My “Witness, Part 11, Closing Thoughts

A lot of other “stuff” has happened over the last 40 years. I may address some of that in more detail in a later set of posts, but the basic trajectory of my values and commitments were formed in those first 20 or so years of my life.

By May of 1980, Lynette Little had figured out I was someone she wanted to have a relationship with. I was disappointed/crushed by the results of the 1980 Presidential election (and the ones in 1984 and 1988). Lynette and I married in August of 1982 and went together to Garrett-Evangelical Seminary. My experience at G-ETS was far less “formational/transformational” than my time at Millsaps. Lynette and I were among the first wave of “clergy couples” to serve in the Mississippi Conference of the UMC. Joe Reiff is working on a book about the “Miriam Generation” of United Methodist clergywomen in the Mississippi Conference. Lynette gave him an interview in the summer of 2017 about her experiences. It’s good that got down on tape and in writing before she died in December 2017. That’s HER story. My story is the pain of watching someone you love be mistreated.

I’m aware that Bullies are very much “triggers” for me. If one has been bullied and abused, that’s going to happen. I’m also “triggered” by aggressive, intentional ignorance. Add those together and how I respond to the Current Occupant of the White House is no mystery.

I continue to be wary of the “Doctrine Police/Heresy Hunters,” some of whom have found their way to positions of influence, if not controlling power, in the United Methodist Church. I continue to navigate the space between those who may not have the same sense of racial and economic justice that I do, while trying to be a loving pastor to them. I’ve decided to hold up the ideal that Love of God and Neighbor is the mark of a follower of Jesus and model that as best I can.

I had thought if the only people who got value out of these remembrances were my son Luke and my daughter Sarah, then it was worth the time I spent. I’ve been gratified that a few others have found them valuable too.

One of the maintenance staff at G-ETS once drew a contrast between herself and her son. “I’m a lover, not a fighter.” I get frustrated and angry sometimes, especially over the last three and a half years, but my basic stance is toward being a lover, rather than a fighter. I am, in that way, very much Barbara Ann Hamilton Altman Edwards’ son.

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My “Witness,” Part 10, Millsaps, Part 2

This next part of the story will be heavy on the “religious” part of my journey before I get to the convergence with race.

Early in my time at Millsaps, I was invited to go to “Berean Fellowship.” This was an officially “non-denominational” Christian group that was overseen by a staff person from Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. There were, in fact, people attending from United Methodist backgrounds, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, at least one Baptist (me), and even a few Roman Catholics. The name of the group was drawn from the “noble minded” Bereans of Acts 17: 10-15 who “searched the Scriptures” to examine the teachings of Paul. The purported agenda was that we would “search the Scriptures” together. The music was sort of the “soft rock Jesusy” music characteristic of the mid-1970s. Bach, Beethoven, Charles Wesley, and even Fanny Crosby had no competition to worry about.

A lot of the focus of the group, in keeping with the fact that it was directed by Inter-Varsity, was finding intellectual support for Christian belief in the modern University. Though Millsaps was a United Methodist institution, the implication was that we were in a vaguely “liberal” institution skeptical of, if not hostile to Christian belief. To be sure, the biology faculty taught evolution, as did the anthropology professor who gave an early lecture in Heritage. That was vaguely discomfiting to this “Good Baptist Boy,” but I had not really been taught that belief in the Bible as “infallible and inerrant” was necessary to salvation. We were encouraged to read in the “apologetic” literature of the era, including C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and John Stott’s Basic Christianity. I absorbed them both. I eventually became the book coordinator for Berean Fellowship.

I also had come to respect T.W. Lewis, the Religion Professor who was lecturing in Heritage. Some would call him a “liberal,” but he seemed grounded and comfortable to me and not at all inclined to return suspicion for suspicion to those he taught and encountered. I also was working in the College Library for Gerry Reiff, the wife of the other Religion Professor. She too was kind and caring for all the students who came under her care.

When my brother and I were bickering (something that happened only if we were awake and were in the same room), my mother would say “Be Ye KIND one to another, TENDERHEARTED, FORGIVING one another.” By both precept and example, she had communicated that how you treat other people is a more significant Christian expression than what you believed.

I also was attending First Baptist Church in Jackson. I joined the “Revelation” choir, consisting of High School and College students. Almost all the other College students were from Mississippi College. I lived with being the “odd duck” Baptist on the Millsaps campus and the “odd duck” Millsaps student in a group of Mississippi College students. For me, that just was what it was. I had a very good relationship with the staff person assigned to ministry with college students. He was, I realize now, one of the “semi-closeted liberals” recently produced by the Southern Baptist seminaries in the 1960s and 70s. Stamping out that sort of thing would be the goal of a political movement in the SBC that emerged in 1979 and I will talk about later. The senior pastor at First Baptist was Frank Pollard. He was one of the most compelling preachers I’ve ever heard. He couldn’t have been called “liberal” by any sense of the word that makes sense, but he was not, in any way, “rigid” in his expression and certainly was not “at war” with anyone theologically or otherwise. The music director, Larry Black, was likewise a kind man who cared about the spiritual and personal development of the people under his care, while also pulling excellence from the musicians he led.

The college minister at First Baptist Jackson remarked that there were three “real preachers” in Jackson at that time. One was Frank Pollard, another was Keith Tonkel of Wells Memorial United Methodist Church, and the third was John Claypool of Northminster Baptist Church. Keith frequently spoke at Millsaps Chapel services. Claypool also spoke at a couple of Chapel services and one Sunday evening gathering. What all three had in common was that their theology was filtered through an awareness of hard personal experience. Pollard was an adult child of an alcoholic who had grown up poor and “rough” in Texas oil fields. Keith Tonkel was a cancer survivor. Claypool had lost a ten year old daughter to leukemia. All were grounded in a “This was tough, but God brought me through” approach to ministry and preaching. Of course pain recognizes pain, so I resonated with all of them.

Claypool also used a term I hadn’t heard applied to the Bible before. He spoke of the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 as “The Genesis Poem.” He found profound meaning in them without getting caught up in trying to justify their scientific accuracy. That was definitely an opening of a door.

In early September 1978, the “Berean Fellowship” gathered for a retreat at Roosevelt State Park. There a brown haired, brown eyed freshman named Lynette Little caught my eye. I was not at all socially adept or aggressive (i.e. I “had no game.”) She also caught the eye of my roommate Bill Singer, who had more “game” than I. It would take two school years and two relationships for her before Lynette came to realize that I would be the love of her life. I knew from that time forward that she would be the love of mine.

Heritage had not satisfied any Social Sciences core requirements, so I signed up for Political Science 101. There I encountered another of the great teachers of my life. Howard Bavender taught political science as a moral discipline. I had been an avid newspaper reader for years, but he and John Quincy Adams helped me put a theoretical framework around the news. Mr. Bavender had a passion for social justice and a passion for calling forth moral and ethical commitments from his students. I loved it.

Since I was a history major, I also needed to take U.S. History. That was taught by another of my great teachers, Bob McElvaine. Dr. McElvaine likewise taught history as a moral and ethical discipline. He did not hesitate to introduce us to the “darker side” of U.S. History, including the genocide of Native Americans, the pervasiveness of slavery in the building of the country, and of the struggle for economic justice of the Labor movement. We read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, along with the textbook. Dr. McElvaine invited us to enter the minds and hearts of the slaves, industrial workers, Native Americans, and others from the “underside” of U.S. History. He also invited Allard Lowenstein to speak to the class. Lowenstein had been part of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. He told stories from my own home area of the Delta. Evidently, Greenville and Tougaloo College had been two of the few “safe spaces” for people working for Civil Rights.

Meanwhile, in my Old Testament class, I was learning that the Biblical Prophets were advocates for economic and social justice. This was not covered in my Baptist Sunday School classes. Though I certainly was also supportive of integration, I had not realized that this was grounded in Biblical faith. The Inter-Varsity “Berean” group also introduced me to writers like Ron Sider (Rich Christians in a Hungry World) and John Perkins(Let Justice Roll Down). Both grounded work for social justice in a robust expression of Biblical Christianity. John Perkins even came to speak to the Berean Fellowship group one night, as did other persons from “Voice of Calvary” Ministries. This was an intentional Christian community focused on racial reconcilation, economic empowerment and health services. Howard Bavender was invited the John Perkins’ presentation. He said “You have created a perfect fusion of Christianity and Marxism.” That was a compliment.

At other points my relationship with Berean Fellowship was less positive. Millsaps had hired a new Women’s Basketball Coach. He was a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, an institution of The Presbyterian Church in America. Reformed, and the PCA, found their identity in commitment to the Bible as “inerrant and infallible,” along with more general hostility to “humanism,” which they believed was equivalent to racism. The coach was also a speaker and frequent attender of Berean Fellowship meetings. I found the atmosphere ever more rigid and unwelcoming. This was my first experience of what I’ve come to call the “Doctrine Police” or “Heresy Hunters.” This was religion grounded in fear (of offending God by believing the “wrong” thing) and anger (toward those who believed or taught the “wrong” thing). I increasingly became uncomfortable in that group and left it by the end of my sophomore year.

In the summer of 1979, between my sophomore and junior years at Millsaps, a faction within the Southern Baptist Convention likewise committed to a view of Scripture as “infallible and inerrant” and likewise hostile to “liberals” and “humanists” elected a new President of the Convention. I was still pointing toward ministry as my vocation, but I began to sense that was not going to be able to happen within a Southern Baptist Convention controlled by the “Doctrine Police/Heresy Hunters.” During my summers at that time, I was living with my father in the western suburbs of Chicago. He was a part time music director at a United Methodist church in Woodridge. My stepmother was the organist. The wife of the pastor of that church was Rosemary Skinner Keller, who was on the faculty of a United Methodist Seminary in Evanston, IL, Garrett-Evangelical. I didn’t know women COULD be professors at a seminary. Moreover, a woman student at G-ETS was serving a field education placement at Woodridge UMC. Her duties included occasional preaching! What a surprise to me, but not an unpleasant one.

I spent the fall semester of my junior year wrestling with what I needed to do. I certainly still found the worshipping and music community at First Baptist Church congenial, but I knew that was not the whole story of the SBC. I found out MUCH later that Frank Pollard was not at all in favor of what is now called the “Fundamentalist Takeover” of the SBC. He did not address denominational politics from the pulpit. He remained loyal to the SBC his whole life, but he was in the distinct minority for the last twenty years of his active ministry.

In January of 1980, I went on a retreat with the First Baptist Revelation choir on the Gulf Coast. The choir from a Baptist church in Mobile, AL joined us. The speaker for the preaching services was a staff person from that church. His sermons were angry, fear-filled, and hostile to all dissenters. I was apalled. As has frequently happened in my life, a “switch” in my brain and emotions was flipped. I sought out Don Fortenberry, the College Chaplain, to find out what would be involved in moving into the ministry of The United Methodist Church. I had no desire to deal with the sort of angry, fear-filled “heresy hunting” I was perceiving was coming to the fore in the SBC. Developments in the SBC over the last 40 years have constantly validated that decision. In fact, there is a new “conservative resurgence” that claims those now in power in the SBC aren’t conservative ENOUGH, even as they have purged the seminaries, Mission Boards, and other institutions of the denomination of anyone “lberal” or “moderate.”

I joined Galloway Memorial UMC in Jackson in late January 1980. Don Fortenberry, T.W. Lewis and Lee Reiff were models, for me, of what a United Methodist clergyperson was like. That’s turned out not to be universally true, but I continue to find folks who are “my people” in the ranks of United Methodist Clergy.

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My “Witness,” Part 9 Millsaps, Part 1

The first time I set foot on the Millsaps College campus was the day I moved into the Freshman Dorm (“Ezelle Hotel”). I must have spoken to an admissions counselor at Greenville High School, but I remember only a late spring phone call with John Christmas, Dean of Admissions. He “goosed” the Financial Aid office and I got a Financial Aid offer that worked. There are, no doubt, many reasons why that SHOULDN’T have worked out well, but it was one of the most spectacularly good decisions I’ve ever made.

I was, at that time, still very much the “Good Baptist Boy” my mother had raised. I wasn’t at all interested in the fraternity scene and did not sing up for “rush.” I did go to a worship service in the college chapel on that first night. There I met Bill Singer, who would become my best friend throughout my Millsaps years. I also met, or at least SAW, Don Fortenberry, the College Chaplain.

I had figured out my class schedule on my own, by reading the college catalogue. I sent in my schedule directly to the Dean’s office, much to the irritation of my assigned Faculty Advisor, Austin Wilson.:). I saw that there was a program called “Heritage” that would allow me to fulfill many of my core curriculum requirements. That sounded good, so I signed up for Heritage. This was another of my “low information” decisions that COULD have gone wrong, but went spectacularly well. Heritage was a seven semester hour (14 over two semesters) multi-disciplinary course that covered the History, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Music “Heritage” of the West. Again, I encountered teachers who knew their subjects, but were really teaching “themselves,” letting me see what they were passionate about. T.W. Lewis approached the teaching of Religion in a way we hadn’t covered at First Baptist Church. Michael Mitias BECAME the philosophers he was teaching. Jonathan Sweat made the composers and music he was teaching come alive. Catherine Freis wore her passion for Homer on her sleeve. Richard Freis quietly directed and coordinated the whole system. I was most grateful for Nell Thomas’ instruction, because we wrote all essay exams. At some point when T.W. Lewis was illuminating something about the letters of Paul, I felt a “nudge” toward a life in ministry. How this Baptist boy was going to make that work with enrollment in a United Methodist college was unclear, but I felt no “nudge” at all to transfer.

During one of Frank Laney’s lectures on European history, I felt another “nudge.” I had, of course, greatly admired Nell Thomas and my general thought at the beginning of my college work was that I would become an English teacher. Now, the “nudge” I was feeling was toward becoming a History major. As you may have noticed, I seem to listen to “nudges.” Most of the time, that has worked out. My final three years at Millsaps would be the playing out of those “nudges.”

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My “Witness,” Part 8, Greenville, Part 5

I had been following politics since the 1968 Presidential election. My father was a Republican and a Nixon supporter, so was I. In 1972 a Republican, Gil Carmichael, challenged Jim Eastland for Senator from Mississippi. Those interested in racial justice would have voted for Carmichael. Carmichael was also the Republican nominee for Governor in 1975. Pam Moore, my most politically aware Black classmate, supported Carmichael. I had been a regular and thorough reader of The Delta Democrat-Times since we moved to Greenville and had added The Commercial Appeal from my tenth grade year onward. I had been disappointed when it turned out that Richard Nixon was guilty of the Watergate crimes of which he had been accused and I accepted the necessity of his resignation.

All of the above is to say that I was paying attention to the 1976 Presidential election. During that summer I read Jimmy Carter’s campaign biography Why Not the Best? One particular story stood out to me. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter had been advocates of rescinding a policy denying worship seating at First Baptist Church in Plains, GA. That resonated with me, since we had had the same bitter argument at First Baptist Greenville, with the same unsatisfactory result. I became a Carter supporter for that reason, primarily. That support made me an outlier among my White classmates. Not a lone outlier, but an outlier still. i couldn’t (and can’t) attribute the support of Gerald Ford to racism, since the Ford supporters had been Carmichael supporters the previous year.

So I began my senior year. By far the most influential person of my academic life and one of the most influential, period was central to that year. Nell Thomas was named the Best English Teacher in America during the 1960s. By 1976, she was sometimes teaching the children of people she had taught at Greenville High School. The subjects she taught that year were World Literature and AP English. I took both. Like all great teachers, though, she taught herself. She demanded precision in written and oral expression. She broke down HOW to structure an essay or essay question. She was famous for her “half points off” red marks on your “perfect” papers and exams. What she was teaching, really, was character and integrity. If we were getting a little rowdy, all she had to say was “Seniahs” (“Seniors” in Delta). I had been named a National Merit Semi-Finalist, but I was still thinking of attending Mississippi College. It was she who encouraged me to set my sights higher. I was admitted to Vanderbilt, but the financial aid package offered was inadequate for me to afford it. I was also admitted to Millsaps College, and the financial aid package was adequate. That was my first “adult” decision and it turned out to be one of my best. I’ll address Millsaps in my next post, but I need to “shout out” to one other teacher first.

Virginia Alexander was the Assistant Librarian at Greenville High School. The library sponsored the Literary Bowl inside the school and Mrs. Alexander coached our County team. She had noted my ability in writing and in rapid recall. She also was the Coach of the Debate Team. She implored me to join the Debate Team. I did so for my Senior year, if somewhat unwillingly. I mostly learned how to do it by doing it. I did fair, I guess. My partner was Pam Moore, certainly the most articulate and politically and socially aware Black woman in my class. She probably “carried” me on debate, but that is another relationship where I functioned as an “equal” to someone who likely had things to overcome that I had no experience of and could not easily imagine.

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My “Witness,” Part 7, Greenville, Part 4

I’m still learning WordPress. I was unable to discern if it’s possible to edit an already published post. Here I’m going to insert an elaboration on Part 2. I recall that we moved to Jackson, MS in October 1969. I know I attended a game between Ole Miss and LSU at Veterans Memorial Stadium during Archie Manning’s Junior year. For that reason, I’m pretty sure that we were already in Jackson when Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education was decided on October 29, 1969. In those days I read the newspaper only for the comics, so this momentous event escaped my notice. This was the decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Mississippi’s progress toward school desegregation had had all the “deliberate speed” it needed and that integration had to happen NOW. Only nine weeks later, the most momentous cultural and educational event of the 20th century took place. That absolutely HAD to happen, but I and tens of thousands of other Mississippi School children and school employees were “drafted” into a social experiment not of our choosing.

Back to Greenville: One of the ways Mississippi had tried to evade desegregation in the period between Brown v Board of Education and Alexander v Holmes County was to repeal the compulsory school attendance law. One result of that was a lazzies faire approach to school transportation. Since the state “officially” didn’t care if we went to school or not, there was also no provision made for getting us there. Our house was about two miles from Coleman, more than five miles from Weston High School (where all Greenville Public Schools tenth graders attended) and a mile and a half from Greenville High School (eleventh and twelfth grades). My mother had an 8:00-5:00 job and the responsibility of getting my four years’ younger sister to HER schools. I was “on my own” for getting FROM school almost all six years and for getting TO school for all three years of high school. I couldn’t take the bus, because there was no bus. “Forced busing” was a flash point of controversy in the early to mid-1970s in the United States as a whole, but there was not even any “voluntary” busing in Greenville. I pieced together ways to get to and from school, often using a bicycle or my feet.

My tenth grade was all right. My abusive stepfather was spending more and more time away from the house, which was all right with me. I had the best math teacher (in the sense that he was able to teach in a way that I was able to learn) for geometry. One think I discovered during that year was that I was exceptionally good at rapid recall and recitation of literary trivia. I participated in an in-school “Literary Bowl” and did quite well.

By the summer of 1975, at the end of my tenth grade year, my mother’s second marriage came to an end. That was certainly a great relief to my brother, sister and me. I’m sure my mother and sister Jill had more “mixed” feelings about it, but it was a positive life development for all of us. Also that summer, my older brother moved to the Atlanta suburbs to live with our father. He was set on becoming an Electrical Engineer and wanted to establish Georgia residency, so that he could attend Georgia Tech at the in-state tuition rate. I suppose that all brothers have ambiguous relationships, but this was also a positive development for me. I would not be directly compared to him and he would not be leading any “teasing/bullying” directed at me during my last two years of high school.

I flourished at Greenville High School. Barbara McCormick in English, Tommy Pullen in World History, and Caroline Acree in Latin were some of the best teachers I ever had. I took the PSAT and made a score high enough to qualify as a National Merit Scholar. The Counselor, Robert Montesi took an interest in me and became a mentor. I also led the boys in the school-winning “Literary Bowl” competition. I was a team member also of our school’s “Challenge” team. This was an academic competition hosted by Mississippi College also focused on trivia recall. I was the only junior on the State Champion team

The public and private schools in Washington County did not compete in athletics, but there WAS academic competition at the Literary Bowl hosted by the County library. I was a member of the County Champion Literary Bowl team both my junior and senior years. Since part of the “narrative” was that the private schools were academically superior to the public schools, it was especially satisfying to win a head-to-head academic competition.

My senior year, and how I came to enroll at Millsaps College is the story for the next entry.

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My “Witness,” Part 1

My “witness” Part 1: My father is an alumnus of the Stetson University choir. (Class of 1956) At some point between 1963 and 1967, the Stetson Choir was on tour through Florida. By then my father was Minister of Music at East Hill Baptist Church in Pensacola. The Stetson choir was to perform at East Hill. There was one Black student in the choir. Our family hosted this woman and her tour roommate. My parents explained to my brother and me that these would be guests in our home and that we were to treat them with respect. I found out nearly ten years later that there was at least one member of East Hill who vociferously objected to a “Negro” being in the sanctuary and leading in worship. As far as I’m aware, no one lost his/her employment over the event. There certainly were MUCH more bitter fights going on elsewhere in the South about integrated worship services.

By 1968 we were living in Jacksonville, Florida. One thing about Jacksonville that I did not know until June 11, 2020 was that a mob of 200, including some Jacksonville Police officers, had attacked a Civil Rights Sit-in on August 27, 1960. Some of the attackers used axe handles to beat the non-violent demonstrators. As a result, that day was called “Axe Handle Sunday.” The fact that I did not know this until almost sixty years later indicates how little of the racist history of our country is generally known. My father was Minister of Music at First Baptist Church. In in 1968 First Baptist was observing its 125th anniversary. There was also an observation of 100 years since the formerly enslaved persons at First Baptist had left to form “their own church.” The summer of 1968 was a time of high tension in the United States and there certainly had to have been some tension in Jacksonville (which is rightly called the largest city in South Georgia). Nevertheless the leadership of both First Baptist and its African American “daughter” church developed plans for a joint celebration of the 125th and 100th anniversaries.The celebrations would include joint worship services at both First Baptist and the African American church. The guest speaker for the service at First Baptist was W.A. Criswell of First Baptist Dallas. Criswell was the closest thing to a Southern Baptist “Pope” as existed in the second half of the 20th century. For some reason Criswell thought that the way to connect with this interracial audience was to tell Negro “Dialect” “Jokes.” No doubt “Axe Handle Sunday” was a living memory for many of the Black worship attendees. My father was sitting on the platform near Criswell and was genuinely afraid that someone might take a shot at Criswell, miss and hit him. The next morning Homer Lindsay, Sr. the pastor at FBC Jacksonville was driving Criswell to the airport. Criswell said “Homer, I blew it didn’t I?” “WA, you blew it as bad as it’s ever been blown.”

I recall that there were some Black students at my elementary school, so I guess Jacksonville was under “Freedom of Choice.” Jacksonville is divided by the St. John’s River. The part of Jacksonville where we lived was the “White” part of town. That meant that little school integration would have happened, given the residential segregation that reigned then and now.

The division between the White people I knew in Jacksonville over the 1968 Presidential election was between supporters of Richard Nixon and George Wallace. My parents supported Nixon. My parental grandparents had been anti-Roosevelt Republicans, so support of Nixon didn’t necessarily have a racial component. By 1969, when I started fifth grade, I had been in at least two “integrated” worship services (“Special” services, for sure) and had had at least a few Black classmates in public school. No one in my family or my church family were overly exercised about it, as best I remember. In October 1969, due to events in my family, we moved to Jackson, MS, where my father would be Minister of Music at Broadmoor Baptist Church. A lot of other “stuff” would also happen that year.

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My “Witness” Part 1

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My “Witness” Part 2

My “witness,” Part 2: Our family was wounded and my parents’ marriage was mortally wounded in ways I didn’t appreciate when we moved to Jackson, MS in October 1969. On October 29, the Supreme Court ruled in Alexander v Holmes County Board of Education that Mississippi had had all the “deliberate speed” they needed to desegregate its public schools. Jackson Public Schools Administration spent an extra “holiday” period in January 1970 redrawing attendance zones and reassigning teachers. Just nine weeks after Alexander, Jackson Public schools were desegregated. Our house (owned by Broadmoor Baptist Church) was on the same side of Northside Drive as Boyd Elementary School, so my brother, sister, and I continued to attend Boyd, but we had new teachers and new classmates. Again, though there were other sources of tension in our home, I don’t recall anyone getting “worked up” about our attending a fully integrated school. If there were fears for our safety, no one ever spoke them aloud for me to hear. I know from reading history that there were White parents who immediately pulled their children out of public schools and put them in newly formed private “academies,” but no one talked about doing that with us in my hearing. By the end of February 1970 my father had resigned his position at Broadmoor Baptist Church and returned to Jacksonville. Our family was now in “survival” mode, since we were without an income and were living in a house set aside for the Minister of Music, who was no longer in that position or in residence. It is a great tribute to the kindness of Broadmoor Baptist Church that we did not have to move out of that house for the remainder of the school year. I had always had difficulty with math and had spent the summer of 1969 in “remedial” math in Jacksonville. My newly assigned fifth grade math teacher (my fourth of that school year) and I were not connecting. She happened to be Black. I’m sure that teaching White students and reporting to a White principal for the first time was quite stressful for her. I have sometimes been called “stubborn.” For exactly the same reason, I have also been called “Brown-eyed.” My mother sought to intervene in my math teacher relationship. The principal told her “Mrs. Altman, I can’t move a White student from a Black teacher’s class this year.” That was, by far, not the worst thing that happened that year, but it’s the only educational/academic consequence I remember.

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My “Witness, Part 4 Greenville

My “witness” Part 4: Greenville:Greenville, MS is a Mississippi River port city in the Mississippi Delta. A book about the Delta calls it “The Most Southern Place on Earth.” That is quite true. Our family moved to Greenville is late August of 1971. Unbeknownst to us, when the 1969 Supreme Court decision Alexander v Holmes County, ordering unified, non-segregated school districts in Mississippi came down, a community meeting took place at the Buster Brown Community Center to plan for private academies to educate the White children in Washington County whose parents could afford the tuition. By the time we arrived in Greenville in 1971, those private schools had been built and were up and running. Most other communities in the Delta, the Jackson area, and any other areas of the state where Whites were not in a clear majority likewise established private schools, with the goal of continuing “separate, but (un)equal” education. The State Legislature even appropriated money to support these private schools. I was about to start seventh grade, so the larger political events were unknown to me. It’s certainly clear, with 50 years of perspective, that the decision to withdraw White students from public schools in Mississippi was a nearly fatal self-inflicted wound to the communities that made it. A strong, well-funded public school system is the single most important economic development tool any community has The economic struggles of the Delta over the last 50 years make that clear, well beyond any moral or ethical issues raised by continuing resistance to lifting up ALL in the state. I began seventh grade at Coleman Junior High School. I soon learned that Coleman had been the “Black” high school in Greenville. Major League Baseball player George Scott, and NFL players Gloster and Willie Richardson had starred for the Coleman Tigers before their pro careers. Numerous other athletes, scholars, and other professionals were Coleman alumni. It’s clear to me, now, that re-purposing the building as a “Junior” High School, while apparently “practical,” was also an act of cultural erasure. I recall the football stands being dismantled while I was in PE that 1971-72 school year. There may have been a safety-related reason, but that was, likewise, a kind of cultural erasure. The obvious divide in the Delta is between Black and White, but there is, likewise, a “caste” system within the White community. At the top are the owners of the means of production and distribution. Those would be owners of agricultural land and of the towing companies at the Port of Greenville. Just behind would be the businesses directly supporting the owners-Cotton Brokers, Agricultural Equipment dealers, other vehicle dealers, fuel brokers, etc. Just behind would be the professionals, doctors and lawyers, vets, etc. In a position sort of by himself was Hodding Carter, III the owner/publisher of the local newspaper. There were also small business owners, restauranteurs, service stations, etc. In a unique position were the Chinese grocery store owners. These were not “Black,” but not quite “White” either. Ethnic Chinese children moved from the “Black” to “White” schools in the Delta in the early 1950s. White clergy were “hired help,” if sometimes well compensated “hired help.”My mother was a department manager at a private hospital. She was a woman doing a “woman’s job.” She was not well paid. She was definitely part of the “hired help.” We were in a somewhat isolated position. In Mississippi the first two questions people ask are “Where are you from and Who are your people.” Well, we weren’t “from there” and our “people” were out of state. Furthermore, my mother was a divorced woman in 1971, long before that became “trendy.” As our family did, we found our way to church, in this case First Baptist Church. This church had all the White castes, from “owners” to “hired help.” There was also a “Chinese Mission” that had Chinese language services on Sunday afternoons. There were also second and third generation native English speakers who attended “regular” Sunday School and Worship. That’s a lot of (necessary) throat clearing. I’ll talk more about my experience of church and school in Greenville at a later time.

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My “Witness” Part 5 Greenville Part 2

My “Witness” Part 5, Greenville, Part 2: The worst natural disaster ever to befall Greenville and Washington County was the 1927 Mississippi River Flood. The story I heard when I was living there was that it was a time when the community came together in recovery. I was over 55 years old when I learned that many Black people were, essentially, re-enslaved and set to forced labor on the levees. They were also confined to living in tents on the levees. It’s not surprising that this part of the story was consigned to the “memory hole” of White Greenville and Washington County. I suspect that it was much more of a living and family memory in Black Greenville and Washington County, but I’ve never asked. It was, in any case, a part of the inheritance of guilt and shame that everyone carried, even if they didn’t know its source.As I mentioned, I was a seventh grader at Coleman Junior High School in the 1971-72 school year. Though many of the economic elites had removed their children to private schools, the Greenville Public School system was still about 35% White during my six years in it. Coleman was probably a little more heavily Black than that. Bass Junior High School, whose attendance zone was more in the central part of the city, was almost completely Black. Solomon, which had been the “White” Junior high school, was at least 50-50. Not so incidentally, Solomon was the only Junior High School with air conditioning. The combination of heat and humidity in the Mississippi Delta is the worst I’ve ever experienced. Though we didn’t begin school until the end of August, September, October, and May were brutally hot. That had to have had an effect on learning. Of course, the new private schools were air conditioned. I was, for the first time, a “minority.” I had a Black male teacher (Social Studies) for the first time. I still was no good in math, but by far my worst class was Physical Education. I’m not at all athletic. I was under the authority of male PE teachers (both Black and White) who knew how to coach athletes, but had no real respect or sympathy for the unathletic or any ability or willingness to adapt the curriculum for such students. I honestly do not remember any “racialized” bullying directed toward me, but there was plenty of bullying in PE for the slow, overweight and clumsy kid. Some (not all) the perpetrators were Black, but I never thought they were targeting me because of race.During Christmas break, my mother was invited to play cards at the home of the adult daughter of the pastor at First Baptist Church. Imagine my surprise when another person present was her stepson, who was the Study Hall coach at Coleman. My brother and I both told our mother he was “mean.” My mother, who had become infatuated with him, dismissed that complaint. “He just has to act that way at school so he can keep order.” My brother and I were right, and she was wrong. He was “mean” to the core.My mother married him in February 1972 and was soon pregnant with a “honeymoon baby.” My sister Jill, born November 1972, is the only thing positive about the three and a half years of hell my family and I lived with. She is now the marvelous mother of three. Everything good about her is a credit to our mother. School, along with First Baptist Church, became more havens from bullying and abuse than sources of it. Though I absorbed bullying and abuse, I have to say that my older brother and my mother absorbed more. I’d have to say though, that my brother passed some of what he absorbed down to me.During the second semester of my seventh grade year, I moved from art, which I did not like, to chorus, which I did. Kaye Ventura was the chorus teacher. She became my first Black “mentor” teacher. I became a member of the chorus and remained all three years. I learned a great deal, absorbed Black culture, and made lasting friendships with several Black students. I still think that Virgie Selzer gave the best performance of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” I’ve ever heard. Academically, I did increasingly well, with the exception of math. By eighth and ninth grade, I was making As and winning awards in English and Social Studies and doing all right in science.16 Comments

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