Light on the South

OXFORD, Miss. – It was late at night, and my relatives were tired after their seven-hour journey from Pensacola, Fla. Within minutes came the inevitable comment.

“It sure is dark in Mississippi,” one of them said, repeating an observation I’ve heard many times. “Between Jackson and Oxford is the wilderness.”

Just wait until your next visit up here, I told them. “It’s about to get a lot darker in Mississippi.”

1892 Populist Poster
An 1892 campaign poster of the People's Party, also known as the Populists, promoting James Weaver for president

Anyone disagree? With the Nov. 8 Republican takeover of the state House and now its Republican-controlled Legislature, Republican governor, Republicans in every statewide office except attorney general, Mississippi is all prepped to dim the lights even more, not make them brighter.

Better roads and highways? Not on this watch. Better public transportation? Education? Health care? Mental health services? Social services? Are you kidding?

It’s going to be Tea Party heaven down here? People finally get to see what it will be like in a Tea Party world. The lion-tamers are in the cage now, and the big, bad, ugly beast known as GOVERNMENT is cowering in his corner.

“They have been tasting this blood for many years,” says state Rep. Steven Holland, the Plantersville Democrat, outspoken populist, and perennial thorn-in-the-side to right-wingers before their Nov. 8 ascendancy. “You are going to see `personhood’ through statute. You’ll see an immigration bill, Alabama style, come through. English will be the official language. Drug testing for welfare recipients. It is going to be fairly bizarre.”

Holland’s own party, of course, is in shambles–divided by race and the fact that many white state Democrats hardly remember what their party even stands for. Like Ole Miss football, the party is about as far down as the saddest blues song to ever come out of the Delta. Much the same can be said for the Democratic Party elsewhere in the Deep South.

“Over 29 years, I have watched the slow destruction of the (Mississippi) Democratic Party. We have been so outfoxed with technology and money and organization. Eight years of (outgoing Republican Governor Haley) Barbour has left me completely bruised.”

Old-style populism like Holland’s, one that calls for a progressive, people-serving government and casts a distrustful eye at fat-cat Wall Street types who serve their wallets and nothing else, seems ready for that funeral home Holland runs when he’s not legislating. “If it gets bad enough, education so assaulted, public transportation so assaulted, this `big, ole, fat government,’ I can imagine the people who have now voted against their own interests in the last two elections will rise up and revolt,” Holland says.

Hmmm. Maybe. The “revolt of the rednecks” that barnstormers Bilbo and Vardaman led a century ago indeed expanded education, state health services, and state regulations against child labor and other corporate abuses, but the revolt came on the backs of black people. Modern-day racial demagoguery tends to go after brown rather than black, and state Republicans have largely cornered that market.

It’s not that Republicans simply won’t spend taxpayer money. The reason has to be right.

As Holland predicts, the new Republican Legislature is poised to take up the “personhood” initiative that voters rejected Nov. 8 as well as an Alabama-style immigration law, both of which will likely involve costly legal battles in court and ultimately result in rejection and failure.

Haley Barbour was quick to call for cuts in Medicaid and other social programs, yet he always seemed to find the cash for big incentives packages to pay out to private corporations looking at Mississippi.

In fact, while we’re at it, what does Barbour, a man held in Reagan-like awe by many conservatives in Mississippi, have to show for his eight years as governor? Mississippi remains the nation’s poorest state. It ranks 51st in teenage births, 51st in percentage of homes struggling with hunger, 49th in child poverty, 47th in high school graduation rates.

What did he do to change any of this?

I’ll be asking Mississippi’s new Republican leadership the same question four years from now, even though I already know the answer.

This post also appeared at Labor South and Facing South - wonderful websites doing important work and you should take a look.
Joseph B. Atkins

Joseph B. Atkins

Joseph B. Atkins is a veteran writer and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Harry Dean Stanton: Hollywood’s Zen Rebel (University Press of Kentucky, 2020), Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press (University Press of Mississippi, 2008) as well as the novel Casey’s Last Chance (Sartoris Literary Group, 2015). His blog is

  1. Glenn Overman

    It’s not just Mississippi, it’s the new kudzu of creeping cretinism. Once the privateers finish deconstructing government (except the police and the military, of course) they will have triumphed. Time to burn books and demonize people who disagree. Dark Ages II, coming soon to a country near you.

  2. Frank Povah

    Joseph: Is Mississippi as browbeaten by the religious ranters as Kentucky?

    Glenn: sad as it may be, I fear there’s more than a grain of truth in what you write.

  3. It’s not just Mississippi’s legislature where the Tea Baggers have taken over. Look at my state, Alabama, and look at Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas and other southern states. Our Democrat legislators weren’t liberal by any means, but they killed most of the crazier bills. Look for bills from glassy eyed zealots in all Southern legislatures in the coming months, bills usually written by some Washington-based think tank or ideologue. I plan to read the first readings of all bills introduced in our legislature — to alert reporters who may be too busy tracking a few bills. That immigration bill in Alabama slipped through with practically no news coverage late in the session.

  4. 51st? How’s that? Did I miss something?

  5. @Bill Keller: Alerting the reporters, huh? AS IF our papers in Alabama report real news from the State House. I can think of three groundbreaking stories right now that never made it into print. For example: There is a computer program called “Man in the Middle” that intercepts data from polling precincts on election night and skews the counts from certain boxes in favor of the GOP. If you never heard of it, don’t worry. Neither have voters in a few select foreign countries where it’s also used.

  6. I am curious: Is illegal immigration not a problem rightly addressed by state legislatures? Aren’t foreigners illegally working in Mississippi taking jobs from the unemployed, depressing wages and breaking state and federal laws? If elected Democratic leaders did nothing, then shouldn’t people who favor jobs and the rule of law turn to others to address the problem?

    And if states find that public funds that are supposed to go shelter and food to the needy instead go drug dealers — shouldn’t they not investigate and consider measures to address the problem? Given the budget constraints for indigent healthcare, might not the legislature ask whether money is better spent on treating depression or treatable cancer if there is not enough funds to cover both? Likely there is not.

    Sounds like Mississippi has a lot of troubles that previous legislators failed to address and the people want new leaders. Why is this such a problem? Seems also that the states growing and prospering are largely in the South. Even states like Pennsylvania with an aging and declining population are increasingly turning to Republican leadership.

    If the Democratic parties at state and national levels have a problem, it probably reflects their leadership. Obama’s disasterous bailouts, nationalizations and regulatory schemes are causing voters to reel in horror from the Democratic legislative agenda. I suspect this is the true root of your complaints about Mississippi.

    1. Lee Leslie

      Citizenship is a Federal issue and many reasoned people believe it is unwise to spend state money to enforce federal law, when the result of the effort would simply be to release anyone detained to the immigration service.

      Given that employers that hire people without documentation are often already skirting the law, there is little evidence that those here without documentation are having any affect on unemployment. In fact, there is great evidence, just look to the problems in Alabama and Georgia, that state enforcement of immigration law causes great harm to the economy in leaving a void of workers for seasonal work.

      But your suggestion that those here without documentation are a great cost to government, is not based in fact. Those who have immigrated here always pay sales taxes and typically pay into Social Security and Medicare, and have taxes withheld, and never claimed on returns, from their wages. Further, the buy property and pay taxes. The immigrant population is important source of funding for most communities – especially, rural areas.

      I believe you misunderstand the drug testing program – state funds are not going to feed and house drug dealers. A quick look at the experience in Florida with drug testing shows that the homeless population has lower drug positives then the general population. In Florida, the cost of testing has turned out to be much greater than the cost of service and have dropped it. It is nothing, but a stunt in an attempt to create a wedge political issue. However, your suggestion that money might be betters spent on treating mental illness is an excellent one.

      The problems the Democratic party is having in Mississippi may well have to do with Obama – not because of his implementing Bush’s unpopular bailouts or his successful saving of our auto industry, but because Obama is black and racism still rules in many places around our country.

  7. If Obama loses in a landslide (certainly possible), will you then say the whole country is racist?

    1. Lee Leslie

      No. 6: I presume your comment was written to me in response of my comment. No, of course I would not say that. It is not true. At least as many people hate President Obama for being a Democrat as they do for being black. My remark was over the top and certainly far too simplistic. Republican leaders in several parts of our country are using similar tactics and rhetoric against immigrants as were used against people of color and union members in generations past, and to some extent, still do today. It seems to come from racism, or at least, remnants or racism. In many high places, the sounds of racism are still heard (just Google: Haley Barbour Racist and look at what is found).

      Immigrants are people and deserve the same respect and human rights as each of us do. Denying anyone health care when they require it is wrong. Denying any child a quality education is not only wrong, but seems counterintuitive – don’t we want to raise a population who are educated and can participate in the workplace? Denying anyone an opportunity to receive a living wage for a days work also seems wrong and is a waste of the potential of a human life. We should be talking about ways to make our lives better, not just seeking some anonymous victim to be the target of our anger.

  8. Conservatism is represented by racists to a far lesser extent than progressivism is by its lunatic fringe within the Occupy movement. The Occupiers reveled in bigotry — most notably anti-semitism — not to mention rape, assualt, drug abuse and scofflaw-ism. The progressives gave this all a pass because they were speaking “truth to power” in Cynthia McKinney fashion. That particular bafoon has been all but laughed out of politics. I think most “normal” people of whatever political persuasion found abhorent sleeping in parks, antagonizing small business owners and accosting work-a-day Joe’s and Jane’s during their commutes. I’m sure you see it differently but you’d be wise not to let this point be lost upon you as you champion the mostly despised Occupy cause and their hateful, obtuse politics.

    1. Lee Leslie

      No. 6: Your comment is off subject. Please abide by our comment rules of civility or your comments will have to be moderated. That, and your comment is patently absurd.

      1. “At least as many people hate President Obama for being a Democrat as they do for being black.”

        Let us unpack this statement, given as it is by the moderator, as the standard-setter for civility.

        Hating blacks is racist, Obama is black.
        Racists hate Obama, a Democrat.
        Strict partisan Republicans hate Democrats.
        For each strict partisan who hates Obama, there is a racist who hates him also.
        If strict partisans hate Obama, then at least an equal number must be racist and/or strictly partisan.

        Therefore, ALL Republicans may be racist, half must be racist and anyone who opposes Obama could be suspected of racism.

        Quite civil.

        1. Lee Leslie

          No. 6: You are a guest here. Please act accordingly. BTW, your logic, however seemingly logical, is flawed. Let’s drop it.

  9. Noel Holston

    I weep for my home state, Joe.  And I still find it mind-boggling that it is more reactionary and self-defeating now than it was when I in high school in Ellisville nearly 40 years ago.

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