'Freedom Summer' Legacy Can't Wipe Out the South's Problems : Mississippi: 1964 civil rights drive signed up 80,000 black voters. But many fail to cast ballots today, and black history is obscure.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Very quietly, as tourists click snapshots of Confederate monuments in the Vicksburg National Military Park, black people arrive in pairs or whole families and fill up area hotels.

They come from near--Alabama, Texas, Louisiana--and far--Michigan, California, Nevada, Illinois. Hugs go around, as do exclamations of joy when family and friends collide.

It's Fourth of July weekend in Vicksburg, a city of 25,000 that lolls among sun-seared pines on the banks of the Mississippi River. It's also reunion time and, if you're black and you're from Vicksburg, you drop what you're doing and go home.

The South still means home to so many black Americans, despite its brutal history.

Their ancestors were slaves whose labor drove the antebellum South's agrarian economy, who were freed to endure lynchings and rigid segregation and then jailed, bombed or killed trying to break racism's grip on their futures.

So why do blacks, like those in Vicksburg, hold the region in such high esteem that they eagerly return?

"There's a saying, 'The greater the oppression, the better the product,' " said Marshall Sanders, 43, an attorney who has practiced in Vicksburg for 16 years. "The South is where you will see the leadership that will bring our people out of the dirt."

Blacks in the South now earn college degrees, run businesses, own land. They hold elected office in far greater numbers than in any other region. Parents send their children to spend summers with grandparents here, because the racial danger the South once represented is nowhere near the perils black children everywhere now face.

Many credit the region's face lift to the Freedom Summer Project of 1964, through which 1,000 college students registered voters, educated children and ran community centers to chisel away at formal segregation.

According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, Freedom Summer's greatest impact was in the political arena. The students put 80,000 black voters on the rolls and boosted black participation in elections from 6.7% to 60% within two years. Mississippi now has 751 black elected officials, the most of any state.

"It set in motion a series of political and social changes that were slow to come but that nonetheless were profound," Frank Parker, a Washington law professor who litigated civil rights suits throughout the South, wrote of Freedom Summer. "One might say that Mississippi has generally caught up with the rest of the country only to find that it shares the rest of America's lingering social and racial problems."

In Vicksburg, the impact of Freedom Summer these 30 years later is embodied in the contrast of the easy coexistence of blacks and whites and the still-keen sense that racist attitudes never will vanish.

"In the South, where there seems to be a lot of prejudice, I didn't learn to dislike or hate," said Doris Tatum-Clavelle, 49, a Vicksburg native who returned home 20 years ago after living in Chicago and New Orleans.

"There is still that inner peace, life that is just a little bit easier, a little bit more comfortable. You get back in Mississippi and the differences just slap you in the face."

Being black in the South means acceding to a love-hate existence. It means loving the laid-back, nearly conflict-free life, but hating the history of oppression that underlies, and too often undermines, this hard-earned ease.

It means frustration when black people shrink from public fights for their place in history and the community, but comfort that, when someone needs a meal or a ride or a flat tire changed, someone else in the community always steps forward.

Hundreds of individuals in Vicksburg regularly wrestle with this duality.

There is the woman who spent much of her life staring down racists in the civil rights movement, only to fear today's rebellious, gun-toting black children more than she ever dreaded the Ku Klux Klan.

The man who became the city's first black mayor, only to feel the anger of black voters who felt he had abandoned their concerns for the interests of the city's wealthy whites.

The woman who stepped across invisible boundaries to become Vicksburg's first black female police officer, only to encourage her twin sons to seek law enforcement careers elsewhere, knowing they could only go so far at home.

And the children growing up in this new South, struggling to find their place in a world of subtle and sometimes conflicting messages.

As so many of these Southerners say, they can be so many things, achieve so many things, but still, to many people, they are only one thing: They are black.

And so they remain here. The South is their home.

*

It happened in 1928, but Lee Willa Miller remembers it as if it were yesterday.

She was 11, and her father had died. Within days, a white man came to collect a $300 debt. Her mother had no money, so he seized the family's 200-acre farm. He took two mules, a wagon and a couple of houses too.

"I always felt like I had nothing to lose," Miller said. "And I was ready to fight. I've stepped on a lot of white people's toes, happily."

Lee Willa Miller is 77 now, sitting with her left hand gently propped on the metal cane resting beside her in her painfully neat white frame house. Her knees are sore and scarred from recent surgery, but she is cheerfully dainty, like a genteel grandmother entertaining members of the garden club.

Her presence and her words don't match. There's still a lot of unspent anger in Miller, who joined the NAACP in 1950 as a wife and mother and promptly began registering black voters in the Mississippi backlands.

This is a woman who worked shoulder-to-shoulder with such seminal black figures as Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Meredith. She quit her catering job when her boss called her in to work as she tearfully watched the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral on television.

Miller is a sage of sorts on politics, civil rights history, black voting habits. Politicians court her endorsement and seek her advice. Those who win say they wouldn't be in office without her.

In a recent election, Miller worked to help state Rep. Ken Harper in a runoff for a U.S. Senate seat. Harper won, but Miller was disappointed: Black voter turnout was only 7% not much more than it was before 1964.

"Somewhere along the line, some of us got too comfortable and relaxed in going to vote," Miller said. "I stay on my telephone. I sit up in my bed, and I call and call."

With 1928 burned in her memory, Lee Willa Miller marched and organized during the civil rights movement, encouraging black folks to get an education and attack racist systems from within, like cancer. The places she ventured were so dangerous she often didn't tell her husband for fear he would try to stop her.

Miller doesn't see racism scraping against black people in the South as roughly as it scraped her back in 1928; she sees a more insidious form that foments black self-destruction through unemployment, drugs, crime or the breakdown of the family.

"Somewhere along the line, we've made progress, but somewhere along the line, we've gone back," she said.

"You've got some black folks who live well. But it's not enough. The white man has still got his foot on us here. White people are white people, and don't ever forget they're white. They're not going to ever want you to come up to their equal."

Miller's own deprived childhood--she never finished high school--made her determined to educate her five children, all of whom are college graduates. Naturally, she pushed other black children to go to school.

There was a time when she would report truant children, scold them and send them back to class. But not anymore.

Today's children fill Miller with more fear than any number of the shotgun-toting mobs, hooded Ku Klux Klansmen or lurking pipe bombs she confronted in the '60s.

"You don't do that now, you know, because they will shoot in your houses," she said. "Crack's got me more fearful now than back then. There used to be a time when black folks didn't kill black folks; white folks killed black folks.

"Looks like the white folks now are sitting back to say, 'I don't have to kill (them) because they gonna kill one another.' And doesn't it look like we're doing it?"

*

Despite its majority black population, Vicksburg didn't elect its first black mayor, Robert Walker, until 1988. Black residents poured a lot of energy into Walker's campaign; they were proud when he took office--and are still reeling over his defeat last year.

Many feel Walker lost because some blacks deliberately stayed home on Election Day, feeling he was too eager to please white constituents and didn't do enough for the people who helped elect him.

Now, though, black residents are unhappy with the current mayor, and there is an effort to get Walker to run again. He's not sure he will.

"Maybe I've had my time," he said. "You have to do your best, and I did my best while I was there."

Walker, 48, is a former state NAACP official who teaches political science at two black colleges. He is a product of the civil rights movement--"All my summers have been Freedom Summers"--who wants to put his energy into grooming young blacks for political careers.

"People of my generation have, in many ways, had their best shot with history and destiny," Walker said. "And for the last 20 years of their holding onto positions, they have done more harm than they have done good. It's somebody else's turn now."

Despite the number of Mississippi's black elected officials, there is a sense in Vicksburg that blacks are slowly losing grip on public office. Gertrude Young is the only black member of the city council, even though Vicksburg is more then 55% black.

"Where did we go wrong?" Young said. "I don't care how high you climb, you are still black."

That's one reason that Dora Smith--Vickburg's first black policewoman--and her husband, Charles, want their children to leave Vicksburg, as they did temporarily.

That is not unusual. Many black folks were born here and moved away, then returned to rear children whom they actively encourage to leave.

"I don't care about moving nowhere, but ain't nothing here for them," said Charles Smith, a 48-year-old welder, referring to his five children.

The couple's two eldest sons will graduate soon from historically black Alcorn State University with degrees in criminal justice. Dora Smith, a 17-year veteran who works in juvenile investigations, said she doesn't expect her sons to join her on Vicksburg's force.

"If they want to make more money, they have to move," she said. "It would be best."

"Blacks don't make any money," Charles Smith said. "Whites have all the money."

But still, Smith is too taken with the quality of life in Vicksburg to leave. He owns 11 acres of land, and has bequeathed parcels to his children, with the condition that they sell their shares only to another sibling.

"There's no place like home," he said simply.

*

Vicksburg has no juvenile detention center, so children who commit crimes often are back on the streets quickly after a first offense and later crimes can land them in jail with adults.

So the Rev. James Warren decided to try to save them himself. He cleaned up an abandoned community center and turned it into a program for young first offenders, nearly 95% of whom are black males who have flirted with gang activity.

Warren takes them in for up to 90 days, after an informal hearing and before they stand trial. If they pass Warren's program, they are recommended for probation, training or correctional school and stay out of court. So far, only one of 34 youths had to be returned for trial.

"The male needs a male figure. I am Coach, Reverend, Doctor or Dad to all of them," Warren said. "Of course, I have to pray and understand that I can't save everybody."

Warren simply gives the children praise and encouragement, and requires them to read three books. They draw inspiration from his I Am Somebody Wall, with photos of people ranging from President Clinton to local judges and politicians, to let them see the futures they could have.

Two of Warren's charges, Altonia Bland, 17, and Quincy Watson, 15, say they sense that racist attitudes hold young people down in Mississippi. But they aren't inclined to blame white people for it.

"You get treated differently," Watson said. "Some people are racist. Some ain't. You can't say they're racist just because of their skin color. It's how they see their mom and dad, if they feel like their mom and dad do about black folk."

Bland, an Army brat who has lived in most parts of this country, has concluded that the South offers a good life, despite its stereotype as an oppressive place.

Although he found a chance here to get into trouble with gangs, he also found the program that got him off the track to jail and back to high school and football.

"They've got more jobs here than in, say, D.C.," Bland said. "They give you more education here than anywhere else. When I was in New York, they didn't care. I didn't ever go to school. Here, the coach would come looking for me.

"Still, there's a lot of stereotypes around here. I thought we had come a long way from the past. I ask why we don't have our black history in our books. Since I never grew up around real harsh stereotypes, it confuses me a lot."

*

Lunch at the Kitchen in the Garden, a wooden shack of an eatery in the heart of black Vicksburg, is a release mechanism for the tight knot of black professionals who laugh loud and debate life over its $4.25 soul food specials.

The Kitchen has a backwater flavor, with its tin roof, battered screen door and neon beer signs in red-curtained windows. Inside, there are maybe a dozen booths and tables, and a big white jukebox with old blues and soul tunes on it.

Soap operas cast moonglow from a television set perched over the bar. It is twilight-dim at high noon, because the Kitchen sits under shady trees at the end of a dead-end street.

These professional folks descend on the Kitchen every day for ethnic rejuvenation; they are among the few blacks in their respective workplaces.

The Kitchen was here when Freedom Summer swept through Vicksburg. The crowd then gathered for news of the movement and to dream of grandeur after the death of Jim Crow.

And though Jim Crow eventually died, so did the Kitchen. Blacks began to patronize other, prettier restaurants; the Kitchen, in its rustic splendor, wasn't good enough anymore.

"There are some people who look at this place and turn their noses up at it," said Willie Thomas, an engineer. "But for me, it's my roots. I'm not ashamed of it."

When the Kitchen reopened eight years ago, Thomas and his lunch colleagues--noting the precarious state of Mississippi's historically black colleges--decided to do whatever was necessary to preserve a local black institution.

So they routinely linger over lunch to talk louder than they can anywhere else about religion, sex, politics and race. Besides Thomas, the crowd consists of an airline pilot, a federal department head and Gertrude Young, the lone black member of the city council.

The pilot, Brady Tonth, finds escape and identity in the ritual give-and-take. He has lived in Vicksburg all his life, and he has no illusions about the status he feels he is accorded in society. He also has no plans to leave.

"In my environment, I'm around white people all the time, and I prefer to be with my people as much as I can," he said.

"See, in America, you're going to always be a nigger to white folks. I don't care how much money you make, how successful you are, where you are, what you do or how you do it. You gotta understand that."

*

The words are an afterthought on the cornerstone of the Vicksburg Courthouse: "Built by slave labor." Although no official histories credit him by name, a black man named John Jackson designed the building.

Tillman Whitley, a local high school teacher, is confounded by the fact that, in an area so rich with black history--and still full of people who lived it--a man like Jackson could be overlooked so easily.

He wants Jackson to get his proper credit. He wants it known that slaves laid the bricks in Vicksburg's quaint cobblestone streets.

Whitley's musings on that subject speak to the lasting dilemma of the black South.

"The contributions the slaves made are still evident here. But you can hardly find a thing mentioned about what black people have done. That is by design," he said.

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