America, Don't Turn Your Back On Mississippi

Three years ago, before I moved to Mississippi from my native Manhattan, I would have jumped on the boycott bandwagon to punish the state for its so-called "Religious Freedom Bill" -- a Dixie-tinted Nuremberg Law depriving gay people of civil rights. I would have supported the tactic of starving this state into civility. I would have hailed author Sherman Alexie's protest of the bill when he canceled his scheduled address at the University of Mississippi next fall. And I would have been wrong.

In a place where hateful politics grows as thick and fast as kudzu, isolation is fertilizer for discrimination. Mississippi needs Americans who support gay rights to pour into the state, just they did to support voting rights in the Freedom Summer of 1964. Only active intervention from outsiders can help Mississippi overcome its latest civil rights challenge.

But Mississippi can overcome, as the New York Times reported in a story about "racial redemption" in a Mississippi Delta high school earlier this week.

Boycotting can be an effective driver for change, as it was during the mother of all civil rights boycotts, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But in reality, a boycott of Mississippi now won't hurt its rightful target: the relative handful of white men who wield power in this state and milk it dry. These are the elite who will be cutting educational funding, including funding for the state's only school for blind and deaf children, in order to give tax breaks to their corporate clients and enrich themselves. This is the very group that thrives in the shadows of isolation.

A macro view of this Mississippi shows an intractably bigoted place. A micro view reveals a complex mix of institutionalized bigotry and boundless individual kindness. This is a place where a stranger helps a stranger. A place where I was stranded in a gas station late one night with a blown-out tire and a man not only drove home to fetch the four-way crowbar he needed to change the tire but, finding he didn't have one, phoned his neighbor to borrow one and together they drove back to help me.

Change is possible, even dramatic change, as when last year the University of Mississippi's student and faculty senates -- both filled with non-natives -- voted to bring down the state flag (blink and you see the Confederate flag) on campus.

Mississippi is a complicated place, as confusing to navigate as a human soul, and at times as dark as our worst impulses. But America mustn't turn its back on Mississippi if there's any chance for salvation.