He stands at the southern edge of the square in downtown Oxford, Miss. Below the stone figure of the soldier, these words are engraved: “In memory of the patriotism of the Confederate soldiers of Lafayette County, Mississippi. They gave their lives in a just and holy cause. Erected 1907.”
I viewed this statue from the perspective of a “Yankee,” a student in an English class on a field trip to Mississippi to study Faulkner. Not one student in the class was from the South. It was not the Confederate monument itself that gave me pause so much as did the words “just and holy.” As a Northerner, it is difficult for me to associate the Civil War-era Confederacy with these descriptors. By the end of this trip, I realized my visit to the South was worth it, just to see how the South could construe the cause as “just and holy.” And I don’t think I’m the only one who would benefit from exposure to this particular region.
In The Catalyst’s recent article on my class’s field trip, it was written that “many of the students in the class have argued that the trip to Mississippi is one that a lot of CC students should, and even need, to take.” That which CC students “need” from this experience is an examination of our own prejudices. The dominant prejudice of my well-educated, collegiate demographic is that we are intolerant of intolerance. We are steadfast in our belief that we should at least try to find within ourselves some level of sympathy and understanding for those of different backgrounds. So when we notice in others either an inability to do so or, in extreme cases, a predilection toward hateful speech and actions, we somehow forget our doctrine of tolerance, and we struggle not to act with hate ourselves.
Coincidentally, while we were in Mississippi, The New York Times published an article entitled “What Mississippi Taught Bobby Kennedy About Poverty.” Born and raised in the North, even Senator Robert Kennedy’s studies at the University of Virginia could not have prepared him for what he saw he saw in the Deep South. 50 years ago he visited to observe the progress of War on Poverty programs. He found himself shocked at the wrenching sight of a one-year-old boy seeking crumbs of cornbread to eat off his kitchen floor. Larry Tye, in his book “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon,” recreates a dialogue from Kennedy’s visit to Mississippi: “‘What did you have for breakfast?’ Bobby asked a young boy. ‘Molasses.’ he said. ‘For supper?’ ‘Molasses.’ ‘For lunch?’ ‘Don’t have no lunch.’”
Both Tye and The New York Times present Kennedy’s visit as one which catapulted several precursors for programs of today, including Delta Health Alliance and the Sunflower County Freedom Project among others. But, even so, these programs are not enough. The truth about certain areas of the Deep South is that there is, as Ellen B. Meacham of The New York Times writes, “a hard knot of problems: food deserts, failing schools, poor infrastructure, unhealthy populations, shrinking economies, the long shadow of segregation and discrimination.” During his visit, Bobby Kennedy saw not a community of backwards people, but a community that had been victimized by its circumstances. He saw a community that still suffered socially and economically decades after the loss of the war that alienated it from the rest of the country. We have all heard the stereotypes about the South; the people from this region have been declared a backwards, racist, insular breed of people. In fact, I know that I myself have joked at the expense of Southerners. Now I see some of the falsehoods in these stereotypes.
Our vans meandered through Clarksdale, Miss. as we made our way to the Blues Museum, a pocket of vitality in an otherwise deserted town. Dusty mannequins peered from storefronts. Gas stations advertised cheap beer and soda. The sidewalks were empty, dusty, and hot. There were too many windows on buildings that were too tall for this vacant town, and I imagined the mass exodus of men and women who might have once lived in this agrarian town before losing their jobs to the machines that emulated their labor—just more cheaply and efficiently.
36.5 percent of the population of Clarksdale’s Coahoma County is under the poverty line. It is one thing to read statistics about the South, but it’s another thing to see it. We can turn our noses up at the inscription that proudly states that the Confederate soldiers fought and died for a “just and holy” cause. Or we can realize that, in proclaiming that their cause was neither “just” nor “holy,” we do more than desecrate the names of the dead soldiers. To say that the South fought a war with such disastrous fallout for no good cause or reason is to place blame onto a region for the disadvantageous state in which they find themselves today. Nevertheless, this complex, entrenched system of problems that the South faces cannot be attributed to ignorance and intolerance alone.
So, let us then be tolerant of the South as we have tried to be tolerant for every other marginalized group of people.