To know the way forward, you must know what took place before you. Not only that, you must know who walked before you. To be effective in that process, you must be intentional and thoughtful. These realities have begun to ring more true the older I get.
I am learning the value in engaging our near history to shape the narratives that we employ in our present to forge a better terrain as we move forward. We like to think of history as long ago, in the sense of people who are no longer with us to tell their stories.
What we often miss in this type of analysis is the people who are still with us and the unsung heroes amongst them with gems of knowledge that we could all benefit from. I learned about four different heroes who are deserving of deep admiration for the contributions that they made or make on a daily basis. Young people should also take the time to get to know their stories and learn key leadership lessons.
We must understand the tangible forms of history that are in our midst.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Congressman John Lewis in Washington D.C. last month, and one of his words of wisdom was that he thinks every young person should take a trip down South. I was grateful to let him know that I was actually embarking on one of those trips, for a second time.
Cynthia Fraction, with the University of St. Thomas, brilliantly put together a program called “March for Justice” that highlights historic people and spaces from the Civil Rights Movement. Fraction understands the need of connecting our past with our present, and I am grateful not only that she has created this opportunity for St. Thomas but that she has the foresight to prioritize such an experience.
After visiting Tennessee and Mississippi, I understand why Congressman Lewis would create such a call to action. I would wholeheartedly agree that all young people should visit the southern states of our country.
We must appreciate the privileges that we are granted.
The freedom to patronize any establishment we choose is not one that we all had at some point in time. In fact, in many places throughout our country just 50 years ago this was not the reality.
One privilege that we tend to take for granted is that of attending the school of our choice. On the southern trip I visited Ole Miss, also known as the University of Mississippi. I was able to stand in front of the statue of James Meredith, a civil rights activist who became the first Black student at the university. He fought incredibly hard to earn his right to attend Ole Miss. During that quest, he met immense resistance and was even shot.
There are many things that we take for granted. Some of us walk or drive past dozens of stores as we head to our various destinations. We don’t realize that there are some in our country who walk past only one.
Glendora, Mississippi is one of those spaces. This gem of a town is filled with wonderful people who live amongst rich history. Though they tend to have foot traffic throughout the year, their accessibility to the resources they need most is hindered, and that’s something that most do not understand.
Many before you who looked just like you did great things and commanded great things for the spaces around them so that you could exist is a powerful reality for all young people to experience. Taking a walk in their footsteps along the roads and sidewalks that they trod creates a reality that is tangible.
I learned the value of intentionally interacting with our history. We must understand the tangible forms of history that are in our midst. Mississippi is home to many unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. I was grateful to have encountered some of the heroes who are still alive and hear their stories directly from their own mouths. I was also grateful to see the commemorative spaces dedicated to the life and work of Fannie Lou Hamer.
Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights activist from Mississippi who advocated for political rights in her community. She was the daughter of sharecroppers, which meant that she had to pick cotton as well.
She was also instrumental in changing the circumstances of many of her community members by capitalizing on the resources she did have. She created opportunity through using the resources that that were in her hands to make a difference in her community.
With the help of the National Council of Negro Women, she created what she called a “Pig Bank.” The initiative put forth was to promote sustainability in healthier food options. Ms. Hamer purchased male and female pigs and loaned the pregnant pigs to families in need. A year later, Ms. Hamer created the Freedom Farm Corporation, which provided local families with food and economic opportunities.
In 1982, Johnny B. Thomas became the second Black mayor of Glendora. Mississippi. He wears many hats in his town and fights daily to ensure that his people get what they need. His activism and constant display of courage radiate in the most beautiful energy possible. He is instrumental in keeping the story of Emmett Till alive by powerfully displaying the stories that deserve to be told.
Flonzie Brown Goodloe is an activist from Canton, Mississippi. She became the first Black woman in Mississippi to be elected county registrar. Many years before that, she worked with several others in her local community for the right to vote. A courtroom in Canton was named after her to honor the hard work that she has done and still continues to do.
Hollis Watkins is a civil rights activist who worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He has been arrested and jailed multiple times for his advocacy and fought hard for his people to have their rights to vote honored. Watkins has also worked on the political campaigns of many elected leaders.
This civil rights trip strengthened my appreciation of the power in oral history. Past the surface level textbook references, the Civil Rights Movement became more real for me. Even more real was the understanding of how it parallels our present day.
An understanding of where we have been from the lips of those who lived it helps keep us currently engaged with our circumstances in the hopes of fighting for better. I think that is a lesson that everyone can learn and interact with. I think that is a lesson that we all, parents and children, must learn and interact with.
This lesson begins with a trip down South and ends with the power of storytelling. I think that parents should endeavor to create opportunities to take their children down South to give them an ever-so-necessary history lesson that illuminates the understanding that history can be and is our present. This type of trip could provide multiple learning opportunities from literacy lessons with summer readings to time and place lessons, bringing social studies and geography to life.
Ngeri Nnachi is a clinical law fellow at the University of St. Thomas.