Thursday, January 24, 2013

The silence in Mississippi

One of the first things I noticed when I moved to the Magnolia state a year ago and took a job as a news editor at a small newspaper was the silence -- the deep, profound silence -- about things that matter. Silence in the media. Silence among the people I met. Silence among my new Facebook friends and co-workers. Politics and religion were strictly off-limits, it seemed, what to speak of Mississippi's past. There was no talk of issues. No debate. No discussion. No exchange of views. All very polite, safe, non-offensive, let's-talk-about-the-weather because we don't want anyone to be offended.

At first, I attributed this to the fact that I was a Yankee outsider. I wasn't from the South. I couldn't possibly understand what was going on. I had no right to offer any criticism. Or perhaps my involvement in the media made people skittish and fearful. Perhaps they were afraid to tell me what they really thought for fear they might find themselves quoted in the newspaper.

Whatever the reason, there was a profound, noticeable silence.

This type of silence is not unknown to members of a dysfunctional family. Anyone who talks to outsiders about the truth on the ground in such a family is automatically a traitor. I've had a fair bit of experience with that, too. And, as I began to live in Mississippi and meet folks, I was often reminded of that feeling because, let's face it, Mississippi is a dysfunctional state. It's the poorest, fattest, least educated, with the highest number of teen pregnancies, a lot of shameful historical baggage -- everyone knows the deal. Reminding Mississippians of these facts of life is quick way to become highly unpopular.

So, the silence.

In the media. In the newspapers. On the local television news.

During the height of a presidential election, with fierce debates among Democrats and Republicans on all kinds of issues, during the Trayvon Martin shooting, during any number of crises and controversies, there was barely a peep from any Mississippian of my acquaintance about anything at all.


And fear.

In Mississippi, it's assumed that everyone is firmly on board with the God, Guns and Gays thing. It's a solidly Red state. One doesn't dare talk about gay rights, or abortion rights, or restricting access to machine guns. One doesn't walk around thinking that Obamacare might be good for Mississippi. Our political leaders have set the tone; our job is apparently to follow and not question.

When you browse the local media, you will find mostly conservative, religious voices. You'll find editorial pages padded with press releases from Republican congressmen. You'll even find sermons from preachers in some of the back pages. What you won't find are many dissenting voices or alternative points of view, at least not in the northern part of the state where I live. You won't find Sunya Walls on the WTVA evening news talking about abortion rights. You won't find editorials or columns in the Daily Journal calling for gay rights. What you do find is lots of talk about the weather -- literally -- with healthy doses of crime and high school sports and any possible bit of business news that makes the state of Mississippi look good.

With regard to politics and the issues of the day, there seem to be only one set of "answers" in Mississippi, one set of "truths," and there is little coloring outside the lines, and very few voices willing to speak up and go against the grain. In many ways, it's a Fascist state whose citizens have been frightened into silence, who fear the reprisals that might come of being different or expressing opinions that stray from the party line. I've heard stories about business people with liberal leanings who keep their mouths shut lest they lose their customers or their jobs.

Mississippi is paying the price for this silence. It routinely sends officials down to Jackson and over to Washington who don't seem to have the best interests of the people of the state in mind. There's a reason why Mississippi is the poorest and least educated and whatnot -- and that reason has a lot to do with the elected officials who make decisions that consistently lead to poverty and backwardness.

Case in point: Governor Phil Bryant has made it a priority to shut down the state's one remaining abortion clinic. One of his stated goals is to make abortion a thing of the past in the state of Mississippi. How that will help poor women here escapes most intelligent people.

Bryant has also been publicly musing about not following any new regulations on weapons that might come down from Washington and Congress. How the governor arrived at the conclusion that he is free to disobey federal law also escapes most intelligent people.

Bryant presides over a state that only last year began to require sex education among students. Chew on that for a while, if you will. The state with the highest number of teen pregnancies has just now gotten around to thinking about sex-ed classes for its kids. And because of the conservative, religious voices in the state, the sex-ed that is now provided is either Abstinence Only or Abstinence Plus. These two programs have shown themselves to be all but useless when it comes to driving down the number of teen pregnancies, but there you are.

The Mississippi legislature is currently drafting a "sovereignty law" (House Bill 490) to ensure that the federal government does not infringe on the rights of Mississippians. The last such law was enacted in the 1950s to stop the tide of civil rights. It ended very badly for Mississippi. This new attempt has virtually no hope of succeeding, but there you are.

The state is also determined to block expansion of Medicaid, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, and which would bring in billions of federal dollars to help insure all Mississippians. We are told again and again by the governor on down that Mississippi can't afford it. One suspects the real reason behind this foolishness is the desire by politicians in this state to thumb their noses at Obamacare, the consequences to the people of Mississippi be damned. The governor even told a reporter that "no American" lacks health care insurance.

But there's not much talk in the media here about such things. Occasionally a newspaper will get bold and print a fiery letter to the editor. That's about it.

It's not that all Mississippians are Republican or even religious. Far from it. About 40 percent of the state voted for President Obama in this past election. And 58 percent of voters here rejected the personhood amendment to the state constitution, a stunning defeat for what was considered a done deal.

I have been finding an increasing number of pockets of resistance. The Jackson Free Press does good work. MPB (Mississippi Public Broadcasting) offers much thoughtful commentary, as does the Clarion-Ledger. One can find "left leaning" pages on Facebook where like-minded souls can hang out. I have met many progressive Mississippians on such pages, many activists, many thoughtful commentators.

What's needed, it seems to me, is for the average Mississippian to find his or her voice - and start speaking up. Democracy depends on a healthy exchange of ideas. Issues ought to be debated. Decisions that affect all our lives shouldn't be left to politicians who have their own agendas and who are far too busy thumping their chests and their bibles to much care about what happens on the ground.

Mississippi needs to shrug off the plantation mentality and get with the spirit of the times. We don't need to sit around waiting for word from the Big House about what we can believe and what we can do and how we ought to vote.

In the past, Mississippi politicians valued "strong backs and weak minds," which kept voters right where the politicians wanted them. If Mississippi wants to move ahead, that dynamic has to change.

Yet, in a state where those holding liberal views can be -- and indeed are -- punished if they express those views too loudly, the silence here is not surprising. I've heard of elected officials who lost re-election because they had an extra-marital affair. I heard of a woman serving as alderman for a small town who was voted out after it became known that she was gay. I've heard of businessmen who have lost customers and/or their business because of their support for abortion rights.

In this deeply religious state, with a large church on every corner, one does not question religious belief too openly. One does not campaign for gay rights, or abortion rights. One does not discuss gun control. One does not even, as I discovered for myself, talk too openly about supporting President Obama. You either get with the Gods, Guns and Gays thing, or you keep your trap shut.

That's how Mississippi rolls, apparently. Conformity -- or else. To which I would say: It didn't work in the past, and it won't work now. Not forever. What with Facebook and blogs and instant communication, trying to silence differing points of view is ultimately futile.

Until Mississippi learns that lesson, its talented sons and daughters, including Elvis, Oprah, Jimmy Buffet, Morgan Freeman and so many others, will continue to chase their dreams elsewhere.


  1. Hi Nick -- I moved to MS from CA five months ago. I live in the northern part of the state and am starving for contact with thinking, speaking people. How far are you from Holly Springs?

    1. Drive 35 miles south to Oxford. Oxford is home to a large number of open-minded, thinking citizens. Visit Off Square Books on Thursday nights for a local live radio show that focuses on literary works. Oxford is known for having wonderful restaurants also.

    2. Yes! Go to any UU or LGBT event in Oxford and you'll be welcomed with open arms for plenty of open, progressive conversation.

  2. Nick, this is an excellent and in my opinion, having lived here for 20 years, an accurate piece. I shared it on my FB page and Twitter. Thank-you for posting it.
    Kelly Jacobs
    Hernando, MS

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. My husband and I, native Minnesotans, moved to Missouri's bootheel five years ago. A criminal defense lawyer by day, he loves playing poker in his leisure, and so we travel to Tunica, Mississippi three or four times a year for a weekend of Texas Hold'em. What you write in this post rings true; at least it does for me.

    Driving south on Highway 55 through Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee (briefly), and Mississippi, I'm always struck by the stark contrasts. In Arkansas and points south, dilapidated structures punctuate the landscape, which stretches endlessly and is beautifully festooned in late summer with white cotton blooms. Semis hauling supplies to Wal-Mart and other retailers lumber in the "right lane only," as pick-up trucks emblazoned with Confederate flags defy speed laws in the left.

    Now and then there is an abandoned vehicle, looking as if it's waiting patiently, expectant of a neglectful owner. Not far down the road, you might see a stray dog, also short an owner. And of course there's the obligatory roadkill.

    In the cities and towns you pass during the three-hour journey from our house to Tunica are all the familiar franchises, dotting the commercial venues and the working-class neighborhoods; barred windows alert you to the areas of widespread poverty -- and its attendant crime.

    Always, always as we pass the rows of cotton, I see the ghosts of the South, slaves hunched over, plucking prosperity from the ground -- the prosperity of others. The black and the white, the rich and the poor. The contrasting juxtapositions of Mississippi and much of the surrounding region.

    In the resort hotel-casinos which make up Tunica, the contrasts are more subtle. But it's impossible not to notice the disproportionate number of African-Americans filling the lower-echelon jobs. Gambling brought prosperity and low property taxes came to Tunica County; but as always no matter what changes, things seem to stay the same.

    At the poker tables I engage the locals in friendly banter, the poker-room TV monitors flashing ESPN or Fox in the background. Occasionally I nudge the conversation towards politics. A guy named, "Bubba," (seriously, that's his name) assures me that the president is a socialist. I mention that his ties to Wall Street would seem to make him more of a corporatist. Bubba nods, "That too!"

    Another player, an elderly black man, and I discuss the central thesis of Thomas Frank's, "What's the Matter with Kansas," and wonder why people vote against their own interests.

    "Gummint, too much gummint is a bad thing," Bubba volunteers. "But," I say, "we are the government. You and I. Everybody. Are we a 'bad thing?'" Stony silence and the exchange is over.

    Shortly before the 2008 election, I asked a black poker dealer, a woman, if she was excited at the prospect of Barack Obama's election. No one else was at the table, and she looked around to see if anyone was listening.

    "No, I'm not," she said. "Why," I asked. "Perhaps things will get better? Maybe there'll be more equality and fairness and tolerance? Less hatred and despair?"

    "No," she insisted. "It'll make things worse. And down here, that's a dangerous thing."

    1. You're not actually judging an entire state by the people you meet in a casino are you?

    2. I've lived here for 54 years, and the three conversations she summarized are a lot more representative of this state than most of us would like them to be. She necessarily left out a lot more viewpoints than she included, but so far she seems to be doing an excellent job of judging an entire state by the people she met in a casino.

    3. My impressions are based on numerous visits to your fine state over several years and on conversations with dozens and dozens of people. I'm a retired journalist, and I just can't help talking to people and picking their brains.

      So, no, I am not "judging an entire state" by the people I've met in a casino. I've been to other, less touristy venues, and I've talked to people in those places too.

      Tunica itself, not the resort but the community, is a pleasant enough town, with some quaint businesses and at least one very good eatery, the "Blue & White Restaurant." But there are undercurrents of tension there, and one resident told me the city remains mostly separated along racial lines.

      More than a few times as I've played the low-limit poker tables on a Friday or Saturday night, I've heard the "N" word used, often quietly but distinguishable nonetheless.

      The offender is always white, male, and over 60. Saying it too loudly will result in an admonishment from the dealer. But the game goes on, the utterance chalked up to sour grapes at losing a poker pot, the free-flowing complimentary cocktails, or both.

      I played once with a very conservative older man from Tennessee, and we got into a long and interesting conversation on politics, agreeing for the most part to disagree. But what was fascinating were the things we concurred on -- the advantages of universal health care, the reality of climate change, the value of labor unions.

      Still he voted a straight Republican ticket, he told me, because Democrats are socialists, especially the president.

      To the extent that it's possible, I try not to judge people but to find out what makes them tick and to understand why our culture is so paralyzed and so polarized. In the snippets of conversation and glimpses through my windshield, I try to rectify the genuine warmth and hospitality southerners convey so effortlessly with the violence of the past, the tension of the present, and the bleakness of the future.

      It's not a judgment but a journey.

  5. I first saw the link to this blog late this morning and immediately posted it to a MS progressives Facebook group wall where an issue like this is usually welcomed for discussion. I guess that is until you bring race into it. I included my personal commentary with race front and center. After all, that is the millstone around everyone's heart. So far, there has been one indirect response. All others are silent. If the discussion were gender politics or women's reproductive rights or even immigration the posts would be flying back and forth too fast to take it all in. Selecting which posts to address and ignoring others is another way to invoke silence.

    1. It seems race is the hardest thing of all to talk about. And, I have to say, I haven't seen much evidence of overt racism among the people I've met. Being an outsider, perhaps I'm not privy to such conversations. I have noticed that there are, among some denominations, black and white churches. I understand it's not "forced segregation," but it still strikes me as odd.

  6. This is a great piece and it definitely holds a lot of truth. The reasons why Mississippi is not changing and won't for decades to come is because those who feel a different kind of way are not speaking up. But mississippi often reminds me of some third world countries where people are too poor and too uneducated to participate or even care. My family is originally from the Mississippi Delta and I lived in the state for about 5 years and go back several times a year. Mississippi to me is a beautiful state with yet many issues and one heavy history but it has some good things about it too. Mississippi has changed a lot and is still changing however it is still decades behind and remains the most backwards state ever.

  7. This is a great piece and it definitely holds a lot of truth. The reasons why Mississippi is not changing and won't for decades to come is because those who feel a different kind of way are not speaking up. But mississippi often reminds me of some third world countries where people are too poor and too uneducated to participate or even care. My family is originally from the Mississippi Delta and I lived in the state for about 5 years and go back several times a year. Mississippi to me is a beautiful state with yet many issues and one heavy history but it has some good things about it too. Mississippi has changed a lot and is still changing however it is still decades behind and remains the most backwards state ever.

  8. Mississippi is a beautiful state. I've said elsewhere on this blog that I've never met people who work so hard. And a lot of talent has come from Mississippi - Elvis, Oprah, Jimmy Buffet, Faulkner, Morgan Freeman. There's a lot of good things about this state. One interesting statistic that I try to keep in mind is that Mississippi has the most gay couples who have adopted children.

  9. When you moved to Mississippi, as we did ten years ago now, you came to a "Hotbed of Apathy."
    In Tupelo I agitate for civil rights for all, LGBT Rights, Marriage Equality, and workers' rights frequently. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a few of like mind. There are some progressive people here and they do gather and talk; but, there are risks to jobs and health if people are too vocal - that is the greatest shame, I think.

  10. This is a great piece, but I do have one correction. It is MedicAID (poor people)expansion not MedicARE (old people).

    A native Southerner, I moved here about 15 years ago from a hotbed of liberality (Maryland) where I had lived for 30 years - and suffered major culture shock. Adams County, where I live, may be the only county in MS that is about 50/50 racially. The rest are predominantly white or black. This demonstrates what is a big problem here - self segregation by both races. It is very hard to overcome.

    I think people vote against their interests for one major reason - ignorance. We know how poorly educated MS is. That means the vast majority really don't know what's going on. They know things are bad but they blame whoever they're told to blame and never think to check it out themselves.

    1. Casey Ann, I question whether the segregation is selected by African American people. The scenario I've seen play out in MS and other states is that when enough black people move into a town or community, the white people leave. Conversely, when a critical mass of white people move into a black community, the taxes become to high and black people are forced to leave, or black people choose to cash out their houses. Plus, there are all kinds of ways that black people have been barred from living in white communities that have nothing to do with a conscious choice on their part to segregate. If anything, they may choose not to live in white neighborhoods for fear of harassment -- also a reason why most white people who can afford to live in affluent white school districts don't send their children to poorer schools with black and brown children.

  11. I've lived half of my life in the North and half in the South, six years in MS. You're dead on. The natives might not like you talking about MS the way you do but they won't deny it. I miss it was different. There are some great things to the place but they keep screwing things up. The thinking is if they deny what's going on it's not real. There's a deep down unhappiness to the place.

  12. Googalicious, I can understand you questioning the comment made regarding self-segregation of races, however, being a resident of the state my entire life I can assure you this is absolutely the case. You will find plenty of small backwoods bars where you would be unwelcome as best trying to patronage as a white male (single females would not face the same scrutiny). You will also find a number of predominantly black restaurants, hair salons, churches, clothing and convenience stores, etc. where you you feel uncomfortable as a non-black race. This is not a Mississippi only issue either, you will see this in a majority of Deep South states. Good, bad or ugly, it is the reality we live in. Overcoming the past is slow work but it does feel like it is getting better.

  13. I would like to point out to the author that according to a study I read, Mississippi is considered the most religious state in the nation. By far. Over 90& of the residents surveyed in the study describe themselves as "very religious". I'm not going to tax my brain, but that is much of the problem. God will fix everything. As far as 40% of the state voting for Obama, I think that's as much to do with the black voters coming out *and* the fact that Mitt Romney was a Mormom, who Mississippians don't really consider "Christian". I haven't lived in the State for over 30 years but visit 3-5 tims a year due to family and family business. I dread the trips. The N-word dropped casually at tailgating parties. The hate for Obama. I once interviewed for a job in Jackson with an insurance brokerage that had hired a lot of people from out of state (big brokerage, paid very well), and was bluntly told by more than one person that if I was going to work there I better pick a church and go every Sunday. This was from those who moved from out of state. I get pulled over by law enforcement about half the time I drive through the state because I have Texas plates (yes, I am aware much of Texas is pretty much Mississippi redone, but I live in a large Metro area), for no discernible reason. As far as I'm concerned, the author is being not too harsh, but too easy on the residents. Most of the people I know (I'm early 50's) have been racist and defensive about the state their whole life. It has nothing to do with the politicians telling them what to do. It's what they believe and why they voted for them! I find it extremely funny any talk of secession, as MS gets so many federal funds, they would literally become a third world country without those funds. It would be (even more) plantation time again. I pity the liberals in MS that are unable to move. But I agree with the silence, the smiles, the unwillingness to talk about the "N problem". But, after awhile, you just have to realize the state has chosen this path, and they think they are right. And the greatest majority of the people that live there agree with it.

  14. I am an openly liberal, Atheist Mississippi lawyer. I support same sex marriage, and am actively looking for a couple to represent. I have worked for an abortion clinic. I AM the far left, and I have no problem telling anyone who asks. I have no problem telling anyone who does not ask. I never have a problem with it, and I do not expect to in the future. Mississippi is not all backwards, ignorant, and racist. Those of us who are not need to speak out so that those who secretly agree with us feel safe doing so.

  15. yep there is a big black cloud over Ms.

  16. Nick, there is a group we call "Left Leaners" that meets the third Friday of every month in Tupelo. We're talking about adding a second meeting. Are you a member of the Its Not Easy Leaning Left in Mississippi page on Facebook?

  17. I'm a native of Mississippi, 40 years here and I've hated all but the past two. I learned from an early age never to rock the boat. Don't make waves. Don't be rude. Don't disagree.

    Don't talk about it!

    Pretend there is no racism, no sexism, no other religions, no abuse. Be silent and courteous. Never confront any one.

    I reject this affront to my humanity. I am a boat rocker. I'm a wave maker. There are many other Mississippians waking up and speaking out. Now that we've found each other, we won't shut up about what matters.

    I will continue agitating the likes of Bryant, Nunnelee, Wicker and Wildmon until the day I die.

    Thanks for the post. Keep speaking out!