Freedom Riders State has golden opportunity

Published 3:27 pm Friday, January 21, 2011

Mississippi has a golden opportunity. Now the state must seize it.

Beginning in May, ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders will commence. More than 100 of the original Freedom Riders are expected to visit Mississippi.

The civil rights activists came to the South 50 years ago to test the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw racial segregation.

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This year, they will encounter a much different place than the Mississippi of the 1960s, at least in the battle for race relations. Problems with relations still exist — and likely always will, on all fronts — but the Freedom Riders need to see what Mississippi has become, not stuck in what the Freedom Riders found 50 years ago: separate water fountains, separate schools, separate churches, separate everything. They found violence and hatred at most every corner. They found a state grappling with its past, refusing to move toward the future.

The impact the Freedom Riders had on this state can be seen every day. They arrived in 1961. Three years later, the Civil Rights Act was apprøved by Congress and, a year after, the Voting Rights Act was enacted. Schools slowly integrated, though special private schools were set up in an attempt to maintain segregation, but even many of those today are multiracial.

In those 50 years, Mississippi has progressed further in the area of race relations than any other state in America. Mississippi has more elected officials who are black, 950, than any other state in America, according to “Black Elected Officials: A Statistical Summary,” a report published in 2002 by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.

Still, progress is there to be made. Pockets of deep racism still exist in this state. But this is not a time to return to those dark days. This is a time to see how far everyone has come in the search for racial equality. This is a time for Mississippi to present itself as it should — not shying away from the past, but embracing those who came for change a half-century ago and return to see the product of those efforts.

Starting in May, the 100 Freedom Riders will see what those of us who live here already know — tremendous strides have been made, but the work must continue.