THE BLOG

Civil Rights Champion Falsely Accused by Jon Stewart

02/28/2013 11:57 am ET | Updated Apr 30, 2013

As the headlines began rolling in -- Mississippi finally ratifies the Thirteenth Amendment -- I rolled my eyes. The Thirteenth Amendment, of course, is the one that abolished slavery, and it was adopted as part of the United States Constitution when Georgia became the 27th state to ratify it in December of 1865. Mississippi, however, was another story. In 1865, the state legislature actually voted to reject the amendment; not until 1995, a mere 130 years later, did the legislature vote to ratify it.

As recent news stories tell us, a professor at the University Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi, saw the film Lincoln and became curious about his adopted state's ratification history. He and a colleague worked together to discover that due to a clerical snafu, the ratification never became official with the Office of the Federal Registrar.

I rolled my eyes, because this was yet another story about the state's failure, another story about the ways in which white supremacy never lost its grip. I felt relief that I don't live there anymore.

But then, my Facebook feed from places like the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation turned my attention to a clip from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. In his February 20 segment on this 21st century embarrassment, Jon Stewart lampooned Dick Molpus. Molpus was the white Secretary of State in 1995, when the state legislature finally got its act together, and his office was responsible for registering the decision with the Office of the Federal Registrar. As we now know, something happened to that paperwork. It didn't get filed, it didn't get received, it didn't get recorded -- something. And so Stewart mimed his interpretation of how Molpus must have filed the papers by feeding his own papers into a shredder.

My reaction to this: No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

As a fan of The Daily Show, as a scholar of the civil rights movement, and as a friend of Dick Molpus, I was heartbroken when I saw the clip. The symbolic equation of Dick with the well‐caricatured southern segregationist politician, forever lost in the throes of white supremacist denial, made my stomach turn. This is not who Dick Molpus is, nor has it ever been.

When I was a college student, I worked for Dick's office during the summers of 1993 and 1994. During the same time, I was also finally becoming engaged with my home state's history of racial violence and white supremacy. You see, growing up white in Mississippi gave me the benefit of blinders to racism, both past and present. However, by my senior year of college, I was traveling across the state to interview black and white women who had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement for my senior thesis research. I was also learning a lot more about how politics worked in my state, and I was rooting for Dick Molpus to continue his work to change that game as our governor.

For Jon Stewart to suggest Dick Molpus intentionally sabotaged the filing of the act with the federal registrar means no one even bothered to do a Google search...perhaps the easiest form of fact‐checking a person can do. Further, as Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion‐Ledger points out, Assistant Secretary of State Constance Slaughter‐Harvey, herself a veteran of civil rights activism, distinctly remembers filing the paperwork.

Very few white politicians have stood up to racists in Mississippi's history, even since 1964. Dick Molpus has, and he continues to do so. He has championed civil rights and equal opportunity for all for years, from his work in Governor William Winter's office to his days as Secretary of State to his involvement in the founding of Parents for Public Schools (in a city and a state where racists were responsible for creating a massive private school system). He has called out other racist politicians time and again, and if anything, he deserves a voice in the national media. When he lost the gubernatorial election in Mississippi in 1995, my heart was broken, because he could have made a real difference. Race‐baiting did him in, even then.

And so I write this, because a very popular show, well‐respected by many people, got my friend wrong. The major sin of white Mississippians, from the civil rights era to today, has been complicity. Silence never advances the cause of the good. But neither does ignorant misrepresentation. Joke or not, it undermined the fact that at least one white politician in Mississippi's history has bothered to do the right thing.