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Hanna Wellish '12, a student in the JBS Environmental Health and Justice Program, creates a short video about the students' work with Worcester Roots.
Civil Rights and Racial Justice in Mississippi
At a Glance
- Professor David Cunningham
- Summer 2011, May 31 - July 22, eight weeks
- 12 credits
- Location: Mississippi
- Program Flier
- Refer to "Quick Links" in the right sidebar for more information
This community-engaged JBS program will allow students to build on and extend Brandeis' distinguished history of involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. Students will spend eight weeks in Mississippi, learning and applying cutting-edge historical, theoretical, and methodological techniques to support a statewide grassroots racial justice effort focused on the legacy of the civil rights struggle in the state.
The program will be offered in collaboration with the University of Mississippi's William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation and the Mississippi Truth Project, a statewide grassroots initiative guided by the belief that 'a just and inclusive future can only be ensured by a comprehensive inquiry of the state's unjust and segregated past.' Students' work will aid Truth Project participants as they establish a statewide oral history project that provides a space for both victims and perpetrators to tell their stories and for the community generally to work toward racial justice and reconciliation.
Students will divide their time between classroom-based work and field
research in one of several community sites around the state. Working
collaboratively with each other and with local people, Brandeis
participants will have the unique opportunity to apply social
scientific frameworks to produce original knowledge about social
movements, community organization, and the reproduction of inequality.
In turn, these research products will contribute to a statewide
racial justice movement.
The Civil Rights Movement brought great change to Mississippi, which like the rest of the South had been using white supremacist “Jim Crow” customs and laws to maintain racial segregation into the 1960s. These segregationist practices not only separated white and black residents, but also ensured that the latter had access only to substandard housing, education, and health care. African-Americans were turned away from most desirable jobs, were more likely to be harassed than protected by police, and were not allowed to eat, shop, or gather in public and commercial spaces favored by whites. This way of life was often brutally enforced. Even within the South, Mississippi was well-known for its racially oppressive practices. Private groups like the Citizens’ Councils and the Ku Klux Klan intimidated anyone they deemed a threat to white supremacy. Government officials enabled and reinforced these actions, defying federal civil rights laws and establishing the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission to promote segregation and investigate and prevent civil rights activity.
While much has changed since the 1960s, the legacy of Mississippi’s racism remains evident. Neighborhoods and schools continue to be largely segregated – today, nearly half of the state’s black students attend schools that are less than ten percent white, and many white students continue to enroll in private academies originally established forty years ago to circumvent school desegregation orders. Racial inequity is evident in other institutions as well. African-Americans in Mississippi are more than four times as likely as their white counterparts to be incarcerated. The state’s black citizens are chronically underserved by the health care system – more than twice as likely as whites to be uninsured and to report that they are in poor health. Salaries of black high school graduates are, on average, 21 percent lower than whites with similar educational backgrounds. Black college graduates fair even worse, making 27 percent less than whites with a B.A. or B.S. degree.
To come to grips with this connection between past discrimination and present-day racial inequality, a range of initiatives have focused on the vestiges of segregation. Recently-reopened “cold cases” have led to the convictions of several former KKK members for past civil rights-related crimes. Civil rights history is now a mandatory part of Mississippi’s K-12 school curricula, thanks to the 2006 Civil Rights Education Bill. And initiatives like the Welcome Table promote “an era of dialogue on race,” by sponsoring a series of three-day retreats with community leaders to provide a foundation for participants to organize grassroots conversations and actions focused on racial justice.
Perhaps the most ambitious of these efforts is the Mississippi Truth Project. Guided by a belief that "a just and inclusive future can only be ensured by a comprehensive inquiry of the state's unjust and segregated past," project participants are working to establish a statewide oral history project that may culminate in a Mississippi-based Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Following in the footsteps of post-apartheid South Africa and more than two dozen other nations, the Truth Project is using collective community oral history gatherings, private interviews, and historical research to provide a space for both victims and perpetrators to tell their stories and for the community generally to work toward racial justice and reconciliation. Importantly, these efforts look forward as well as back. Connecting the dots between past discrimination and racial inequity in present-day Mississippi is how the Truth Project can, in the words of its organizers, "allow the state to constructively engage the confusion, division, and bitter feelings" that remain from earlier eras, to "shape an inclusive and equitable future."