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Mindful : June 2016
have come clean about ugly family histories. “I can’t hate you because of what your ancestors did,” she says. “I can’t go to heaven hating you.” The Welcome Table can loosely trace its ori- gins to 2004, four decades after the landmark voter-registration drive called Mississippi Free- dom Summer. In June 1964, outside the lumber town of Philadelphia, three civil-rights work- ers—one black Mississippian and two Northern white students—were arrested, then murdered, after visiting a church destroyed by arson. The charred bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were found later that summer, and their slaying remains an enduring symbol of white-supremacist terror. No one had yet been prosecuted by the state. Knowing the 40th anniversary would draw global attention, two former classmates—a black NAACP president and a white newspaper editor—contacted the Winter Institute. “They wanted to help reshape the narrative,” says Wel- come Table coordinator April Grayson. “They knew more about that community than someone visiting there as an outsider.” But the prospect of a public commemoration had triggered tensions in Philadelphia. The white-run tourism council envisioned a brochure about local heroes and a civil-rights driving tour. Older African Ameri- cans, who felt their own stories had been over- shadowed by savior narratives, feared tourism officials would whitewash history. It’s hard to trust each other when we don’t know each other’s stories, someone said at a meeting. Susan Glisson, the Winter Institute’s execu- tive director, responded by devoting time during each planning session to personal storytelling. It was a rudimentary but still useful version of what would become the Welcome Table process. Over time, the Philadelphia group developed sufficient trust to produce an oral-history proj- ect. It also successfully lobbied officials to pros- ecute the former Klan leader who, in the 1960s, had bragged about ordering the killings. The institute did similar work in McComb, which during the civil-rights era was called the “bombing capital of the world” because of the violent retribution endured by activists. Glis- son later solicited feedback from participants in those towns, and their advice helped her develop the Welcome Table’s basic structure. The institute says it has brought some version of that structure to five Mississippi communities, plus New Orleans, since then, and two more groups are currently gearing up. → In conversations, Elizabeth Paine and Don Cole, who live in Oxford, Mississippi, have both uncovered divisive thoughts buried deep within themselves. 58 mindful June 2016 community