In 1963, when I was a junior in high school, the late, great Nina Simone released a powerfully angry song called “Mississippi Goddam.” “The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam,” the song began, “And I mean every word of it.”
Here’s the last stanza:
You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
I visited Mississippi last week for the project I wrote about on October 24th.
I went to see Thousand Kites, a play about the spread of “supermax” prisons to economically depressed communities. A staged reading was offered at Jackson State College, a historically black state school that continues to suffer from underfunding in comparison with “Ole Miss,” the historically white University of Mississippi.
Audience response to the play (and the accompanying Up The Ridge documentary) was thrilling: everyone in the auditorium had a personal connection, current or past, to someone who had been directly affected by the prison-industrial complex; and everyone who commented said these works of art were accurate in their depiction of that system in spirit, essence and specifics. Everyone I met—students, participating artists, activists, teachers—cared passionately about justice, and no one seemed the least bit ready to give up in the face of discouragement.
One thing that sticks in my mind is the work of the Prevention of Schoolhouse-to-Jailhouse/Juvenile Justice Coalition, convened by the Mississippi ACLU and the Mississippi Youth Justice Project, itself a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Here are some of the facts the Coalition is facing:
Our children are shackled by poverty. In Mississippi*, 23.9% of schoolchildren live in poverty, and the ratio of African-American to white children living in poverty is approximately 3 to 1. In Mississippi, 64.2% of schoolchildren are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.
Our legislature is more focused on punishment than education. Annual per pupil spending is unequal, ranging from as low as $4,584 in Benoit County to as high as $9,979 in DeSoto. By comparison, the state spends between $35- and $50,000 each year to keep a child in training school. This is more than it costs to house an inmate at Parchman, the state’s maximum security prison.
Our children have become accustomed to official abuse. According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, 9.8% (48,627) of Mississippi schoolchildren were subjected to corporal punishment during the 1999-2000 school year– the highest rate in the country.
The state Department of Human Services Division of Youth Services reported 22,789 youth court proceedings in 2000 and 21,496 in 2001. Over 98.68% of the dispositions each year involved children between the ages of 10 and 18, which amounts to one disposition for every 17.60 children in that age group in 2000 and one for every 18.66 in 2001.
According to those same DYS reports, African-American children were involved in 62.71% of all reported dispositions in 2000 despite comprising only 44.61% of the relevant statewide population.
People in Jackson told me that the state’s approach to juvenile justice has been to criminalize children: when two kids get into a fight in the schoolyard, they said, that’s considered an assault. The police are called, and there’s a good chance one of both of the kids—especially if they are African American—will wind up in one of the “training schools” exposed in a 2003 Department of Justice report documenting abuses.
Due to the Coalition’s efforts, including class action suits, these institutions are beginning to be reformed. Indeed, Sheila Bedi and Ellen Reddy, co-directors of the Mississippi Youth Justice Project, were named “Heroes for Children” for their amazing work.
Mississippi isn’t a simple story. It has the highest number of African American elected officials in the nation. You have to sit back on your heels to imagine how Nina Simone might have greeted that news had she looked into her crystal ball 43 years ago and seen it coming. Yet today, no one is jumping for joy, because, although things have changed, sometimes (as a wise person once said), they keep changing to the same thing. Switching white officials for black ones doesn’t always transform policy.
In Jackson, for instance, gun-toting, police-patrolling, Terminator-style Mayor Frank Melton was indicted in September for burglary, malicious mischief, illegally carrying a gun and causing a minor to commit a felony. Melton was elected on an anti-crime platform and has made policing the city a personal priority, even as he has ignored other traditional mayoral roles, such as creating a city budget. One of his policies has been to impose a curfew on the homeless. Since Melton was elected, crime has increased 16%, according to leaked police reports. Leaders of the Mississippi ACLU and NAACP have spoken out, concerned that the mayor’s policies ride roughshod over civil liberties.
In 1963, to Nina Simone (and countless others who took part in the civil rights movement or merely read about it in the paper), the name “Mississippi” evoked oppression, as if its extreme expressions of racism somehow belonged to another culture. Treating Mississippi like an aberration implied that the rest of us were kinder, gentler, more enlightened.
You think? What about today? The contradictions I saw during my brief visit are present in every corner of this country. The lights were just turned up a little brighter, making them a tad easier to read. Back in my schooldays, kids were “tracked” by reading ability: the “robins” would be given a more challenging text (and perhaps more privileges) than the “bluebirds.” Today, in many states, children are being channeled onto the prison track, schoolyard spat to “training school” to penitentiary and throw away the key. One side evidently sees nothing wrong with becoming a punishment society, building prisons as fast as we can to lock up ever-larger numbers, most of them people of color. The other side is working tirelessly to convert punishment to care. From what I saw in Jackson, people like Bedi and Reddy may have fewer resources, but much more staying power and much more moral force.
To see our choices starkly, look to Mississippi, and look with hope.