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Something That's Lasting

Michael Ng

There may not be any "Whites Only" signs, there may not be any Jim Crow, but the legacy of segregation hangs thick down in the Mississippi Delta.

There are black schools and white schools. There are black churches and white churches. There are black restaurants and white restaurants. The school board expels students for throwing a penny in class. Police arrest--and handcuff--fourth-graders for getting into fistfights. Principals smack excited students to shut them up.

And it is here in the Delta, in Drew, Miss., that Michael Ng '01 chose to begin his law career. He is a staff attorney for Southern Echo, a community and leadership development organization. But his job goes beyond filing civil rights lawsuits. He teaches parents their rights and helps community organizations influence the legislative process. He is trying to effect change that originates with the people and develops into a foundation that a court decision does not always provide, particularly in the Mississippi Delta, where landmark desegregation rulings barely resonate.

"In so many ways, there are just two different worlds here," Ng said. "There's a white world of privilege and money that has a very distinct society here, and then there's the black community. People socialize and work in two completely different worlds."

Ng will be the first to say that he hasn't yet changed these worlds. He's just trying to get the school board to stop sending black children to an entirely inadequate alternative school just because they won't sit down when a teacher asks them.

He grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., with 12 siblings, nine of whom were adopted. He has a brother from Mexico, two sisters and a brother from Korea, a sister from India, a brother from Thailand, and a brother from Hong Kong. Ng's parents made decisions that had radical and long-term effects on many lives. He hopes to follow their example by helping to change a community, from the school board right down to the kindergarten classroom at A.W. James Elementary School.

"I'm developing an understanding of how a lawyer can do something constructive and do something that's lasting," Ng said. "The need that must be fulfilled here doesn't exist in such a glaring way in any other part of the country. I really saw going to law school as giving myself skills and tools that I could put to work in doing the things I wanted to do."

"I see the impact of what I'm doing," he added, "and I see the impact not only in getting a legal result, but also in building up something that will persist outside of me."

--Ben Welch

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