Winning Essay by Ian E., Harvard University

The entire Civil Rights-era South was undoubtedly a hostile place for African Americans, but perhaps none of its cities were as bad as Yazoo City, Mississippi. Under the oppressive shadow of segregation, thousands of black children grew up living in segregated neighborhoods, shopping at segregated businesses, attending segregated schools, and even drinking from segregated water fountains. Surrounded by constant reminders that they were worth less than their white counterparts, many black children struggled to accept who they were. My father, Mike Espy, was one of those children.

After suffering such discrimination at the hands of white southerners, one can imagine my father’s anxiety when he and only sixteen of his black classmates were selected to enter the all-white, 800-student Yazoo City High School as part of the first wave of integration. His fears were soon confirmed. Every day, the white students started fights and denounced him with unspeakable slurs. Even the teachers were not immune to such hatred.

After a night of studying hard, my father was exhausted and began to drift into sleep during chemistry class. Suddenly, he was jolted awake by the sharp sensation of freezing liquid covering his entire body, along with the sound of laughter. Still in shock, he turned around to see his grinning chemistry teacher holding a fire extinguisher. My father was so traumatized by this incident and others like it that he decided to lead a demonstration in protest of the racism at his new school. He vowed he would never return to a place as racist as Mississippi.

After completing law school in California, however, he had a change of heart. He realized that Mississippi was his home and that if no one tried to bring about positive change, things would never get any better there. With this newfound philosophy in mind, he decided to return home and run for public office, eventually becoming Mississippi’s first black congressman since Reconstruction. Eventually, he was even appointed as the nation’s first black Secretary of Agriculture.

I am immensely proud of my father’s determination to pursue his goals despite segregationist society’s constant assertion that he was acting out of his place. He never lost confidence in his right or his capacity to expand his knowledge and change the world for the better. The profound lesson offered by his example has inspired me to never lose sight of my goals, even when my peers accuse me of being a black kid who “acts white” because I highly value my education. Because of him, I realized that education is a human right and that I needed no justification for seeking to pursue it. After college, I hope to continue my father’s legacy by using the skills I have learned to make a positive impact in my community. Through my service, I hope to honor the man who has taught me so much.


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