Mississippi: A Love Letter

Happy 200th Birthday, Mississippi! On this date in 1817, you became the 20th state to be admitted to the Union. It has been a long trip to get to where we are today, hasn’t it? We all got together and bought you a couple of presents; you can find a couple of gleaming new museums in downtown Jackson.

You are a special place to me. You’ve wrapped your tendrils around my heart like the fast-growing kudzu, and have become as much a part of me as I am a part of you. I wasn’t born here, but you welcomed me as a child and you’ve been my home ever since. Five decades of living as one of your children have taught me to love you.

I love your natural beauty, from the rocky hills of the northeast to the hardwood thickets of the southwest, from the sandy beaches of the southeast to the deep, rich soil of the Delta. I love your tall pines and your stately oaks, your deep rivers and creeks, and your web of natural life, tenacious and strong. Driving your meandering country roads is like passing through a green, arboreal tunnel; paddling down one of your wild rivers feels like stepping back in time.

And how I love your people! They come in every hue, from every corner of the world, and are of an endless variety. Some of them have known you a lot longer than I; the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez lived off your bounty long before our forefathers dreamed of coming here. Some of us descend from people brought here against their will as slaves or indentured servants, while others came here looking for a new start, to carve a life out of your abundance.

My daddy, my grandfathers, and generations before them plowed your rich reddish-brown earth, and you gave them a sustaining abundance as a reward of cotton, of corn, of potatoes and every vegetable. My mother, grandmothers, and generations of women before them learned to provide for their families and carry on strong family traditions. My ancestors recognized God as the provider of everything, and they passed on that same sustaining faith to future generations.

Your people are special and unique. I admire their grit and determination, their faith, their hospitality, courage, deep feelings and willingness to help a neighbor.

You also gave your people something else: a creative spark or abilities passed on from the Creator himself. Perhaps you passed it to them through the whisper of the pines or delivered it on the mournful wind as they drove through a lonely, flat Delta landscape. Possibly it was in embedded in the song of a mockingbird or carried on the sweet whiff of a magnolia blossom or Cape Jessamine. Or maybe it was when their lips touched the clear, cool waters of a spring, bubbling out of the sandy ground. It seems you’re very generous with that gift of creativity. Your people have carried footballs and typewriters, platinum records, Nobels, gold medals, Emmys, and Oscars. They’ve helped the world know you a little better, and maybe learn a little about themselves, too.

I’d like to be able to look back and say the past 200 years have been easy, but they haven’t. In battlefields large and small, the blood and bones of thousands are mixed with the soil, spilled as armies marched and cities burned. Though the cannons lie silent today, we can still hear their booming, nightmarish echoes if we listen on the hallowed battlefield, mingled with the haunting screams of the wounded and dying. Although 15 decades have passed, it’s something we just can’t forget. The cruelty of that war and its torturous aftermath still reverberate through the field and forest, bearing witness to unimaginable crimes and murderous injustices. Many of those are now forgotten by everyone except you; you remember it all.

We’re trying, but sometimes we don’t get it right or do right by each other. Sometimes, we own the bad press we get. For many of your children just a generation ago, it was a constant battle just to be heard, to be treated fairly, to put food on the table, to vote, to be free. The sad legacy still haunts us today, as it does our brothers and sisters across this nation. Perhaps that’s the most painful sting of all. I hope we have learned from that past, though, and many of us are trying put it behind us.

The world seems to misunderstand you, maybe even hate you and us. I defend you often, and sometimes I get a little too sensitive. Sometimes, on a plane or around a table, when people find out where I’m from, I see the looks, the furtive glances. I know they don’t mean anything by it, but sometimes, it upsets me. I get my back up when I hear people try to tear you down or repeat ignorant labels learned through movies made by people who don’t know you very well. I guess I want to defend you because I am one of yours. I think I’m not alone in that; we instinctively defend those we love.

I still believe, though, that once people get here and see you, and taste your food, hear your music and get to know your people, they will come to love you for the same reasons I do.

Maybe they’ll stroll around a picturesque town square, or walk through the fort at Ship Island, or catch a football game on a crisp October afternoon. Perhaps they’ll sit on a grassy bluff at Vicksburg and watch a string of barges ply the meandering Ole’ Muddy, or have dinner on the ground at an old country church. Perhaps they’ll weep as they visit the museums and hear about Emmett Till or Medgar Evers, or learn about the Choctaw Trail of Tears. Maybe they’ll follow in Elvis’ footsteps, or stay in a Delta shack for the night, after getting full at Doe’s. Maybe they’ll bag a turkey, or catch a big bass in the Res. Maybe they’ll find their tension relieved as they wind down the tranquil Natchez Trace, and learn a little about the history of this amazing place. In the middle of all that, maybe they’ll reconsider an opinion they had before, or think about how great a place this would be to raise a family.

I know what you’re thinking; that makes me a bit of a romantic or a little naïve. I don’t know, you may be right. But there is something about you that makes people want to stay, and raise their kids here. You feel like home. Those who really get to know you, are the ones who love you. Many have come here just to visit and found themselves wanting to stay…forever.

I don’t know what the future will be like for you and for us. But I do believe that God made something special when he brought us all together here, on the bank of the river that gave you its name.

So, Mississippi, relish your 200th birthday! We who love you, give our thanks to God for making us Mississippians; for you are a special place.


October: the month for …everything

via Moak: Oct. is the month for everything, clarionledger.com, 10/26/2015

Did you know Oct. 19 was National Seafood Bisque Day? That’s right; on this solemn occasion, we paid well-deserved homage to this amazing soup, and its contributions to Western Civilization. Seafood bisque fanciers were encouraged to go out, order a bowl of seafood bisque, and think of the shrimp, crabs, lobsters and other assorted crustaceans who gave their all so we could savor the creamy goodness of a well-prepared bisque.

Now, before all you seafood chefs, restaurateurs and soup aficionados send me nasty emails (worse yet, recipes…), please let me get to my point: For just about every cause known to man, there is a month, or week, or day to celebrate it. And there is no month that is more chock-full of observances than October. The site nationaldaycalendar.com lists no fewer than 111 known designations for the month of October. And that’s just the month; there an additional 60 designations for various weeks during October, and each day of the month has at least one — some have as many as 10 — designated events.

Of course, we all know the biggest of the October observances is Breast Cancer Awareness month. (For anybody who’s been living under a rock the past few weeks, that explains why everything from the White House to the shoes of NFL linemen is suddenly Pepto-pink.) But of course, Breast Cancer Awareness— as serious a topic as it is — doesn’t hold exclusive reign on the month of October. Many (AIDS, Down Syndrome, Domestic Violence, to name a few) are serious; others are a little tongue-in-cheek. There is Feral Hog Month, International Starman month (yes, apparently in honor of the 1984 movie and subsequent TV series); National Cookie Month (love that one); and — strangely enough — both Positive Attitude Month and National Sarcastic Awareness Month.

October’s commemorative days and weeks are many, although some are a little difficult to verify. There is “Chucky the Notorious Killer Doll Day” on Oct. 25; National Fluffernutter Day (Oct. 8; named in honor of a marshmallow dessert); National Brandied Fruit Day (Oct. 20); and — not to be outdone by the hogs — National Feral Cat Day on Oct. 16.

So, since apparently anyone can create a day, week or month to observe anything (and since there is not currently a National Mississippi-is-Awesome Day), let’s spend a few minutes coming up with some just for us denizens of the state we lovingly call home. Here are a few ideas:

  • Confuse a condescending Yankee Month: This observance would codify a long and proud tradition of Mississippians who travel anywhere outside the South. You are sitting at a restaurant or hotel lobby with a group of people from around the nation, and when they hear your Southern accent or find out you’re from Mississippi, they either ask you to talk for them, or give that quick “I am going to look to see if you’re wearing shoes” look. (You know that look; they can’t help themselves.) This month would allow Mississippians to suspend our normal, kindly “Bless your heart” forbearance our mamas taught us and encourage us to comically exaggerate our Southern accent, or to look at them blankly and say in our deepest, most nasal twang, “Dang it; I wish somebody had told me about this ‘shoe’ thing before now!” Then, sit back and observe the ensuing chaos with a bemused expression.
  • Turn Signal Awareness Week: Either Mississippi’s educational system has utterly failed to educate drivers about how to use that little lever on the left side of the steering column, or the devices disappear from the observable universe once the driver closes the door. Whatever the cause of what I’ll call “turn-signal blindness,” it’s obviously reached epidemic proportions and needs immediate remedy and awareness. (A sister malady called “turn signal deafness” is manifest when you’re going down I-55 in the left lane and the left-turn signal is flashing determinedly, signifying your intention to go around the world to the left.) It could be that both of these illnesses are incurable, but we at least have to try.
  • Make-Your-Own-Music-Trail Week: It should be obvious by now that every highway, street and honky-tonk in Mississippi merits inclusion on some “trail” or other. We have the Blues Trail, the Country Music Trail, etc., and I have it on good authority that more are planned. Since German tourists are just itching to see where Robert Johnson once trimmed his fingernails as he sat on his guitar case, gazing at the desolate Delta landscape, or where Tammy Wynette got her wisdom teeth out while she fumed at George, let’s keep it rolling. During this special week, Mississippians would be urged to look around and mark the places of special musical significance. For example, the church where their granddaddy learned to sing from a shape-note hymnal, the local honky-tonk that mysteriously burned one Saturday night, or the place where Elvis had a flat tire. Once you’ve identified at least two sites, you can create signs for the Bogue Chitto Country/Gospel/Blues/Hip-hop Trail (for example), then sit back and watch the Dutch tourists roll in.
  • Hug-a-Traffic-Barrel Day: Those ubiquitous orange-and-white barrels have become such a part of the landscape here in Mississippi that they have taken on something of a personality. Our love-hate relationship with these harbingers of danger has become the stuff of legend, but it’s obvious these little reflective guys don’t get enough love. So many are scraped, dented and battered, having to sit all day in the hot Mississippi sun. On this special day, drivers would be urged to find a traffic barrel (away from a construction site, of course; don’t be stupid) and give it a big bear hug to show that we really appreciate them in all their gaudy, plastic glory, and if we happen to catch one with our bumper, we’re sorry.
  • Let-the-Landmass-Go Week: Back in 2012, as The Weather Channel was discussing the impending arrival of Hurricane Isaac, many people said they heard Mississippi referred to as the “landmass” between New Orleans and Mobile. Many of us subsequently became offended at this obvious dis from the folks who should know better; after all, they can tell us (with pinpoint accuracy) that the tornado is going to hit the west side of Main Street, not the east. The event exploded on local social media outlets, even spawning a Facebook page and goading Mississippi native Shepard Smith of Fox News into chastising The Weather Channel on the air. Since then, some have argued they saw and heard the event; other say it never happened. Regardless, maybe it’s time to let bygones be bygones. This week would allow Mississippians to finally forgive the Weather Channel (remembering the brave-yet-foolhardy Jim Cantore standing in storm surge during Katrina).  As Mark Twain observed, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Could it be time to let it go?

These are just a few suggestions; I’d bet you have more. And, for the record, I love a good seafood bisque.

Mississippi’s Complicated

The past is never dead; it’s not even past. – William Faulkner, in Requiem for a Nun

The flag debate of the past few days has stirred the proverbial pot in ways few others could. A healthy, honest debate is always good, but can quickly get nasty if people make assumptions about each other’s motives.

Mississippi is a complicated place, and anyone who was raised here knows that issues around race relations go much deeper than they seem. Nearly every family with Mississippi roots has stories which hint at shared history with the family of a different color just over the hill. Some are positive, some not so much.

In my family, one particular story is that my great-grandfather (who fought for the Confederacy) stood up to the Klan to protect a family of black sharecroppers. Other stories tell of white families owing their very lives to the help provided by black neighbors, of families sharing their produce to help them survive brutal winters, of black and white children growing up together, etc. You don’t hear much about these things in the popular media, but the stories persist in Mississippi – and I suspect in the larger South as well. And I suspect that at least some of them are true.

There is one inescapable truth that must be faced: the past bore its share of injustices, the legacies of which are being felt to this day.

The last few days have seen a lot of people trying to point out why the Civil War was fought in the first place. It’s as if the war is still being fought. Battle lines are drawn; positions established and fortified; aggressors muster to march and take the heavily-defended hill; casualties mount. It seems to matter little that 15 decades have passed since that fateful meeting at the Appomattox Courthouse which brought the war to an end (April 9 marked the sesquicentennial). That day marked the beginning of Reconstruction, in which the once-proud South was humbled in an era of soul-sucking poverty.

The dreams of black parents for their children to have a brighter future had been sown, but those dreams crashed headlong into the bleak reality of the place and time. Most Southerners — regardless of their color — could only look forward to decades of poverty and hopelessness. Some white Southerners turned their anger and resentment on the former slaves and on the government; most just tried the best they could to feed their families. But through it all, life went on. Babies were born; hope for a brighter future was renewed with each newborn cry. And the complex relationships that grew out of that period of shared pain are still evident today.

But here we are in 2015, and the war still rages while the rest of the world rolls its collective eyes. It’s happened before, and will again. But this time, something was different; what ripped open the old wound this time were the shocking actions of a deranged kid in whose heart the seeds of hate were planted, and then which blossomed into a spasm of indescribable atrocity against people in the house of God.

Any issue which pokes the bear of Mississippi race relations is bound to get a visceral reaction from the people who live here (regardless of their skin color). In the past couple of days, I’ve seen a lot of social-media nastiness, and ascription of motives that may or may not exist. Some of those who advocate for changing the flag accuse those who want to keep the flag (or consider the issue settled) of racial motives, backward thinking or even outright hatred. Some of those who want to keep the current flag accuse those advocating for change of trying to commit cultural genocide, caving to political pressures of the day, or even being part of some Machiavellian plot to destroy Western Civilization. Logic suggests the truth may be somewhere between.

Because I love Mississippi and have deep roots in her red soil, these events bring me pain. The rest of the world shows its ignorance of the real Mississippi I know and love every time they bring out those worn-out Hollywood clichés, but those of us who actually live here know how shallow they are. Every time I see one of these, I laugh a little inside because the joke’s on them, but I cry a little inside because it hurts a place I love and maybe it stings because it contains a kernel of truth.

Back in 2010, I sensed that the flag issue would one day come up again, and it got me thinking. If the flag did change, would we want it to be decided by outsiders, or even the politicians we’ve elected? And if so, what would be the result? Would it be a flag that bore no ties the past which is at once vilified and glorified (in both cases, often justifiably)?  Would it be a symbol devoid of meaning, so steeped in inoffensive content that no one cares? Looking back in Mississippi history, I found an option: The Magnolia Flag. (Google it.) Just maybe, I thought, instead of crashing the plane in a spasm of change-for-the-sake-of-change (which in the end benefits no one), what if we were able to control the descent, so what we ended up with was something that all Mississippians could embrace? If the flag is to change, shouldn’t it be to something we can stand behind? Perhaps we could take the Magnolia Flag, with its white background and “Bonnie Blue” star, and add something else, to represent our future? What if we got our kids to make the decision? That’s how Alaska got its beautiful “Big-Dipper” flag, after a 1926 contest in what was then the Alaska Territory.

So, my fellow Mississippians, what say you? Could we back up a little and think before we ascribe motives?  If you support changing the flag, before you dig your heels in and assume that people don’t want the flag changed because of racism, could you consider that perhaps people are acting out of an ancient independent streak, don’t like being told what to do and see this as part of a continuing attack on — and erosion of — personal freedom and culture? If you support keeping the flag, before you dig your heels in and pour cement around your feet, could you stop and think about how the main thing that makes Mississippi such a special place is the way we care about and for each other? Could you give your fellow Mississippians the benefit of the doubt and consider that they may be trying to help our state grow and prosper?

The Mississippi I know is more than a “landmass” between Alabama and Louisiana; more than a series of past events; more than others believe us to be. We’re three million people sharing 48,434 square miles of land, each with our hopes, fears and dreams for our children. Our ancestral roots may be in Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America, or right here in North America. (It’s likely that most us are a combination of those.) In a way, we bear the heart and soul of America. (It’s no coincidence that Mississippi is the “Birthplace of America’s Music”.) That’s a special legacy. But in the days to come, if we’re not careful, we could lose something we can’t afford to lose. That would be a tragedy indeed.

Technology helps link you to local produce

via Technology helps link you to local produce on clarionledger.com, 8/5/2014

One of the great things about living in a mostly-rural state like Mississippi is that it’s pretty easy to find healthy foods, grown by local farmers. Many farmers just set up a shop from the back of their truck on a roadside or parking lot, farm stands are popping up everywhere, and many cities are hosting their own farmers markets.

Of course, farmers markets are nothing new; the practice of bringing locally-produced goods to sell in one place is just about as old as civilization itself. What’s changed is the fact that — as with most other businesses — technology brings powerful new tools to help people find just what they’re seeking. With the emphasis on healthier eating, the need to support local farmers and rising food costs, this is an ideal time for technology to come to the aid of consumers looking for local options.

Recently, as part of National Farmer’s Market Week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a series of measures to make it easier to find locally-grown foods and highlight the role of farmer’s markets. The USDA announced over the weekend that the agency’s National Farmers Market Directory now lists 8,268 markets, an increase of 76 percent since 2008.

And here in Mississippi, consumers can easily link up with Mississippi’s 86 farmers markets, thanks to a new mobile app from the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. The app (built by Mississippi company bfac.com) can be downloaded at http://www.mdac.state.ms.us/OnlineServices/ma_farmersmarket.asp. It shows the farmers markets on a map, and taps into your device’s navigation features. The app also allows you to see events at the big Mississippi Farmers Market, link to the “What’s Fresh” market bulletin and more.

“Good health starts with having access to healthy food,” noted Mississippi Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith. “Mississippi is fortunate to have 86 farmers markets, and these farmers markets provide consumers with increased access to fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables. Today’s technology allows consumers to easily make a connection with Mississippi- grown products and the farmers who grow and sell them. All of this information is available right at the consumers’ fingertips.”

According to USDA’s 2014 National Farmers Market Directory, the states with the most farmers markets reported are California (764 markets), New York (638 markets) and Michigan (339 markets). All geographic regions saw increases in their market listings, with the most growth here in the South.”

The numbers reflect the continued importance of farmers markets to American agriculture,” noted Anne Alonzo, administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). “Since its inception, the directory has proven to be a valuable tool for accessing up-to-date information about local farmers markets. Farmers markets play an extremely important role for both farmers and consumers. They bring urban and rural communities together while creating economic growth and increasing access to fresh, healthy foods.”

The directory provides information about U.S. farmer’s market locations, directions, operating times, product offerings, and much more.

The data is collected via voluntary self-reporting by operating farmer’s market managers and is searchable by zip code, product mix, and other criteria. I decided to check out the USDA’s search feature, which allows you to search from a radius around a particular zip code.

Entering 39205, specifying a search area of 200 miles and selecting Mississippi only, I found 80 markets, ranging (in distance) from the Mississippi Farmer’s Market in Jackson to the Bear Creek Farmers Market in Belmont. In some cases, a website link was available, but still needs some work, as an extra apostrophe requires a couple of extra clicks to access the site.

Widening the search to include non-Mississippi markets brings up 202 results, from Mississippi and all the surrounding states. Search services abound. One service, Agrilicious (agrilicious.org), returned 39 results for a similar search, and the popular Eat Well Guide delivered results for 80 farmers markets, plus a lot of other options, such as “U Pick farms”, nonprofit organizations and restaurants.

In addition to the directory, the USDA is trying to increase visibility of Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) efforts, which allow you to pay upfront for locally-grown produce. The money is used to buy seed, fertilizer and other necessities. An example is Steede Farms in Lucedale, which started a CSA operation in 2010.

There are many more options, including local stores, so a quick Google search or a visit around town is a good way to find what you’re looking for fast. With so many options expanding, this should be the golden age of locally-produced food. Technology provides enticing new ways to solve the age-old problem of linking the buyer with the seller, so let’s eat!

Miss Lubertha

Many years ago at Christmas, my Mom took me to visit Miss Lubertha Porter. A frail African-American lady in her nineties, Miss Lubertha huddled near an old wood-burning stove to ward off the cold of a Mississippi December. She greeted us warmly and we all exchanged hugs as we presented her with a pecan pie and other leftovers from a school Christmas party. Her eyes danced as she greeted us, belying the frailty of her aging body. The house was ramshackle, and looked to be in danger of falling in at any moment. The warmth provided by the old stove was limited to one room of the creaky old structure, and Miss Lubertha was covered in quilts. An ancient King James Bible lay nearby, its pages yellowed and tattered from decades of daily use.

We stayed a few minutes, as my Mom and Miss Lubertha reminisced about things that had happened 50 or 60 years before. As the memories swirled around, they seemed to take the remaining cold from the room.

Miss Lubertha was actually not a “Miss” at all, having survived a husband who passed on many years before. Her children and grandchildren lived in houses of various ages and states of upkeep around her on a piece of land that had been in their family for generations, adjoining our own ancestral property. An educator, Miss Lubertha had taught untold numbers of children, in the process helping create more generations of teachers. In those days, Miss Lubertha and other African-American educators had to teach in a separate school from the whites-only schools. They had to make do with what they could; everyone was poor, but the “black” schools were given even less. Somehow, though, they managed to teach and guide generations of young people. My mom, her parents and numerous aunts had also devoted their lives to education of the youth; it was just another thing our families had in common.

The old matriarch was beloved to our family, with family ties going back into the misty past. Going to see her was like a rite of passage, paying homage to a lady who had lived her life with dignity and purpose, and to a connectedness that transcended the differences of race, age and culture. As I looked around the small house, I noticed a scarcity of furnishings: an old iron bedstead, a creaky table and chairs and three framed pictures on the wall: one of Jesus, one of Martin Luther King, and one of John F. Kennedy. Those pictures were arranged neatly on the wall, over a small end table containing candles and an aging, but lovingly framed, photo of a handsome young man in military uniform.

As we got back into the car for the short trip back home, I thought about Miss Lubertha and those framed pictures on the wall. For all of the things she did not have, Miss Lubertha must have considered these important. Of course, I got why Jesus would be represented: A strong Christian woman, Miss Lubertha made it clear whom she served. Our house also had a portrait of Christ, for similar reasons. Dr. King was obvious as well; his inspirational leadership and tragic death helped galvanize the civil rights movement. But why JFK?

As the years progressed, I began to understand. JFK was to her, as he is to many black people, a symbol not only of the tragedy of lost hope, but also of the shining light of promise. Cut down in his prime, and perceived to be at the forefront of the civil rights struggle as he took on an entrenched establishment, Kennedy was a symbolic and tragic torchbearer. Whether you agreed with his politics or not, and regardless of what revelations history makes, he will no doubt remain an iconic figure.

Today, I don’t know if such shrines can still be found in African-American households. But if they do, there may be a picture of President Barack Obama among them.

After the election of 2008, many white people in America seemed stunned at the results. Obama’s initial election — and phenomenal support among African-Americans — wasn’t really the surprising thing; after all, he is a man with some African ancestry, and his message of hope and change was refreshing to many in a war-weary land. No, the surprise was the mandate he seemed to have, and from a surprising number of people ostensibly in the political center. However, when Obama was re-elected in 2012 after a first-term which disappointed many supporters, many were still scratching their heads. Black support still seemed to remain, immutable and steadfast as ever before.

So what aren’t we getting? What is it about Obama that makes him the new Teflon president (or is he)? Miss Lubertha’s wall display provides some of the answer; still, it’s complicated.

White people make a lot of assumptions, many of which are likely wrong. Having lived as a white person for more than half a century, I confess I don’t know what it’s like to be black and I never will. But (that being said) I do understand that there is a whole lot of iceberg under the surface attitudes that make us all human. If we are to seek “first to understand,” as Covey says, “then to be understood”, we need to start with examining our own assumptions.

To help explain the phenomenon that is Barack Obama, it’s important to understand the context of his rise to power and election. President Obama is revered among many African-Americans, but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. Among the African-American community, Obama is not believed to be perfect, or even close. Many people voted for him not because of the political positions he took, or the fact that he gives a good speech, or his political prowess. No, they voted for him (many twice) because he is a torchbearer, who represents a coming-of-age of the promise that anything is possible.

For most of the 239 years since the Declaration of Independence, most black people lived as second-class citizens. Little black kids might have dreamed big, only to have those dreams cruelly dashed against the rocks of a harsh reality. But here is proof of the promise that black parents told their kids as they tucked them into bed: “one day, a man who looks like us will sit in the White House.” Now, that wall has tumbled down. And though the achievement can be rightly laid claim to by legions of civil rights pioneers, not the man himself, Barack Obama will forever be the Joshua who led the way through the fallen wall of Jericho.

Many white people think the civil rights struggle is over. It’s easy to think this way; of course, the world of 2015 is light-years removed from that of 1962; a statue of James Meredith now stands near the center of the Ole Miss campus, as he prepares to walk under an arch labeled “courage”. As a Southerner, I’m proud of that. We have come a long way; sometimes, I get the impression that much of the rest of America lags behind. But…every time a Dylan Roof or Michael Brown exposes America’s racial fault lines, it reinforces the notion that racism is still lurking in the shadows of America. These events will continue to pluck at the scab, preventing healing from taking place.

Society seems to have removed many of the obstacles that once kept minorities from achieving whatever dreams they dared to dream. Certainly, there are many more opportunities open to people of color; but often they go unclaimed. I suspect this has a lot more to do with economics rather than race, but I could be wrong. Still, many black people of all ages have felt the sting of subtle racism: the sounds of car doors locking at intersections, being stopped for “driving while black”, and overzealous patronization, to name just a few examples. Hypersensitivity? Perhaps; but when it’s you, perhaps not.

There are many other assumptions whites have about blacks, and vice versa. If we are to understand each other and move forward, we must deal with them. The fact is that our world is much changed from that of our parents and grandparents. Science has torn away the veneer from the very notion of “race” itself, in the process revealing that we are much more alike than we are different. We now stand at a crossroads which may well determine all our futures.

Miss Lubertha died in 2002, just six days shy of her 100th birthday. Her legacies are the young hearts and minds she helped nurture and develop, and the lasting brush strokes she left on the canvas of lives around her. I, for one, am sad she’s gone, although I know she rests in the arms of her precious Jesus.

Last year, I attended the 175th anniversary of a church very near the places I described early in this piece. Some of the old church records had been retained and kept lovingly all that time. Among the notes was a piece of information that surprised me: when the church was first founded in 1837, it was open to all, regardless of race or status. Among its members were a number of black families. That fact was noted without comment, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. This truth stands: the ties forged during that difficult time have transcended the years.

There were no “black” churches or “white” churches back then, as there are today. Slavery was a fact of life, Mississippi was largely wilderness inhabited by native tribes, and life was no doubt brutal for those hardy souls trying to tame it — whatever their race. There is, however, also little doubt there was a lot of cooperation in the struggle to survive the harsh frontier world. At the church — the cultural and social center of the community — they apparently understood something we seem to have forgotten: we all look the same to God.

Hmmmm…sounds like a good place to start.