Whenever the State of Mississippi is beset by heightened racial friction, it’s good to turn to two advisors—the Bible and William Faulkner. No two sources better grasp and understand the human condition most specifically of we Mississippians.
Most Mississippians know about Christ saying “Do unto others, etc.” and Paul saying “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, etc.”
But what about Mr. Faulkner?
Of course, he was a product of his time, struggling to understand our racial sins and sensibilities like anyone else. His books portrayed what he deemed to be historically-rooted depictions of whites and blacks—and rarely were either of the pictures too flattering. (Fascinating? Yes.)
In a June 1956 article in Harper’s Magazine he rawly called out white Mississippians as being afraid of black Mississippians’ progressing. “That’s what the white man in the South is afraid of: that the Negro who has done so much with no chance, might do so much more with an equal one that he might take the white man’s economy away from him, the Negro now the banker or the merchant or the planter and the white man the sharecropper or the tenant.”
He added, “That’s why the Negro can gain our country’s highest decoration for valor beyond all call of duty for saving or defending or preserving white lives on foreign battlefields, yet the Southern white man dares not let the Negro’s children learn their ABC’s in the same classroom with the children of the white lives he saved or defended.” (NOTE: FAULKNER’S USE OF “NEGRO” WAS NOT DISRESPECTFUL IN THE 1950S, RATHER COMMONLY USED AMONG BOTH RACES).
Yep, both the Bible and Mr. Faulkner don’t hold punches.
It must be said that Faulkner was conflicted about racial issues and often came to his state’s defense, if nothing else, out of sheer love for it. On more than one occasion, he told his uppity northern elitist friends basically to back off.
So what about today? Are their signs that Mississippians have taken the Bible and Faulkner’s counsel?
Yes indeed there are, and in these strained times, it might be nice to look at some happy markers of our progress.
Among the good, we are national models of diversity when it comes to representation in our highly integrated State Legislature and our flagship university Ole Miss.
First, about Ole Miss: It has a 14.3 percent African American student body, which is higher than Harvard at 6.3 percent; than Stanford at 3.8 percent; than the University of California, Berkley at 3 percent; than the University of Michigan at 4.1 percent; than Tulane at 9 percent; at Alabama at 11.1 percent; than LSU at 11.5 percent … on and on and on.
Next, about the State Legislature, which has the highest percent of African American state legislators of any state in the Union. A full 28% of Mississippi’s state legislators are black. The only other states coming close are Louisiana at 22%, Alabama at 24%, Georgia at 25%, North Carolina at 20% and South Carolina at 23%. Among the states Mississippi blows away are California at 9%, Vermont at 1%, Michigan at 9%, Montana at 0%, Washington at 1% and Oregon at 2%. Truth be told, at least 18 states have only 0 to 2% black representation.
So far in the last decade from the Obama into the Trump years, our citizens of both races have shown remarkable honor and restraint even while states that once judged us not are being judged. Their plight is no concilliation, but our restraint is.
And we all must realize that the most real progress we can cite is that we all know just how much farther we have to go. And that we must go there together. Doing so would make Mr. Faulkner proud, and for those of us who believe the Bible, would also surely please God.