Mississippi and Kansas: reconciliation and relapse
My urge to visit Mississippi was driven mostly by two compulsions: a longing to explore the great Delta, landscape that was home to some of America’s greatest writers, and to find at least some sense of what had kept them there, or brought them back. Here were William Faulkner of New Albany and Oxford, and Eudora Welty of Jackson,
America’s first couple in letters; and Willie Morris of Yazoo City, one of America’s distinguished writers of non-fiction – among the best at their craft, celebrated the world over; they were captivated by the place they loved, a place of great human injustice, this oozing stretch of deepest Mississippi, its complex heritage and plagueridden history, a place reeking of pride and embarrassment, bound to a Confederate birthright and committed to its repudiation, to redemption and racial reconciliation – a place of boundless, agonizing paradox.
Why did they stay? Why, in Morris’s case, did he return? What bound them to a homeland that had been so cruel, that bled with racism, that cultivated the codes and strictures of class and cultural segregation that had protected an economic model built on the backs of slaves and impoverished sharecroppers, tenant farmers and their rent collectors and whip masters? And at the same time it was a place of such natural beauty and familial affection that even the poorest cornfield hoe man, black or white, longed for his shack along the swamp, a place that smiled to him, that kept his children out of the weather, his one identity that said of the world: family.
In this abiding love of place, Mississippians share a kinship of sorts with Kansans, the grip a place has on its natives, its narrative of longing and devotion, a mysterious naturalization; it is for many an allegiance that can never be foresworn. It is the way in which each is strongly, intensely identified with a place, an allegiance echoed and re-echoed not by geographic lines, but as a “state of mind.”
Both states have survived bloody births – Kansas, with her agonizing gestation through the Missouri Compromise (1820), Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and the Wyandotte Convention (1859), and a long labor into official statehood (1861) and the border wars that followed. Mississippi’s first French settlements came along the Gulf 150 years before Kansas was a even glint in John Ingalls’ eye, and later followed the territorial disputes, then a state born of territory ceded by Georgia and South Carolina, statehood in 1817, and Indian treaties, mostly peaceful, to secure the state’s mid-section and ensure that two rivers, the Mississippi and the Yazoo, would define and nourish the great Delta, that cotton would be king and that slavery would lead to war – and, even, worse.
Kansas, a state created on a moral principle (that slavery was wrong), had by the turn into the 20th century embarked on successful crusades for social and economic reforms, among them women’s suffrage, workmen’s compensation, stronger child labor laws, the direct primary, and election of U.S. senators, bank guarantee laws and other pillars of progressive Republican reform. For another generation Kansas would inspire a nation with stunning advancements in public health, transportation, mental health reform, local school finance, among others. Meanwhile Mississippi, in the grip of White Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan, busied itself tightening down a demonic, segregationist society with its Jim Crow schools and government agencies, regulations that kept blacks at the bottom, codes that kept them housed in ghetto shacks and swampland hovels, and lynchings that kept them in fear.
In Mississippi, writers for decades captured in their reporting and fiction the choleric placement of black and white Americans, blunt confrontations with the truth of a state’s cruelty and inhumanity. Even subtlety held the simmering themes of irony and tragedy that, when unbound, could no longer be ignored; they would explore and enforce the idea of redemption and racial reconciliation in their beloved and troubled Deep South. Reform was due: Mississippi has hurried to confront ugly truths and to eradicate the cancer in its otherwise beloved heritage. It is a better place now, more comfortable, more peaceful, more enriched. Racism was now an American dilemma, not a southern curse.
This year, Mississippi has spent millions to open the new Museum of Mississippi History, and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson; $37 million, in addition, has been awarded for 300 preservation and restoration projects across the state, affecting schools, temples, courthouses, city halls, historic homes, heritage foundations and more. Funding for the arts and humanities has been strengthened.
Kansas, now, seems to offer only a feeble, embarrassed wave as it passes Mississippi on the way down, to that dank cellar once reserved for the old structures, the grand wizards of segregation, the titans of free enterprise, the enterprise that already belonged to those who owned it, the kind that had no room for frills or free-thinkers. Led by a delusional governor, a couple of crackpot billionaires and a secretary of state holdover from the Jeff Davis school of civil rights, Kansas seeks to fatten the enriched, to slash or eliminate health care for the poor, to let rural hospitals wither and die, to prevent certain citizens from voting, to eradicate the arts, to keep youngsters away from public schools, and to offer new shades of Jim Crow as Mississippi shores up its share of a $4 billion Medicaid budget, increases funding for the arts and social programs, promotes urban and rural renewal, funds infrastructure improvements and aid to local schools, to colleges and universities – even as the state struggles to free itself from poverty.
Such is the irony of time and events, of a state that once led the nation in social, political and education reforms now on its way to the bottom, and a state once known for its cruelties, its racial injustice, its cultural backwaters now rising so rapidly; both states known for capturing natives’ devotion and unbound allegiance – one now drawing on citizens’ ignorance, bias and blind faith, the other tapping newfound spirit, drawing on its richness and suggesting that it still had the genius and courage to achieve an original promise as the hope of mankind. For one state, redemption; the other, relapse.