By Emily Averbach, Mitzvah Corps American South 2018 Participant
“When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” – Thomas Jefferson.
Spending 48 hours in the state of Mississippi was an extraordinary time of enlightenment.
On Thursday, we went to Medgar Evers’ house. Evers was a civil rights activist who contributed to the pursuit for integration during the segregation period. On his driveway, the day before a protest march while carrying spiritual shirts to give to his family members, he was shot to death by a white supremacist. Hearing his story is learning one story of segregation in America.
Then, I learned about two important organizations – the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Institute of Southern Jewish Living (ISJL). The ACLU is an organization that advocates for the rights of all individuals granted by the First Amendment. Currently, in this state, black people are legally afforded the same rights as everyone else, but they are not being treated the way an American should be. In other words, they are being castigated and charged for not only minor crimes but for false, unproven crimes. The ACLU participates in advocating for equality and equity.
The ISJL is a program that aims to educate Jews in areas where they may have less access to engage in their religion. In Southern, rural, and often conservative states, town populations consist of less Jews because the Jewish population is more spread out in these immense states or because Jews have moved out of these states because of how challenging it can be to engage in their religion. Some ways the ISJL helps is by sending out rabbis to conduct Jewish services, sending materials or artifacts to Jewish children to learn about Jewish history, and bringing Jews together to engage in cultural activities. Their goal is to educate the Jews in this generation so that they can teach Jewish values and culture to the following generation.
On Friday, we learned even more about the societal system and culture of Mississippi by working with Big House Books. This organization’s objective is to deliver books to prisoners around the state. While learning about the reason for this program, I also learned more about the criminal injustice system of Mississippi. One big reason for criminal injustice is because of racism. As a result, the police and government have severely punitive reactions to minor crimes committed by black people. After being sent to prison, the punishments are extremely harsh; prisoners are kept in cells up to 23 hours a day, and this is not only traumatic but it also leads prisoners to have feelings of isolation and hopelessness. The punishments in Mississippi prisons are damaging to the mind. Providing books to prisoners is meant to give them the slightest bit of support and hope to regain their sense of education and self-esteem. Doing this activity touched me, to know that I am supporting prisoners this way.
Afterwards, we visited Jackson State University to meet with a professor who talked about the history of this university and how it connects to the Civil Rights Movement. Because African Americans were not given the best education in their segregated schools, this school opened to educate them well. This school currently serves as a monument for racial injustice in Mississippi. The professor then explained even more about racial injustice that I did not know before.
Next, we learned about the Human Rights Campaign of Mississippi. This organization advocates for the equal rights of people who are LGBTQ. Mississippi is particularly conservative, and laws here are often lenient when it comes to protecting these individuals. They do not establish policies that prohibit bullying and discrimination, so the Human Rights Campaign advocates for this group.
To finish off the day, we visited The Pink House. Despite being the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, this clinic does everything they can to stay in place to support the rights of women being able to decide whether they want to carry another life.
After visiting all of these places, I started thinking of all the reasons why Mississippi is the kind of state it is. It was one thing for me to learn about the poor history of this state, but it was another thing to learn about how there is still a mass of inequity and inequality there today. Everyone deserves equal rights no matter what. Giving rights is one thing, but it is another thing to support the lives of those who struggled in the past, working to ensure they are treated with acceptance. That is why officially being given equal rights is not completely a fairy-tale ending. It goes beyond that.
After being granted certain rights, there are still challenges with the inherited structures in place that impact people’s lives. I did not only learn about how racism still exists in Mississippi, but I also learned about the LGBTQ inequality, abortion bias, and criminal injustice currently existing in this state. When it comes to the criminal justice system, the treatment of the government is often punitive and highly unfair to those who are suffering. Learning about all this and looking at statistics makes it very clear to me that the government and people of Mississippi really need to do better to change these statistics and realities for many.
There are some people in Mississippi, however, who are rising above the average in this state. They are not only speaking out that the state should do better, but they are also attempting to implement change. That is why our group visited all of those programs, organizations, and monuments and why, despite how challenging it may be, they are standing and continuing to pursue their goal today. We should do our very best to appreciate and support those who have the will and effort to make positive change in the midst of injustice and discrimination.
While here, we met one couple, Hannah and Abram, who are currently using their experiences to speak out and attempt to implement change in Mississippi. They are an ideal example of a couple with liberal and fair values in Mississippi. There are many other Mississippians who want to implement change in their state’s status as well. Mississippi’s Civil Rights Museum is completely funded by the Mississippians who want to attract honor to their state and make up for their past. Some Mississippians are putting in effort to make that change, but it will not happen very quickly. It will be difficult to change the thoughts of those who think negatively about this state, but we should all try.
My experience of visiting Mississippi taught me that I should accept and appreciate those who are not only attempting to fix their faulty laws, but to also alter the status of their state. It takes effort and courage to do what these people are doing, changing their state for good. I give them credit and a chance to positively turn their state around. You never know who people really are and what their intentions are; that is why they are complex. In fact, not finding any difference in a massive group of people is unrealistic. I will live by these life lessons for the better.