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.