Monday, January 26, 2009

Micro-Progress: Mississippi Paper Apologizes for Civil Rights Neglect

Micro-Progress is a recurring theme here at Better Than Machines, highlighting local-level, "micro" stories of progressive activism and progressive triumphs. You can read more about Micro-Progress at "Introducing Micro-Progress." 

(I've been meaning to highlight this story for the last week but have been distracted by the inauguration hubbub.)

On January 18th, the newspaper in Meridian, Mississippi issued an apology for "largely ignoring" past civil rights issues, such as "the unfairness of segregated schools, buses, restaurants, washrooms, theaters and other public places." 

The final two paragraphs of the bold editorial:
We did it through omission, by not recording for our readers many of the most important civil rights activities that happened in our midst, including protests and sit-ins. That was wrong. We should have loudly protested segregation and the efforts to block voter registration of black East Mississippians.

Current management understands while we can't go back and undo some past wrongs, we can offer our sincere apology -- and promise never again to neglect our responsibility to inform you, our readers, about the human rights and dignity every individual is entitled to in America -- no matter their religion, their ethnic background or the color of their skin.
Across the Web, this story has been greeted with a mix of praise and cynicism. I'm in the former camp. It's true that justice delayed is justice denied. But it's also true that it's never too late to do the right thing. I guarantee that the words in that editorial are more radical in Mississippi than they are across the Internet and on your screen.

Look at the history of slavery across the south, at the suppression of civil rights, and at the continuing racial divide: Mississippi stands out as perhaps the state where racism runs deepest. It's also the state with the lowest median family income, the largest percentage of people below the poverty line, and the highest infant mortality rate. It's the second least educated state, has the highest teen pregnancy rate, and despite its size, ranks fourth in total number of people in privately-run prisons. Oh, and it's the state with the second most unequal income distribution. (statistics from www.statemaster.com)

The people of Mississippi have a tough road ahead of them. 

I think the Meridian Star is doing an honorable thing. And I hope they will do more than inform East Mississippians when human rights are being trampled. I hope they will begin revealing how the problems listed above are interconnected, that they will begin untangling those problems and reveal what I believe is at the center: an old, vicious social and political philosophy that is happy to make many people expendable if it benefits a few.

Here's a salute to the Meridian Star for confronting the past and, hopefully, beginning to untangle that knot. That is Micro-Progress in Mississippi.

10 comments:

Becky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Becky said...

I totally agree--those words are more radical in MS than many people probably realize.

It reminds me of how Kevin Rudd, the PM of Australia, fulfilled his campaign promise to apologize to aboriginal Australians for the wrongs done to them by white colonials. Just last year this happened, and there was a lot of opposition to it. What I mean is, there can be huge struggles behind simple-seeming words. Great post.

Sara said...

I'm with you: Positive step. Positive post!

Amy said...

Wow, that is pretty amazing. It's not as if anyone was calling publicly for that--the fact that they did it of their own volition--even decades late, is something.

And for Mississippi, that seems like a big deal to me.

Anonymous said...

It's been said that Obama's presidency has opened the opportunity for an honest dialogue on race, so here it goes. I would say that this is not progress at all. The newspaper's editorial was EASY. This was an attempt to allay white guilt at the paper. At a time when it's now totally en vogue to be OK with a black president, they did nothing more than say "hey everybody, we're not racist!" People, it's 2009-this statement is not radical to anyone. Let's not think that the Mississipi today is the same as in the 50s and 60s, so let's not hold them to expectations as if they are handicapped.
It's also always intrigued me how people apologize for decisions they did not make. Since we can assume that the educated and socially aware editorial writers are not vicious racists, it would seem that they are merely promoting the corporation that previously employed the at least passively racist writers from decades ago. I would consider it real progress if the paper used this opportunity to do much more proactive writing to advance justice issues for ALL people, not just in America as the article states. Does anyone know what their position on Gitmo has been? I've lost my train of thought so I'll stop here. BTW, I'm black.

Elizabeth said...

After reading this post, I poked around a little more on the Meridian Star website. I have to say, whatever micro-progress that might have been achieved in this letter (and I have to say, I don't really agree with the assessment that it's much progress), was completely wiped away as I read other editorials that claimed Sarah Palin was an "articulate Republican", "FDR's record was abysmal" and of course that Obama was really "the audacity of hype." While these lines were written by different authors, I just can't really believe that an apology about not covering news of civil rights work in the 60s really amounts to much. Will they also apologize to Vietnam vets because they shyed away from covering any of the atrocities of Vietnam or the protests of that? Or have they covered the recent work of our very oustanding Justice Department to use the Voting Rights Act of 1964 AGAINST black people (this happened just 2 years ago, actually)? An apology is fine but why haven't they, as you point out, discussed more the atrocity of poverty of the black community in Mississippi and Alabama (apparently the newspaper is for Meridian, MS and western Alabama as well).

Wow, that probably all sounds much harsher than I mean it to...I guess what I'm saying is that I just don't really think this amounts to much progress.

Becky said...

Yeah, I think it's not a surprise to find that the Meridian Star is not a progressive newspaper, though I was unclear from your comment, Liz, if the different pieces you saw were actual editorials or op-ed writers. And I think the original post said that they need to do more.

I just think, in response to both Liz and the anonymous commenter, that words aren't nothing. I think we can't exactly know the motivation behind the editorial apology. Probably it did allay some white guilt, maybe both at the paper and in the community. Maybe sometimes good things are done because someone feels guilty. I still think it's a good thing to have done. Words do matter, even long after the fact. Heck, it's "micro" progress.

Elizabeth said...

Yes, some of the articles were from the newspaper's staff, some were guest opinion pieces. One was from a guy who appears to write regularly (but I'm not sure who he is).

I think part of the problem is that I've become pretty jaded about words with no action...heck, I live in DC! If the Meridian Star does, in fact, make a change- reporting the things we've mentioned and Dave has mentioned, then I'll believe them. For now- to me at least- it's just...words.

Better Than Machines said...

I think we all agree that it would be even better if the paper began actively covering other, current social justice issues, which they basically promise to start doing. But I'd like to reiterate that this editorial is important and is "progress" in itself.

The way we interpret the past shapes our understanding of the present, which shapes what's possible for the future. The Meridian Star is shifting East Mississippi's/West Alabama's "mainstream" interpretation of the Civil Rights Era to the left. How many people do you think read the editorial and thought, "Hmm, the paper says they were complicit in suppressing basic rights for a whole group of people. How should this affect how I view the world today?" This is about shaping the public narrative of past and present--on civil rights issues, on media issues, etc. And that can indeed be radical.

I have no doubt that the paper's own self interest is a factor here--why wouldn't it be? "White guilt" may be a factor as well. That doesn't make it any less the right thing to do.

There are a thousand other editorials the paper could have written on that day (like the ones Liz quotes), but they chose this one. I'll take it.

Kate said...

Just have to point out the whole concept of "micro" progress. Dave is not saying that this small step is going to turn Mississippi racism upside down. He's saying that someone took a micro step toward justice and that should be applauded. I agree, this action should be applauded.