By Zach Kwartler ’11
An assignment in my freshman writing seminar led me to spend the last two years teaching 11th-grade U.S. history at Holly Springs High School in the northwest corner of Mississippi. To try to make history come to life for my students, I showed them two black-and-white photographs of segregated classrooms from the 1940s. My class of 22 African-American students and one white student stared at the images with blank expressions. “That’s just like Holly Springs and Marshall Academy,” one of my students said, referring to the local public and private schools.
Everyone knows about Mississippi’s civil rights history and the progress that the state has made. In the past 50 years, Mississippi has overcome the violent integration of Ole Miss, the assassination of Medgar Evers, and the murder of three Northern civil rights activists during Freedom Summer. The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was based on the progress that Mississippi has made in the past 50 years. The Supreme Court is right. Our country has changed. But I find myself asking: “Have we changed enough?”
On the 50th anniversary of James Meredith’s integration of Ole Miss, I took my top U.S. history student to a speech by Harry Bellafonte at the University of Mississippi’s Gertrude Ford Auditorium. The program started with an address from Kimberly Dandridge, the first African-American student body president in the history of Ole Miss. Then, in his keynote address, Bellafonte described driving at midnight on a pitch-black road between Greenwood and Indianola in the 1960s, trailed by a KKK-controlled police car. Bellafonte said that he knew if he went one mile over the speed limit, he would be pulled over and at best would have to pay a large fine.