“We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges.” – Gene Wolfe
Symbols are important, especially when you’re trying to forge your identity. It’s ironic Mississippi is debating Initiative 42 at the same time it debates whether to change the state flag. Both are symbols of Mississippi’s identity. The state flag issue is affected by the results of a vote in 2001, because the voice of the people is an important role in the story. On November 3rd, Mississippians will weigh in on school funding, a moment with historic implications.
The story of Mississippi is a three act play, a work in progress in which we have been invited to take part. In Act I, we were born as two Mississippi’s, one for the Haves and one for the Have-Nots. The ruling class and the indigent poor of today are remnants of a plantation economy growing from the horror at our roots. Nowhere else in the nation will you find such pride and yet such shame, all mingled together into one big, muddy River.
Some Mississippi kids are born in affluent suburbs. They glean the gifts of early childcare, books in the house, and after school programs their parents can afford. Other Mississippi kids live in shacks you’d find in third world countries. They lack basic school supplies and time to sleep adequately. The school cafeteria fare may be their only meal of the day. To adequately provide them the tools for a productive life, education costs more.
We want the best of Mississippi for all of these kids, for every bare foot skipping across her soil. But the “best” life each kid will find is tied to the quality of the schools near their homes. Our two-tiered legacy haunts us to this day.
Then came Act II of our story, in which we made progress toward equitable education for all, relying upon our leadership to chart the way. But people don’t normally step right up for jobs like that. Not here. It takes a special kind of leader to change the future of the Deep South, so usually the ones we have, don’t. Bertrand Russell once noted, “Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who’ll get the blame.” Nowhere, perhaps, is that more true than in Mississippi.
Though our leaders have at times moved us forward, many Mississippians have lost their faith in the political system, and rightly so. We have one of the most corrupt state governments in the nation, and many of our elected representatives continue to place personal gain ahead of what’s right for the people. We are a state forever relegated to the back end of the pack. Whose responsibility is it to prove we’re done following our reputation? Whose responsibility is it to take the first step into the future?
A few years ago, there was an idea which started to circulate: come up with a plan to secure adequate funding for all Mississippi schools, all Mississippi kids. Then put it to a vote. Let the people decide for themselves.
We cannot rationally continue to expect the leadership of this state to change how we fund education. They have been unable or unwilling to make lasting changes for almost 20 years; they will likely continue their inaction for years to come. To assume they will set right our course simply because it’s their job, is not a solution. It’s a bit of magical thinking to avoid taking up the responsibility ourselves. The children of Mississippi deserve more. The children of Mississippi deserve action now.
Study after study finds the less adequate our funding, the more divided we become. The less Mississippi invests in the school districts of its cities, the less they are Mississippi. They cease to be unified, splintering into not much more than a confederation of scattered, competing Southern towns. Initiative 42 isn’t a cure-all for our poverty, but it is a rallying cry for us to start fully investing in each other- for Mississippi to finally come together.
Former Governor William Winter, and Secretary of State Dick Molpus, Republican entrepreneur Jim Barksdale, and former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice George Carlson believe Initiative 42 is our moment, the pivotal point in our story where we pull together. On the other side, the political machine and outside profiteers have united in the common goal of dividing and conquering us. But we can still rise up to shout it clear: We are one Magnolia State. We refuse to be carved up into privatized fiefdoms. Clinton and Clarksdale, Oxford and Okolona, Tishomingo and Terry- Every single Mississippi kid deserves to attend an adequately-funded school, not just the ones who were born in the right ZIP codes.
The story of Mississippi is a work in progress, with a mournful Act I, an Act II lingering on those tragic themes, and a finale of redemption just waiting to happen.
But Act III needs a hero.
Like it or not, if Initiative 42 doesn’t pass, no one will look back on it and talk about how in 2015, the people of Mississippi avoided a razor-thin rumor of judicial terror, or that the people of Mississippi protected their state from the establishment’s threats of budget cuts.
They’ll see our history, see our long legacy of being served raw deals by our leadership when it comes to educational funding, and they’ll see that we had a plan on the table. We had a way to secure adequate funding for every Mississippi kid. And it was up to us, the people- not our broken leadership.
The stage is set. Act III is about to start.
History will remember what we do on November 3rd.
What do we want to be remembered for?