Sarah and I are visiting relatives in New Orleans this week, and we took a couple of days off to drive into Mississippi–up to Oxford on Wednesday, then to Vicksburg and the Civil War battlefield on Thursday. Since Mississippi is our competition for being last in everything, I thought I’d file a report.
This is an election year in Mississippi, and the the primaries are scheduled for August 7. Yard signs are much more numerous here than we are used to seeing in Texas. One reason is that Mississippi elects everybody — the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, state treasurer, state auditor, secretary of state, insurance commissioner, and the three-member transportation and public service commissions. The absence of toll roads in this poor state, I suspect, can be attributed to an elected transportation commission.
You can see why Mississippi gets its reputation of being last in everything. Interstate 55 was so washboardy in spots that my swaying keys banged out a rhythm on the steering column. The shoulders were crumbly, their outside edges left serrated by pieces that had broken off. On secondary highways, signs indicating the distance to the next town were seldom to be found. The thing that struck me the most about Mississippi (and Louisiana too) was the proliferation of casinos. Tunica, a town on the river below Memphis with a population barely more than a thousand, is the third largest gaming destination in the country. The NY Times had a story the other day about the recovery of casinos in the footprint of Katrina, fueled not by gains in tourism but by federal money that has found its way into the pockets of locals, who gamble it away. It was very depressing to see the casinos in Vicksburg, within sight of the battlefield. They looked cheerless and uninviting.
The legacy of racism weighs heavily on this state. The Mississippi state flag still has the stars and bars in the upper left hand corner. So many town names touch off memories of something terrible that happened there. No state has such a burden of history. Philadelphia is where three young civil rights volunteers were murdered in 1964. The Jackson airport bears the name of another murder vicitim, Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist for the NAACP. One of the things I wanted to see in Oxford was the Lyceum, the antebellum building at Ole Misws where Governor Ross Barnett barred James Meredith’s path to enter the university. An historical plaque tells of how, after an all-night riot that left two people dead, Governor Barnett escorted Meredith inside, where he became the first African-American to enroll at the university. It neglects to mention that Barnett appointed himself registrar of the university so he could block Meredith’s admission, and how he turned him away until federal troops showed up. Driving up to Oxford, I was infuriated to see a sign to “Ross Barnett Reservoir.” His name doesn’t deserve to be on anything.
Mississippi is amazingly rural. You can drive the entire length of I-55 in the state, south to north, without encountering a single town with more than 15,000 people, except for Jackson, the state capital, with a population of only 180,000. Not one town along the way was connected to the highway with a business route. It was even worse off the main route. We drove from Vicksburg down to Port Gibson (which Grant said was “too beautiful to burn”) on U.S.l 61, a fairly major route because one of my New Orleans relatives told me that the Union general had stayed in her great-grandfather’s house. We looked for a restaurant. There wasn’t one.
One of the places I wanted to visit was the Casey Jones museum at Vaughan, on I-55. The famous train wreck in April 1900 occurred north of town. I found the museum, all right. It was in the old depot–or rather, it used to be, before the state of Missippi closed it in 2006 because the state didn’t have the money to keep it open. (Remind you of the Texas State Railroad?) The property was decaying and overgrown with vegetation. I found that the museum had been relocated to Water Valley, on a back road into Oxford. We found it: closed. Open 2-4 Thurs Fri Sat only. It was Wednesday. The old locomotive that had been kept at Vaughan was nowhere in sight. The museum consisted of an old Illinois Central boxcar and a caboose.
The only place I saw in Mississippi that seemed to be thriving was Oxford. It is the Santa Fe of Mississippi, a place where attractive young people jog around the quaint square, patronize the trendy Square bookstore, and eat at trendy restaurants. A gleaming white courthouse (1872, replacing one burned by Grant) has the inevitable Confederate monument out front, honoring those who died in “a just and holy cause.” We visited Rowan Oak, a big two-story white frame house where Faulkner lived and wrote. It was one of those big, square, two-story southern houses–big enough to be called a mansion but not fancy enough–where several generations of a family could live together. Parallell rows of rowan trees stood on either side of the walkway to the house. If Mississippi’s dark and poverty stricken past has been good for anything, it has been good for literature. Misfortune for others is good fortune for writers, or, as we say at the magazine, “Bad for Texas, good for Texas Monthly. “Willie Morris is another writer who came out of Mississippi to become a national figure as editor of Harper’s (after serving as editor of the Daily Texan and the Texas Observer; his autobiography, North Toward Home, has an unerring eye about Mississippi and Texas in the fifties.
On the way from Oxford to Vicksburg, we stopped off in Jackson to visit the Capitol, which was dedicated in 1903. The dome is very prominent, but from the street the building doesn’t look all that imposing. It’s much smaller than the Texas capitol, and the grounds are unimpressive. However, the interior was a complete surprise. It was as ornate as a cathedral. Marble walls, marble columns topped by gold leaf, tile mosaic entranceways to the House and Senate galleries, stained glass windows, stained glass mini-domes in the House and Senate chambers, decorative painting on the walls and ceilings, expansive diases for the presiding officers that Dewhurst and Craddick would die for, elevators that are glass cages with old fashioned doors that compress and expand, and elevator operators. I don’t see how Mississippi could afford to build this structure in 1903.
The Texas capitol is much bigger in all three dimensions–length, width, height–and our rotunda is more expansive and more open. Their inner drive is open and has parking for visitors. But the Capitol is heavily secured. Visitors can only get in through the ground entrance, possibly because second level, accessible by a staircase, is undergoing construction. All other entrances are secured, like our extension, and you must go through security to enter the House and Senate galleries.
The Mississippi lieutenant governor is one of the few in the country that is regarded as a “strong” lite guv. Like Dewhurst, she gets to appoint all committees and committee chairs. As in Texas, the office is much sought-after. The incumbent is term-limited, and Phil Bryant, the state auditor, and a state senator named Charlie Ross are vying for the Republican nomination. Apparently Ross is critical of governor Haley Barbour, because Bryant is running TV commercials touting his support for Barbour, with the line, “Sorry Charlie.”
Mississippi’s House members, like senators, serve four-year terms. Legislators are not term-limited (a proposal was voted down by the people). There are 122 House members and 52 senators. In the House, members sit four abreast. There is a lot of turnover in the House; the average tenure is less than eight years. I can think of a few folks back home whom I wished had a similar tenure.
One other thing surprised me. I have always thought of Mississippi as an extremely conservative state, for the reason that it is an extremely conservative state, so I was stunned to discover that Ds have a four-seat edge in the state Senate. The extent of Republican domination in Texas, holding every statewide office and majorities in the House and Senate, is so unusual. Kansas has a Democratic governor. Wyoming has a Democratic governor. Nebraska has a Democratic senator. If these conservative bastions are two-party states, can’t Texas get there too?