Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi

08 Jan

I was born in Jackson, Mississippi…in 1964, and we lived there until early 1972.  If ever there were a place considered a “hotbed of racism”, it was Jackson in the 60s. We had a maid for a time whose name was Annie Grace.  We were by no means rich, but maids were fairly common among middle to upper class whites in the Deep South.  Our neighbors the Letherwoods also had a maid named Jesse who as far as I can remember was full-time.  Annie Grace and Jesse strolled the neighborhood with baby Roger and my infant neighbor Linda.  What a fascinating world.

I went to first grade shortly after integration.  My best friend in school was a black kid named Kenneth.   Mom and Dad told me it was okay to have a “negro” friend, “just don’t bring him home.”  I guess it was okay to have a “colored person” in the home to serve, but not okay to have him visit as an equal.  My folks came to Christ later in life and regretted that comment, among others, I’m sure, and yet they were a product of their culture.

We rented The Help over Christmas break; I had read the book a year ago, and though it was definitely chick-lit, it got great reviews on Audible  (three different excellent narrators), and so I decided to pick it up.  The reviews were well-founded.

If you don’t know, The Help is the story of two black maids and their contemporaries in 1960s Jackson, and a recent white college graduate who tries to write a book from their perspective.   Movies are often a let-down after reading the book, but this film was directed by the author’s good friend whom she grew up with in Jackson, and the Knowltons gave it 4 stars.

Reading the book and seeing the movie, I found myself wondering what it was that caused the people of Mississippi (and much of the rest of white America, for that matter) to be racist to one degree or another in those days.  And more than that, why do we see so clearly the evils of racism now, here in Midwest America in 2012, when it wasn’t so clear to my folks – good decent people – in 1960’s Mississippi.

More than that, if the mass of people were so clearly confused in Jackson, Mississippi 50 years ago, what gives us reason to think that we have everything all figured out in our culture today? Racism seems downright foolish today, but how does our culture think and act today that will seem downright foolish 50 years from now?  Or maybe not…that is, perhaps our culture will never collectively see the error of its ways, but the One with infinite wisdom will.

Either way, one thing is certain, surely many people in our culture are confused about life and morality – I’m reminded of the words of the LORD through His prophet Jeremiah:

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV)

What is the answer? What will protect us from such wrongheadedness?  I can think of only one surefire solution.  The Apostle Paul wrote the church at Rome:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:2 (ESV)

It seems that a renewed mind, formed or reformed by the Word of God is our only hope.  You may counter that racism reached its zenith in the Bible belt, and I will give you that – even Christians (or those who consider themselves Christians) can be quite fooled – but anti-slavery and the civil rights movement were themselves generally Christian in nature.  Jesus is the One Who fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy and came “to set the prisoners free.”

So in 2012, pray for clarity, don’t accept what the culture is saying at face value, and above all, submit your mind to God’s Holy word.

Maybe Peter Townshend said it best…

“I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
Don’t get fooled again”


Posted by on January 8, 2012 in Uncategorized


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9 responses to “Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi

  1. Linda Letherwood

    January 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    I believe your parent’s views were based more on societal norms, not a dislike of black people. It was not socially acceptable to mix back then-not in any meaningful way. There was always the hint of violence in the air as a repercussion for getting too close the the opposite race. So their comments may have been made strictly out of protection for their son, not to instill any hatred of the black race. So go easy on them. I know my parents would have talked with yours about it, probably over a Saturday night fish fry, and had an influence about how they perceived what was happening “back in the day.”

    There are still maids (and nannies, like Jesse, and home health workers-sitters) in Jackson, I see them daily in Belhaven, the neighborhood that the film is set in, and where I live. The attitudes of the whites have changed from the days when the story was set. I know of no separate bathrooms! Many Jacksonian’s that saw their way of life in that movie were both tickled to see it in film and, at the same time, deeply embarrassed by the way the hateful few acted. There has been a good bit of discussion down here about that!

    Rog, we were babies then, younger than anyone in the movie. It was set in 1962, I was born in ’63, you, ’64. We are more open than our parents could be and our children make me feel like an “old fogey” about how my generation sees the world. From Jackson looking out, I have seen a generational change (really 2 generations) in attitudes since the time depicted in the story.

    There is still racism in America. It’s not just between Blacks and Whites, and it’s not just in the South. Sometimes we don’t see it for what it is. We are all influenced by people around us, what they say and how they behave. We have to confront our own thoughts & prejudices, and continually examine them to make sure we are mindful in our interactions with others that may not be the same as us.

    Oh, just a footnote: I am Facebook friends with Annie Grace’s daughter, Linda!


    • rogerknowlton

      January 8, 2012 at 10:01 pm

      Delightful to hear from you, Linda! I read your note to my family on our semi-quiet Sunday afternoon. By the way, we named our third child Anna Grace (not after our mutual friend). And we call her Annie. Your current connection to Annie Grace gave me a moment of joy. Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful response.

      To be sure, I agree, racism is alive and well. I heard of someone recently who called himself a recovering racist. I think that’s about right. Racism takes different forms, and sometimes today is only a mild aversion to someone who is just plain different, whether in skin color or some other distinguishing characteristic. But there are definitely fewer folks today, thankfully, who would say that someone is inferior because of one of these characteristics.

      As to Mom and Dad, I never thought of them as racist, but I always remembered their comment.

      Was it Saturday nights, or Friday nights for the fish fry? I remember those days fondly, making forts with couch cushions and watching the Brady Bunch and Partridge Family. I hope you’re doing well.


  2. Tammy Myers

    January 9, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    This was the one and only movie I saw last year. While I enjoyed the movie and the girls’ “sweet” revenge, I have to say It left me feeling somewhat embarrassed- as it should have, I suppose.

    Give my best to the family.



    • rogerknowlton

      January 10, 2012 at 4:06 pm

      Tammy, tell Dave you need to get out more. Great to hear from you – say hello to everyone in PA.


  3. Jean

    January 9, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Growing up in a very, very small town, we never had any interaction with anyone but whites, but we were more afraid of the unkown rather that a hatred. Today, the prejudices seem more on what political lines you fall on where each side believes the other to be the ultimate in idiotic thinking. …It’s always something.


  4. JoAnn Karls

    January 9, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    Read “The Help”, an amazing book. It’s really unfortunate that racism is still alive and healthy in this Country/World. Maybe we’re not as blatant as who sits at the back of the bus but it’s there none the less. We have acquired a more palatable way of putting those less fortunate, less pretty, less socially acceptable, less you name it, where” we” feel comfortable. If we could say with all honesty “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God” (Bob Pierce, World Vision-“The Hole in the Gospel”) then and only then could racism be erased from Webster.


  5. Steve Keller

    January 10, 2012 at 12:35 am

    Reggie White made the point in his book that we are all prejudice and racist, to some degree. I was telling a friend how I hate the racism I see in myself, for example when I read an article about young people causing trouble at the mall. He said don’t hate it. Hate gives it energy. He said instead to surrender it to God.


    • rogerknowlton

      January 10, 2012 at 4:09 pm

      Steve, Reggie is undoubtedly right because we all put up our guard when someone or something is different. Great to have you hanging around Edgewood!



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