On anniversaries we reflect, about meanings and mistakes, hopes and hurts.
My reflections on James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss began a year early. On its 49th anniversary, I went back to Ole Miss to commemorate with friends the life of the late Prof. James W. Silver, whose stubborn courage was so central to the birth pangs of that terrible time half a century ago. I sought signs of hope.
Then, as now, I wondered of the words of wiser men. A century ago, Yeats ominously observed,
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
…, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.2
They must to keep their certainty accuse
All that are different of a base intent.3
Holmes is my muse. About the time of Yeats, Holmes saw inside the minds of men.
If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in a law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition … seems to indicate that…you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises.4
These thoughts capture the core thinking of so many in my home state as I knew it in 1962. That much is clear. But are Yeats and Holmes hitting home of today’s Mississippi?
A year ago, I (re)read the first chapter of Jim Silver’s Mississippi: The Closed Society (1964). Professional historian that he was, Silver paralleled the late 1950s leading to the integration of Ole Miss in September 1962 with the late 1850s leading to The War.
Circa 1961, many that I had grown up with and/or had come to know at Ole Miss, and who seemed otherwise sensible persons, thought the proper way to commemorate the Lost Cause was to secede again.
Faulkner died on July 6, 1962. Our reflections on the thought of our most literate Mississippian remain fresh.
On March 18, 2008, then candidate Barack Obama confronted history from a Faulknerian perspective, and reminded us of country lawyer philosopher Gavin Stevens’ insight, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”5
I was in awe of Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature when I arrived at Ole Miss in the Fall of 1958, though at the time I had read only a few of his short stories. I learned that Faulkner was the second such American Nobel laureate, and I became curious about the first, Eugene O’Neill, particularly as I learned that many think O’Neill’s best work was done after receiving his Nobel Prize in 1937.
In the Millennium Year 2000, I first saw O’Neill’s last play staged and was struck by the words: “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.” 6 This line that sounded so Faulknerian came from Jim Tyrone, the semi-autobiographical protagonist in O’Neill’s last work, posthumously published.7
The lesson of 2011’s state elections is that our politics is headed for re-segregation. Politically moderate Mississippians are as disenfranchised de facto as 50 years ago African Americans were disenfranchised de jure. A 40 year old William Winter (if we were lucky enough to have one) is utterly unelectable in Mississippi today and for the foreseeable future.
The State’s political leaders are not going to implement the Affordable Care Act, and the Supreme Court’s upholding it be damned. No matter that all the Act does is shift to all of our backs burdens and costs that have heretofore been borne exclusively by those least able to bear them — the poor and the uninsureds including a disproportionate number of minorities — to whom we so comfortably close our eyes.
Our leaders supported establishing a health care exchange as good public policy until the Tea Party crowd got the idea that this somehow signaled support for Obamacare. Do you “not care wholeheartedly for the result, or … [do] you doubt either your power or your premises”?
“They must to keep their certainty accuse all that are different of a base intent.”
Our legislature has enacted that before a physician may perform an abortion, he or she must have staff privileges at a state accredited hospital. “Mississippi must be abortion free,” though the State’s lawyers go to court and say we’re only trying to protect the health of pregnant women who have made the gut wrenching choice that they should exercise their rights under Roe v. Wade.
Sort of like 50 years ago’s “Segregation now! Segregation forever!” with our Attorney General arguing that persons, going to court to secure their civil rights, for their own good should be required to have a lawyer licensed in Mississippi.
More and more public schools, once racially segregated by state law, are becoming all but re-segregated, and we are told de facto re-segregation is not only okay; it is a part of the natural order of society. No matter that it produces a racial isolation far more insidious and intractable than the de jure segregation a half century ago.
For those of us who are now past 70, there is no escaping that the vitriol white Mississippi levels at Barack Obama is of the same genre — of the same passionate intensity — as that leveled against John Kennedy 50 years ago. I could go on.
Make no mistake about it. Any lawyer worth shooting can make the case that “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.” “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And that, as Abraham Lincoln said simply, a month before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, “Fellow Citizens, we cannot escape history.” 8
But surely there is a way out. We must have hope, and, maybe more important, words.
“I decline to accept the end of man … I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” 9
Faulkner’s poetry appeals. I accept it, not because I believe man is immortal and has a soul, but for the far more powerful reason that I have seen fellow flawed Mississippians act out compassion and sacrifice and endurance, again and again.
Still, this is not enough. We must have — and use — minds capable of thinking and a voice capable of talking and articulating reason. Enough of us enough of the time see that organized democratic society is not just about equal liberty and equality of opportunity, but of efficient distributive justice with a social safety net, though I cannot as I would wish say our quibbles are at the margins.
We can and at times do infuse this pragmatic elaboration of Faulkner’s poetry with Learned Hand’s words from the darkest of times.
The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of … men and women; … which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias; … that remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded.10
I have long thought our history a lot of two steps forward, one step backwards. Of late, the pessimist within me fears it’s been more like five steps forward and four backwards.
Still, on this sesquicentennial of the Civil War, no one is talking about seceding again — outside of Texas, that is. And maybe Alaska.
We all know many who are full of passionate intensity and determined to turn the clock back. But not completely.
The Governor of Mississippi opening the Mansion and hosting the Freedom Riders of 50 years ago really does symbolize substantive change for the better.
The Presidential Debate in the Fall of 2008 really does tell us we’ll never again have speakers banned from our college campuses, the way the IHL Board of almost fifty years ago did so determinedly.
The greatest change is in the moments we see each day, where so many of different races and creeds have mundane daily interactions in friendship and mutual respect.
Today, as 150 years ago and as fifty years ago, “the occasion is piled high with difficulty.” 11 As always, we have no choice but “to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based on imperfect knowledge.” 12
We best honor the hopes and hurts of our September 30, 1962, by sharpening our practice of those Holmesian touchstones for the activity of life. Not only is it “required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived,” 13 but we should “recall what our country has done for each of us, and … ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return,” 14 never forgetting the practical reality that opportunity is not a frequent visitor.
We have endured the Closed Society, and we are in the process of prevailing, five steps forward and maybe only three steps backwards. We will continue the process of becoming so long as there are a few much, much younger than me who will not only follow Holmes in “sounding a note of daring, hope and will,” 15 but act out that note. And in a spirit which is not too sure that it is right.
For who among us knows just “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.” 16