Mississippi of the Middle East

I’m just back from a road trip through Mississippi, which is commemorating the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, wherein hundreds of young people from around the country joined in an organized effort to help register African-Americans to vote. They put themselves between the hidebound conservatives determined to maintain a Jim Crow system of racial oppression, and a rising generation of African-Americans not willing to take it anymore. Fifty years ago, with the Civil Rights Act pushed through Congress by Lyndon B. Johnson, compromise was reached, a path was determined, and progress was made. It is illuminating to see how that change has played out down the road.

Mississippi is poor, and its capital, Jackson, looks terrible. Farish Street, the historic center of the black musical scene (think Beale Street in Memphis, Bourbon Street in New Orleans), is crumbling brick, thigh-high weeds, deserted businesses, abandoned hopes. Post-apocalyptic is about right. Nonetheless the music scene elsewhere in Jackson thrives. The house band for Blue Monday at Hal & Mal’s downtown still rocks; they are genius career musicians, and they make room for rising young talent as well. It’s the kind of bar where you end up hugging everyone who walks through the door, black, white, Muslim, Christian, famous, ignorant, and totally wasted. In many places, Mississippi has reinvented tolerance.

I arrived home to the latest episode of tragedy in Israel, of two sides so entrenched in their prejudice that they prefer murder to negotiation. The comparison arises naturally, as the language from Israel is exactly that of Mississippi 50 years ago. “They” can’t be trusted, “they” are out to get us, “they” will destroy “our” culture. The definition of racism is declaring an entire people, based on their ethnicity and birthright, as evil, and that is what the Israelis have done to the Palestinians, and the Palestinians have done to the Israelis. I know there are people on both sides who don’t buy into the paradigm, and I hear that they are working for change.

In Mississippi, it was the murder of a child that sparked the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks said that when she sat on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she thought about Emmett Till, and took courage from his refusal to cower to hate. Then there were the children of Birmingham, and Martin Luther King, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and all the people who stood up and said, No more. Emmett Till’s mother went on a nationwide tour telling about his death, and the acquittal of his murderers, in Mississippi. The White House, the FBI, the Citizens Councils and Sovereignty Commissions called her a communist, trying to stir up agitation.

Fifty years later, in Israel, the men in power call each other terrorists, and speak of vengeance. It is ugly, it is devastating, and parents weep on both sides, while power thinks more guns, more violence, more segregation and more oppression is the solution. There comes a time when a society has to stand up and say, No more. William Faulkner, upon the news of Emmett Till’s death, wrote: “If we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.”

Hate is a dead end where everybody loses. Even Mississippi got that. When will Israel?