For Timothy Burless, a discussion that took place at the Dentzel Carousel in Meridian Friday may have created ripples of discomfort, but it was still the sort of talk he’d like to see happen more often.
“We’re having the tough conversations that America needs in order to move forward,” Burless said.
Burless is a high school senior from Washington D.C., and he’s a member of Operation Understanding DC, a nonprofit organization that harbors 23 high school students this year from African American and Jewish heritage. It’s a group that, in an effort to promote historical as well as contemporary understanding, was visiting Meridian on Friday.
“We’re on a two-and-a-half week summer journey where we loosely follow the route of the Freedom Riders, where we meet with Civil Rights foot soldiers and current movements, and (where we) visit historic sites,” said Ricki Horne, program director of Operation Understanding DC.
Civil Rights leader and activist Roscoe Jones and attorney William E. Ready Sr. — both of Meridian — spoke on Friday. Ready’s son George Ready, an attorney who grew up in Meridian and now lives in Hernando, also delivered a presentation.
Horne said Operation Understanding DC, which has trekked through Meridian in past years, draws upon historical connections between African American and Jewish cultures and helps students to cultivate those traditions.
“We’re working to build that bridge again for our black and Jewish students,” she said.
Though Friday’s discussion reached into the past, it sometimes turned an eye onto the present political and cultural scenes, as speakers acknowledged the deep political divisions within the country. Jones noted how the power of the group’s project could create an antidote to those divisions.
“On this trip,” Jones said, “you’re learning how to live with each other.”
William Ready, in a salty presentation that recounted aspects of the Civil Rights movement and also commented on present-day affairs, implored the students to learn at “every opportunity” and study “every subject that you can.” He continued, reflecting back on the 1960s: “We didn’t know what the real enemy was. It was ignorance. It still is.”
After the presentation, William Ready advised residents “to elect people who recognize the importance of education.”
Jones told the students about the cooperation of prominent Civil Rights groups in Mississippi in the 1960s — a cooperation propelled by young people who found encouragement from parents and grandparents. He recalled a police officer visiting his grandmother and trying to convince her to persuade her grandson to refrain from participation in the movement.
Her response, as Jones tells it, was subtle.
“‘Well, you know how this young generation is,’” he remembered his grandmother saying. “‘You can’t tell them anything.’ Then as soon as he got away from us she turned to me and said, ‘Keep on going.’”
Jones also recalled a number of Civil Rights leaders with whom he worked, including Medgar Evers of Decatur, who was murdered by a white supremacist in 1963.
“He was the first person that I knew (that was) close to me to die,” Jones told the group.
When George Ready spoke, he praised his father’s work as a Civil Rights attorney but took exception to some of his father’s colorfully grim characterizations of Mississippi.
“He doesn’t give credit to everything,” he said. “And I’ve got to tell you, I’m really sensitive about the South.”
George Ready noted a number of people, including his father, whom he characterized as “white people in the South who did right, and who were on the right side of the Civil Rights Movement.”
He talked, too, about a “tribalism” that he said had grown from social media.
“Everybody gets on Facebook or Twitter … and you communicate with your group,” he said. “Nobody listens to anybody else.”
The solution, George Ready said, lies within a spirituality akin to what Martin Luther King Jr. practiced. He also invoked Civil Rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.).
“You win people over by loving them to death,” George Ready said.
For Timothy Burless, a student with Operation Understanding DC, language also matters when people discuss race. He noted that he sometimes encounters a racial epithet, possibly used in a manner not designed to cause pain. But he suggested that people should be conscious of the effect that using such a word can have.
“Words do have meaning,” Burless said. “Words have context.”
Nicole Schwartz, another high school senior with Operation Understanding DC, said she aspires to the profession that’s recently drawn such ire and scrutiny.
“I want to be a politician, eventually,” she said. “I don’t like the way that (politicians) are in our society right now. Everything is so split. … I want to be a politician because I want to be someone who can listen to the other side, and someone who can pull together these multiple perspectives to understand how we can create change in an effective way.”
The mood of the gathering, though tinged with serious discussion, was also lighthearted at times, with students riding the carousel and bantering with each other. After the gathering, the immersion into history was slated to continue, with the students scheduled to visit the grave of slain Civil Rights leader James Earl Chaney.