By JONATHAN TILOVE
November 11, 1999
c.1999 Newhouse News Service
JACKSON, Miss. _ They didn’t invent racism in Mississippi, but history suggests it was perfected here. Sometimes the pageant of race relations in this state has been so over the top that it reads, in the retelling, more like fable than fact, more timeless Bible story than relatively recent past.
And so it is that the seemingly singular scenario now playing itself out at Lanier High School, in the persons of fellow teachers Bob Moses and Ouida Atkins, has attracted so little notice. It is, after all, only another Mississippi parable in black and white.
Moses, 64, is the existentialist black man from Harlem and Harvard who was the mythic leader of the effort to register black Mississippians to vote in the early 1960s. A man of preternatural calm and ego-less cool, Moses went alone deep into the darkest heart of Mississippi to do things that no black man at the time could have expected to attempt and survive. But, shot at, badly beaten and repeatedly jailed, he survived.
Atkins, 66, is the granddaughter of a Confederate soldier who fought at Shiloh and Vicksburg and the eldest daughter of the late Ross Barnett, the white segregationist governor of Mississippi from 1960 to 1964. It was Barnett who ominously branded Moses and his ilk “outside agitators.” It was Barnett whose fulminating but ultimately failed efforts to keep James Meredith from enrolling as the first black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962 ended in a long night of deadly rioting, enshrining Barnett forever as symbol to the world of strutting resistance to racial integration and equality.
But now, these many years later, Moses and Atkins find themselves colleagues in an effort to lift the educational attainment of black students at a public high school with but a single white student, and where many of those students’ lives are circumscribed by poverty, isolation and academic failure.
Both Moses and Atkins left Mississippi for most of their adult lives and then returned in recent years. Both are making their peace with history. Moses is resuming the work he started a lifetime ago in Mississippi to help liberate black people at the bottom, while Atkins, in her enthusiastic embrace of Lanier, is liberating herself from the stifling psychological confines that being a white Mississippian long imposed upon its ruling race.
On the first floor at Lanier, Moses teaches math, part of a national Algebra Project he founded to help make more black students math-literate. It is also designed with the hope that it will mobilize black students to demand of themselves, their peers, their schools and society the education without which, Moses says, they will remain economic serfs as certainly as their sharecropping ancestors.
Meanwhile, on the second floor, Atkins, one of a handful of white faculty at Lanier, teaches world history. It is a juxtaposition that has slowly dawned on folks at Lanier as Atkins _ at first fearful of being prejudged _ has become more open about just who she is. Moses realized her lineage only a few weeks ago.
“Who’d have thunk it,” said Assistant Principal Robert Jackson, himself a Lanier alumni.
“We’re proud to have both of them,” said Principal Johnny Hughes, who graduated from Lanier in 1970 at the height of integration when about half the faculty _ and all of three students _ were white.
Their convergence is all the more unlikely for the very different trajectories that brought Moses and Atkins to Lanier.
As a young woman, Ouida Atkins married a Louisiana lawyer and moved to his hometown of Homer. They had five children. He drank. They divorced. He died. She raised her children alone, teaching at a private academy created to avoid integration, an academy that her children attended. When her last child was grown, she moved back home to Jackson. In 1992, after subbing in the Jackson public schools, she was offered a job at Lanier, and took it.
“I love it,” she said, and has no plans to retire. There is about her neither the whiff of the zealot, the condescension of the missionary, nor the guilty gloom of the penitent.
She is an open, funny woman, clearly delighted by where her life has landed, defying her own and other’s expectations. “That debutante,” she said of her once-upon-a-time self, “never imagined she’d be teaching here.”
“These students have really brought me out,” she said. “They are very vocal and they say, `You’ve got to speak up, Miss Atkins. You better be heard.”
But, she said, “my friends won’t even drive over here,” an attitude she finds increasingly grating.
“I’ve changed my whole outlook really and now I really get angry almost at people, the way they say, `Aren’t you afraid to go over there, why do you do that, why don’t you go teach at Jackson Prep?”’
Now finishing her unit on the Phoenicians, Persians and Lydians, Atkins is on next to the Hebrews, focusing on how Moses led his people out of bondage.
Back in the days when Bob Moses was the driving force behind Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, his fellow activist Fannie Lou Hamer made it plain: “(God) sent a man to Mississippi with the same name that Moses had to go to Egypt and told him to go down to Mississippi and tell Ross Barnett to let my people go.”
It was the sort of idolatry this Moses could not bear. In 1965 he told fellow SNCC workers he was now Robert Parris, taking his middle name as his last. The next year he left Mississippi, and barely ever returned. From 1969 to 1975 he taught math in Tanzania, where three of his four children were born.
In 1976 he returned to Harvard to complete his doctorate in philosophy. And, out of concern about the math education his children were getting in the Cambridge, Mass., schools, and assisted by a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” he began what would become the Algebra Project.
The program now in use at middle schools at 22 sites in 13 states and one high school _ Lanier _ casts aside the textbook for graphing calculators and teaching that is more experiential, visual _ less rote and more reason. Listen to Moses and you may for the first time see what pi looks like, and why, and realize how much more manageable algebra is when one conceives of positive and negative not as how much, but which way on a number line.
Seven years ago Moses began commuting to Jackson from Cambridge to set up an Algebra Project at the Brinkley Middle School. Slowly he began to teach the courses himself. He followed those students through to Lanier High School, where he now teaches full time. So far, according to Lanier’s principal Hughes, students who go through Moses’ program score 8 to 12 points higher on the state math exam.
Meanwhile, the man who once plunged into the fearsome unknown of the Mississippi Delta not knowing if he would return now commutes weekly between Massachusetts and Mississippi, living during the week with three of his children, and returning to his wife and home in Cambridge on the weekend.
To most of his students Moses is a very serious and demanding math teacher. Most know little about his history, and he doesn’t give off hero vibes. Moses never seems to speak loudly or quickly. His handshake barely exists. But his eyes are searching and intense. Watch him for a while and you get the nervous sense that his eyes are the windows to your soul.
He asks students in one class if they know who Ross Barnett was.
None does. He cues them that it had something to do with James Meredith, the first black student to attend Ole Miss. Meredith visited with students at Lanier not long ago.
One student hazards a guess. “Ross Barnett helped (Meredith) get into Ole Miss.”
“On the contrary,” Moses said mildly. “You kids need to fix your heads.
“They had a little war up there at Ole Miss. People got killed,” he explained.
Another class gives Moses the same shrugs when asked about Atkins’ father.
“You should talk to her about her father,” Moses said.
“He did believe in separate but equal,” Atkins responds in one of her classes. She talks about her grandfather who fought for the Confederacy, about how, when the war ended, the Barnett slaves struggled to get back home, and one among them, Joshua, is buried in the family cemetery.
“Ya’ll got a cemetery?” one student marvels.
Atkins grew up pampered, surrounded by black servants. “I never had to brush my own hair.”
She does not repudiate her family. She loved her father. Her son, Ross Barnett Atkins _ now living in Washington and helping U.S. businesses make contacts in Cuba _ recalls an outsized and engaging grandfather. “He used the word `nigger’ but it wasn’t in a derogatory way. That was just the way he talked.”
But history has judged Barnett harshly.
In his classic 1964 book “Mississippi: The Closed Society,” University of Mississippi historian James W. Silver wrote that Barnett “came into office militantly stubborn, more negative than conservative, an inflexible racist with a mind relatively innocent of history, constitutional law and the processes of government.”
At halftime at the Ole Miss football game on the eve of Meredith’s enrollment, Barnett roared over the public address system: “I love Mississippi! I love her people! I love her customs!” and an ecstatic crowd of 40,000, waving a sea of Confederate flags, enveloped him in cheers.
Atkins saw a more vulnerable man, hemmed in by his time and circumstance. During the Meredith crisis when he was on the phone with John and Robert Kennedy constantly, “he was so nervous, his hands were shaking so I was having to dial the phone to call the White House.”
William Winter, a racial moderate who later served as governor with Barnett’s support, said Barnett’s handling of the Ole Miss crisis “stamped him indelibly for history as the personification of racism at its worst. He was a victim of his very poor judgment, allowing himself to be driven to that very extreme position from which he could not escape.”
Atkins believes her father, who died in 1988, would have come around. “I think he would have changed his mind,” said Atkins. “I changed my mind.”
“There was no enmity in his heart,” said her younger brother, Ross Barnett Jr., who assumed his father’s law practice, which always has done substantial business in the black community.
Barnett said his father opposed integrating the schools because of the social intermixing that would inevitably follow, and because he believed integrated schools would drag down the education of whites without improving black performance sufficiently to justify it.
It is a sentiment, now unspoken, that still influences how white parents decide where to send their children to school, all across the nation.
To Moses, the parallels to the early 1960s are plain. Back then, at a time when blacks were killed for trying to register to vote, Gov. Barnett insisted that blacks could vote if they wanted, they just were not interested.
Today that same argument is echoed by those who suggest that many blacks do less well in school because they are not interested in learning.
A bunch of experts or advocates saying it isn’t so won’t change people’s minds, said Moses. “I don’t think there is any way to counteract that argument absent a really critical mass, a critical network of young people to make those demands.”
He hopes that with his history in Mississippi he can make vivid how algebra connects with the freedom struggle, and he is depending on the work his three children and others do with students in the after-school and Saturday Young People’s Project to help accomplish that.
To some of the students, of course, the past, especially in a place like Mississippi, is best left behind.
“History can hold you back,” said Demetrica Gorden, a senior at Lanier who has been with the Algebra Project since sixth grade.“I want to go forward.”
But Rosalynn White, another Algebra Project senior, disagrees. “The past,” she said, “is a big part of the future.”