October 11, 2006: Perspective
family, home, and history
By Frederick Thurston Drake ’02
Frederick Thurston Drake ’02 is a medical student at the University of Utah. He grew up in Ocean Springs, Miss.
Said aloud, “Mississippi” doubles back on itself almost playfully. As a proper noun, however, those four syllables are fraught with significance, forming a symbol — a totem — that signifies much in the collective consciousness of this nation. Mississippi has long stood for aspects of this society, particularly with respect to race, that Americans hesitate to confront openly. The word and the place have become the shorthand by which unpleasant realities are cordoned off and thereby unacknowledged: “Racism happens there, not here.”
Compounding the burdens this role brings to those of us from Mississippi — some, of course, deserved — is the hotness of our pride, which demands of us feigned indifference to what the rest of the country thinks, to the slights and petty insults directed our way. Always, though, the time comes when Mississippians and outsiders find they have no choice but to regard one another eye-to-eye; in the fall of 1963, one of these instances of mutual assessment happened at Princeton University.
I was reminded of this bit of Princeton history — and family lore — last March, when I read in PAW of the controversy over visits to campus by officials in the Bush administration and military commanders, notably Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Lt. Gen. David Petraeus *87. In 1963, the campus visitor was Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett.
During the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Princeton, my grandmother, Jean Johnson, was hospitalized in her hometown of Greenwood, Miss. It was clear she was nearing the end of her life, and my mother went home to spend time at her bedside. One evening, my mother — who had cried when I decided to attend college in far-off New Jersey — said to my grandmother, “Mom, one of the things I’m sad about the most is that you never got to visit Princeton.” My grandmother, still an undiminished Southern beauty, sat up and replied, “Well, I have been to Princeton” and proceeded to tell my mother the 40-year-old story.
My grandmother’s brother, Bob Branum — “Uncle Bob” to me — was married to Virginia, daughter of Ross Barnett. Although this makes me distant kin to the governor, my mother remembers playing with her cousins at the governor’s mansion. Uncle Bob, who was in the Mississippi National Guard, served some security function for his father-in-law when he traveled. When Gov. Barnett was invited to speak at Princeton, Bob asked my grandmother to come along.
The New York Times sent a reporter to cover Gov. Barnett’s speech, and from the news coverage I learned a few facts. The Whig-Cliosophic Society extended speaking invitations to several notables in the civil rights debate. Gov. Barnett was among them, as were Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Inevitably, there was controversy on campus over the invitation to the governor. University President Robert Goheen ’40 *48 expressed personal displeasure at the invitation but stated that students ought to “hear men with strong convictions speak on issues of public moment, however distasteful on occasion the views of such speakers may be to us.”
As the Times told the story, students and townies jammed Dillon Gym for a rally before marching to Alexander Hall, where Gov. Barnett was to speak, chanting and carrying signs that proclaimed “End Police Brutality in Mississippi.” They distributed black armbands, gave speeches, and sang spirituals. My grandmother recalled driving to the University in a limousine accompanied by a huge convoy of state troopers. As they approached Alexander Hall they were met by the boisterous crowd, which surged forward and began to rock the car on its wheels. It took 30 state troopers to get the car through the crowd and the passengers inside the building.
Inside, my grandmother, Uncle Bob, and the other Mississippians sat in the first row while Gov. Barnett gave his standard states-rights boilerplate to the raucous, booing crowd. The Times noted that he “maintained his composure and smiled frequently throughout his speech” and remained afterward to answer questions from the audience. Later, as my grandmother recalled, the state troopers decided to escort the party out through a side door. One officer told Uncle Bob to watch for a signal; when it was given, they rushed out the door and once more through the crowd on a path cleared by the troopers.
I live in Utah now, but my thoughts turn frequently and fondly to the alluvial backwater where I grew up, particularly now that Hurricane Katrina has so devastated the part of Mississippi my family and I call home. They say love is blind, but I believe one cannot truly love his home without a clear-eyed acknowledgment of its shortcomings.
Gov. Barnett’s visit to Princeton is only one instance in which Mississippi was called to account for itself, but it is the accumulation of such accountings that forced my state to begin its change from the old and hateful past. An unjust society can be defended for only so long until it appears unsustainable even to its proponents, which is exactly why those proponents must be called upon — time and time and time again — to defend their views. One arena for such moments of reckoning is the university, which serves society by generating new ideas, certainly, but also by scrutinizing old ones. Without such scrutiny, Mississippi might never have seen fit to change.
There are parallels between a community working toward justice and a family working toward redemption. I never knew Gov. Barnett; he died when I was young. But I have known and loved dearly my Uncle Bob and Aunt Virginia, just as I know they loved our Uncle Ross. That is what makes us a family. But what also makes us a family is our responsibility to teach every new generation that although we loved and respected our Uncle Ross, the ways in which he thought society had to be shaped were wrong. Each new set of minds and hands that are molded with love, instead of fear and hate, is both our investment and the repaying of our debt.
Through that work, we will one day reach the point when Mississippi is no longer the symbol for a dark time in America. It will be simply a place where lives unfold and where justice rolls on like a river; unstoppable, like the Father of Waters, who flows mightily to our west.