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Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd he captivated at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963: ‘Somehow’ he declared, ‘this situation can and will be changed.’ (Associated Press)
Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd he captivated at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963: ‘Somehow’ he declared, ‘this situation can and will be changed.’ (Associated Press)

They had a dream: three people who were inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. Add to ...

Not long afterward, she took her young nieces to see where she had grown up, roaming on land she believed belonged to relatives. Spying a tree laden with juicy peaches, they picked a few, and suddenly a pickup truck carrying three white men drove up. “It ain’t your folks’ land,” one said when she explained what they were doing. “It’s my land.”

His tone, together with the weight of history, produced “the one time that I was really, really scared years later,” she says.

Other things were dispiriting too. She taught at Jackson State University, where most students are African-American, and discovered that some had trouble landing a job after graduating. The city’s public education system does a poor job of preparing students for college, she adds. “The law says you can go to school anywhere you want, but your economics says differently.

“So, those things I do question a lot – about how much got changed since 1963.”

She worries that economic cleavages are more deep-seated than racial ones. Recently, she and her husband celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary at an upscale restaurant in downtown Jackson, something unthinkable for prior generations of her family.

“I’m accepted there because, you know, if you come in there, you must be a black person of social status,” she says. “It’s very much a class thing now.”

From segregated Jackson to boasting it’s ‘a city with soul’

Ineva May-Pittman remembers people were moved to tears as Dr. King delivered his speech in “that magnificent voice of his.” One young black man was so touched he was “just cryin’ like a baby.”

“I just felt – free,” she recalls, laughing. “With all these people from all across the country and the world, of all ethnicities, together – no incidents or anything, and everybody was friendly toward each other.”

The experience raised a simple question. “Why can’t this be, you know, all the time? So we had to come back and double our determination to try to make it be. And we still workin’ on it.” She lets out a short chuckle. “We still workin’ on it.”

In sensible shoes and a patterned dress, Ms. May-Pittman still looks like a teacher. For 30 years, she taught first and second grade, starting in 1956 when Jackson schools were still segregated. She risked her job to join the NAACP. The changes she has witnessed are so dramatic that she feels compelled to point them out. The city now has a black police chief and school superintendent. A passing fire truck reminds her that the fire chief is black. One of her former students is now a judge; another is mayor of a neighbouring town.

Black voter registration and election turnout now matches or exceeds that of whites and, to lure tourists, Jackson – home to 175,000 – advertises itself as a “City With Soul.” And yet Ms. May-Pittman makes clear the journey is far from over, and offers to show me some important sites related to the local struggle for civil rights.

We pile into her slightly battered cobalt Kia and drive down Farish Street, once the heart of the black business district. Most buildings are abandoned, but the storefronts are neat and some freshly painted, spruced up for visitors who come to see the historic buildings, such as the Alamo theatre and the former home of pioneering blues label Trumpet Records.

One of the few surviving businesses is the Big Apple Inn, a slender restaurant that has served its signature pig-ear sandwiches for seven decades (very tasty). Nearby is Jackson’s first public school for black students, built in 1894 and now the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center, devoted to African-American history.

At one point, without warning, Ms. May-Pittman peels into a parking lot and peers up through the windshield. “Is that flag there?” she asks, pointing at the roof of the Marriott hotel. She bought a ticket for a benefit there the previous Friday night, but then informed the management she would not attend if the state flag, now the only one that includes the old Confederate emblem, were still flying. It was taken down.

Over the years, Ms. May-Pittman has run for a seat on the municipal council on several occasions, without success (but had better luck with a campaign to rename the local airport in honour of Medgar Evers). While she welcomes Mississippi’s crop of younger black elected officials – there are now about 1,000 in various levels of government – she worries that they can be co-opted. “They don’t know the tactics; they don’t know how they’re being used.”

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