The sign on the two-lane road south of Tupelo reads OKOLONA--THE LITTLE CITY THAT DOES BIG THINGS. The town once had a stoplight, Raspberry says, but now there is only a four-way stop at the intersection where a left turn takes you into the downtown area.
There isn't much to downtown. It is a two-block row of mostly one-story buildings, many of them empty. The lettering on the glass door of one of the buildings reads CITY HALL. Next door, in a large room called the Rockwell City Auditorium, a group of women is preparing for Raspberry's talk. On a long table in the back of the room are platters of fried chicken, barbecue, spaghetti, and hot dogs. There are two sheet cakes for dessert. One reads "Welcome Mr. Raspberry From the Area Day Care Centers"; the other, "Best Wishes From Jolly's Chapel Church."
Tables covered with white paper tablecloths are arranged diagonally in the room. At the center of each is a glass vase with small bunches of garden flowers. Many of the people gathering for the presentation don't know Raspberry, but they know he is probably one of the most famous citizens ever to come out of Okolona.
Two television crews have come in from Tupelo, as have a reporter and a photographer from the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. More than 150 people occupy the room. There are parents with children, representatives from local daycare centers, the mayor, the chief of police, city-council members, the local superintendent of education, the state superintendent of education, and a committee chairman from the state legislature.
It takes a while to get to the main event. Children lead the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing "God Bless America." There's a round of welcoming speeches and thank-yous. Raspberry had planned on paying for the kickoff supper, but local organizers raised the money themselves, so there are acknowledgements to the benefactors--the Bank of Okolona, the Tennessee Valley Authority, People's Bank & Trust, Chandler's Furniture Center, Scott's Auto Parts--and special thanks to area churches.
Finally, Bill Raspberry, dressed in a short-sleeve black shirt and tan pants and wearing a HELLO MY NAME IS tag, rises to speak. He is a solidly built man, balding with a neatly trimmed moustache, and his years of speaking are evident. He spends two days a week at Duke University, where he teaches a public-policy course.
Standing in front of an American flag and a Mississippi state flag--with the stars and bars of the Confederacy in one corner--he tells the audience that his goal is to make Okolona's children the smartest in Mississippi. That will take some doing. Earlier this year, some parts of Mississippi had seen modest improvements in students' scores on standardized reading and math tests. Chickasaw County, however, had experienced the state's steepest decline. (A member of the Okolona chamber of commerce said the local high-school dropout rate is a staggering 58 percent.)
Raspberry explains that his program will begin with "baby steps." It will focus first on preschoolers--more precisely, on the parents of preschoolers. He calls on the audience to join him by showing up for a special training program the following Monday to learn how to help parents help their children and to form a cadre to help train other adults and parents.
"When it comes to our schools," he tells the crowd, "we demand that George W. Bush live up to his promise of 'no child left behind.' We demand that the governor and the state superintendent of education and the local school system and the chairman of Ways and Means do what is necessary to provide our children the educational resources they need.
"And we have a right to do that. But while we are demanding that others do their jobs, we need to do ours. We need to remember that the most influential resource a child can have is a parent who cares. And we need to admit that sometimes parents are the missing ingredient."
He says it is important for parents to talk to their children, not to "grunt or holler" at them, and to compliment them regularly.
"We black parents sometimes get into the habit of thinking we can beat our children into proper behavior, that we can yell and scream them into doing the right thing, that we can intimidate them into virtue," he tells his audience. "The more you compliment them for what they do right, the less you have to yell at them for what they do wrong."
He finishes to a standing ovation. Adults form a line to sign up for the training session the following Monday.
Raspberry admits that he has no idea how successful his program will be. He knows it will take time, but exactly how long--and how great a financial commitment--he isn't sure.
This much he does know. "The great secret of middle-class existence in this country is that you don't have to be really smart to make it. Poor people often don't understand that, but the middle class understands it well. They know that their children of quite ordinary intelligence, if you get them into the right academic situation, they're not all going to Harvard, but you can get them somewhere and get them in the right professions, they'll do okay."
Raspberry has a two-year commitment on his teaching contract at Duke. He says he probably will keep his weekly Post column going at least that long. But he's on his Mississippi mission for the long haul.
For Raspberry, reviving the academic spirit of Okolona College is vitally important. "If the column gets in the way of doing what I want to do in Okolona," he says, "I'll leave the column."
This article appears in the December 2003 issue of The Washingtonian.