Fifty years ago, police in Natchez, Miss., rounded up hundreds of innocent, civil rights protesters and shipped them off to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Last week, the city's mayor and Board of Aldermen publicly apologized for the grave injustice, the Natchez Democrat reports.
In anticipation of the national spotlight that will illuminate the city next year during its tricentennial celebration, the board decided that it was time to make amends and did so in a public resolution.
In October 1965, approximately 700 black citizens who congregated at a local auditorium were arrested for organizing a march in protest of racist voter disenfranchisement. The ordinance cited in the mass arrest was later determined to be unconstitutional, according to Darrell White, director of the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture. But that didn't matter to the good old boys.
Two hundred of those arrested were shipped off to Parchman, a prison notorious for its inhumane conditions, where they were subjected to mistreatment and abuse. According to the Democrat, the protesters never went before a judge or had their day in court.
White and Galen Mark LaFrancis are in the process of filming a documentary to shed light on the Parchman Ordeal, which, along with other Natchez stories—like the 1967 Ku Klux Klan slaying of Wharlest Jackson—has flown below the nation's radar.
Community activist Dr. Betty Cade, who spearheaded the efforts, told the paper that the public apology "is the first step in getting this out in the open and letting us heal" as the city, once the second-largest slave-trading post in the United States and the largest in the state of Mississippi, heads into its 300th year.
Mayor Larry L. "Butch" Brown agrees.
"The city of Natchez must stare down its shame for the mistreatment of hundreds of innocent, black Natchezians," read Brown during a reconciliation banquet at a local church. " … for 50 years, the city has failed to acknowledge publicly the disgrace of the Parchman Ordeal. The city failed its citizens and failed the principles of this nation.
"Even though it has been a long time coming," Brown continued, "it is not too late to recognize and apologize to those true heroes of Natchez who bravely endured degradation in advancing the cause of equality before the law."
Let's be clear: A public apology may be great P.R., it may even be well-intentioned, but it is not justice.
I was born and raised in Natchez, Miss. (full disclosure: I consider Mayor Brown a family friend), and this I know to be true: An apology is not nearly enough. "We're sorry" does not rectify the generations of white privilege that are evident in every crevice of this town, or the accepted system of white supremacy that leaves that privilege relatively unchallenged.
It's 2015. We are long past the stage of "first steps."
I think about the plantation economic structure in Natchez and how much the tourism industry is fueled by the blood and broken bones of slaves. This is a town where symbols of that "peculiar institution," including a restaurant shaped like a giant mammy—affectionately called "Black Mammy's" by those racist locals who see nothing wrong with it—is considered a local treasure, and Civil War re-enactments and Confederate flags are considered a part of its charm.
Natchez is home to dozens of gorgeous, immaculately preserved antebellum homes—built by enslaved Africans—that bring tourists from around the world to gaze in awe at a city "where the Old South still lives." It is a city that unapologetically celebrates and profits from a time period when black people in this country were considered less than chattel.
Still, improvements to the infrastructure of black neighborhoods remain minimal; increases in job and business opportunities for people of color remain scarce; educated and skilled educators in an underperforming school district aren't given the resources they need to provide high-quality and globally competitive education for students of color, while private resources are funneled into predominantly white private schools; and limited access to affordable, high-quality, comprehensive health care is evidence of why Mississippi is dangerous for black people in more ways than one.
Despite popular opinion, I don't say these things because I hate Natchez; I say these things because I know it has the potential to be so much better. I say them because my father, two grandfathers and grandmother, who all at different points served on the Board of Aldermen, would say the same thing.
An apology is merely symbolic. Now let's talk about substance.
If the city's robust tourism industry—an industry built on the backs of enslaved Africans and their descendants—is to continue operation, then a percentage of the profits should go toward the redevelopment of a once-thriving black community, an endeavor that engaged community leaders have already undertaken with some success.
If that sounds like reparations, it's because it is. And that's a public conversation worth having—beginning with financial settlements for the individuals wrongfully arrested, abused and denied due process during the Parchman Ordeal.
The apology may allow some members in local government to celebrate the city's tricentennial with a clear conscience, but this city's debt to humanity is not paid. No symbolic gesture of reconciliation for past injustice—no matter how overdue or warranted—is enough, not when systemic injustice is considered business as usual.
I'll save my applause until there's a resolution on what the local government plans to do about that.