A prevalent perception of Mississippi, even here at home, is that our state is well behind the rest of the country in almost all socio-economic factors. Our people struggle to find good paying jobs. Our educational system is woefully below standard. Our inner cities are decaying. If we’re not 50th in one category, we’re 51st in another behind the District of Columbia. In short, we’re at best stagnant, at worst regressive.
Well, I recently had an eye-opening experience. I took a trip north to see my family in Missouri. It had been almost nine years since my last visit, and things had changed considerably. It caused me to develop a whole new perspective on our state. As I left for home, I came to a realization: If social change is a hill to be climbed, perhaps we’re farther up the path than we realize.
Jefferson City, Mo., the state capital, has always been a special place to me. My father and practically all his side of the family live there or in close proximity. I only lived there briefly, but no summer was complete without going to see my “Show Me” kin. Thus, I’ve had a number of years to observe the city, the people and its climate.
“Jeff,” as the city is sometimes called by the locals, has always seemed to me a world apart from Mississippi. It’s small for a state capital, a little smaller than Hattiesburg. It’s quiet and conservative and very rural in character, but that’s where the similarities to the South end. From its unique Missouri drawl to its tidy, sparse rock homes built in close quarters high on the bluffs of the Missouri River, the town is totally Midwestern, mixed with Old World features and charms due the influx of German and other European stock who settled in the region in the early 1800s.
Those qualities remain today, but the landscape has been altered. As I drove into town, I immediately noticed a shabby house with a broken-down car in the yard. The rest of the houses on the block were similar. Since I had never seen the hint of squalor in the city before I thought it an aberration, until I drove down High Street, the city’s main downtown drag. As I approached the capitol, there were more homes in disrepair surrounding an inner city shelter. On the porches were adults with an all-too-familiar vacant stare, and a number of children looking unkempt and with that same look of despair.
I was shocked. I asked how this had come about, and all queried mentioned a man who had a local radio station. He was the founder of the shelter and was inviting the less fortunate to come into town for sojourn.
However, there seemed to be a division of opinion if this was the root of the decay. Some just called it the sign of the times. The answers left me troubled.
Later, my cousin and his family came in from their just-completed suburban Kansas City home. He and his wife were very concerned about a possible court-ordered desegregation plan for the area’s public school system. They were concerned about property values and what effect it would have on the neighborhoods, particularly if busing is involved.
Other family members worried that a similar fate could await Jefferson City’s schools.
I felt my stomach tighten. Visions of the hard times of the 1960s and 1970s in Mississippi came to mind. Why? Because it seemed to me that Jefferson City is standing where we were some 30 years ago, at the bottom of a steep hill, looking up.
I THINK WE CAN, I THINK WE CAN…
It would be ludicrous for me to try to say we have the problems of joblessness, education and urban decay licked here in Mississippi. But at least we have faced them.
We’ve seen potentially productive taxpayers, and their children, sitting idly on the porches of their homes. But by and large our people are now working. Not everyone is employed and wages aren’t what we might like, but we’re in the main all contributing now.
We have already gone through integration, though not always voluntarily or without a struggle. Still, we hear less and less about discriminatory school policies, and the old mantra of “separate but equal” seems to have lost all devotees except extremists.
I think we have also done some admirable work in reclaiming depressed neighborhoods and improving living conditions for our citizens. Efforts to rejuvenate and reclaim our Main Streets have shown some fruit. At least we haven’t given up.
Yes, we still have work to do, but on the trip back from Jefferson City, as the sharp hills of the Ozarks suddenly give way of the flat lands of the South, I couldn’t help but be struck by the symbolism. It seems to me that we in Mississippi are have already negotiated some steep hills of change.
Where we are on that hill is up to individual opinion and open to debate. I believe will still have a long pull to reach the crest.
But we are on the rise, and we have been for about 30 years now.
I will admit I felt a certain amount of pride about where we stand, about being a Mississippian. We’ve made some mistakes and we pay for them even now, but hopefully the darkest parts of our struggles are over. They seem to be just beginning for Jefferson City.
Before I’m cut out of several wills and have a whole city mad at me, I do want to say that there were also many positive changes in Jefferson City.
A new convention center is being discussed. A ton of new eateries and stores have come to town. A new junior college just opened its doors. A new state penitentiary is being planned. Interestingly, the state has been discussing a way to defray the cost of demolishing the old facility by getting Hollywood to come in and film it for a possible prison escape scene in some action movie.
I call that creativity and foresight.
But it’s still the mostly unchanged vistas that I find irresistible. The trim, quaint homes and stately old churches of the city are surrounded by countryside replete with picturesque farmhouses and large painted barns on steep hills covered by lush corn or fat cattle.
My point is not to dwell on our neighbor’s woes, and I certainly don’t want to sound haughty. But I think, with humbleness and some satisfaction, we in Mississippi should realize that we have gained altitude in our search for equal opportunity and justice.
We may not have topped the rise, but the view is still pretty good.
Wally Northway is a staff writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.