My stepdaughter’s school is a quiet Christian private school with good teachers and affirmative values of the kind that most any member of the political Left today could embrace, but its founders intended it to be a white supremacist enclave. My husband and I sent her there because she is bright, and the local public school is run like a prison, not a place to imagine a future. The place where we have sent her is simple, with a building whose roof often leaks, no state-of-the-art technology, but with instruction that emphasizes critical thinking, core academics — the very thing that makes some people going to school in dirt-floor school houses in the third world better prepared for American universities than our own students in schools with smart boards and WiFi. It is now integrated, at least as much as most private schools in the country are integrated. This means that there are a few African-American students on campus. The school does nothing whatsoever explicitly to foster a spirit of racism in the community today.
However, the school used to be called a Council School, one of the schools founded immediately after Brown v. Board of Education was decided, by the White Citizens’ Council of Mississippi — you know, by those people who thought that something horrible would happen to white girls if they learned multiplication tables sitting at desks near black boys. The White Citizens’ Council was secretly funded by a scary J. Edgar Hoover-ish organization that used to spy on pro-integration citizens in Mississippi — the Sovereignty Commission. It was a horrible chapter of this state’s history, one that should cause any thinking person to shudder. The school used to send out racist propaganda to school parents out of the PTA. The current principal there tells me that the school at that time was Klan in all but the white sheets.
Today, however, the school is run by Christians who formally reject notions of racism as an anathema to their system of belief, whatever pockets of cultural bias they may still individually foster. I could wish for more African-American history in the US History class, but that would also be true if we sent my stepdaughter to a Catholic school in Yonkers, New York. I could wish for more titles by African-American authors in her English class, but the English teacher is fantastic, and she is focusing on good literary American classics, so I can provide perhaps a greater rainbow in the curriculum. There are surely racists who attend the school, racist parents who send their children there because there are more black students at the public school. However, the school’s mission teaches a spirit of service to the community, the imperative of putting character before career, principle before profit.
I consider this an air sample to test to show the progress that Mississippi has made over the past decades in terms of racism. The Sovereignty Commission was de-funded in 1977 by the governor. The Council School was disbanded and integrated the same year, reconstituted under a Christian board that changed the school’s mission statement and its actual mission. Most of the people who felt the way the founders of the school felt are dead. Their children may not have many, or any, African-American friends, but they have few enemies and draw no color lines in public life at least.
At school, my stepdaughter has both white and black friends. She socializes with both. She has learned from me and from her father that racism is akin to Satanism in our system of belief. The pictures still hang on the hallway walls of the old classes of Council School graduating classes. Like all such photos, they appear dated. It is good that the kids who walk the hall neither find that history buried, nor do they find it celebrated. It is a truth, a sad truth, much like the truth of ruins left from the time of Sherman’s march. Things were one way. They are that way no more.
Mississippi is changing. It does not change quickly. Nothing happens here quickly. As Dr. King said in his letter from Birmingham Jail, the time is always right to do what is right, and no one should be held back by others’ reluctance to be fair. However, racism is something that does not only hurt the group that is oppressed directly by it; it hurts the character and the spiritual health of the perpetrators as well. The only ones who are owed redemption are the oppressed, but the paradoxical truth is that in relenting from racism, a potential opens up for the oppressor to become whole again as well. Like green shoots from a ruined antebellum mansion, I see this former council school, now a Christian academy, as a reason for Mississippi to hope for better things to come.