If you are a white southerner like me, you might have done what I did last week. I pulled my dusty yearbooks off the shelf to look for pictorial evidence of the racism that pervaded my childhood in Jackson, Mississippi. This I did with a heightened trepidation, because I was the editor of my 1966 high school yearbook.
There were no blackface photos, thank goodness. But I found something I’m ashamed of all the same.
Being named yearbook editor was important to me, but it was not the most life-changing thing that happened my senior year. For that, I credit eight classmates who bravely followed in the footsteps of the more famous Little Rock Nine, who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
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The “Murrah High School Eight,” as we called them, came along almost a decade later, because Mississippi officials more fiercely resisted the Supreme Court’s mandate that separate was not equal. For that reason, I attended segregated public schools for 11 grades — all while Brown v. Board of Education was supposed to be the law of the land.
School integration in 1960s America
My parents taught me this was wrong, so as a teenager I started getting quietly involved in the civil rights movement — working, for example, as a teacher aide in the first Head Start program in the 1960s. That’s how I got invited by the local NAACP chapter president to meet with the Murrah Eight before school started.
They wanted to know what to expect, and frankly, I was terrified for them. The best they could expect was to be ostracized by almost everyone, to be excluded from all activities except their classes, to be ignored or bullied by some teachers who had made their racist views well known to us white students.
I tried not even to imagine what might be the worst they could expect. It was 1965. This was barely a year after the murders and church bombings of Freedom Summer, and just two years after Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway a couple of miles from my home.
I could not imagine having their sheer courage. As the first day of school approached, I took to praying for them every night. I was praying for me, too. I was praying I might have the courage — just a small fraction of theirs, of course, but enough to stand up for my convictions on that first day of school, enough to openly welcome my new classmates, to sit with them at lunch, to be shunned by my friends and maybe worse.
I did muster the courage of my convictions that day, but as for my eight new classmates, they endured a miserably difficult senior year. My friend Brenda White Swaggard told me recently — a full half-century later — that sometimes the psychic wounds still feel fresh. But Brenda and all the Murrah Eight persevered to become my high school’s first black graduates.
Omitted from the yearbook — yet another insult
Their courage inspires me to this day. Indeed, I credit their example for setting me on my life course as a civil rights and civil legal aid lawyer.
So my heart sank last week to be reminded that the story of the Murrah Eight is nowhere to be found in the pages of the yearbook I edited. Some of their photos are in the “seniors” section of the yearbook, but nothing explicit about their heroism or their challenges. A few vague references in the opening photo essay — to the effect that “Murrah faced changes” in the “great national quest for civil rights” — were all I dared submit for approval to my faculty sponsors. I might have been right that they would have rejected any more explicit reference to the most momentous thing that happened to us that year, but I didn’t make the ask.
Sure, no blackface photos, but there is more than one way for a yearbook to do damage.
It is too late to re-edit old yearbooks. But as events of recent weeks attest, it is high time to unearth the stories that still need telling and to rededicate ourselves to our longstanding quest to eliminate race discrimination root and branch. It is a quest both national and personal. Let’s don’t miss the opportunity to call ourselves — as well as our elected leaders — to account.
Martha Bergmark is executive director of Voices for Civil Justice and was founding president and CEO of Mississippi Center for Justice. Follow her on Twitter @MarthaBergmark