Coming to Mississippi

From The Third Annual Gathering of Veterans
of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement 2008

By Alice Walker

I came to Mississippi in 1966. Forty-two years ago. I came alone. It was a time of blessed upheaval in the United States of America, as people of my parents’ generation, especially those of poor and working class backgrounds, held almost no hope that America could be anything but hostile to and oppressive of people of color. I came to join the Mississippi Freedom Movement to honor the dignity and tenacity of my sharecropper parents and grandparents, and even my great grandparents who had been enslaved to work on the same plantation where I was born. I came especially to honor a legendary 4-Greats grandmother, Mrs. Mary Poole, who lived to be 125 years old, and walked in a slave coffle from Virginia to Georgia, carrying two children. It is because of her that I kept the name assigned me at birth: Walker.

Almost immediately, across a table at Steven’s Kitchen, in the black section of Jackson, I met my future husband, a handsome Jewish law student. We were not supposed even to entertain the thought of living together, much less of marrying each other. We did get married, though, in 1967, defying the segregationist law that banned “miscegenation”: becoming the first legally married interracial inhabitants of Mississippi. Day and night my brave and brilliant husband handled the legal cases that dismantled Southern Jim Crow in Mississippi, specializing in integration of schools. His battered movement car had a bullet hole in the windshield; but he never let up. My role was to serve the children of Mississippi by joining Friends of the Children of Mississippi and by writing relevant history booklets for their teachers to use in the schools we set up. I was also writing a novel that explored the impact of brutal exploitation – the sharecropping system that replaced slavery – on the human beings who endured it: The Third Life of Grange Copeland. I also wrote Meridian, whose focus was the black Southern Movement itself and the people who – faithful and flawed, loving and tortured – brought it into flower. And, inevitably, perhaps, into decline.

I had come to Mississippi to offer whatever skills I had been educated to claim. Education in my rural community was highly prized; it was also hoped by the community that it would return some benefit to those who sacrificed for its attainment. The Children’s Defense Fund’s Marian Wright Edelman, for whom my future husband, Mel Leventhal, worked, gave me the opportunity to immediately put my own writing skills to use for the most dispossessed of the people; Leventhal and I headed directly into the Delta, to Greenwood, Mississippi, to take depositions from sharecroppers, exactly like my own parents of a generation earlier, who had been thrown off the plantations for attempting to exercise their “democratic” right to vote. In the process of gathering these depositions our own lives were placed in danger, a danger averted only by the watchful eyes of local black Mississippians who placed their own bodies between us and those who would do us harm.

It was my joy to also teach at both Tougaloo College and at Jackson State, where, at Jackson State, I was invited to take over the class of the amazing poet, Margaret Walker, author of Jubilee and For My People, when she took a leave of absence. At Tougaloo I taught literature and writing to students so brave and wise our class occasionally read each other’s poetry through tears. One of my students demonstrated for justice in Jackson in the morning, was jailed in the afternoon, terribly beaten and tortured during the night, and then returned to class two days later, bruised, battered, but with new poetry and no less enthusiasm for the struggle. His name was David Nall. Sometimes when I am very tired and I see the tattered state of our struggle for peace and justice globally, I think of him, and am refreshed.

I saw the best of human beings in Mississippi. They were black and they were white. They were young and they were old. They were women and they were men. They were children who sacrificed childhood so that future generations might enjoy it. Mississippi, in its vanguard position of struggle in the Southern Black Freedom Movement, was a fierce, challenging, loving, rage-ful mother and father to my spirit. My debt for what I learned of human courage and possibility can never be paid with less than my understanding that I must never – given our people’s beauty, endurance, trust in each other, and grace – give up.

Copyright © Alice Walker 2008