For the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, ProPublica's Nikole Hannah-Jones visited her father's hometown of Greenwood, Miss. for the first time – chronicling her journey in a deeply personal essay that highlights the city's violent past.
"I intentionally write about the violence over and over because, as one of the scholars I quoted in the story says, we've kind of come to see this period as being about kids getting sauces poured on their head at lunch counters – and it was far worse than that," Hannah-Jones tells editor-in-chief Steve Engelberg. Murders and beatings were commonplace during this struggle for civil rights; there was even "economic violence," with Greenwood cutting off federal food aid to blacks in the hopes that they would be further discouraged from fighting for their rights.
Considering this historical backdrop, Hannah-Jones understands why her family, and so many others, rarely spoke about their time in Mississippi: "I don't imagine I would want to share those stories either ... people who came up in the migration tried so hard to prove their humanity in the way that they lived because of what they've gone through ... Why would they want to share the stories of their degradation?"
Nevertheless, she knew early on in her reporting that this story had to delve into those unspoken issues and be rather personal – an admittedly difficult task for journalists who are so used to telling other people's stories while revealing fairly little about themselves.
Hannah-Jones goes on to note that Mississippi has changed for the better in many ways, particularly when it comes to electing more black officials, but these "ghosts" of our past are still among us and worth re-examining.