This report airs July 23, Sunday on NBC
They were the images that shocked America—shocked the world. People were left behind, stranded not just by a killer storm and a botched evacuation. They were stranded by poverty, neglect and failure from above and below.
It’s been almost a year now since those images from Hurricane Katrina so affected us, but in black neighborhoods across the country, north and south, east and west, not just in New Orleans, the same desperate conditions are a daily reality.
We spent eight months in one American neighborhood posing the question to the people who live there and to the people who left.
We found a complex history, despair about the future, but also profoundly moving stories of hope and achievement.
Jackson, Mississippi, is 200 miles north of New Orleans: It was just brushed by Katrina, but Jackson has its own challenges as a result of poverty, drugs, and lingering racism.
In the generation coming of age there, too many teenage girls have babies. Too many fathers are missing from too many homes.
Teenage boys struggle in school and many succumb to the dangers of the street.
Manuel Sturghill: I feel a little hopeless right now. But I’m not really weak minded. I’m just gonna try to get on my feet and do something.
And despite everything, many families persevere.
Mable Thomas: I’m trying to succeed in life and I want to make my sister proud of me.
Jackson and Mississippi have changed from the bad old days when the state was the epicenter of racism and fierce, often violent opposition to the idea of desegregation.
In 1962, President Kennedy sent federal troops to Ole Mississippi, the state university, to enforce the admission of James Meredith, a young black student—a move adamantly opposed by Governor Ross Barnett, a leading segregationist.
Barnett’s daughter, Ouida Atkins, is symbolic of the changes in her native state.
Tom Brokaw, NBC News: Do you think Mississippi has put race and its past behind it or are they still working its way through it?
Ouida Atkins: I think it’s still workin’ its way through it.
Jackson now has a large black middle class and a growing black professional class.
There is a controversial, pistol-packing mayor, a black man named Frank Melton.
Frank Melton, Jackson, Miss. mayor: If you wanna talk about the African American community, I think you just have to be honest. We’re in trouble.
And the local newspaper—once the racist voice of the white establishment, has a black editor—a sharecropper’s son, named Ronnie Agnew.
Ronnie Agnew: I’m a strong proponent of the lack of excuses because I guess I’m a product of the lack of excuse.
But Jackson still has thousands of black citizens who are falling farther and farther behind.
In Jackson’s best known black neighborhood, the Georgetown district, during the years of enforced segregation, the hopes and dreams of this community were invested in a building—Lanier High School. And during those years, it had a highly-motivated all black faculty. A student body that knew the best way to get out of Georgetown was through education - students who went on to become doctors and lawyers and civic leaders. But then something happened to Lanier: They passed the civil rights bill.
That was supposed to bring integration to America.
Charlene Priester: This city didn’t just open their arms and say, “Okay, we’re ready to integrate.” You know, they were drug kicking and screaming into this.
Charlene Priester attended Lanier in the segregated ‘60s, when the school was the scene of civil rights protests. Jackson schools were finally integrated, after years of court battles, in 1969.
Priester: So, how do we integrate? We’re not going to send over any white children into this predominantly black school. So, we’re going to send some white faculty there.
Many of those white teachers were young and inexperienced at the time ... such as Charles Norton.
Charles Norton: It was tough. And it was a sort of a novelty for my students, I think, to see a white guy. They would all touch my hair and stuff like that.
Lanier’s best black teachers were transferred to all white schools, but very few white students were transferring to Lanier. Instead, they enrolled in private academies—or moved out of the school district. There were unexpected and unwelcome consequences as a result of integration.
Priester: A lot of the economic base was leaving, our tax dollars was leaving. So by the time people that looked like us took over the administration of these public schools they’re administrating a bankrupt system.
Today, the city of Jackson is 70 percent black, with a population that’s actually shrinking. There are more people living in poverty than there were 25 years ago. Just across the county line, in the suburbs, it is anywhere USA, with big box stores, malls, and movie theaters. But not so in the majority black city of Jackson.
Agnew: Race has everything to do with the personal decisions about where to live, where to shop, everything.
Vince Gordon is a youth minister who graduated from Lanier high.
Vince Gordon: This is the capital city and we have no movie theatre. How many capital cities have you visited without a movie theatre?
Brokaw: Because it’s now a predominantly black city?
There are many well-tended homes in the Georgetown neighborhood, but there are also signs of decay everywhere—like an abandoned apartment complex next door to Lanier that is the very image of urban blight.
Priester: It’s a little sad because in the past, all this was very vibrant.
Charlene Priester is a Jackson success story. She grew up poor in this neighborhood, where her family ran a small grocery store. She went to law school at the University of Texas. Charlene has lived in two worlds.
Priester: When integration came, the money didn’t come, but the door opened and allowed people to move. And so unfortunately you leave behind the people who didn’t have the ability. And just like Katrina, when they said evacuate, you know folks couldn’t leave.
Brokaw: So quite simply, integration without economic opportunity was not enough.
Priester: You’re right. That’s it.
Charlene raised her kids in an affluent neighborhood on the north side of Jackson, once all white, now almost all black. Her sons, Melvin and Jonathan, went to Jackson public schools but in a much better part of town than the one their mom grew up in.
Agnew: Jackson has experienced what I would characterize as economic flight.
The newspaperman, Ronnie Agnew, says the movement of successful blacks out of the inner city has deprived whole communities of role models.
Agnew: There is a feeling here, quite honestly, of people saying, “That is not my problem. I am going to move my family to the suburbs, and I am going to live happily ever after.” And I’ll be honest with you. It’s a little bit hypocritical for me because I’ve done the same.
Agnew makes sure that his paper consistently reports on the difficult issues Jackson faces. Others take an even more personal approach.
Charlene Priester still volunteers at her alma mater, Lanier High School.
Vince Gordon, the youth minister, bought a house right across the street from Lanier and sends his daughter to school there—she’s a straight A student.
And Charles Norton, the one time novice teacher who helped integrate Lanier, stayed there and has taught for 36 years. But he says he’s less optimistic now than he was when he started.
Brokaw: Once you get outside the confines of this neighborhood, do you think people of Mississippi, black and white, care?
Norton: I don’t. I don’t think they care. I think for the most part, we’ve got some of the same feelings that we had in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Brokaw: But desegregation was supposed to change all that? The civil rights bill was supposed to change all that?
Norton: It changes what you see. It doesn’t change what people think. It doesn’t change people’s hearts.
Today, Lanier high school’s student body is 100 percent black, just like it was in the segregation days. Back then the school was a beacon of hope, but is has felt the effects of the changes all around it.
There are still dedicated teachers and high achieving students. But Lanier’s student test scores put it in the bottom 10-percent of schools in Mississippi... And Mississippi is routinely ranked in the bottom 10-percent nationally.
How can it be that, 50 years after the dawn of the civil rights movement, this school, and this neighborhood, still are all black, still struggling... and in some ways worse off than before?
Lanier High School remains all black, more than 50 years after school desegregation became the law of the land. Its principal, Stanley Blackmon runs a tight ship.
But there are realities and Lanier has a certain reputation.
Amanda Furge, student: I think that Lanier gets a bad rep.
Tom Brokaw, NBC News: Why?
Furge: Because of the location. Our school is in the middle of the ghetto.
Brokaw: A tough neighborhood?
Furge: Tough neighborhood. And, the kids here, people assume that they are the product of their environment.
Jackson Mayor Frank Melton spends a lot of time patrolling this neighborhood. He’s appointed himself a kind of “official vigilante.” He is controversial—but he’s identified one issue that almost everyone agrees is at a crisis point:
Riding along with Frank Melton
Frank Melton, mayor: I don’t want to embarrass anybody but I want you all to be honest with me ok. Where’s your daddy?”
BOY #1: “In Chicago”
MELTON: Where’s your daddy?
BOY #2: “Prolly at work somewhere”
MELTON: Where’s your daddy?
BOY #3: ‘in Chicago”
MELTON: Where’s your daddy?
BOY #4: “at home”
MELTON: Where’s your daddy?
BOY #5: in Baton Rouge.
MELTON: Where’s your daddy?
BOY #6: “in jail. My daddy’s in jail.”
MELTON: “your daddy’s in jail. I rest my case. I rest my case.
One of the many kids who are growing up without a father is Manuel Sturghill. When we first met him in October of 2005, Manuel was the tallest player on Lanier’s basketball team, a team that had won six state championships and in 2005 sent a player to the NBA. Manuel has the talent to play in college, but he is struggling to stay on the high school team—and to stay in school.
Manuel is 17, a sophomore. His father and mother split when he was little, then one day, his father just abandoned him.
Brokaw: when was the last time you saw him?
Manuel Sturghill, student: Probably when I was about six years old. Five or six years old. It really just scared me and I was sorta confused I’m like, ‘Okay when he coming back, what’s wrong with him, why he leave, what happened to make him leave.’ Thought it was something I did.
Grace Sturghill, Manuel's mom: I want him to go to school.
Manuel’s mother, Grace, has not been able to provide much direction either. She is addicted to crack cocaine. That is a source of constant stress for Manuel.
Sturghill: She can be the best person in the world. Sometime when she’s messed up she get mad and throw things, say different things she really don’t mean, starts hollering, I just don’t like to be around.
Nationwide, less than 40 percent of black children live with both parents, as compared to almost 80 percent of white children. Our unscientific sampling of honor students at Lanier suggests it makes a big difference.
Brokaw: How many of you had a father that who was a big influence in your life? Luther, your father?
Luther: He always pushes me to go forward in life. He doesn’t want me to settle for less.
Manuel and his mom live with Manuel’s grandmother Betty Smith. She’s been the one constant in Manuel’s life. Mrs. Smith worked for more than 40 years at a company that made caps and gowns for high school graduations—including Lanier’s. She never made more than 8.25 dollars an hour, but Betty and her late husband managed to raise seven kids and pay off their house. Now, however, money is very tight.
Betty Smith, Manuel's grandmother: No retirement.
Brokaw: No retirement program?
Smith: No retirement program.
Brokaw: So what do you live on? Social Security?
Smith: Social Security.
Brokaw: And that’s all?
Smith: That’s all. Nothing else.
Many blue collar employers in Jackson have shut down. Mrs. Smith knows Manuel will need a good education to make a decent living.
Smith: I want him to graduate from high school. I want Manuel to have a good life. If I was up I would shake it in him. You know I would get it in him. I don’t care how big he is, he not too big for me.
He may not be too big for her, but Mrs. Smith can’t provide the discipline she once did. She had a stroke two years ago and now she depends on Manuel to help her in and out of bed every day, to help her eat.
Sturgill: I can do a lot of things that people don’t think I can do. I’m kind I’m sweet and everything I can do anything you want me to do for you.
But Manuel resists authority—especially male authority. He chafes under the discipline of Lanier’s hard-nosed basketball coach.
Smith: I tell him anywhere he going, he can’t make it without discipline.
Just down the street from Manuel’s house, an infant is starting life without his father, while a teenager is trying to learn to be a mother—and earn the high school diploma she knows is crucial to her future.
Alicia Ruffin is 17, a senior at Lanier. When we first met her in November 2005, her baby, Jamerie, was just four weeks old and she had not been back to school since he was born.
Alicia lives with her mother and stepfather. They both work but their income puts the family just above the poverty line. Baby Jamerie has added to the financial strain.
Brokaw: Now, Alicia. Here’s a tough question: Did you think about all this when—
Alicia Ruffin, senior and mother: I already knew.
Brokaw: Did you want to have a baby?
Ruffin: No I didn’t. It wasn’t planned.
Brokaw: But you know how babies are made?
Jamerie’s father, who is 23, is in jail awaiting trial on burglary and embezzlement charges.
His absence forces Alicia’s mother Ruth to do a lot of the work in caring for Jamerie.
The rate of teenage pregnancy has been falling for several years nationwide—down almost 50-percent among blacks. But it still seems very common here.
Lanier counselor Nancy Sylvester has worked in the Jackson public schools for 28 years.
Nancy Sylvester: When I first came to Lanier—I was just really shocked at the number of girls that were pregnant. Some of them have two or three babies.
Sylvester: I feel that there’s plenty that’s done in the community. But somehow we’re just not being effective with what’s being presented. It’s not influencing the children to the point that they’re deciding, “This is not what I’m going to do. I want to do better. I don’t wanna be a part of this.”
Brokaw: There are terrible consequences for all that. Because other communities are gonna say, “If they can’t solve that, why should I help?”
Brokaw: Is this hard for you to talk about this?
Sylvester: It is.
Brokaw: Why are so many young girls having babies at such early ages?
Chanel Williams: Because a lot of that comes from peer pressure. “Oh, she’s still a virgin.” Oh what’s wrong with her?
Amanda Furge: I think a lot of it comes from, “She had a baby. If I have one, I won’t be that embarrassed.” And, you’ll have a baby, and then you won’t be that embarrassed. It’s a cycle.
Nancy Sylvester keeps close tabs on all the teenage moms, giving them makeup work to do and trying to keep them on track for graduation.
Brokaw: This is all very hard work, isn’t it?
Sylvester: It’s very hard. I work day and night. It doesn’t end.
Alicia has been diligent about her school work and says she still plans to graduate and go to college.
Ruffin: I want to be so many things just can’t make up my mind.
The next few months will test Alicia’s optimism to the limit. And for Manuel, it will be a year of tough choices about just what kind of life he wants to make for himself.
Beneath the warm feelings at Thanksgiving, there is tension. Manuel’s struggles with the basketball coach continue. He’s been benched for every game so far. He says he’s thinking seriously about dropping out of school.
Manuel wants to go to the job corps, a federal vocational training program. His counselor, Nancy Sylvester, says he has the academic skills to do much more.
Nancy Sylvester: Manuel can graduate high school. Manuel can be successful in college.
Tom Brokaw, NBC News: You have a lot of admirers at the school.
Manuel Sturghill: Yes, sir.
Brokaw: But I’m a little puzzled about why you’re not doing better. They think you’ve got so much potential.
Sturghill: I don’t know. You know, sometimes I just get lazy.
But spending time with Manuel, you can see it’s not just laziness. He’s lost. He doesn’t seem to think he can succeed, or know how to go about it.
Ms. Sylvester, who has worked with Manuel since he was in middle school, often finds herself in a maternal role—giving him school supplies, even lunch money on occasion. But she can only do so much.
Sylvester: When he leaves the school, he may not do homework. He won’t study for tests. He gets involved in a lot of activities that are going on in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood around Lanier is marginally safer now than it was a year ago—but across Jackson, violent crime has risen dramatically.
Sturghill: This is the notorious Wood street, the one that everybody talk about, the street that stay on the news all the time for fighting, shooting… just a whole bunch of violence.
Manuel says he has never been involved. But he does say he is capable of terrible anger.
Sturghill: You want to fight, I probably end up fighting. And when I get mad, I’m nothing to see.
If Manuel drops out of high school, odds are he’ll be headed for trouble. One national study found about a third of black male high school dropouts between the ages of 22 and 30 are incarcerated—that’s five times the rate for whites.
Ronnie Agnew, newspaper editor: There’s a ward at our jail that has about 40 juveniles and these folks are accused of murder and rape, all kinds of—
Brokaw: Horrific crimes.
Agnew: Crimes that are unthinkable. Just unthinkable. But, the common denominator was they had the free reign to roam the streets and nobody cared.
Vince Gordon, youth minister: Hence the college population drops, and the prison population rises.
Brokaw: What about the community being responsible for all the members of the community? Kid gets in trouble at the other end of the street? In the old days, another momma or another daddy would go out there and grab that kid by the scruff of the neck, right?
Gordon: In the old days, the parents were older. The parents were being parents, and not being their children’s friend.
Mayor Frank Melton thinks he can combat the problem with a door to door approach. We rode with him on one of his community policing sweeps of low income neighborhoods.
Frank Melton, mayor: What did your daddy do when you dropped out?
Kid: He wasn’t staying here.
Melton: What did you mother do?
Kid: Nothing really. Coz she didn’t know when I stopped.
Melton: Ok let’s get to the bottom line. Where do you work?
Kid: Pizza hut.
Melton: So what are you gonna do 5 years from now?
Kid: Five years from now... hmm...
Melton: You getting the picture? You talk to a fourth grader, he’s gonna tell you he wants to be a teacher, a doctor, a cinematographer. They give you all these great dreams. But, something is happening between the fourth and the ninth grade where they lose those dreams.
Fameika Thomas never lost her dreams. And what she has accomplished is nothing less than heroic.
Brokaw: So what’s the lesson of your life Fameika?
Fameika Thomas: I guess I would have to say it would be to never give up.
Fameika is 26 years old. Her mother, like Manuel’s, was a crack addict. In elementary school, Fameika was forced to act as a mother to her two younger sisters.
Thomas: I had to make sure that they were fed and that they were clothed, and that they had their school clothes picked out and I had to iron them.
Fameika’s parents were separated and the family was desperately poor. More than once, Fameika’s school counselor—again Nancy Sylvester—dug into her own purse to buy Fameika clothing.
Thomas: I think everybody else saw a troubled child. But she saw, you know, a child that had a lot going on at home; and all she needed was somebody to encourage her and to tell her, you know, that “You’ll get through this, and you’ll be all right.”
Eventually their mother’s drug condition forced their father to file for custody of Fameika and her sisters. He won—and his influence was crucial to getting Fameika into college and graduate school. But three years ago, he died of lung cancer. Now Fameika has custody of Mable and Alexandria.
Brokaw: Looking back, what was the hardest time for you?
Thomas: I would say it had to be when my daddy died.
Brokaw: And what was your proudest moment?
Thomas: Graduating. Receiving my master’s degree.
Brokaw: What drove you to do that?
Thomas: Well, I made a promise to my daddy that I would not quit school. And if I was going to be able to provide a decent living for my sisters, I was gonna have to get that masters degree.
Fameika’s a social worker with 20 years of student loan payments due. She’s the sole supporter of her younger siblings. She’s the big sister as mother, father—and drill sergeant.
Alexandria is a junior at Lanier and a member of the national honor society.
Mable is a senior, and bound for college.
Brokaw: As a result of growing up with your sister, and seeing all that she’s done for you, and how hard she’s worked, what are your own dreams? What do you want to do someday?
Alexandria Thomas: Go get my doctor’s degree and be a pediatrician. And show my sister that what she did really paid off.
Brokaw: What about you, Mabel?
Mabel Thomas: I want to major in education and become a teacher. I don’t want ‘Meika to be like, “All this hard work didn’t mean anything.” I don’t wanna be no failure.
Manuel Sturghill says he does not want to fail either—but like many kids he doesn’t seem to know how to succeed. So Vince Gordon runs an after school program that is a kind of substitute family.
Vince Gordon: What we try to do is provide hope. I graduated from Lanier; I want students to know you can make it.
Manuel is enrolled in Gordon’s program but nothing seems to be getting through to him. In December his conflict with the basketball coach comes to a head—Manuel is kicked off the team.
His grandmother is terrified she’s going to lose him to the streets.
Betty Smith, Manuel’s grandmother: Idon’t want Manuel out in them streets. And that’s where he going to end up at. He can’t see it, but he going to end up right there in them streets.
Manuel is now chronically late for school. He’s even late the day first semester report cards are handed out. His grades are dismal.
Vince Gordon says Manuel needs to get his act together... quickly.
Vince Gordon: I’m seeing a kid with potential and everyone around him sees potential but he doesn’t realize the potential he has.
Gordon: He’ll be another inner city black kid in jail, dropped out from high school, no dad in his life so he’ll just conform to that statistical pattern.
The new mother, Alicia Ruffin, is determined to beat the odds against her. On January 4th, eleven weeks after her baby’s birth, she kisses him goodbye and heads back to class at Lanier.
Alicia faces a mountain of make-up work. But she is confident she can make it.
Alicia Ruffin: Because I’m trying to graduate cause I want ‘Merie to see me walking cross the floor or the coliseum and he be standing up like that going “Mama, yeah, we made it, we made it we going to college.”
There is another hopeful sign in the New Year. Those blighted apartments down the street from Lanier are torn down, the mayor fulfilling a promise to try to redevelop the site.
February 8 is Mable Thomas’ 18th birthday. Her mother, her real mother, not Fameika comes to visit at Lanier. It’s an awkward meeting.
Mable, Famieka and Alexandra's mother: I am their sister. Meika’s their mother. Quit. I can’t stand that.
Mable’s mom is a recovering crack addict. The daughters have created their own family—with Fameika in charge.
Tom Brokaw, NBC News: If you could wave a magic wand in your community, when it comes to the African-American family—what would you change?
Fameika Thomas: I think the one thing that we need to work on is accountability. We just allow people to get off too easy. That’s why we have grandparents who are raising, you know, grandchildren, and we have sisters who are raising sisters. Because our parents, they’re not stepping up to the plate.
Personal responsibility: It’s a theme that comes up again and again.
Consider Alicia Ruffin. The Lanier senior and new mother—returned to school in January, full of optimism.
But now, in March, counselor Nancy Sylvester tells us of a startling turnabout—Alicia no longer is in school.
Nancy Sylvester: Her mother came in and made a decision that Alicia would have to withdraw. That Alicia would have to take more responsibility for her baby.
But Alicia rebels, and disappears from home.
When we arrived, Alicia had just walked in the door. Her mother Ruth had called the police.
Police: You have a responsibility to your son. But you’re gonna kick it off on mom until she gets upset with you and puts both of you out of the house.
Ruth hopes the police officer made an impression.
Ruth Ruffin, mother: She doesn’t understand that that’s what she have, responsibility. This baby is a responsibility.
Alicia threatens to leave home, but there’s nowhere to go.
Ruth Ruffin: If she stays here…. Alicia, I’m gonna beat you!
Alicia Ruffin:Stupid! Everything’s just stupid! Ain’t got no help. His daddy’s in jail...
The crisis eventually passes, but the problems remain.
In March, Lanier won its seventh state basketball championship without Manuel. The coach cut him because he kept missing practice. But that just caused Manuel to fail even more, failing academically. And now he’s a discipline problem.
Sylvester: If some of the male teachers will approach him and talk with him, or require certain things of him, he becomes very defensive.
So Manuel spends his time on the streets instead of in school.
One recent study found that nationwide, only about 45 percent of black ninth grade boys go on to graduate, compared with 70 percent of whites.
Jorel Washington: I don’t think that most of the students don’t care about school. I think that people in the community say that school is not important, so they wanna fit in with them.
These Lanier honor students say some of their friends hassle them for getting good grades.
Chanel Williams: "Oh, she not down with us. Oh, she not ghetto enough." I’m trying to get an education. I’m not here to sit on my butt and do nothing.
Charles Norton has taught history here for 36 years.
Charles Norton: I think that today’s society has produced children that have a lack of respect for themselves, for their peers, for any kind of authority. And you didn’t see that ten years or 15 or 20 years ago.
Brokaw: What brought all that on?Norton: The hip hop generation?
Over the last three decades, hip hop has grown to dominate pop culture. Many rap videos and lyrics paint a very specific picture of black urban life. It is hustling glorified; fast money, fast women, fast living.
Kids of all races buy into hip hop to the tune of 10 billion dollars a year. For some, hip-hop is an art form like any other.
Jonathan Priester: They’ll say, “Oh, that thug culture.” And really, they’re trying to sort of tie hip-hop in with subtle racism.
Melvin Priester Jr.: There’s a willingness to blame hip-hop for all the ills of Black American today which is simply false.
But for black kids with limited options the hip-hop influence may be much stronger. When we gave Manuel a camera and asked him to chronicle his life, he went to a night club and shot what looks a lot like some of the rap videos. Manuel says he relates to hip hop as an expression of the realities of his neighborhood.
Manuel Sturghill: It’s about living out here in the real world—money, dope trouble, jail all that.
It’s real to Manuel. But to some of his schoolmates, it is a negative stereotype.
Amanda Furge: It offends me because that’s what other people listen to, and they’re like “Well, that’s what she is.”
Brokaw: Do you think it helps form perceptions about the black community?
Furge: It does.
Brokaw: So is that harmful then?
Even Alexandria Thomas, an honor student who wants to go to medical school, tries the role of a gangsta rapper. She records a CD slamming a group of girls from Lanier.
Alexandria Thomas (rapping): I hate those stupid hoes that be trying to ball. They all full of sh*t, playin’ me a like a bitch.
The rap gets Alexandria in trouble at school. Her older sister Fameika is not happy.
Fameika Thomas: Trece, you were on the CD with them. And if anybody ever take that in the court of law, you are going down. What is wrong with you why don’t you see that?
Lanier’s prom— set to rap music— takes place on April 29th. The storm caused by Alexandria’s rap CD has blown over. And at prom, she wins a prize – “wittiest female.”
Alicia Ruffin, who wanted so much to attend her senior prom is back at home, with baby Jamerie.
Alicia Ruffin: If I had of went to the prom, I wouldn’t have stayed that long anyway.
Suddenly Jamerie throws a fit, and all of Alicia’s frustrations bubble up again.
This was not how Alicia Ruffin expected to be spending prom night of her senior year. And there are more unexpected events to come.
In 1962, when James Meredith became the first black to enroll at the University of Mississippi, all hell broke loose. Federal marshals were pinned down by gunfire and rioting whites.
Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, an outspoken segregationist, didn’t try to stop it. Federal troops were called in.
Barnett’s daughter Ouida remembers those dark nights well.
Ouida Atkins: I was at the mansion and people were calling. “What do you think about us going and blowing up the bridges between Memphis and Oxford, or Jackson and Oxford?”
Ouida moved away for a while but now she’s a prominent member of Jackson society, who made a decision that stunned her family and friends.
Tom Brokaw, NBC News: What do you think your father would think about you teaching at Lanier high school?
Atkins: I can’t decide if he would laugh or if—or if he would be horrified. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Oh, he’s turning over in his grave.”
She stayed at all-black Lanier for five years. Now retired, she still volunteers there. In some ways, it’s as much a learning experience for her as it has been for the students she’s taught.
Atkins: I really I didn’t know the other culture at all. And I was really kind of shy, I guess. And finally some of the students said, “You better speak up if you want to be heard here.” And I did. And I found out that made all the difference in the world with them.
Brokaw: And would you find young Lanier men or women that you’d kind of take a special interest in?
Atkins: I tried to reinforce that you can go to college. And so many are not getting that at home.
Brokaw: Do you think there’s more consciousness on the part of the white community about obligations to try to make conditions better there?
Atkins: I do. I think about my own family. And my great-grandfather coming here with his slaves and then my daddy blocked James Meredith. And then you have me—teaching at Lanier. So we’ve come pretty far.
Ouida Atkins is a living symbol of how much racial attitudes have changed in Mississippi and across America. But some things have not changed much at all.
In Jackson, one intersection is known as Freedom Corner. It’s a tribute to two martyred leaders of the civil rights movement — Dr. Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. But almost 40 years after the death of Dr. King, conditions in this all black neighborhood are worse in many ways.
There’s been no economic progress. There’s no integration. Across the country, in other neighborhoods like this, how much of that is result of racism?
We gathered three generations of the Priester family to talk about race. Their roots are in inner city Jackson, in the days when segregation was often violently enforced. Seated in one room for an interview were four lawyers—one is also a judge—graduates of Harvard, Stanford, Boston University.
Brokaw: 30 years ago, when you were going to law school at Harvard, and that was unheard of in many of the neighborhoods in which you grew up, did you think we would be a much different society at this point?
Pernilla Priester: Oh, certainly. I thought all the problems would long since have been solved. The ones we’re dealing with now would not be here. Because these are the same ones that we grew up for the most part.
Brokaw: Do you think there’s still as much racism now as there was then?
Pernilla Priester: Different kind, different form, different levels. But it still exists.
Jonathan Priester: When my parents were younger, they always tell me the stories of not being able to go to a white only water fountain or not being able to go to certain restaurants. You could see that form of racism. Where today, it could be more subtle.
The older generation says frank discussions about race are all too rare these days.
Charlene Priester: To me, I can almost see the curtain pulling down that, you know, “Here we go again. I don’t wanna hear it.” You know, it’s just—
Pernilla Priester: Laying the race card.
Charlene Priester: Playing the race card.
But the younger generation also says that blacks today have opportunities unparalleled in American history.
Melvin Priester Jr.: The amazing thing about switching from an industrial to an information economy is that people with brains and with education can create billion dollar empires. If we could produce a group of radically educated individuals, the jobs will follow.
Brokaw: But do we pay enough attention to the strides that have been made, and celebrate that enough? Or are we still spending most of our time worrying about those who are not getting out?
Pernilla Priester: I think it’s some of both.
Charlene Priester: One of the things I think is very difficult is trying to determine what part of what we see going on now is race based, and what part of it is economics, what part of it is education.
Melvin Priester Sr.: I personally just don’t think it’s good enough to say, “We don’t know what the cause is. We don’t know, therefore we can’t come up with a solution.” I think we’ve got to come up with a solution, because otherwise more African Americans are gonna be lost to prison and/or drugs. More families are going to be continuously be broken. More young black children are going to continue to fail in school.
Brokaw: Do you think that the problems of black America have gone off the white agenda?
Vince Gordon: It’s off the white agenda until it affects white America. When it affects white America, then it comes back on the radar, “Okay, what can we do about it?” What can white America do to help? Bring businesses back. Believe, invest in the black community. Invest in our inner-city children. Investment does make a difference.
The school year is winding down at Lanier high, and Manuel Sturghill has failed the 10th grade. He finally seems to realize the jeopardy that he’s in. One of his friends just got arrested, and Manuel knows he could be headed for trouble too.
Manuel Sturgill: If I don’t get no job, that is what is going to happen to me, right there in the news in the newspaper.
Manuel is looking into vocational training. And for the first time since he was five years old, he has received a call from his father, who says he might come to visit.
They’re reasons for hope.
Sturghill: I pray every night to the Lord. My grandma don’t know I do, my mama don’t know, but I do pray that I get a good education. And get a good job. That nothing happens to nobody in my family or to me.
On May 31, 2006, Mable Thomas graduated from Lanier. She’ll attend college in the fall. Her sister Fameika, who pushed her every step of the way, was there. So was their mother, a recovering crack addict. So was the memory of their late father.
Fameika Thomas: It was kind of bitter sweet. Because she wanted my daddy to be there, and I wanted him to be there as well. But I was glad that she was able to reach this milestone.
Brokaw: Was that emotional for you?
Fameika Thomas: It was.
Brokaw: And did she come down and thank you afterwards or not?
Fameika Thomas: No. (LAUGHTER)
Brokaw: She’s a sister.
Fameika Thomas: Yeah.
In all, 141 Lanier seniors beat the odds and graduated. 116 are taking the next step, enrolling in two or four year colleges.
In May, Alicia Ruffin took her GED exams. She failed the math test by two points but plans to re-test. For Alicia and her son Jamerie, the future remains an open question.
Brokaw: Five years I come back. Five years from now.
Alicia Ruffin: Five years.
Brokaw: Where’s Alicia gonna be then?
Ruffin: She won’t be here. She will not be here. She probably be back in school.
Brokaw: Alicia everybody wants everyone to have a happy ending to their story.
Brokaw: It’s been not a happy year for you, right?
Ruffin: No, it’s gonna get better.
Brokaw: You still have the big plans?
Ruffin: I still got the big plans. I still have the big plans. I just can’t mess up like I did with the last plan. This plan gotta be better than that one.
I said at the beginning of this report we could have chosen any number of American cities to document the problems of the black underclass in this country — north and south, east and west. The sad tales — and the stories of hope and achievement — are not unique to Jackson.
More than 40 years after the passage of the civil rights bill — more than 40 years after Dr. Martin Luther King's stirring "I have a dream" speech in Washington, D.C. — the hard truths of race remain in America: in too many communities the poor black neighborhoods are separate and unequal, hostage to discrimination, poverty and, yes, self-inflicted wounds.
That will change only when those hard truths are confronted, from the top down and the ground up.