by Jeffrey Cavanaugh
ProBizMS Contributing Columnist
Yesterday, on my way home from a fine dinner of catfish and slaw at a local eatery, my wife and I passed the Starkville public high school. It is like many high schools in America, full of bright young people finishing up their studies, graduating, and hoping for a better future. Finals. Prom. Graduation. All are rites of passage that return again every year as spring blooms fully into summer.
This time, however, I noticed something. I noticed it not because it was unusual, sad, strange, or in any way out of the ordinary. Indeed, the very ordinariness of what I saw is what drew my attention for, you see, 57 years ago it would have likely ended with someone being killed – most likely a young person not at all unlike the bright young things graduating with so much hope and promise these past few days.
This ordinary spectacle consisted of two people. The first, dressed in white sporting attire and shouldering what looked to be a too-heavy back pack, was a lanky redhead in her late teens; a young woman entering adulthood on a warm day in May as so many of her Southern sisters had done before. At her side, equally lanky though much taller and more muscular, was an African-American teenager. Like her, he was carrying a backpack, dressed in sports attire, and clearly they were headed to the same destination.
Were they together? Were they friends? Were they an example of young love? Though I could not tell much from the brief glimpse of them I had from my car, I could detect what I thought might be the nervous inability to look at one another that a newly courting couple often takes up in public – especially young ones new to the arcane rites that turn friendship into love.
Or, maybe it was nothing at all. Just two people sharing the side of the road as they traveled to wherever it was they were headed.
57 years ago, though, the sight of a black man and a white woman together on the side of a road would have sparked murderous violence. The mere thought of interracial relations, except those where white men imposed their desires on black women through fear and force, was often enough to spark mob violence. Indeed, such violence led to the killing of a young man, not too much younger than the one I spied on my way home, for the nefarious act of merely talking to a white woman let alone trudging alongside her.
That young man, of course, was Emmet Till. Till’s brutal murder at the hands of racist terrorists helped to spark a movement that changed the country forever. Such is the change wrought in such a short period of time: not only do we have an African-American president who will likely be reelected in November, an impossibility to even comprehend at the time when young Till was killed, but the world was made safe for the two young people I passed on my way home from dinner. Unlike Emmet, they do not have to worry that hate-filled violence will interrupt their journey.
In my last several columns I noted how huge, seemingly inhuman forces and institutions often create disruptive change out of nowhere. Like gods out of ancient myth, they loom far above us and capriciously determine our fate. Very often they appear too powerful for mere individuals to challenge safely. Indeed, Till tried and was struck down for his arrogance by vengeful defenders of the status quo.
Institutions, though, are only as powerful as we make them. Even the most powerful fall when individuals decide, often slowly and tentatively at first and then in ever greater, determined numbers, that the status quo is not only undesirable, but also detestable and immoral. When this type of change occurs it does so blindingly fast and in a way that completely remakes what normal is defined to be. The young couple I passed was an impossibility 57 years ago. Today, they are unremarkable. They are so unremarkable that young people now cannot really comprehend what the past was like. Not because it is history, but because what that history describes is so alien and disgusting to their sentiments and lived experience.
The great Mississippi writer William Faulkner famously wrote “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” For decades this depressing adage from the Magnolia state’s most famous author captured the essence of change in the years after the end of the Civil Rights struggle. As the generation that bitterly contested Civil Rights passed the reins to their children in the 1980s and 1990s, Faulkner’s wit encapsulated how Mississippi, the South, and America thought, or rather didn’t think about, what had happened. Lurking underneath these immense changes were demons best left undisturbed for fear of what might emerge if awoken.
For the grandchildren of the Civil Rights era – a huge cohort of young adults ranging in age from their early thirties to late teens and commonly referred to as the Millennials in the same way their grandparents were referred to as the Boomers – the correct literary reference that captures their relationship with the Civil Rights era is that penned by British author L.P. Hartley. For them, the past is not only dead, but “a different country” altogether where unimaginable barbarisms, such as murdering young people for walking together, is one of the things uncivilized savages do in that backwards, benighted land known as the past.
So, as we turn the page from one generation to another take hope. Progress comes not as a result of grand plans, powerful institutions, or via inhuman forces. Rather, it comes in the simple act of two people deciding to walk together down a hot and dusty road. From our perspective, they may never reach Utopia. They are, however, likely to go by a Damascus or two. If we’re lucky, the pair I spotted from my car may even stop and rest at one for awhile.