Who doesn’t love a good story? 

Stories transport us through time. They entertain, inspire and educate. Storytelling is perhaps our oldest human tradition. 

Stories will abound at First Union Missionary Baptist Church on June 23 from 1 p.m.-4 p.m. They’ll come in all sizes and shapes: spoken word, music, dance, photography, and literature.

“Stories from Civil Rights History, Then and Now” is an afternoon of reflection and fellowship, with something for everyone: teachers, students, parents, and faith and civic leaders. It’s free and open to the public.

Civil rights activist Sadie Clark Martin and Meridian City Councilman Weston Lindemann will join co-hosts Susan Follett and Eric Porter as panelists. Martin was one of the Meridian Five who desegregated Meridian High School in 1965.

Like Martin and Lindemann, Follett and Porter grew up and went to school in Meridian. Follett, author of “The Fog Machine,” one of the “Meridian reads” selections, is a resident of St. Paul, Minnesota. She believes in the power of story to bridge divides. 

Porter, a resident of Detroit, Michigan, advocates lifting up the unsung heroes of the Movement. He is the son of the late the Rev. R.S. Porter Sr., NAACP president and pastor of First Union in the 1960s.

During the “then” portion of the event, panelists will share personal stories of life under Jim Crow, especially around Freedom Summer in Meridian. During the “now” portion, they will consider where we stand today in Meridian and the nation. The panel will explore what lessons history offers in the face of today’s social and technological challenges.

The Sweet Spirits Inspirational Choir, under the direction of Eris Jordan and Richelle Putnam, will perform freedom songs. The Unity Dancers, choreographed by Janet Moore, will interpret two of these songs. 

“Freedom songs were the soundtrack of Freedom Summer,” explains Gail Falk, a Freedom Summer volunteer who taught at the 1964 Meridian Freedom School. “We started the summer singing, and we never stopped until after we left the convention in Atlantic City.  Music gave the civil rights movement its power and its soul.”

One song, “I’ll Be Rested,” has special significance for Meridian. Roosevelt Graves, who was born in Meridian in 1909, recorded it with his brother in 1936 as a spiritual celebrating the life to come. As adapted by Mavis Staples and Ry Cooder, “I’ll Be Rested” calls out fallen soldiers of the civil rights movement, from Meridian and Mississippi and across the nation.

A slideshow of photography by Mark Levy, principal of the 1964 Meridian Freedom School, will play during the program. Civil rights movement veterans and their descendants will be recognized and honored. Mayor Percy Bland and the Rev. Melvin Hendricks will give opening remarks.

“Meridian Reads” brings literature into the storytelling mix. This community reading program recommends two novels to help people brush up on history and current events and begin thinking about what they’ll see and hear at the “Stories, Then and Now” event. Each novel is by a Mississippi author. Each explores the universal theme of discovering what we stand for. Each is suitable for eighth grade and beyond.   

“The Fog Machine” by Susan Follett, is set in the epicenter of the civil rights movement, Mississippi in the 1960s. The story is told through the eyes of a 12-year-old white Catholic girl, a young black Baptist woman who flees to Chicago and a Jewish Freedom Summer volunteer from New York. Each questions what freedom means and the price they’ll pay to have it.

Angie Thomas’ novel “The Hate U Give” is set half a century later. A 16-year-old black girl who witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend by police searches for her voice amid racism, police brutality, discrimination, and prejudice.

With support from the Mississippi Library Commission and the Mississippi Center for the Book, Meridian/Lauderdale County Public Library has added 10 print copies and a single-use eBook license for each title to its collection. “The Fog Machine” and “The Hate U Give” can also be ordered online through Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

“Stories, Then and Now” will conclude with “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil rights movement, followed by light refreshments and opportunity for community dialogue.

• Susan Follett and Eric Porter gratefully acknowledge the support of the Andrew Goodman Foundation, the Meridian Freedom Project, Sustainable Equity, Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, and the Wechsler Foundation as co-sponsors.

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