephew. Evers-Williams, on the other hand, can rewrite Mississippi history, and she's not likely to give up the scrap until she does. Last week, she also announced the establishment of the Medgar Evers Institute in Jackson. In Jackson. Medgar Evers, then 37 and carrying a pile of "Jim Crow Must Go" t-shirts, was shot in the back in his own carport, exactly five miles northwest of the Old Capitol building. Until then, he had defied the white power structure by opening the first NAACP office in the state, investigating lynchings and encouraging blacks to boycott segregated businesses. He would unsuccessfully apply to Ole Miss law school years before James Meredith pushed across the threshold. Evers stayed to fight because he loved the state, his home, and wanted to help it face down its demons: "I don't know whether I'm going to heaven or to hell, but I'm going from Jackson," he declared.
I, too, love this state, and I hate much of what it has done to itself and its natives. I've now accepted that our maladies can only be cured from within, and we need our young people to help reconfigure the status quo (as the racists among us know too well). I strongly disagree with outside forces that want to let the state rot in its mulishness. Since I've returned -- apparently among a quiet-but-steady re-migration, bolstered by April 17 -- I've seen a resurgence of faith among those who refuse to stop believing in the state, even as flag supporters try to perpetuate the notion that the issue has been buried for good. Don't bet on it. Evers-Williams quoted Ecclesiastes last week: "unto everything there is a season." I'd call it the long, hot season of the worthy scrap. Stay tuned.
Donna Ladd (www.donnaladd.com) writes from Jackson, Miss. E-mail her at email@example.com.