Jeanne Luckett

May 13, 2010

Excerpts from Jeanne Luckett interview.

When I was in college, Mississippi was in the middle of the civil rights movement. Lots of things were taking place. When I was a sophomore in high school, Medgar Evers was assassinated and a lot of other tragedies in the larger society were going on.

I would say Robert Bergmark, who was my philosophy teacher, influenced me a great deal. He opened my mind and helped me think about how I could use my life and my skills for improving the human condition.

I became involved with the issue of maternal and child health when I was hired to write and produce a media presentation about infant mortality in Mississippi. I joined with some other activists, and we founded an organization called the Coalition for Mothers and Babies. I chaired it for about six years.

Through the Coalition for Mothers and Babies my network broadened not just across the state of Mississippi but throughout the nation, and I became very active nationwide in helping develop awareness and training people how to speak out on improving the human condition, particularly as it relates to having healthy babies. We were very effective in changing a lot of national health care policy for things like Medicade.

I subsequently lost nine pregnancies. Although I only had one child of my own, he was not an only child. We had a full family life; lots of wonderful kids—troubled, abandoned teenagers—came to live with us. Over the course of thirty-five years of marriage, we had about fifteen foster children.

My career evolved from teaching to working for public television in 1975. With two people that I had worked with in public television, we started a production company.

One of the media projects I am proudest of that was used by Governor Winter around the state to help build support for the Education Reform Act and the passage of public school kindergarten.

One of the other projects that was meaningful was working with Tougaloo College in turning the house that the Medgar Evers family had lived in when he was murdered into a museum. It became to my task to contact Myrlie Evers-Williams and to go to meet her and to ask her if she would give us photos and other artifacts to put in this exhibit in the house. I sat in her garage in Oregon and touched things that were in Medgar Ever’s pocket the day he was killed. I saw personal letters that President Kennedy had written to Myrlie that she had in her safe deposit box. We developed a wonderful friendship, and she subsequently gave a number of those materials to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. When Medgar Evers was inducted into the Mississippi Hall of Fame, the Old Capital did a video about his life and Myrlie’s life, and they hired me to do that project.

I have lived at the most remarkable time and place to witness social change that this nation has ever seen. To live in Mississippi is a really interesting and challenging adventure. We have so many needs, and we have so many riches. We have so many deficits, and we have so many resources. It’s almost a paradox, and it’s a contradiction that we could have such literary giants that we do and have the highest illiteracy rate in the nation.

I am very pleased to see the kind of trust and friendship and working together that exists between particularly white and black Mississippians now. I think the things that we have seen go on with delayed justice, with regard to civil rights atrocities now being settled, says that people in Mississippi, when they understand the facts and when they have a chance to act, will do the right thing.

Ora Reed

May 13, 2010

Excerpts from Ora Reed interview.

I was born in Greenville, Mississippi, but I grew up in Lexington, Mississippi. My mother started me in piano lessons at age three.

Every Saturday from age five, they would bring me to Jackson to take additional piano lessons. And I ended up going to college there, and I had the same piano instructor from age five all the way through college.

I sing jazz standards. I call them “American classics,” because this is our music. Jazz is just something that has always been there. And when I started to sing, I said, “If I’m going to do this, I think I should do jazz standards. They are nice and calm, they have a good message, great lyrics that tell stories, and the melodies are just splendid.” So I embraced jazz for my art.

“Amazing Grace” is something that is known worldwide. I used to get all kinds of requests for “Amazing Grace” when I went to Japan. This is a very familiar tune to them, and they highly respect it. At first I would just do it as an instrumental, but then occasionally I would sing it. It’s universal.

I would go to church services in Kyoto. Most of them don’t have an English service—very few English speakers in the churches at all. One time I did a twenty-minute mini-concert during one of the services, and I actually saw people sitting in the audience crying.

And I knew that they didn’t know the meaning of any of the words that I was saying, but it was a heartfelt connection, and it really bonded that congregation to me, still to this day. That’s the power of music and what it can do. It’s really, really important.

The title that I have is Mississippi Cultural Ambassador. My job is, so to speak, is, wherever I go, is to let people know how wonderful our state is and to talk about our culture and what our culture has given to the rest of the world.

This past school term, I was going into the schools with the Department of Education, doing a cultural and heritage presentation, talking to the students. I went all over the state doing that and telling them about all of the wonderful Mississippians who have gone on to do such great things. And that they too can aspire to do things. I was talking about music, sports, art, food—everything—and all the kinds of people that are connected with all these things that are Mississippians. Maybe they had read about them or heard about them, but didn’t know that they were Mississippians. And then I would talk to them about the small towns where they were from, refer the students back to their counties so they would have an idea about where this is in Mississippi.

Butterflies are beautiful; they are free in spirit, and you never hear anyone say anything bad about a butterfly. And I try and live that way.

Sally Carmichael

May 13, 2010

Everybody here knows me as Sally. I grew up here in Jackson.

A long time ago, when they were trying to start a symphony orchestra, town leaders were contacting local businessmen and asking them for donations. My Dad contributed a little bit of money and would then take my brother and I to the symphony.

I always loved music. I just decided it would be nice to work with the symphony, so I did. I ended up serving on the National Symphony Board for six years and was president of the National Board the seventh year. I was the only person from Mississippi that’s ever done that.

We have a volunteer council. It is the national group of symphonies. The volunteer council has chapters all over the United States.

I think it is very important to bring your children up enjoying the arts. We have had a couple of people in our youth orchestra at the symphony who have gone on and have made it nationally. The Symphony League has youth concerts every year for about five thousand school children in Jackson and surrounding areas. It lasts for two days at the big audi- torium at Thalia Mara Hall, and we have volunteers to help with it. We have an orchestra concert for them, but it’s suited for children, and it makes them aware of the instruments. And they are always done with a real good theme that they would enjoy.

We have three series every year. We have the bravo concerts, which is your regular concerts with people like Bach, Beethoven, and so forth. We have a Pops concert every year in May at the Reservoir. We do that, and it usually involves a lot of people that don’t typically come to the classical concerts. We also have a chamber music concert series.

My son was born with a real bad heart problem. He had a congenital heart defect. There was no warning whatsoever, and when he was six month old, they told us that his life expetacancy was about three years, if he made it that long. We sent him to the Crippled Children’s Hospital, which is now part of UMC [University of Mississippi Medical Center]. When I took them this child, he couldn’t walk, talk, or anything. And after a year and a half, we got him out and put him in a limited first grade situation down here at Jackson Academy. It just shows you, if you can get to the right point, how much you can do. He graduated Murrah High school. He got the Spirit of Murrah Award when he graduated. He graduated from Ole Miss. He didn’t walk right, he didn’t talk right, but everybody loved him. He was the most wonderful child that ever lived. At the time he died, he was engaged to be married.

All of this is to say that I’ve worked with handicapped people and agencies for a long time. I’ve worked with Goodwill. I’ve worked with Southern Christian Services for Children and Youth. And I’ve worked with Methodist Rehab Hospital. I’ve served on their board for eighteen years and am now a life member. I was the first woman they ever put on the board. I also worked a lot with the Heart Association. I helped start the first “Art for Heart” they ever did. I was secretary for about twelve years. I have always worked with agencies like that that work with children.

If somebody says, how do you do what you do, I say, “Well, I don’t play bridge.”

Beverly Hogan

May 13, 2010

Excerpts from Beverly Hogan interview.

I’m President at Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, Mississippi. I am a native Mississippian. I grew up in a small town between Terry and Crystal Springs called Mt. Way Community.

I feel like I have been given a rare gift, and that’s the gift of being able to know that every day you wake up, you make a difference in the lives of others. And for me it’s really about the students. Whether I am hosting a luncheon to get people to invest in Tougaloo College, or whether I’m serving on a committee, or whether I’m promoting the college in any way, or looking at how we can strengthen or curriculum, or how we can get resources to enhance the physical appearance of our campus—it’s all about the development of the students. And that is what is most enjoyable about what I do here. I translate everything that I do, every decision that I make, into the life of a student, knowing that my action will impact their lives. I learned a lot from them. They keep you youthful, they keep you thinking, and they certainly keep you focused on what is important. When all is said and done, each student who leaves this institution, I want them to be ready to become an ethical, thoughtful leader prepared for the challenges of informed citizenship.

The rape crisis program started in a back office with volunteers. I got interested in that because of my own background —psychology, mental health—and seeing the needs. There were women who were being battered, and they had small children. They had no place to go. We developed a small house on Meadowbrook. We just needed a safe place for women to go, and provide them some support systems where they could go to get some job skills and get employment. So that program was started, and now they have them throughout Mississippi.

I’ve always believed in Mississippi. I’ve always thought it was a beautiful state. There are some of the most wonderful people here. But we still have challenges. But I begin to think that if everyone left Mississippi because they didn’t like what was going on, then no one would be back here to help change it and to help make it better. I was born here, my parents were born here, I have about five generations of family members buried in the Mt. Wade cemetery. I felt we had an investment here. I remember being in New York and one of my friends said to me, “Beverly, you love Mississippi, that’s where your heart is. Go back to Mississippi and make a difference.” He said there are thousands of Beverly Wades here in New York. I thought about that. And I thought Mississippi is where I want to make a difference.

Liza Cirlot Looser

May 12, 2010

Excerpts from Liza Cirlot Looser interview.

I grew up in Mosspoint, Mississippi, a very small town on the Gulf Coast. I started the Cilort agency when I was 26 with a seventy-eight dollar state income tax check refund. I went into Deposit Guarantee, and an older woman helped me open up the account. The account minimum was one hundred dollars, but I did not have the additional money to meet the minimum deposit. I told her I had a degree in advertising and that I wanted to open up my own firm, and all the while she was filling out the paperwork. After I told her my plan and what I wanted to do, she handed me all of the paperwork and said, “Go get ‘em, tiger!”

Twenty-four years later, we have been around the world and have done work for individuals and everything in between, from working with NATO on the Bosnian landmine crisis.

Several years ago, we had a meeting with Ingles Ship Building and a reporter from Barron’s came down from New York. He said that he didn’t know that there were any public companies in the state of Mississippi or that Mississippi had any paved roads and said this, that, and the other about Mississippi. When he left, we all looked at each other and said, “You know, this has really got to stop.”

We created a “Mississippi Believe It” campaign. The first three that we created were, “Yes, we can read—a few of us can even write,” and we listed the Pulitzer Prize winners from the state of Mississippi. The second ad we did is, “Yes, we wear shoes—a few of us even wear cleats,” and we listed NFL stars: Jerry Rice, Walter Peyton, Bret Farve. The third ad was, “No black, no white, just the blues,” and talked about the rich blues culture and heritage that the state of Mississippi offers to the rest of the world. So we printed the posters, and we mailed them out to every kindergarten through twelfth grade public and private school in the state of Mississippi. We mailed to every college and university and junior college in the state. The Today Show came down and spent an entire day to do a feature story about “Mississippi Believe It.” U.S. News & World Report, the New York Times, the Washington Post all carried the campaign, and the AP picked it up, so it went nationwide.

We have dedicated over a half million dollars of our time and money for this campaign. We have not received a dime for it, and we will not receive a dime. We have heard from thousands of Mississippians telling their stories, and so we have been able to do new posters.

Mississippi is unique. It is special. It has a history that needs to be acknowledged, and we need to learn from it. It has a history that by no means should hold us back.

LaRita Mary Smith

May 12, 2010

Excerpts from LaRita Smith interview.

My grandmother had a boarding house at Pineywoods and I was born there. My mother wanted me to be born in a hospital. That was the new-fangled thing – to go to a hospital to have a baby. She was determined to have a new nightgown and to have me in the hospital, but she didn’t make it.

I was going to pieces. I could not stay here, because everybody then was for the war. It was getting me down; I couldn’t talk to anybody.

I got a cheap ticket and spent the night in Amsterdam, and the next night boarded a flight for Aman. I got a 4pm bus to Baghdad. We stopped at 2 checkpoints that put us through searches for everything. The Jordan side didn’t do much searching, but the Baghdad side really searched me and talked to me and asked me why I was there. And I told them that I was against the war and I wanted to go to Baghdad if they had a war. He said, “Well we hear that there has been shooting down there already”. He asked me if I had ever traveled before. I was 79 at the time. I told him “Yes, I’ve traveled all over.”

He asked me why I had not been here? And I said because I didn’t speak the language. I spoke French and I could get my way in Germany, but I just never thought I could make it in this language. But I was intending to come someday when I got some money. And he was impressed and he let me in.

I got to Baghdad around 7 in the morning. These men said, “What are you doing here? Are you sure you are here to be a human shield?” And I told them that I wanted to meet the American troops and tell them to go back home.

Shock and Awe was the next night.

I didn’t go to Baghdad to make a film. I took my oldest camera, my oldest Hi 8 and said if it got lost it wouldn’t matter. I had newer cameras, better cameras. I didn’t know if I would survive so I just took the oldest camera. I was making pictures to send back to Jackson; nobody was going to publish them but I was too dumb to know it.

The hotel had a computer and I would write home all day long about what I was seeing.

My money gave out and I came home. I decided to make a movie. That occupied my mind. That put me to task. It was playing four years on public access. They played it for me; they had to because of people calling in wanting to see it.

Martha Bergmark

May 12, 2010

Excerpts from Martha Bergmark interview.

I’m a Jackson girl. Went to Murrah High School. My dad was a professor at Millsaps for 35 years, was the chair of the Philosophy Department. My parents were not from here but brought us here when I was four. They really were my inspiration growing up. They were active in the civil rights movement in the 50’s and 60’s at a time when that was not necessarily the easiest thing to be doing. So I also had opportunities to be involved during really a very exciting and interesting time in Mississippi history. I got to be a teach- ing assistant in the first Head Start program.

I left Mississippi to go away to college think- ing that I will never be back, but it was my sophomore year that I realized that Ohio was not paradise. And that there was a lot that needed to be done here in Mississippi, and a lot of good people here and work to be done. So I got my law degree and came back to practice law in Hattiesburg.

I’ve had a wonderful career doing a number of things, all of which have to do with access to justice for low-income people.

I moved to Washington to be part of the national advocacy for access to justice for low income and racial and economic legal work. In the Clinton Administration, I was president of the Legal Services Corporation.

We opened our doors at the Mississippi Center for Justice in June of 2003, and that very month the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report, an investigative report about the conditions of our juvenile prisons, called the “training schools”—and that’s Columbia and Oakley Training—and that could not be a more really brutal misnomer. Forty-eight pages of horrible conditions. So that was our immediate first work. At that time we were imprisoning about five hundred children in those two facilities, age ten to seventeen.

Our goal was to close the training schools. They are not appropriate for any reason. They are not rehabilitative; they are not educating anybody. They are a pipeline to prison is what they are. The state announced it would be closing Columbia. And the total population now of imprisoned children at the training schools is 180, so we feel like there is still a long way to go.

We were two years old when Katrina hit, and it really galvanized everyone. The private lawyers around the country were calling us to say, “What can we do to help?” So our job became to create a way to say yes to those offers. That’s is still going on today—we do free legal clinics on the coast monthly.

I don’t know why I love the South. It’s kind of an inexplicable thing. I just think it’s a combination of our really sort of tragic history. We just have such a legacy of pain and cruelty that is somehow combined with people who have very good hearts and generous spirits. And I just find that such a compelling combi- nation somehow, and want to see us be better than we are. It drives me absolutely crazy that we are fiftieth in every indition of badness that you can find. So I see Mississippi Center of Justice as a vehicle to move us off the bot- tom and really fulfill a possibility that I think we have of just being one of the greatest places to live in the country.

Kathy Thibodeaux

May 12, 2010

Excerpts from Kathy Thibodeaux interview.

I have been married for over thirty years to Keith Thibodeaux. We have the very special blessing of being the head of Ballet Magnificat, which is a Christian ballet company. We started our school of the arts in 1989 with about 200 students, and since then it has grown, and I think we have close to 400 now. We start young dancers at three years old and go all the way up to grandmothers. We also have a training program, which draws students from around the world, who come right after high school, and it’s by audition only. They come and they live here and they study dance all day long; they also get discipleship program.

Some of my mentors were Abli Kavan and Rex Cooper, who were the first directors of the Jackson Ballet. I started taking dance from them when I was about six, and they taught me until I was about eighteen. I was very fortunate in having them as my first teachers because they set that good foundation of dance and really instilled that first love of dance.

Thalia Mara was a wonderful dance teacher of mine. She started training me when I was around eighteen. She was from New York and moved to Jackson to be head of the Jackson Ballet at the time. It had been a little regional company before, but she came in and turned it into a professional ballet company. She loved all of her dancers, and she always encouraged us to strive to be the best we could be—strive for that excellence. So I appreciated that very much.

The International Ballet Competition is just a wonderful event for Mississippi. Traveling around meeting different people who have heard of Jackson because of the International Ballet Competition, and they go, “Why Jackson? How did Jackson get it?” It was because of Thalia Mara and her vision for it that got it to Jackson. She knew that the South was a place where people loved sports and the competition, and she thought that this would be really great for Jackson to have this.

As part of our program at Ballet Magnificat, we send our dancers out into nursing homes, day care centers, and to public schools. And they have an opportunity to dance, to share their gift with many people across the city. We hope to bring some encouragement and some enjoyment and some happiness to some of these people.

We travel around the country, and we travel out of the country. We’ve been to Israel, Greece, to Europe several times, the Czech republic, Singapore.

We have a wonderful program that we started several years ago called “Let a Child Dance,” and it’s in partnership with the Jackson public schools. They choose young students from the Jackson public schools, and they bus them over here to our school for an after school program and we teach them dance and they are involved with our end-of-the-school- year program.

The physical challenges to a dancer are great. We are in the studio five or six hours a day. The body does take a lot of trauma to it. But I’m blessed because I really haven’t had any injuries in my life as a dancer. You have to stretch continually, you have to build strength in your body, but at the same time you have to make it look easy. That is the art of ballet. It takes a lot of strength, effort, discipline, hard work, a lot of hours in the studio. But it’s a gift. So all that work and effort is worth it.

Diann Arinder

May 12, 2010

Excerpts from Diann Arinder interview.

I was born in the Old Baptist Hospital on North State Street in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1948.

I started teaching in 1970. When you’re out in the community and people find out you’re a schoolteacher, they look at you like you’ve got an ear growing out of your nose or something. But then whenever I say, “But I’ve been at it a long time,” they say, “Most people retire.” I say, “I know, but I’m still healthy, and I like teenagers. I enjoy the way their minds work; I enjoy leading a student to discover.” I think it works more like, “You can do this. You can do this for yourself. Let me show you how. You’ve got the ability. Let me show you how to do this. Now see there; I told you you could.” Jim Roberts told me one time ten or fifteen years ago that he had an enduring image of me as teacher, and I thought it was so unflattering. He said he had this image of a mule, and I had the mule by both ears, one ear in each hand. And I had an English textbook, and I had my right foot shoving it down the mule’s throat. It’s not flattering, but what he meant was I was going to force people to learn or else. I’m pushy; I push. The reason I push is I see the potential in every kid that comes in the door. I’ve never thought of one as impossible. I don’t see impossible, and I don’t see worthless. And I don’t see “why waste my time.” Instead I see potential. I know it’s there. I just don’t think that God makes anybody that doesn’t have potential. I just don’t believe that. And so I think that if you can nurture the potential, that’s all you have to do. Because it’s there. I love the feeling of having a student understand something she did not know the day before. That drives me. And that is part of the same thing that led me to travel with students. I love that “Ah!” moment.

A student once asked me, when we were talking about a piece of literature like 1984, “Mrs. Arinder do you really have any hope for the future?” I said to him, “Son, I have been a teacher these many years. If I didn’t believe in the future, I’m smart enough to go out and make more money somewhere else, and I would have. I’ve invested in the future because I’ve invested in you. I’m invested. And I’m not invested in the past, although you think I am because I’m teaching literature and history and those kinds of things from the past. I’m invested in the future.” I think that’s important and rewarding about being a teacher. I think it’s an investment in tomorrow.

Barbara Carpenter

May 11, 2010

Excerpts from Barbara Carpenter interview

I’m the director of the Mississippi Humanities Council.

The word humanities is a term we struggle with all the time. People say, “What are the humanities?” I don’t think it’s what the humanities are, it’s what the humanities do. And it’s really what people do. Anytime that you see a beautiful sunset and you talk to somebody about it, anytime you read a book or go to play and mention it to somebody. Anytime you have an aesthetic experience of your own, and maybe don’t even talk about it, but it makes you think about where you fit into your community or your culture or the universe. The thing that formally the humanities can do through literature, philosophy, linguistics, foreign languages, classics, whatever, is to put our lives into a context. The things that are our culture are the humanities. That’s what it is—it’s what life means, what our history means, what our art means. It puts it in a place where it can be understood.

Ethnic Heritage in Mississippi, which we did around 1992, it was my brainchild, my baby, because that is one of the most long-lived interests I have had. When I moved to Mississippi, I found it seemed to be just black and white. At least that is what the people I talked to seemed to think. As I looked around Mississippi, I determined that they were wrong. They just weren’t recognizing what they had. I first discovered this when I went down to the coast and found there were lots of Cajuns and Slovenians and many different groups. I found that in the Delta there were lots of Italians, there are lots of Lebanese and Syrian people. Of course the Choctaws are centered around Philadelphia, but they have also settled in other places.

The other program dear to my heart is the family reading program. The program involves someone who tells the story, but it also involves someone who helps parents and children talk about the stories. They act them out, they do whatever it takes to get the kids involved, but it’s not like going to the library and having somebody read a story to you. It involves participation. What we find is that it really allows adults, perhaps for the first time, to interact with their children to talk about important things, but talk about it through this work of literature.

The oral histories program…About eleven or twelve years ago, I wrote a proposal to the National Endowment to publish a directory of oral history collections in Mississippi. At that time, there were many groups, libraries, organizations that had collected oral histories of their churches, or anything like that, but they were not formalized. Most of them were not catalogued, and nobody knew exactly what they had.

Our goal was to capture the histories of all kinds of people in Mississippi. The humanities are for everyone. Oral history is for everyone. This wasn’t just to be major politicians, great writers, artists, what have you. We wanted to have recordings of pulp wooders, truck drivers, Delta farmers—anybody and everybody that we could possibly get.

We invited Senator Dick Hall, who was chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He discovered that there was an interview with his father. Senator Hall went and listened to this interview that had been done with his father and said to us himself that he was moved to tears, because he didn’t know it existed, and he hadn’t heard his father’s voice in twenty years or so. We went and talked with him, and he saw to it that we got one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. And with that we established the Mississippi Oral History Program at the University of Southern Mississippi.