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Rebecca Sive Headshot

Nina Simone Said "Mississippi Goddam." I Thought It

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MISSISSIPPI PERSONHOOD PROPOSITION 26
AP

Tuesday night.

And then my faith in the American people, especially in the Mississippi people, was redeemed.

My friend Jodi Jacobson, editor of RH Reality Check, pointed-out Wednesday morning that while the "egg-as-person" amendment, Initiative 26, was roundly defeated by Mississippi voters yesterday, Initiative 27, the "voter ID" amendment, passed.

Initiative 27 is also insidious: According to Jodi, it "...will disenfranchise minority voters who already suffer discrimination in a state with a history of denying African Americans their right to vote."

I recently gave a speech in which I told a story of asking my mother why she wasn't going to Mississippi to register voters. This was in 1964, at a time when my mother -- and father -- were dragging my sister and me around as they relentlessly canvassed, leafleted, drove people to the polls, and otherwise made sure that local (Democratic) voters exercised the franchise. Suffice to say, this daughter of an immigrant mother doesn't take lightly this matter of the right to vote.

Yet, while my mother has never made it to Mississippi, I have -- willingly and many times.

In fact, I love Mississippi. I go every chance I get.

Am I crazy? Nope, not in this respect, anyway.

I love, love, love Mississippi. For its music. I first heard the (Mississippi) blues as a teenager, growing up in New York. That song was Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss Man," played every day to open Jack Spector's WMCA radio show. Later, my love affair with Mississippi was sealed when, as a college student, I heard Albert King's "Born under a Bad Sign" and Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago" (ironically, a story of leaving "bad" Mississippi for "good" Chicago; keep reading).

This Mississippi love affair is also why I live in Chicago.

Where else (but Mississippi) could one hear Jimmy Reed live and that Robert-Johnson-type music live every night? And, so, sweet home Chicago it was: The minute we could, my husband and I packed our bags and moved to Chicago: no jobs, no money, no home, no matter; we were satisfied with the knowledge we would get to hear Jimmy Reed and Robert Johnson's "grandson," Muddy Waters, (who, unlike Johnson, had taken "Sweet Home Chicago" to heart), and so many (Mississippi bluesmen) others, just about every night of the week.

Mississippi (by way of its northernmost city, Chicago) was going to be heaven, for sure.

So, when this egg-as-person-in-Mississippi amendment reared its ugly head, so-to-speak, I looked up. I paid attention. This was my Mississippi these crazies were talking about.

And then I came to my senses: In her right mind, how could any Mississippian -- black or white -- think egg-as-person was a good idea? Well, as it turns out, she couldn't.

Notwithstanding Mississippi's reputation as an oh-so-backward state, Mississippians -- just like the rest of us -- think carefully as they head to the polls.

They thought about the full import of Initiative 26. They read about it. Then, they read some more. They grappled with the idea that egg-as-person just doesn't work, even if you've looked at one of those jars with a dead fetus in it and been repelled.

Indeed, the more they grappled with it, the worse egg-as-person appeared.

Yes, I appreciate Planned Parenthood, the Episcopal Church, and the thousands of Mississippi parents who organized against Initiative 26 and defeated it. But, I also credit the unorganized, black and white, who thoughtfully exercised their right to vote and knowingly voted against Initiative 26.

I also appreciate the implication of Jodi's point about the differing fate of the two initiatives (I haven't seen the county-by-county voter data that might confirm this), i.e., Mississippi whites likely split their initiative votes, while Mississippi blacks likely voted against both measures, a presumptive indicator of the dim state of Mississippi race relations.

But, in response, I say: "Same old, same old," just as they say in Mississippi. Same race relations' status quo as in so many other American homeplaces last night.

Yes, just like in so many other American home-places, black and white Mississippians see things differently, and, consequently, vote differently. It's not a wonderful thing, but it's not the same thing as egg-as-person. In fact, as Mississippians proved Tuesday night, when things in American home-places get really, really bad, together, we get our act together; together, we overcome, and we reject such horrible foolishness.

Tuesday night, while Mississippians were voting, I went to a dinner in Chicago for supporters of human rights, featuring a speech by Farai Maguwu, a black Zimbabwean man, who spoke about the racist atrocities of Robert Mugabe. (Racism knows no color, in case you were wondering.)

But this audience sure did (know racial color, that is): Sold out, there was a mere handful of African Americans in a room of close to 1,000 people, in a city whose population is close to 40 percent African American -- most of whom descendants of Mississippians who left Mississippi for "Sweet Home Chicago," but haven't found Chicago so sweet these days.

In fact, in 2011 there are tens of thousands of fewer children of Mississippi in Chicago than there were just a decade ago.

Notwithstanding the likelihood of now having to deal with a voter id law that will likely discriminate against them (and wouldn't have passed in Chicago), many of the departed have willingly returned to Mississippi. It's cheaper to live there, and, well, while the schools aren't that great, they stack up against the schools most of these Mississippi children attended in Chicago's neighborhoods, where racism knows color, big time.

Which brings me back to where I started this piece: In 1964, when I was in school and asked my mother about her plans for the summer, I was attending school with one, seemingly, African-American boy. However, he was, some said, "really Puerto Rican." Yes, racist neighbors really said that because this (alternative racial) heritage made his being around us, in their eyes, excusable.

By contrast, it was the next town over (both towns barely 20 miles from Harlem), where I went to the YMCA, which had the local black ghetto.

I took the bus there and crossed our local color line three or four times a week. I thought about this crossing every time I made it, as well as when I wasn't on the bus. So-much-so that my writing opinion pieces about racial matters started then: I was having my own experiences with the issue of race and needed to think-them-through.

Today, 47 years since my conversation with my mother about Mississippi voting; 47 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed and since a lot has changed for the better in Mississippi (say, blacks vote, and blacks and whites vote the same way, sometimes), many northern white Americans still abhor Mississippi. They think it's racist in a way that the rest of America isn't. I know they do. They tell me.

Then, I ask them to reconsider (baby). Then, they look at me with disdain.

Then, I remind them that Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney wouldn't have had a song to record, much less the proverbial "pot ......." had they not listened to Mississippi sons Muddy Waters, Albert King and Junior Wells, whose great grandsons voted Tuesday against eggs-as-persons, just like the great grandsons of the white sharecroppers down the road did.

When Nina Simone sang "Mississippi Goddam," she sang: "All I want is equality for my sister, my brother and me." Well, in some ways, if not all ways, she's got it. We just have to remember that we shall overcome, if we keep fighting, together, to get the rest of that equality Simone sung about.