The two Mississippis

Clay Risen, whose musings on reductionist attitudes toward the South I’ve quoted approvingly before, persuasively argues in The New Republic that two eras have come to an end in Mississippi with the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen (for killing three civil rights workers) and the death of Shelby Foote:

there has always been a powerful tension in Mississippi between civilization and backwardness, hatred and tolerance, intelligence and ignorance. Mississippi has long had some of the highest poverty and lowest literacy rates in the country. But it has also produced three of America’s greatest writers, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Walker Percy (Foote’s best friend since grade school). The nightly news of the 1950s and ’60s was filled with scenes of young white men setting upon black demonstrators with sickening glee. But the same generation contained Willie Morris, editor of Harper’s at 26 and a leading indigenous voice during the civil rights era. So while there was much abhorrent about Mississippi in the early- to mid-twentieth century, to say that was all Mississippi had to offer is to dabble in stereotypes. There were many lights within the darkness: cosmopolitan cities like Oxford, Jackson, and Greenville, and bustling colleges like Millsaps and Ole Miss. And there was a class of homegrown intellectuals–including Foote–who figured out how to resolve the paradox of being expansive minds within a restrictive culture.


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