"I didn't really understand America until I understood Mississippi"

When we attend out-of-state gatherings, it’s deeply touching to learn the many ways that our guests and supporters care about the lives of Mississippians, and how this interest intersects with their own lives and values. 

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In late April, we were honored to be hosted by Aviva Futorian for an update with our supporters in Chicago.  Her participation in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer spurred Aviva to champion the Hill Country Project, and capture the oral histories of civil rights workers in Benton County. But she also values the Mississippi Center for Justice as a home-grown force for change across the state and she recently joined us for our Great Mississippi Road Trip.

Among those who attended Aviva’s gathering were philanthropists Lucy and Peter Ascoli. Peter’s grandfather, Julius Rosenwald, formed a powerful education partnership between Jewish and African American communities in the Deep South and the Ascolis have continued a strong commitment to social justice philanthropy.  John Riley and his wife Maryellen also drove in, after spending months in John’s hometown, Memphis, paying tribute to his brother, former MCJ board member George Riley, with a series of exhibits, performances, and convenings tied to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We also were delighted to see former board member Doressia Hutton and Bonnie Allen, now the executive director of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, who previously worked for MCJ as it grew by leaps and bounds. 

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While in Chicago, I spent an afternoon with Wheeler Parker driving across the south and west side of Chicago to better understand the communities in which he grew up with his cousin Emmett Till. Schools, civic centers, and other landmarks bore Emmett’s name and his memory remained strong among those who knew him. MCJ has been fortunate to have Wheeler and his wife Marvel join us for our Delta Road Trips for many years as Wheeler brought to life that pivotal encounter at Bryant Grocery that sparked the modern civil rights movement.  On the day before our Potomac reception, we met with pro bono counsel at Latham and Watkins to recruit a team to advocate on behalf of the National Park Service feasibility study of Bryant Grocery as a national historic asset.

The next week in Washington, D.C., an enthusiastic crowd of over two hundred gathered to pay tribute to Dr. Joyce Ladner and Robert Raben. Joyce launched a long distance run for civil rights in her teens from Palmer’s Crossing, Mississippi, and took part in or helped to organize actions stretching from the Mississippi backwoods to the March on Washington and beyond. Please spend the time to see Joyce reflect the dramatic first moment when she saw a young Marian Wright Edelman running down a street in search of a payphone in Greenwood, Mississippi. Robert Raben, a Miami native, started as a law clerk at the Mississippi Supreme Court and rose to prominence at the Department of Justice under President Clinton. Robert’s vivid account of how his life in the law became entwined with Mississippi helps to explain how he became so intensely attached to the cause of justice in our state.

Our Potomac gathering is filled with too many friends and supporters to single out individuals, but you can get a sense of the enthusiasm and breadth of the group by looking through our Flickr photostream. We saw so many allies who helped to launch and sustain MCJ over the past 15 years with their time and financial support. I was personally touched by how many attended who came to Mississippi’s aid after Hurricane Katrina and have remained invested in the mission of justice that we pursue. Some of these volunteers were housed in our homes in the immediate aftermath of the storm, when housing was impossible to find. They now have Mississippi family for life.

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Before the reception, several of us visited the National Museum of African American History. It was a humbling experience to work our way through the crowded exhibits tracing the evolution from slavery to emancipation to Jim Crow to Civil Rights. 

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Last week, supporter David Freudenthal, head of government relations at Carnegie Hall, hosted a group of about 30 guests for a delightful evening at his Central Park South apartment in New York City. This was David’s second reception to help MCJ increase awareness of and raise money for our work, for which we are enormously grateful. His career in public service and government relations has nurtured his concern for the problems that plague our society and the ways to ameliorate them.  Our impact litigation project leader Rob McDuff and I brought our friends up to date on our work and took questions. Joanne Edgar, a supremely gifted writer and co-founder of MS magazine who went to college in Mississippi in the 1960s, said, “Tell them about the Road Trip.” I asked writer and photographer Eric Etheridge, to recount the day when Hank Thomas, a Freedom Rider, joined us to return to Parchman prison for a tour of the maximum security building where he and other young activists were held for weeks as they refused to make bail.  Eric has a new edition of his incredible book on the Freedom Riders, Breach of Peace, coming out later this year. Hank’s own account is absolutely riveting and can be found here

What so many of these people share in common is a moment in their lives where they responded to the call for justice in their own way using what was within their power.  Sometimes it is through organizing or civil disobedience, sometimes it is litigation, and sometimes, like our friend Emilie Miller who appealed for volunteers at the end of this event, it is simply stepping in with a spirit of service. Emilie said, “A lot of people asked me "Why should I care about Mississippi? What does Mississippi have to do with me? But after going there I realized-- I didn't really understand America until I understood Mississippi..."

The rewards are great and lifelong, as so many have told us. We hope you will agree. 

To learn more about how to volunteer, go to this link.