Susan Glisson

For pioneering a community-based model of truth-telling and reconciliation. Essay by Cynthia Tucker

Through the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement, Mississippi acquired a reputation as the nation’s least progressive state—violent, brutal, racist. Dr. Susan Glisson doesn’t shy away from that painful past. Instead, she looks that history squarely in the eye and insists that others do the same.

“I believe the truth is the foundation for the future,” she says. Truth-telling [underscores] the whole approach for what we do.”

As executive director of The University of Mississippi’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, Glisson, 45, has spent years bringing together black, white, and brown Mississippians, the powerful and the powerless, the descendants of Ku Klux Klan members with descendants of their victims. Her efforts have helped make Mississippi a leader in healing old wounds.

Glisson joined the crusade for justice in one of the state’s most notorious cases: the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. When Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of three counts of manslaughter in 2005—41 years after the crime—“a gear shifted in Mississippi’s universe,” Glisson says. The trial inspired her to coordinate the Mississippi Truth Project, a grassroots movement pressing for a commission to investigate racially motivated crimes of the Civil Rights era. If it is convened, Mississippi would be only the second state, after North Carolina, to undertake such a commission.

Glisson spearheaded a successful effort to pass the nation’s first state law that requires the teaching of civil rights and human rights history in Mississippi public schools. In 2002 she helped The University of Mississippi organize events to mark the 40th anniversary of the entry of its first black student, James Meredith, whose enrollment sparked deadly riots. The ceremonies included a formal apology from then-Chancellor Robert Khayat. No university has done more to acknowledge its  role in perpetuating segregation.

Glisson says her mission is social justice—working to change the conditions that have created a legacy of inequities. And she believes that racism can be eliminated in her lifetime. “I don’t think it’s easy,” she says. “It takes hard work. But it can happen. I’m seeing it happen in Mississippi every day.”

Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist and visiting professor at The University of Georgia’s Grady College.