In 2019, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Susan Glisson. Susan facilitates communities through a process called The Welcome Table. In our interview, she shared a story about her work in Philadelphia, Mississippi. That story holds so many lessons for us all.
So Welcome Table comes from, of course, that great civil rights anthem, I’m Going to Sit at the Welcome Table One Day, and it began to emerge in the Philadelphia process that I mentioned earlier. I was invited there by community leaders in 2004, which was the 40th anniversary of the murders of James Chaney Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The community wanted to tell a different story. They knew that media likes to come when there’s an anniversary like that, and they’ll, often, have superficial conversations with folks and, you know, declare not much has changed in this place. Right. The New York Times led an article about a community process with, “There’s no marker at the site where the three young men were murdered,” as if that would be a demonstration that something had changed.
And, we sat in a space, a multiracial group of Black, white, and Choctaw all there. And in the first meeting, they asked me to share some of the work that we had done at the University of Mississippi in engaging publicly with our history, the University’s history of desegregation, and the riot that occurred when the university desegregated, and what the university had done on its 40th anniversary to acknowledge and to apologize for that period of time. And, that led to a conversation about, sort of, well, what should we do. And there were differences of opinion about what to do. There were Black folks in the room that suggested that they have an honorary march to the courthouse. And, in that space, you could just see the white folks get paler. But you know, we’re southerners, and we’re polite, and we don’t say anything in a meeting when we’re uncomfortable, you know, we just shift and get another cup of coffee and a piece of cake. So, the conversation continued, and then, a white gentleman said, well, why don’t we have a proclamation? And, I could see Black folks roll their eyes, and Choctaw folks roll their eyes, but nobody said anything because we’re real polite here in Mississippi.
And so, basically, nothing was accomplished at the first meeting that we had, other than people said, well, you know, that was a real good meeting, let’s come back, let’s come back, and have another meeting. So, after that meeting was over, I stayed in the space with Leroy Clemens, who was the chair of the NAACP, and Jim Prince, who was the owner and publisher of the Neshoba Democrat, the local paper. They had an existing relationship. They had gone to the first integrated schools together, and they had worked together as interns at the newspaper, and so they could speak a little more freely with each other. And they said, “Wow, I mean, I’m glad we had that meeting, but it didn’t seem like we sort of got anywhere.” And Jim said, “Well, you know, Leroy, what was the problem with having a proclamation? It seemed like that didn’t really get any kind of traction.” And Leroy said, “Well, you know, for Black folks, that’s just words on a page. That’s like the Emancipation Proclamation, that didn’t free anybody, necessarily, and if you want to talk about what proclamations have done to Choctaw folks, just ask about the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, that they were forced to sign and then everybody lost their land. So, having those kinds of pieces of paper with magisterial words on them that then never do anything, they just collect dust in somebody’s office. That doesn’t sound like action. That doesn’t sound like something we should do. And, while we’re on the topic, what was the problem with having a March?” Well, then Jim said, “You know, when white folks think of marching, they think of a protest, they think of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and they maybe think of dogs, and fire hoses, and that.” And Leroy said, “Wow. I had no idea that’s what y’all thought about when you heard the word marching and the dogs were attacking us, they weren’t attacking y’all.
So, it was clear that even though they were using the same language, they did not understand the words in the same way and didn’t have enough sense of trust to be able to have an honest conversation about what they were really talking about.
So, we stopped planning. We stopped talking about what was going to happen on June 21st, 2004. And, we just sat in a space, in a church, there in Neshoba County, and the community just got to know each other. They started telling each other stories. They talked about why it was important to them to try to do something about this case. Black folks talked about, you know, thinking that they didn’t believe they were any white folks who cared what happened. And they learned that was not the case. And white folks talk about feeling ashamed and feeling guilty about that case and feeling like Black people held every white person accountable for those murders. Then, they learned that wasn’t the case.
We know now, of course. I didn’t know at the time, but we know now that our brains respond more to narratives than they do to facts. And, so, that sort of storytelling process was what began to weld the group together. And, through those conversations, they said, you know what, we need to do a call for justice in the case. We need to ask the state of Mississippi to reopen this case and hold someone accountable because we never have, and then beyond that, we also need to start talking about education in our local schools so that our children know what happened in this community. It’s been a public secret that everybody knew but nobody talked about, and we want to make sure our children never engage in any of this kind of behavior again.” And so that’s what they did.
They, Stanley Dearman, wrote this beautiful call for justice, called it Recognition, Resolution, and Redemption, and they came together with 30 community leaders, the governor, four congressmen, and 1559 other people on June 21st, the anniversary of the murders, with David Goodman and Carolyn Goodman, the mother, and brother of Andy Goodman, and they issued that call for justice, and then they followed up that meeting with the local DA and state attorney general, and that led to a reopening the case. And that led to an indictment, and a conviction of the ringleader of the murders, Edgar Killen, on the 41st anniversary of the murders of the three young men, but the story didn’t stop there, right? After the international media came and descended upon Neshoba County during the trial, the next day, after sentencing, the local group, the Philadelphia Coalition, had a civil rights education summit for teachers and had teachers from all over the country and all over Mississippi, come and learn how to how to better teach the civil rights movement, in a more accurate and accessible way. They began to engage in a different kind of politics. And, in this majority white town of Philadelphia, just after that, and in the next mayoral race elected a member of the coalition, their first African-American mayor of the town, who’s since been re-elected twice. They began to desegregate their social spaces, including the Little League. They began to spend public monies differently, and I just learned the other day that the city school, which has been predominantly Black, and the county school has been predominantly white, are now going to merge and become one school system. Miraculous. Every single piece of that journey was a miraculous journey. But, none of it would have happened if people hadn’t taken the time to talk to each other in intentional, thoughtful, respectful ways that built trust and enabled them to engage in actions that were more meaningful to that community and more informed by a justice perspective.
So, what are our lessons?
Relationships and Trust
Susan reminded us that all meaningful change is only possible through relationships and trust. In this case, the relationship between Leroy Clemmons and Jim Prince enabled the group to advance the transformative work necessary for their community. It was because of their prior relationship and the trust they had in one another that they could get beyond the politeness and superficiality of their initial discussion.
Personal Storytelling and Deep Listening Build Trust
We often accomplish the work for our community in teams. In this spotlight, the group had their own work to do as a team, all teams do. Through personal storytelling, they heard and honored each other’s truths. That took time, but it was a necessary step. Through this deep and empathetic listening to their teammates, they built the trust required to discern the best path forward for their community.
Healing Comes First
What brought the community together for this work was a reckoning, a collective remembering of events that were in their past but still created a rip or tear in the fabric of their community. Until the community could heal from this past trauma, it was difficult for them to live into the potential of their more inclusive future.
Every Community is Unique
This is uniquely the story of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and their actions were specific to their community. Their path forward grew out of their history and built on relationships within their community. Having a process, methods, and skilled facilitators helped, but it was their work to do. There was no formula, no recipe. No one solving their issues for them.
The community took their Welcome Table work as a foundation. The team's work and actions created a social echo that rippled far into their community and beyond. These early steps of listening, calling for justice, and healing became a springboard to advance the broader work toward becoming a more inclusive and equitable community.
If you are part of a group working to make your community more inclusive, are you genuinely practicing deep listening, or are you still, as Susan said, being polite? Have you taken the time to hear and respect one another’s truths and to build the relationship and trust necessary to form a cohesive team? Are you reaching deep for your community’s truth and pursuing actions that match the unique needs of your community, even when those seem impossible?