JACKSON, Miss. – The man who might be president came to this city last week and Priscilla Sterling could barely stomach that he was still in the race, much less in her home town. When she saw the clips on television, she saw throngs of white people wearing “Build That Wall” T-shirts in a state where the Confederate emblem is still etched into its flag.
With them came Donald Trump, with his latest campaign chief, this one with ties to the white nationalist movement, pitching voters on a newfound notion that he could be a savior for African-American communities. All of it together – the rallies and rhetoric, the echoes of oppression – rekindled fears for Sterling that Trump was excavating the racist vestiges of the Old South.
“There’s just been something in the atmosphere,” Sterling said recently, as she drove through block after block of unemployed men and women sitting on the front porches of dingy homes with sunken roofs in one of this city’s oldest black neighborhoods.
Trump has said that he does not want the votes of white supremacists. He will undertake his most direct appeal to black voters – and whites looking for comfort that he is not a racist – on Saturday when he tours Detroit with his most prominent African-American surrogate, Ben Carson. Those efforts started to gain steam here in Jackson, where Trump said at a rally last week that the lives of black Americans were so impoverished and crime-stricken that they had nothing to lose by voting for him.
But, with his vow to “make America great again,” a slogan that feels to many blacks like a not-so-subtle reference to days that were anything but great for them, many here fear that Trump has emboldened a resentment among whites that will endure regardless of the outcome of the general election.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there was a 15 percent increase in the number of hate groups tracked in 2015, partially attributed to the Trump candidacy and controversies over the Confederate flag. African-Americans such as Sterling said they didn’t need those statistics to sense a change. They said they felt it in looks and stares from white people on the street and in being ignored when they entered gas stations or convenience stores.
“My family has worked so hard to reconcile the races,” said Sterling, 48, a distant cousin of Emmett Till, who was abducted, brutalized and murdered in 1955 at the age of 14 after he had allegedly whistled at a white woman. The white men who killed him were acquitted by an all-white jury; no one would be convicted in the case until 2004.
“In Mississippi, it’s been hard. But Trump is making it harder . . . by getting people excited about making America like it was in the past,” Sterling said. “Does he know about the past?”
Bobby McGowan, an African-American county board supervisor, said that a few weeks ago he was driving a charter bus through a rural area outside Jackson when some young white men threw rocks at him.
“To me, that was racism,” McGowan said. “These were things that used to happen in the old days.”
It was here in Mississippi, after all, where young civil rights activists were slain during the Freedom Summer, a 1964 voter registration project. A year earlier, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in the driveway outside his home in Jackson.
The older generation suffered the indignities of having to bow their heads when they passed a white person on the street and lived through intense white flight that decimated Jackson’s economy.
That shift began after the desegregation of the public schools in the 1970s, said Robert Luckett, a history professor at Jackson State University. The trend continued after the city government went from having three citywide elected positions to a council that represented different city wards. Jackson elected its first black mayor in 1997.
“When black people started getting political power, that was it,” said Kenneth Stokes, an African-American who was first elected to the City Council in 1989. “They left for he suburbs.”
Between 2000 and 2010, Jackson’s white population decreased by 40 percent. The city is now 80 percent black.
Many of Trump’s white supporters in Mississippi are quick to emphasize that his business experience will help bring jobs to all communities, including black ones.
“I think he’s saying things in the way to get people talking about the issues,” said Stephen McDill, 32, a white customer service representative who lives in a suburb outside Jackson where Trump is popular. “If there are some in the African-American community that are scared, I understand that, because of the history. But I’m not scared for my African-American friends or neighbors. We’ve come a long way, even though we still have farther to go.”
For some blacks here, the question of how to respond to Trumpism has upended the order of things.
Charles Evers, 93, is the brother of the slain civil rights hero. A local radio talk show host, he unsettled many with his decision in March to support Trump even as he acknowledged a swirl of racism around the campaign.
Evers, who became a Republican in 1980 but backed President Barack Obama, said he likes Trump’s business experience and his focus on getting jobs back into the black community. He pays no attention to the supremacist idea.
“Ain’t they all racist?” said Evers. “What I know is Trump has black people working for him, that he gives us jobs. There are always going to be racists in the world, so that doesn’t matter to me.”
To some of Evers’s radio listeners, his sentiments reflect a Trump-infused world that they barely recognize. Trump has “got even Charles Evers talking crazy. Nothing is the same,” said LC Palmer, 47, an auto mechanic who is black..
For Sterling, everyday occurrences reinforce her sense that racial civility is breaking down.
On a recent afternoon, her mother waited for her to come home from a doctor’s appointment. Her house is small, with pink shingles, next to an empty lot. An American flag hangs from her front porch. Inside is crowded with binders and books and certificates and diplomas going back to Sterling’s grade-school years.
As Sterling plopped on the sofa, she began to tell her mother, Gloria Williams, about her unpleasant experience at the doctor’s office. A staff member told her that her insurance had expired, Sterling recalled, which was wrong. Sterling was unable to get cellphone reception in the building, so she asked to use an office phone to call her employer and clear up the mistake. The staff member, who was white, told her no, Sterling said.
The staff member then told her that she needed to pay hundreds of dollars for her screening. Sterling began to wonder whether she was treated so harshly because she was one of the few black patients at the office.
“I cried. I cried because I felt it was racism,” she said. “This is the attitude and the atmosphere that Trump is causing. He is fostering this hate and when you plant negative seeds, people act on it.”
Sterling and her mother recalled that magical moment when Obama was elected, how there were drug boys and clubgoers crying in the streets because a racial barrier had been broken. He hadn’t been a perfect president – the area was still struggling and they did not know a single person who benefited from his signature health-care law – but at least he had been their president.
“He went to those white folks on bended knees and they treated him so bad,” Williams said. “We know why. Even Ray Charles would’ve been able to see that.”
“But still, things were not so bad over the past few years,” Sterling said. “Not great, but tolerable. At least people knew it was wrong to treat others badly.”
“And now we have people talking about the KKK coming back,” said her mother, who moved to Jackson in 1966 after she received death threats in another town for registering black people to vote.
“You know, some times I wonder if I’m almost paranoid,” Sterling said. “I have mixed-race nieces and nephews, and I have worked for racial reconciliation. But sometimes when they pass with those old trucks, with all those tattoos — with the history of my family and my ability to speak out, I don’t know if I should be worried.”
“Are they coming for me next? I try my best to be calm, but I’m scared. I pray to God to give me the strength to continue to believe that things will get better.”