08/09/2014 02:13 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2014

Insights From a Month in Mississippi

Like many Southerners my age, I've long been fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement. Growing up in the 1970s, I was too young to experience the movement directly, but old enough that I could not escape its influence. From watching my parents agonize over whether to send me to an integrated public school, to arguing with a high school track coach about whether I "owed anything" to my black teammates, to studying the Kerner Commission Report in college, my formative years were colored by the unfinished legacy of the civil rights movement.

As we pass through a season of 50th anniversary civil rights retrospectives, I am finding new opportunities to reconsider the movement -- to look back, to try to understand what did and did not happen, and to ask why. To mark the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, in June I participated in a Summer Institute on the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute at Jackson State University. I thought that living in the South most of my life had left me with a pretty clear understanding of the movement, its leaders, tactics and results. But spending three weeks among historians and political scientists engaged in teaching and researching the movement left me with new insights, not all of them academic.

The first relates to the institute's theme -- "finding Mississippi in the master narrative" -- that is comparing the quest for civil rights in Mississippi with the outsized events and personalities that structure popular understanding of the movement today: Thurgood Marshall and Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dwight Eisenhower and Little Rock Central High School, James Meredith and the integration of Ole Miss, Martin Luther King and the March on Washington, Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act. As it turns out, the movement in Mississippi significantly departs from this master narrative, primarily because it was defined not by supreme court decisions, sustained campaigns of nonviolence, federal intervention or soaring rhetoric, but by the courageous organizing of local people like Medgar Evers, Aaron Henry and Fannie Lou Hamer who risked life and limb to advance the struggle for black freedom against overwhelming odds.

For me a related insight is that, in Mississippi at least, the civil rights movement was not primarily about desegregating schools or removing separate waiting rooms, water fountains and other symbols of racial apartheid. Its fundamental thrust was registering and organizing voters to dismantle a system of white supremacy upheld by state-sponsored terrorism. That is, it was about "black power," not in the militaristic sense the phrase assumed in the late 1960s, but in the practical sense of addressing the fact that in many Mississippi counties where the majority of the population was African American, only a handful were registered voters. Since the end of Reconstruction this pattern had been upheld by law and enforced through intimidation, terror, and bystanderism. Segregation was a target of the black freedom struggle not just because it limited opportunity, but because it was the mechanism for enforcing a racial hierarchy that ensured the perpetuation of white supremacy.

Awareness that the civil rights movement was essentially a campaign to challenge white domination has helped me understand why blacks and whites continue to evaluate the movement's results so differently. Whites look around them and see a society in which legal barriers to equality have largely been removed, conclude that the aims of the civil rights movement have been achieved, and imagine that we live in or are moving inevitably toward a post-racial society. Many blacks, however, see a society that, while lacking historical barriers to equality and integration, continues to reflect white supremacy. Through this lens, phenomena like the mass incarceration of African-American males and the murder with impunity of black teenagers look not like anomalies or unfortunate accidents, but reflections of a society that is fundamentally biased against people of color.

This leads to another insight I had in Mississippi. According to the 2010 Census, the city of Jackson is 79 percent African-American, with this number trending upward. As Jackson State is an HBCU in the middle of "black Jackson," I was nervous about spending the better part of a month there. Even though I live in a majority black city myself, I work on a campus that is overwhelmingly white and I spend the majority of my time in neighborhood where I feel comfortable. But on my first day in Mississippi I realized that my temporary home at Jackson Sate was like a film negative of what I was used to: while most of the students and administrators were black, those who labored on construction projects were mostly white. Although this racial inversion soon became familiar, I never forgot that at Jackson State I was a white person occupying black public space. The gift of this temporary "outsider" status was a better sense of how racial minorities must feel in white public space, which is the public space those of us who are white have the luxury of thinking of as simply "public."

The people at Jackson State could not have been more welcoming, and eventually I stopped thinking of myself as an "outsider" at all. One evening at a restaurant near campus I looked up after a couple of hours of intense discussion and was surprised to discover that I was the only Caucasian in the building. But the real surprise was that I felt not the least bit uncomfortable. A situation I would have avoided in my own city felt entirely natural in "black Jackson," simply because I had had the opportunity to sojourn in the community for a few weeks, rather than driving through on my way to somewhere else.

My advice to white people wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the civil rights movement fifty years on: First, focus on Mississippi, which will put you in touch with local heroes and their decades-long struggle against white supremacy in the closest thing to a totalitarian regime this country has ever seen. Second, do it in a place which forces you to confront white privilege and the ways it structures your perception of the world around you.