When I stopped running from my home state of Mississippi and returned home in 2001, I couldn’t foresee what lay ahead. I did know that I was fed up with the lies so many people had told me during my childhood in Neshoba County to keep me ignorant of horrors and discrimination committed supposedly to protect the honor and future of little white girls like me (and more honestly, the power of racists doing it).

Those connected horrors were like a daisy-chain backward through history—three civil-rights murders by a lynch mob of family acquaintances and relatives in my hometown; every effort by state government and law enforcement to punish anyone of any race who tried to push Black advancement; terrorist bombings in the 1960s of Jewish Mississippians who helped rebuild burned churches; and a legacy of slave-owning across the state that descendants don’t want younger generations to know about. That slave-owning history included some of my ancestors—history I didn’t know until I did the research myself as an adult. They likely supported the bloody southern reaction to Reconstruction designed to stop Black gains and punish white supporters in order to keep the white caste system in place.

The supposedly honorable war to maintain and extend slavery was back in the news this week after a prominent presidential candidate declared it wasn’t over slavery. Girl, please. It’s not like the old racist slavers didn’t tell us themselves.

Context Is Our Jam

I refused to accept the lies shoveled at me as I grew up in Mississippi, and that refusal still gets me called names and harassed. But from day one of co-founding the Jackson Free Press here on Sept. 22, 2002, I have encouraged and taught my team members to embed historic context whenever possible (and not let white men grab credit for changing the state flag way too late). We report the actual roots of crime, poverty and inequity, not to mention people who built their wealth for generations off land stolen from the Choctaw and Chickasaw and initially farmed by enslaved human beings, including children. And if we report on a Mississippi governor getting an award named for a Confederate governor, we’re going to also tell readers what a slimeball slaver and fireeater Gov. John J. Pettus was.

Oh, and after I initially broke (while on vacation) that governors were still declaring Confederate Heritage Month in 2016, we’ve reported it first year after year. I believe other media would let the story die if we didn’t—to keep the powerful happy, including their journalism overseers who would prefer to let their own fams’ sleeping dogs lie.

a photo of Gov. Tate Reeves speaking while standing on the roof of the governor's mansion
After Donna Ladd broke the news in the Jackson Free Press that Gov. Phil Bryant and other governors were declaring Confederate Heritage Month annually with no media notice, she later broke the news in the Crirec that Gov. Tate Reeves (pictured) was doing the same thing. Other media report it after the Free Press perpetually breaks the news. Photo by Imani Khayyam

We’ve broken vital historic context, including about Mississippi’s racist segregation academies in the 1960s and how they’re still with us with the same money fights, over and over again. Context is our jam, and these exposés of hidden history are often our most-read stories of the year.

I can’t tell you how many white people, many of them young, have walked up to me at a restaurant or a grocery store and said: “Thank you. I was taught the Civil War wasn’t about slavery.” Or, “I didn’t understand why some Jackson neighborhoods are struggling.” Or, “I was taught that public schools are ‘failures’ due to the (Black) people that run them.”

America’s Newsrooms Have Failed Most People

I’m thrilled to see more national (and occasionally local) media reporting real systemic and historic context as we’ve modeled for more than two decades at the JFP and now at the Crirec. I still think it’s a bit odd to be called “innovative”—such as by national funders like the MacArthur Foundation that just awarded us one of its first eight Press Forward grants—because our nonprofit newsroom has diverse and inclusive leadership, staff and contributors, content, and readership and donors who all engage in deep listening across the state and despite political leaning.

But the sad truth is that America’s newsrooms have failed most people in our nation since the nation’s founding. There’s a lot of ground to make up, and if that’s considered “innovative,” we’ll take it.

Solutions Circles members talking at the first gathering of 2023
The first live MFP-YMP Solutions Circles occurred at New Horizon Church in Jackson on Nov. 9, 2023, with support of the American Press Institute. Solutions Circles are one way that the Crirec reporters such as Aliyah Veal (standing, right) engages with and listens deeply to the people of Mississippi. Photo by Imani Khayyam

We will keep doing what we’ve done for decades in Mississippi even when it was more thankless. And with your help, and the support for our work that all of you readers and donors inspire from philanthropy, we can do more of it, keep creating good jobs for Mississippians (which helps reverse brain drain) and take even better care of our dedicated team members, most of whom have been with the Free Press for five to 16 years. This is how we all together grow truth-telling journalism in Mississippi and as a model for the nation.

All Mississippians deserve the truth.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Crirec, its staff or board members. To submit an opinion for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

Awards:

2024 Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) Awards, Column (Billy Manes Award), Finalist

Founding Editor Donna Ladd is a writer, journalist and editor from Philadelphia, Miss., a graduate of Mississippi State University and later the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where she was an alumni award recipient in 2021. She writes about racism/whiteness, poverty, gender, violence, journalism and the criminal justice system. She contributes long-form features and essays to The Guardian when she has time, and was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Jackson Free Press. She co-founded the statewide nonprofit Crirec with Kimberly Griffin in March 2020, and the Mississippi Business Journal named her one of the state's top CEOs in 2024. Read more at donnaladd.com, follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @donnerkay and email her at [email protected].