OUR OPINION: Learn from civil rights heroes while you still can

Published 4:00 am Friday, June 30, 2023

In the last month, Vicksburg has played host to two of the biggest civil rights heroes still alive today: Myrlie Evers Williams and James Meredith.

Both are in their 90s, and the fact of the matter is, the human condition dictates we might not have the benefit of their presence for much longer. Just the day after Meredith addressed a crowd gathered in Vicksburg, he suffered a fall in Jackson at a similar “Walk Against Crime” speaking engagement.

Thankfully, he was not seriously injured, but that stumble was a stark reminder that he, like many of his colleagues from Jim Crow-era Mississippi, is falling prey to the thief that is time.

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The home of Mississippi’s oldest NAACP Chapter, Vicksburg is lucky enough to be home to many people who lived through the atrocities of segregation, through Freedom Summer and events of targeted racial violence. If you ask your grandparents — or if you’re reading this and are of a certain age — you might even remember a time when it was all too common to have “Colored” and “White” water fountains.

Our younger generation lives under a veil. They have the unfortunate impression that, because photos of people being assaulted at lunch counters or beaten or otherwise terrorized are printed in history books in black and white, the events took place so long ago.

But we know better. We live in a city with buildings constructed by slave labor, where many of our elders graduated from segregated high schools or remember the birth of integration. And because of that, we have the benefit of knowing the events of 60 years ago are not that far removed from the world in which we now live.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but there is a call to action behind it: The people who lived through the civil rights movement have stories to share if we will only listen.

Much like the dwindling population of World War II veterans in our society, time will soon claim our civil rights heroes. It’s up to us, as their neighbors, their children, their grandchildren, to take time with them and ask questions.

The benefit of a primary source in relation to a historical event is as invaluable as it is finite.

As we take time with our families this weekend, ask someone you love about their lives in the civil rights era. Tell someone about your own experiences.

The more we learn about history, about our own personal connections to it, the less likely we are to repeat it — and the more likely we are to benefit.