Mississippi: The Past That Has Not Died

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Life in Mississippi also had a stagnant quality that made the state a special case. Jackson, Greenville, the Gulf Coast, might be thriving, but their shiny motels were deceptive. Far more meaningful were the scores of sleepy little towns—and even counties—quietly withering away. In 1950 county seats like Mayersville, Carrollton, and Pittsboro had fewer people than at any time since 1900; Carroll, Jefferson, and Claiborne counties, fewer than in 1840. The downward trend had been going on for some time, but the new mechanical cotton-picker gave it an extra shove. The machine was a godsend to the big plantations, but it doomed thousands of field hands and dirt farmers and the whole network of stores and suppliers that kept them going. Some ten people were leaving Mississippi for every one person coming in; those departing included seventy-five per cent of the state’s college graduates.

The strange emptiness of Mississippi gave the place an air of isolation that was another of its special qualities. Even Alaska had a greater percentage of its population in urban areas. There were no really large cities—in 1950 the capital and largest city, Jackson, was still under 100,000. Nor was there any of the culture that serves as a link with the outside world. Jackson’s only bookstore was run by the Baptist Church; its titles were limited for the most part to religious topics. Elsewhere there wasn’t even that—Oxford, the state’s center of learning, had no regular bookstores at all. Nor were there adequate libraries to fill the gap. Twenty-seven counties had no library that met any standards whatsoever. As a result, Mississippi inevitably took little interest in the rest of America, and by 1950 the rest of America took little interest in her. Poverty and isolation had done their work. In fact, the last major presidential candidate who had bothered to visit the state was Henry Clay.

All this led to a uniquely self-contained existence; and that, in turn, became one more difference that set Mississippi apart from the rest of the Union. In the words of a native, “Mississippi is not a state but a club.” Everybody seemed to know everybody else. Doors always seemed open—all a visitor needed was a name that clicked. Personal relationships were the key.

This small world gave Mississippians certain virtues fast disappearing from the rest of the world. People were extraordinarily courteous to one another and never seemed particularly hurried. A man would go ten miles out of his way to show a stranger the right road. But by the same token, everybody knew exactly what everybody else was doing. A seventy-mile drive through the Delta elicited the most minute details about the homes along the way: this man had a new brown dog … that man sold a field last week … that family was fighting with the insurance adjuster.

The tendency to conform was crushing. In far more cases than elsewhere, men wore the same necktie (dark), drove the same cars (cream-colored), lived for the same football games (Ole Miss vs. LSU), and above all belonged to the same party (Democratic). The state’s allegiance was never better expressed than in 1890, when Chancellor Edward Mayer of the University of Mississippi declared, “I have never failed to vote Democratic, I have never scratched a ticket, and I would not, no matter whom the party might nominate for its candidate.” The New Deal did indeed strain the allegiance, but characteristically Mississippi still conformed at the moment of truth—Election Day. When the state finally strayed from the fold in 1948, the rationalization developed that Mississippi was still holding to the true faith; it was the rest of the Democrats who had bolted away.

The more postwar America changed, the more Mississippi retreated into its own self-contained little world. Bypassed in the march of events, the state saw little connection between itself and all the strange new things going on—the UN, Marshall Plan, NATO, welfare measures at home. All this meant only more centralized government, and the people were in no mood for that—states’ rights were the very heart of the South’s solution to the race problem. Bristling at the very thought, Mississippi became increasingly suspicious of “outside interference” and increasingly proud of its own way of life. Once again thoughts turned to the glorious past.…

“For any Southern boy fourteen years old,” wrote Mississippi’s own William Faulkner, “not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods … and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet.”

It might only be added that in the Mississippi of 1950 the daydream was not limited to fourteen-year-old boys. Every age lived with the fantasy. The state officially observed Confederate Memorial Day, Lee’s and Jefferson Davis’ birthdays … while studiously ignoring Lincoln’s and the national Memorial Day. Jackson boasted its Rebel Concrete Company, Rebel Garment Company, Rebel Roofing & Metal Company. Hattiesburg had its Rebel Theatre, Oxford its Rebel Cosmetology College. Schoolboys loved to dress up in Confederate uniforms … older men wistfully told how it all might have been different if only Pemberton had held at Champion Hill. (“It still breaks my heart when I think of it,” one confessed.) Confederate flags hung from porches, windows, staffs, all over the state; and in case anyone ever needed reminding, there was always the reproachful gaze of the noble stone soldier who stood atop the Confederate monument in every courthouse square.…