Mississippi: The Past That Has Not Died

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Nor did it do any good to suggest that Negroes might want to go to integrated schools simply to get a better education. The average Mississippian was convinced that sex was all “they” thought about. Social equality still meant what Thomas Nelson Page said in 1904: “To the ignorant and brutal young Negro, it signifies but one thing: the opportunity to enjoy, equally with the white man, the privilege of cohabiting with white women.”

And the feeling was compounded by a constant, ceaseless fear of Negro rape. Visitors couldn’t hope to understand how deeply this gnawed, for it stemmed from a combination of unique, mysterious forces: the dread of being overwhelmed, the sanctity of Southern Womanhood, whispered superstitions of Negro sexual prowess. Actually, there was little danger. As that astute observer William J. Cash remarked, a southern white woman had less chance of being raped by a Negro than of being struck by lightning. Yet there were cases, and the barest hint was enough to send most Mississippians racing to man the barriers of total segregation.

Statistics seemed to back up the white state of mind. The Negroes did indeed have a far higher crime rate. Although they constituted only forty-five per cent of the population by 1950, they committed seventy-five per cent of the state’s crimes. But was this a basic quality or a symptom of something else? There was almost an invitation to lawlessness in a legal system that saw a Negro in Sunflower County fire five shots at another and get off with a $10 fine.

White Mississippians also had reason to worry about Negro sexual customs. Some twenty-five per cent of colored births were illegitimate; the rate of venereal disease among Negroes was fifteen times that among whites. Yet here too the question arose, was this inherent or more likely a matter of living conditions? After all, as state judge Tom Brady explained, “We have not and do not punish the Negro—except in rare instances—for desertion, illegitimacy, or bigamy.” With the brakes off, no wonder the girls’ basketball coach at a Calhoun County Negro high school once saw his season ruined because most members of the team were pregnant.

The whites also pointed out that Negro children did far worse at school. In 1949, for instance, when a group of colored pupils took the Metropolitan Achievement Test in Sunflower County, they scored two full grades behind the white norms. But it happens that most of the Negro children had no desks; many sat on the floor; some had teachers who couldn’t do fractions; and all belonged to a school system that the University of Mississippi’s Bureau of Educational Research labelled “a dreary spectacle.”

Mississippi, of course, was not alone in this pattern of white and Negro relationships. There were similarities in all the southern states, and, for that matter, in the rest of the country too. Still, there were differences—differences that by 1950 made Mississippi a special case. One obvious difference lay in population. In 1950 Mississippi was forty-five per cent Negro—the highest percentage in the country. True, the figure was slipping—there were some 87,000 fewer Negroes than in 1940—but the percentage was still high compared to other states. Moreover, in some parts of Mississippi the whites were far outnumbered. Tunica County, for instance, had 17,700 Negroes, only 3,900 whites. And there was always the past—those fearful days when a defeated, shattered, white minority lived in constant dread of an untrained but politically powerful Negro majority. Mississippians had long memories, and the specter of those times lingered on.

A more subtle but more important difference was the state’s special brand of poverty. In 1950 Mississippi was easily the poorest in the Union. Her citizens had only half the per capita income enjoyed by the rest of the country. Both races suffered—in Issaquena County even the whites averaged only $967 a year. The state’s Agriculture and Industry Board made valiant efforts to bring in new business, but its very sales pitch hinged on conditions remaining depressed. One brochure boasted, “There are available at least two applicants for each new job offered.” The battle to hold the few advantages left made the whites more determined to hold the line against any sign of Negro advance.

Still another distinction was the state’s low level of education. Poor people can’t afford the best schools, and Mississippi was no exception. In 1950 the state paid the lowest faculty salaries in the Southeast, and the ablest teachers naturally drifted elsewhere. Poverty also meant that many people couldn’t afford to go to school at all—half of all the state’s adults had only eight years’ exposure. Nor was low Negro attendance by any means the whole explanation for that low figure: when only white adults were considered, the average was less than ten years. The significance of all this emerged in many ways. Mississippi had the fewest number of patents for its population of any state in the Union … the fewest doctors and nurses … the next-to-smallest number of dentists … the poorest-trained teachers. There was, in short, a striking lack of educated leadership.