The 1960s were a tumultuous time for Jackson, Mississippi. The year 1963 alone saw sit-ins by Tougaloo students and professors to protest segregation, a mass protest march at the Jackson fairgrounds, the assassination of Medgar Evers, and the graduation of James Meredith from the University of Mississippi. It was becoming increasingly clear that racial injustices and disparities could not be ignored.
Also occurring in 1963 Jackson was the annual Southern Literary Festival, hosted by Millsaps College. A notable speaker was Pulitzer-prize winning author Eudora Welty. Welty’s writing, which frequently explores the cultural and social intricacies of small Southern towns, often takes a subtle approach when writing about African Americans. Sometimes condemned for her obscurity, Welty has also been commended by author Toni Morrison for writing “about black people in a way that few white men have ever been able to write. It’s not patronizing, not romanticizing—it’s the way they should be written about.”
Welty seemed to seek a balance between acknowledging African American presences and the racial dynamics of the South with the fact that she, as a white woman, could never fully understand the experiences of African Americans. There were times, however, when she took a stronger stance.
She wrote the short story “Where is the Voice Coming From?” in 1963 following the assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers; her narrator was none other than the murderer himself, and she used this narrative perspective to explore the societal influences on racist thought. In 1966, she would write “The Demonstrators,” another story centered on the Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. Michael Pickard, who graduated from Millsaps College and is currently a Millsaps professor of English and Creative Writing, has dedicated himself to Welty’s life and work in the past few years.
“I think that Welty’s work represents an affirmation of human dignity and equality and an awareness of how the social life of the American South of her time did not extend equality and opportunity to everyone,” Dr. Pickard stated. “I think that Welty from very early years as a college student and adult forward through the very end aligned herself with the values of equality and justice and treating people as human beings instead of as categories.”
When Eudora Welty was asked to give a speech and reading at the Southern Literary Festival in April of 1963, she refused to participate unless the audience could be integrated.
Millsaps was not integrated at the time. African American students from Tougaloo College had been turned away from a Millsaps play just a few weeks before the Welty reading, and would be turned away again not long after as well.
Civil Rights activist Anne Moody commented that she was one of the first students to desegregate Millsaps College – yet she was not a Millsaps student, but a Tougaloo student. She attended Welty’s 1963 reading and would return to Millsaps in 1985 to give a lecture of her own.
Gayle Graham Yates, who graduated from Millsaps College in 1961, remembers Moody’s lecture in her book Mississippi Mind.
Yates’s book recalls Moody stating, “In 1963, I was one of the first black students to integrate Millsaps. Eudora Welty was giving a reading. A Tougaloo student group with John Salter and Ed King had spoken with Miss Welty, and she said she did not want her readings to be exclusive. I love Eudora Welty. I had read her work. I had the opportunity to come here to hear her as one of the first black students. We came in. Millsaps did not make a fuss. We were very uptight. But there was not an incident. I spoke with Miss Welty. Now I am told you have one hundred black students.”
It was not true that Millsaps had one hundred students at the time – it was less than that – but Moody commented nonetheless that she was “happy to appear [at Millsaps] as not the only black [there].”
Welty’s reading, while having an inspiring audience, also had an interesting choice in story. Welty decided to read her short story “Powerhouse,” which she wrote after attending the concert of Fats Waller, an African American jazz musician. The story begins with racially charged language attached to the perspective of a white audience, then shifts to the perspective of the African American musicians and presences in the story.
Dr. Pickard commented on Welty’s decision to read “Powerhouse,” “I think that she found Fats Waller, the performer, the musician, the human being, to be full of life and energy and vitality and I think she wanted to bring him to life, but I also think she wanted to show how the white audience of her time or how white concert-goers of her time responded to performers like Fats Waller.”
Welty likely knew how she could offend audience members of both races in reading this story, but it was doubtlessly a very deliberate decision.
“I think that she was very aware as she was giving her own performance to an integrated audience of how audiences respond to performers,” Dr. Pickard continues, “and I think [she] wanted to share with people who attended the Southern Literary Festival this story about just how an audience can reduce a performer to a set of stereotypes or cliches, and at the same time or while doing that to miss the vitality of the performance.”
It is important to acknowledge that Welty does use discriminatory language in some of her work. It has been argued by some that she used such language to expose the prejudices she witnessed. She would revise some of her works later in life to better reflect the change in values that occurred over her lifetime.
Welty’s 1963 reading, for all its interesting details, was nonetheless an important moment in Millsaps’ personal history of race relations. A positive moment amidst so many negatives, its place in history connects us to where we are in the present. Her reading took place in what is now the chapel in the Christian Center.
“It means a lot that we’re still teaching and working in the building where this act of integration happened, and as we move into the future, with a new and beautiful Christian Center, that we not lose sight of its legacy and its history as a space in which not only this event happened – it happened in what’s now our chapel – but we also don’t forget the wonderful progressive, dynamic professors who worked here like T.W. Lewis,” said Dr. Pickard, “professors who were very involved in the Civil Rights Movement and in celebrating the values of equality and social justice that we associate with that time.”
Two years after Welty’s reading, in 1965, a change in the college’s presidency and a policy stating that colleges that were not integrated would not be able to obtain any federal funding led in part to the official decision to integrate Millsaps, which was heavily supported by faculty. The decision made it the first private college to desegregate in Mississippi.
Graves, J. Toby. “Desegregation of Private Colleges.” Mississippi Encyclopedia. https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/desegregation-of-private-colleges/#:~:text=In%201965%20Millsaps%20became%20the,wanted%20to%20do%20so%20sooner.
Marrs, Suzanne. Eudora Welty: A Biography. Harcourt, Inc., 2005.
–,–. One Writer’s Imagination. Louisiana State University, 2001.
McKinley, Laura. “Millsaps College and the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement.” Millsaps College, 1988.
McHaney, Pearl. “Race Rights, and Resistance in Southern Literature in the Age of Obama.” American Studies Journal, no. 56, 2012. http://www.asjournal.org/56-2012/race-rights-and-resistance-in-southern-literature-in-the-age-of-obama/
Mississippi History Timeline. www.mdah.ms.gov/timeline/zone/1963/.
Lowe, Maria. “’Sowing the Seeds of Discontent’: Tougaloo College’s Social Science Forums as a Prefigurative Movement Free Space, 1952-1964,” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 39, no. 6, 2009, pp. 865-887).
Yates, Gayle Graham. Mississippi Mind: A Personal Cultural History of an American State. The University of Tennessee Press, 1990.