Ferguson, Mo. is about 600 miles from Pike County, Miss., but there’s a closer nexus.
Two years ago I made my second visit to the Statham Family Cemetery, which dates to 1841, in still rural Pike County. It’s located on 49 acres of the larger tract of land where my father and his five brothers were born and raised. On the visit I met the owner of the land, who I’ll refer to as Charles. He reminded me how to find the cemetery in a heavily wooded part of his land and graciously invited me to come back to the house for coffee.
After my time at the cemetery, Charles and I had a nice conversation. I felt comfortable with him and soon called him Charles; he continued speaking to me as Mr. Statham, and I asked him to call me Bo. He humbly said, “Mr. Statham, I learned a long time ago that if you show respect for people you don’t get in trouble.” Those were code words for “I know my place.” I told him I felt like we were friends, we were about the same age, and I wanted him to call me Bo. But Charles simply couldn’t: he is an African-American who grew up in Jim Crow Mississippi.
Later that day I was having dinner in a nearby town. The waiter, a young, local African-American, started with the usual introduction, “I’m Brandon, and I will be your server tonight.” I extended my hand and said, “Thanks, Brandon, how are you?” He quickly and comfortably responded “Good to meet you, Bo,” reflecting the generational difference between him and Charles.
Charles remembers being called “boy,” not just as a child but as an adult; he remembers separate and unequal schools; he remembers “Colored Not Served Here” signs; he remembers rigid segregation in every aspect of life; he remembers not being able to vote; he remembers being inferior by law. He now enjoys his legal rights, thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But to this day, at age 81, in his relations with white people he still follows “the rules” so vividly imprinted in his very being.
Brandon has not experienced the absolute discrimination against blacks of Charles’ era, but there’s no doubt he too has been the victim of white prejudice. If distinguished Harvard professor, Henry Lewis Gates, Jr., a black man, can be arrested on the front porch of his home on suspicion of breaking and entering, as he was in 2009, a young man of color in Mississippi can be the victim of profiling on numerous occasions. And, surely, Brandon feels the pain and anger of all African-Americans who are descendents of slaves.
Two-thirds of Ferguson’s population share, in varying degrees, the legacy and life experiences of Charles and Brandon. When put in that context, the frustration and anger being demonstrated in that city and around the country over the failure of the grand jury to indict Officer Darren Wilson are understandable. At least they are to this native Mississippian, who vividly remembers the indignities and deprivation of rights suffered by black citizens.
My next column will consider the grand jury action that warrants strong criticism.
Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aid and businessman. He lives in Gardnerville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.