When I moved back to Mississippi in 2001, I was naïve. I thought I was coming home to write about the past that shamed me as a white Mississippian. I wanted to share the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in my hometown when I was 3—a historic tragedy I had to learn about from a TV movie when I was a teenager. I wanted to celebrate heroes of the past and out the demons. I wanted to send Klansmen to jail. I wanted to be a white Mississippian who wasn't afraid to face the past.
I didn't then understand the riddle that is Mississippi: I was caught in a place where I really believed that looking backward would catapult us forward. Let's exorcize the demons, and we'll be free, free, free at last.
What I discovered is the need to live, write and work in the now. Don't get me wrong: I still want to put old Klansmen in jail, and there is little in my life I'm more proud of than the role my paper and I played in landing James Ford Seale behind bars.
But what I found as the JFP grew into its niche is that the answer to our riddle isn't back in the past, circa 1964 or otherwise. It is not in the pursuit of old Kluckers, nor in constantly retelling the same sanitized Black History Month stories we hear every February.
My struggle between the past and present began the day we published the first issue in 2002: Do I use all my time and energy to chase down cold civil-rights cases, sniff out old murderers, put them in jail? Or do I take on the multitude of now-ignored problems that are right in front of my face?
At the JFP, I found myself surrounded by very hungry young Mississippians. They are the beneficiaries of our past, of every act of violence ever committed here, of every myth spread by white supremacists to keep their money and power—yet they struggle every day with serious problems few try to fix. Every time I thought about digging into a cold Klan case, I heard another radio personality or politician rant about the young "thugs," even going as far as talking about hanging them on gallows in front of the Capitol building.
I took a page from the playbook of civil-rights legend Bob Moses and deliberately surrounded myself and the JFP with young people. I followed the advice of my friend and journalistic idol, Hodding Carter III, who told me to not rely on past voices; to find new ones, then nurture and publish them.
From the beginning, we've brought in young people—to train, to intern, to be older people's bosses, to blog, to write, to teach us. We want them to tell their stories and share their challenges—and to know they're heard.
They've taught me so much. I knew before I started the JFP that young people, especially of color, are screwed over in our society. In my graduate journalism studies, I had focused in part on how our country demonizes our youth. But it's one thing to study; it's another to listen to young people talk about how the media seldom report the positive about them, about how television flashes the front of Lanier High School if a crime happens anywhere nearby, about how reporters treat the deaths of young whites as tragedy and the deaths of kids of color as inevitable.
It focused me on the present when we learned our first year that 12-year-old girls who acted up in the state's training schools were being put in dark rooms naked and had to poop in a hole in the floor. The training schools were disparately filled with children of color and poor whites; wealthier parents had ways to buy their "good" kids out of trouble.
Then, of course, along came Mayor Frank Melton and his backward methods of "helping" young people—practices that had been in plain view for years. I'll simply never forget footage of him holding a teen boy down on a car hood right after being inaugurated because he, with TV cameras in tow, had found the kid out after curfew. And I'll never get over upstanding white citizens telling me they believed the worst rumors about him were true, and voted for him as mayor anyway.
Suddenly, it was damn easy to focus on the young people in front of my face.
As the paper came into its own, the riddle's answer started to reveal itself. It was the young people who came to the JFP from white academies and racist families who perhaps taught me the most. These kids were determined to fill in the gaps about our history and to know, and help, people from other communities. They were, and are, eager to help excavate the past and then use what they find to change the present.
At the JFP, I've watched young people from Jackson Academy work and learn alongside kids from Lanier, Prep kids with Jim Hill, Belhaven and Mississippi College with Tougaloo and Jackson State. We show them how to look back at our state's real history; they are mesmerized and angered by the Sovereignty Commission files that prove it was more than old Kluckers who made Mississippians hate each other. It was often their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who boycotted newspapers like mine for telling the truth, made their maids use separate bathrooms and paid for attorneys to get Klansmen out of jail.
Now, nearly eight years in, we don't sweat the riddle. Our young people want to know, and tell, and write the stories of their own realities, as well as those that created their Mississippi, for better and worse. We are now the proud home of the Youth Media Project (read more on page 13) that brings high school and college students from public and private schools together to talk, blog, write and film.
Recently, I stood outside my classroom, where YMP meets, and listened to a multiracial group from the richest and the poorest schools in the area interview each other. Some talked about being in the Detention Center; others talked about how they leave their backpacks lying around on campus at St. Andrews. They talk about their frustrations with the media and with a community that complains about them but gives them so little help.
I invite you all to help and meet YMP students March 6 at Hal & Mal's. Jackson 2000 selected YMP as one of its recipients for proceeds from the 2010 Friendship Ball honoring Dr. Aaron Shirley and Rev. Duncan Gray. Buy tickets ($20; $10 students) from a YMP student or from the JFP, and every dime goes to help finance their project. Call 601-362-6121 ext. 16 or drop by the JFP for a ticket. Meantime, find the answer to the Mississippi riddle at http://www.youthmediaproject.com.