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Jackson residents reflect on relations beyond 'The Help' lens

With the hit film revisiting the Mississippi capital's civil rights struggles, white and black residents ponder its progress and what still needs to be done.

August 27, 2011|By Nicole Sperling, Los Angeles Times
  • REFLECTION: Emma Stone, left, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis star in "The Help," which has prompted residents of Jackson, Miss., to reexamine relations.
REFLECTION: Emma Stone, left, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis star in "The… (Disney )

Reporting from Jackson, Miss. — On a recent steamy Saturday evening, 11 members of Deborah Rae Wright's book club — black, white, Indian and Jewish women — gathered in her meticulously restored Craftsman home on the rundown west side of the Mississippi capital. The topic was 1960s-era Jackson and "The Help," the hit movie set here.

As cicadas chirped and wine flowed, sensitive personal stories of the segregationist era and more recent racial affronts poured forth, and anger and frustration bubbled up.

Lee Harper, a 51-year-old African American restaurant owner, recalled how her mother worked as a maid for white employers from sunup to sundown, six days a week, and hated every minute of it. "I cried a lot in the movie, mostly because I thought of her," said Harper. "I remember wishing she could do something else."

Kitty Cook-Ramsey, 45 and white, and Bria Griffith, 32 and black, recalled being warned by their elementary school teachers and their parents not to play with children of the other race. And Cook-Ramsey, whose family offered assistance to black witnesses of a racially motivated murder in the 1950s, said whites were often "frozen out economically" if they went against the status quo.

Dana Larkin, 56, who is white, recalled that when she decided to send her two daughters to Jackson's predominantly black public schools, other parents accused her of "sacrificing her children in the name of her cause."

Here in Jackson, and elsewhere in the country, the movie has prompted viewers to contemplate this Southern town's place in the civil rights struggle and consider how relations between the races have progressed in the last 50 years.

Wright's multi-racial book club is evidence of how far Jackson has come. And there are other obvious signs of change: The mayor is African American, as is the district attorney; the city, the majority of whose residents were white at the time in which "The Help" is set, is now mostly black. But the June killing of a 49-year-old African American by white teenagers in what authorities say was a racially motivated attack, was an ugly reminder that, even half a century after the fictional events of "The Help," Jackson still has deep scars.

"Mississippi has not changed that much," said book club member Dierdre Payne, 62, a retired Exxon employee who is black.

"People dress better. They drive more European cars and there are more black people living on streets that don't have ditches. [But] do not think that Mississippi is just like everywhere else. We incubate racism here. We are still sitting shiva for Jefferson Davis to come back."

"The Help," the nation's No. 1 film at the box office last weekend, is based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, who grew up in Jackson. It tells the story of a young, white college graduate, portrayed by Emma Stone, who gains the confidence of several black maids and persuades them to let her write a book about their true feelings toward the women who employ them.

Despite mostly favorable reviews, the film has been criticized for putting a white heroine at the center of a story of black oppression. Some of that has been blunted by early praise for the work of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play two of the maids in the movie.

Changing times

In predominantly black West Jackson, dilapidated homes with peeling paint and overgrown grass line Robinson Road. Around the corner from a dollar store and an auto wholesaler stands a modest brick building that houses WMPR, a community radio station that broadcasts music, news and talk shows to its predominantly black audience.

Inside, station manager Charles Evers, 88, steers the ship from a massive leather recliner. Evers ran the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in Jackson with his brother, Medgar, who was assassinated in 1963 and whose death is a reference point in "The Help."

The wood-paneled walls of his office are crammed with photographs — personal ones of Medgar, Charles Evers with Robert Kennedy, and posed photos with both President Bushes. Evers is a Republican who voted for President Obama, and he has much to say on how far Jackson has come.

"Things are 100% better," Evers said. "Forty years ago we couldn't drink out of a white water fountain. We couldn't vote. We couldn't stay in a hotel. One of the things my brother was killed for was trying to integrate Ole Miss, and now I have two granddaughters that graduated from the law school. It's 100% changed but it's not enough. We've got to go farther."

Evers says he has no interest in seeing "The Help," though. He simply doesn't want to delve into the past. It's the same reasoning that's keeping him away from the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington this weekend.

"I don't want to look back," he said. "I get angry. And I don't want to get angry. That's when you lose control."

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