The Revolution Started in Jackson by Dr. Robert Bland
“The revolution starts in Jackson.” That was the refrain my friend Dave Molina (MTC ‘05) and I repeated to each other at various points between 2007 and 2009. He had just left Jackson, Mississippi, for a position at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation—one of the preeminent centers for civil rights and social justice in the South. Our connection was Jim Hill High School. He had just left the school; I was just beginning. Steeped in a deep history of black radicalism, Jim Hill transformed its Mississippi Teacher Corps placements as much as they transformed the students in their classrooms. At a moment where the nation struggles to comprehend and contextualize a southern past dominated by voices sympathetic to the Confederate cause, Jim Hill offers another vision of southern life that is pluralistic, fearless, and forward looking.
The crown jewel of the west side of Jackson, Jim Hill embodied the promise and the peril of black life in Mississippi’s largest city. Founded in 1912, the original school building was constructed on Lynch Street, a corridor named after a man who had been born into slavery and rose to become the first black speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives and one of the first black men to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives during Reconstruction. Richard Wright had once attended the school before leaving the state for Chicago. In 1961, students from cities predominantly black high schools, Jim Hill, Lanier, and Brinkley, joined the remaining Freedom Riders who had made their way from Anniston, Alabama to Jackson to force the federal government to overrule local segregation laws at Greyhound bus stations. Two years later, Jim Hill students joined Anne Moody and other students from Tougaloo College in a sit in protest at the Woolworth’s in downtown Jackson. On May 14, 1970 James Earl Green, a senior at Jim Hill was shot by the police during a protest led by students at Jackson State, the Historically Black College located just a couple blocks away from the school on Lynch street.
Much of this history has been hidden or erased. When asked about the west side of Jackson, many will mention crime, or poverty, or that the schools are underperforming. Like many southern cities in the post Civil Rights era, Jackson’s tax base experienced a precipitous decline as white citizens, and later the black middle class, fled the city for the surrounding suburbs. In turn, the black leadership class who remained inflamed relationships with the poor and working class by ramping up tough on crime policies that increasingly criminalized black teenagers—especially those who resided in communities on the city’s west side.
"Those who only tell the recent history of Jackson through portraits of poverty and black pain miss the more magnificent picture of this particular southern city’s story."
Those who only tell the recent history of Jackson through portraits of poverty and black pain miss the more magnificent picture of this particular southern city’s story. As a site of black southern music, Jackson offers everything from Jackson State’s world famous marching band, “Sonic Boom of the South,” to a vibrant underground hip hop scene that has produced critically acclaimed artists like 5th Child, 7Even:Thirty, and Skipp Coon. Long a basketball hotbed, players that began their careers in Jackson Public Schools have mesmerized basketball fans across the country with their fearless style. More recently, the city has become a center for southern progressive politics. In 2013 mayoral election, the city elected Chokwe Lumumba, a long time activist and attorney in the community on a progressive platform. Although Lumumba died just one year into his first term, the city went on to elect his son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who promised to keep the city moving in the direction that his father had started.
By far the most important sign that the city is embracing a new history is the work that the students are doing to transform the city. I have countless stories that I could tell about the amazing things my former students have accomplished and all the ways that they have gone on to reshape Hinds County as teachers, coaches, activists, preachers, parents, and citizens. But the most pivotal example from my teaching was the work the students at Jim Hill accomplished through Civil Rights/Civil Liberties. Founded by Jake Roth (MTC ‘05) and David Molina, Civil Rights/Civil Liberties served as a beacon for where Jackson would be heading in the next decade. During the time that Robert Pollock (MTC ‘06) and I served as the co-sponsors of the group, the students established a longstanding interracial and student-lead dialogue with Murrah High School and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church; they worked closely with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to learn more about southern history; they traveled to Oxford, Mississippi to meet veterans of the Civil Rights Movement; most impressively, in collaboration with the Jackson Free Press, the students wrote and edited their own issue of the weekly newspaper to spotlight racial bias in the way the region’s mainstream newspapers covered Jackson Public School students.
We are once again living through a moment where the weight of the past has led southern communities to confront legacies of racism, violence, and oppression. Much of this discussion has revolved around the removal of monuments to Confederate leaders, which were constructed during the Jim Crow era to serve as silent sentinels of white supremacy. Jim Hill and Jackson are far from perfect, and the state of Mississippi is strongly considering taking over capital city’s underperforming school system; but, as battles over the past continue, it is important to reimagine new ways for southern communities to come together over a shared sense of the past. In Jackson, the students of Jim Hill High School have long led the way on this front and it would benefit all of us see the school as a memorial for a different southern history.