The picture of the horrific mob that attacked the United States Capitol – encouraged by the President of the United States – will be the indelible after image of his presidency. There is irony in mob violence the same week in which the Democrats won the Senate and Georgia elected its first black Senator, the scholarly minister of Dr. Martin Luther King’s church. Among the underpinnings of the Trump presidency is a late growl of white supremacy as the demographics of the country change. The old still clings to power over the new but it gave way to change in Georgia.
Senators-elect Warnock and Ossoff won because Georgia grew and changed, and with the leadership of Stacey Abrams’ New Georgia Project and the African American community. The Georgia win also traces back to Mayor Maynard Jackson. Atlanta’s first African American Mayor, Jackson helped build Atlanta as a mecca for the black middle class by spurring minority contracting. He invested in the airport, creating tremendous growth for the whole region. ATL wasn’t always the biggest airport in the world. Maynard Jackson did that. And Atlanta grew and prospered and Georgia with it. That would happen in other southern states if they elected more people like Maynard Jackson.
The peaceful transition of power in Georgia this week is such a stark contrast to what happened in Washington.
Which brings me to Mississippi. Mississippi was majority black until the 1940s and now has a larger percent black population than any other state. It has also historically had the most concentrated racial violence in the country and even now seems to have the fewest progressive white people (although there are lots of progressive white people here, and strong and dedicated African American leaders).
If you are unclear how to reconcile those things, ask the mob. Like the Trump mob, there are too many white people in Mississippi who feel threatened by the notion that it might become a black state. So one of our two Senators and three out of our four members of the House voted not to certify a 7-million vote win by President-elect Biden. That same crowd, while crowing about voter fraud, approves of the state’s ongoing voter suppression techniques. Mississippi was the only state in the country that had no option for no-contact voting during the pandemic. We have among the worst schools and health care following a myth that investing in those things would somehow help the black minority more than the white majority.
So if I feel this way, why am I here? I love the state – the peace and quiet, the rural nature, the warm winters, and large parts of the culture, which is arguably rooted more in West Africa than Western Europe.
People here love southern food, including grits which have their origins in Native American hominy and West African fufu. Fried chicken has some claim to Scottish ancestry because the Scottish fried their chicken in fat but batter dipped fried chicken is West African. So are greens. Mississippi had “Birthplace of America’s Music” on its license plates for years, and it is: the rich traditions of gospel and blues music, often with West African syncopation; then combined with Appalachian hill country music (accompanied by banjos – a West African instrument) gave birth to rock and roll.
There are more extraordinary writers from Mississippi than most anywhere else – from Richard Wright, to William Faulkner; Eudora Welty to Jessmyn Ward. One reason is that the state gives them so much to write about but also the rich storytelling tradition of the South flourishes and it, too, has its roots in West Africa.
Mississippi is already black. But instead of Maynard Jackson, we have elected leaders who vote with the mob.
Demographics are on the side of progressive change in America – and in Mississippi. But demographics are not destiny. We have not seen the last of reactionary governance. Not all the people who voted for Trump are part of the white supremacist backlash – economic stagnation and the elitism of Democrats also contributed – but it could all happen again. Georgia is the hopeful sign. With a little help, other southern states will follow. And, like the poet said, America can be America again.